Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review: Crispin: The Cross of Lead – Avi

Crispin: The Cross of Lead – Avi

“Asta's Son” is all he's ever been called. The lack of a name is appropriate, because he and his mother are but poor peasants in 14th century medieval England. But this thirteen-year-old boy who thought he had little to lose soon finds himself with even less—no home, no family, or possessions. Accused of a crime he did not commit, he may be killed on sight, by anyone. If he wishes to remain alive, he must flee his tiny village. All the boy takes with him is a newly revealed name—Crispin—and his mother's cross of lead.

Review: Can you believe I’ve gone my entire life without reading a book by Avi? He’s written, like, a hundred children’s books. I’ve seen them around, but this is the first one I’ve read. You gotta start somewhere, I guess.

Crispin is a little like Game of Thrones for kids. It’s book #1 in a series. It’s got the medieval setting, some royal scandals, some death, some fight scenes, some characters who can’t be trusted, some orphaned kids who need more parental supervision. Basically, it has all the elements of an excellent middlegrade adventure story.

Crispin’s name wasn’t always Crispin. He starts the book as “Asta’s Son.” He doesn’t know his real name, and he can’t read or write. Crispin and his mother are so poor that they’ve never left their village. One day, his mother is murdered, and Crispin is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. A bounty is placed on his head. The most powerful family in the village wants him dead. He flees to the woods and meets up with a traveling juggler, but can the juggler be trusted? And why do so many important people suddenly want Crispin dead?

I think I would have liked this book way back when I was part of its target audience. The beginning is a bit info-dumpy, but the action starts pretty quickly and doesn’t let up. Crispin is constantly surrounded by danger. Anyone who recognizes him can murder him on-sight and claim the reward. He has to be resourceful to get himself out of trouble. He has quite a few close brushes with death.

I’m definitely not an expert on 14th century England, but the setting seems well-researched to me. The info-dump at the beginning helps make peasant life accessible to young modern readers. (As long as the young readers have the attention spans required to plow through the dry information being forced upon them. It’s only a few pages, but I know that feels like an eternity to a kid.)

I like that this book doesn’t ignore religion. Christianity was a massive deal in 14th century England. The church basically controlled everything. Crispin is a Christian. When he runs away from his village, the only thing he takes from home is a lead cross engraved with writing (that he can’t read). Religion is an important part of Crispin’s life. As he begins uncovering the secrets that his mother hid from him, he starts to wonder if God has bigger plans for him than just being a peasant.

“I kept asking myself if I felt different, if I was different. The answer was always yes. I was no longer nothing.” - Crispin

This book might be fun for (very patient) children, but as an adult, I found it extremely predictable. Within the first few chapters, I knew what was written on Crispin’s cross, and I knew why the ruling family wanted him dead. It’s all painfully obvious.

I also think Crispin is a flat character. This novel is mostly all action and history lessons. The reader doesn’t learn much about him as a person.

However, I’m not the target audience, so my opinions probably don’t matter.

TL;DR: An adventurous way to learn history, but I didn’t love it enough to continue with the series.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: My Disturbing Spring Reading List

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week I’m talking about the books I’m reading this spring. These books have been sitting on my shelf since last November. Probably because they’re all a bit disturbing, and you need to be in the right mood for that. Hopefully I’ll get to them in the next few months.

What I’m Reading This Spring

The Possessions – Sara Flannery Murphy

In an unnamed city, Eurydice works for the Elysian Society, a private service that allows grieving clients to reconnect with lost loved ones. She and her fellow workers, known as “bodies,” wear the discarded belongings of the dead and swallow pills called lotuses to summon their spirits—numbing their own minds and losing themselves in the process. Edie has been a body at the Elysian Society for five years, an unusual record. Her success is the result of careful detachment: she seeks refuge in the lotuses’ anesthetic effects and distances herself from making personal connections with her clients.  
But when Edie channels Sylvia, the dead wife of recent widower Patrick Braddock, she becomes obsessed with the glamorous couple. Despite the murky circumstances surrounding Sylvia’s drowning, Edie breaks her own rules and pursues Patrick, moving deeper into his life and summoning Sylvia outside the Elysian Society’s walls.  
After years of hiding beneath the lotuses’ dulling effect, Edie discovers that the lines between her own desires and those of Sylvia have begun to blur, and takes increasing risks to keep Patrick within her grasp. Suddenly, she finds her quiet life unraveling as she grapples not only with Sylvia’s growing influence and the questions surrounding her death, but with her own long-buried secrets.

The Cresswell Plot – Eliza Wass

Castella Cresswell and her five siblings—Hannan, Caspar, Mortimer, Delvive, and Jerusalem—know what it’s like to be different. For years, their world has been confined to their ramshackle family home deep in the woods of upstate New York. They abide by the strict rule of God, whose messages come directly from their father.  
Slowly, Castley and her siblings start to test the boundaries of the laws that bind them. But, at school, they’re still the freaks they’ve always been to the outside world. Marked by their plain clothing. Unexplained bruising. Utter isolation from their classmates. That is, until Castley is forced to partner with the totally irritating, totally normal George Gray, who offers her a glimpse of a life filled with freedom and choice.  
Castley’s world rapidly expands beyond the woods she knows so well and the beliefs she once thought were the only truths. There is a future waiting for her if she can escape her father’s grasp, but Castley refuses to leave her siblings behind. Just as she begins to form a plan, her father makes a chilling announcement: the Cresswells will soon return to their home in heaven. With time running out on all of their lives, Castley must expose the depth of her father’s lies. The forest has buried the truth in darkness for far too long. Castley might be their last hope for salvation.

Stranded – Bracken MacLeod

Badly battered by an apocalyptic storm, the crew of the Arctic Promise find themselves in increasingly dire circumstances as they sail blindly into unfamiliar waters and an ominously thickening fog. Without functioning navigation or communication equipment, they are lost and completely alone. One by one, the men fall prey to a mysterious illness. Deckhand Noah Cabot is the only person unaffected by the strange force plaguing the ship and her crew, which does little to ease their growing distrust of him.  
Dismissing Noah's warnings of worsening conditions, the captain of the ship presses on until the sea freezes into ice and they can go no farther. When the men are ordered overboard in an attempt to break the ship free by hand, the fog clears, revealing a faint shape in the distance that may or may not be their destination. Noah leads the last of the able-bodied crew on a journey across the ice and into an uncertain future where they must fight for their lives against the elements, the ghosts of the past and, ultimately, themselves.

A Head Full Of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay

The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.  
To her parents' despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie's descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts' plight. With John, Marjorie's father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.

The Last Harvest – Kim Liggett

“I plead the blood.”  
Those were the last words seventeen-year-old golden boy quarterback Clay Tate heard rattling from his dad's throat when he discovered him dying on the barn floor of the Neely Cattle Ranch, clutching a crucifix to his chest. 
Now, on the first anniversary of the Midland, Oklahoma slaughter, the whole town's looking at Clay like he might be next to go over the edge. Clay wants to forget the past, but the sons and daughters of the Preservation Society—a group of prominent farmers his dad accused of devil worship—won't leave him alone. Including Ali, his longtime crush, who suddenly wants to reignite their romance after a year of silence, and hated rival Tyler Neely, who’s behaving like they’re old friends.  
Even as Clay tries to reassure himself, creepy glances turn to sinister stares and strange coincidences build to gruesome rituals—but when he can never prove that any of it happened, Clay worries he might be following his dad down the path to insanity . . . or that something far more terrifying lies in wait around the corner.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War – Mary Roach

Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier's most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History – Bill Schutt

For centuries scientists have written off cannibalism as a bizarre phenomenon with little biological significance. Its presence in nature was dismissed as a desperate response to starvation or other life-threatening circumstances, and few spent time studying it. A taboo subject in our culture, the behavior was portrayed mostly through horror movies or tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life flesh-eaters. But the true nature of cannibalism—the role it plays in evolution as well as human history—is even more intriguing (and more normal) than the misconceptions we've come to accept as fact.

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them – Jennifer Wright

In 1518, in a small town in France, Frau Troffea began dancing and didn’t stop. She danced herself to her death six days later, and soon thirty-four more villagers joined her. Then more. In a month more than 400 people had died from the mysterious dancing plague. In late-nineteenth-century England an eccentric gentleman founded the No Nose Club in his gracious townhome—a social club for those who had lost their noses, and other body parts, to the plague of syphilis for which there was then no cure. And in turn-of-the-century New York, an Irish cook caused two lethal outbreaks of typhoid fever, a case that transformed her into the notorious Typhoid Mary and led to historic medical breakthroughs.

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple – Jeff Guinn

In the 1950s, a young Indianapolis minister named Jim Jones preached a curious blend of the gospel and Marxism. His congregation was racially integrated, and he was a much-lauded leader in the contemporary civil rights movement. Eventually, Jones moved his church, Peoples Temple, to northern California. He became involved in electoral politics, and soon was a prominent Bay Area leader. 
In this riveting narrative, Jeff Guinn examines Jones’s life, from his extramarital affairs, drug use, and fraudulent faith healing to the fraught decision to move almost a thousand of his followers to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Guinn provides stunning new details of the events leading to the fatal day in November, 1978 when more than nine hundred people died—including almost three hundred infants and children—after being ordered to swallow a cyanide-laced drink.

The Blood Of Emmett Till – Timothy B. Tyson

In 1955, white men in the Mississippi Delta lynched a fourteen-year-old from Chicago named Emmett Till. His murder was part of a wave of white terrorism in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared public school segregation unconstitutional. Only weeks later, Rosa Parks thought about young Emmett as she refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Five years later, Black students who called themselves “the Emmett Till generation” launched sit-in campaigns that turned the struggle for civil rights into a mass movement. Till’s lynching became the most notorious hate crime in American history.  
But what actually happened to Emmett Till—not the icon of injustice, but the flesh-and-blood boy? Part detective story, part political history, The Blood of Emmett Till “unfolds like a movie” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), drawing on a wealth of new evidence, including a shocking admission of Till’s innocence from the woman in whose name he was killed.

Have you read any of these? What are you reading this spring?

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review: The Shell Collector: Stories – Anthony Doerr

The Shell Collector: Stories – Anthony Doerr

The exquisitely crafted stories in Anthony Doerr's acclaimed debut collection take readers from the African coast to the pine forests of Montana to the damp moors of Lapland, charting a vast physical and emotional landscape. Doerr explores the human condition in all its varieties—metamorphosis, grief, fractured relationships, and slowly mending hearts—and conjures nature in both its beautiful abundance and crushing power. Some of his characters contend with tremendous hardship; some discover unique gifts; all are united by their ultimate deference to the mysteries of the universe outside themselves.

Review: If I was forced to make a list of my all-time favorite books, All the Light We Cannot See would probably be on it. Since I love that giant novel so much, I wondered what Anthony Doerr could do with a short story collection. The Shell Collector was published over a decade before All the Light We Cannot See, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was (mostly) impressed. These world-spanning stories are beautifully written. They take place on beaches and mountains; in sunny Africa and snowy Lapland; in rivers and forests. Each setting is so precisely described that the reader can almost feel the fictional weather. An astounding amount of research must have gone into these stories.

Even though the settings are varied, the stories deal with similar topics. They’re about small mistakes that have dire consequences. The characters are all struggling to survive in a world that’s bigger and more powerful than they’ll ever be.

“Studying ice crystals as a graduate student, he eventually found the basic design (equilateral, equiangled hexagon) so icily repeated, so unerringly conforming, that he couldn't help but shudder: Beneath the splendor—the filigreed blossoms, the microscopic stars—was a ghastly inevitability; crystals could not escape their embedded blueprints any more than humans could. Everything hewed to a rigidity of pattern, the certainty of death.” – The Shell Collector

I know that this is a story collection, and that stories in a collection usually deal with similar topics, but most of the stories in this book are too similar for my liking. For example, many of them involve fishing. The only thing more boring than watching people fish is reading about people fishing.

Since most of the stories blurred together in my mind, there are only two that really stand out for me:

The title story “The Shell Collector” has everything I love in a short story. An unusual setting, an unusual protagonist, and a whole lot of secrets. It’s about a blind scientist and his guide dog who live in a hut on the coast of Kenya. They spend their days finding and cataloging different kinds of seashells. One day, the scientist stumbles across a snail that is thought to be poisonous. He inadvertently discovers that the snail’s venom may actually have healing properties. When news of the healing snail becomes public, chaos ensues.

“The shell collector was scrubbing limpets at his sink when he heard the water taxi come scraping over the reef. He cringed to hear it—its hull grinding the calices of finger corals and the tiny tubes of pipe organ corals, tearing the flower and fern shapes of soft corals, and damaging shells too: punching holes in olives and murexes and spiny whelks, in Hydatina physis and Turris babylonia. It was not the first time people tried to seek him out.” – The Shell Collector

My other favorite story is “The Caretaker.” A refugee from Liberia ends up in the US after losing his home and family. He accepts a job as a caretaker in a remote lodge, but he’s unable to perform his caretaker duties. He gets fired. Since he can’t get another job, he moves into the woods near the lodge and tries to rebuild his life from nothing. This story is realistic. It pisses me off when people are hateful and judgmental toward refugees. Most people have no idea what a refugee has lived through.

“‘It’s an issue of duty.’ Her voice tremors; inside, he can see, she’s raging. ‘I told him not to hire you. I told him what good is it hiring someone who runs from his country at the first sign of trouble? He won’t know duty, responsibility. He won’t be able to understand it. And now look.’” – The Shell Collector

TL;DR: Not as good as All The Light We Cannot See, but readers who love nature (and fishing) would probably enjoy this collection.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Sunday Post #140

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

Public Service Announcement

I’m hosting a giveaway! Click here to win a book of your choice from Book Depository. The giveaway is open internationally, as long as Book Depository ships to your country.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I review The Shell Collector: Stories by Anthony Doerr.
  • On Tuesday I show you my disturbing Spring TBR.
  • On Wednesday I review Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi.
  • On Saturday there’s a book haul.

In My Reading Life

Last week, I finished Some Possible Solutions: Stories by Helen Phillips and Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Then I read Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson. Right now, I’m reading The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts by Laura Tillman.


In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. Today is my birthday. If you want to celebrate with me, you could enter my giveaway. Please let me give you free stuff!
  2. Hamburgers!
  3. I participated in my first Twitter chat. It was intense. I can’t type that fast, people!
  4. I got new books. Not that I needed more books, but I got some, and I’m happy.
  5. The weather has been nice for running outside. It’s not snowing on me anymore.

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The “Another Newbery” Book Haul

Stacking the Shelves is hosted by Tynga’s Reviews. I get to show off all the books I’ve gotten recently.

This year, I’m going to try really hard to read a bunch of Newbery winners. Here’s my most recent batch of them.

The “Another Newbery” Book Haul

. . . And Now Miguel – Joseph Krumgold

Every summer the men of the Chavez family go on a long and difficult sheep drive to the mountains. All the men, that is, except for Miguel. All year long, twelve-year-old Miguel tries to prove that he, too, is up to the challenge. He, too, is ready to take the sheep into his beloved Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 
When his deeds go unnoticed, he prays to San Ysidro, the saint for farmers everywhere. And his prayer is answered . . . but with devastating consequences. 
When you act like an adult but get treated like a child, what else can you do but keep your wishes secret and pray that they'll come true?

It’s Like This, Cat – Emily Cheney Neville

My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat. 
Dave Mitchell and his father yell at each other a lot, and whenever the fighting starts, Dave's mother gets an asthma attack. That's when Dave storms out of the house. Then Dave meets Tom, a strange boy who helps him rescue Cat. It isn't long before Cat introduces Dave to Mary, a wonderful girl from Coney Island. Slowly Dave comes to see the complexities in people's lives and to understand himself and his family a little better.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead – Avi

"Asta's Son" is all he's ever been called. The lack of a name is appropriate, because he and his mother are but poor peasants in 14th century medieval England. But this thirteen-year-old boy who thought he had little to lose soon finds himself with even less—no home, no family, or possessions. Accused of a crime he did not commit, he may be killed on sight, by anyone. If he wishes to remain alive, he must flee his tiny village. All the boy takes with him is a newly revealed name—Crispin—and his mother's cross of lead.

The Tale of Despereaux – Kate DiCamillo

Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other's lives.

Kira-Kira – Cynthia Kadohata

Glittering. That's how Katie Takeshima's sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason and so are people's eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it's Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare, and it's Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow, but when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering—kira-kira—in the future.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: The Butcher’s Hook – Janet Ellis

The Butcher’s Hook – Janet Ellis

London, summer 1763. At nineteen, Anne Jaccob is awakened to the possibility of joy when she meets Fub, the butcher's apprentice, and begins to imagine a life of passion with him. 
The only daughter of well-to-do parents, Anne lives a sheltered life. Her home is a miserable place. Though her family want for nothing, her father is uncaring, her mother is ailing, and the baby brother who taught her to love is dead. Unfortunately her parents have already chosen a more suitable husband for her than Fub. But Anne is a determined young woman, with an idiosyncratic moral compass. In the matter of pursuing her own happiness, she shows no fear or hesitation. Even if it means getting a little blood on her hands.

Review: Brace yourselves.

I read a romance book.

And I liked it.

Of course, it’s a twisted, disturbing romance with a main character who murders her romantic rivals, but that’s a small detail. I’m still counting this as a romance.

Anne Jaccob is a nineteen-year-old woman living in London in the mid-1700s. She’s an upper-class lady who’s used to getting whatever she wants. Her parents have money, and Anne has servants to take care of her every whim. She’s very sheltered. Her parents rarely let her leave the house. She’s uneducated and has had very little contact with people outside her home. When the butcher’s boy, Fub, shows up at Anne’s door to deliver the family’s meat order, Anne immediately becomes infatuated with Fub’s strong body and the blood on his hands. Anne wants to marry Fub. And she’ll murder anyone who tries to stop her.

This book has mixed reviews on Goodreads, and I understand why. It’s gory and often crude. There’s sexual abuse and violent human and animal deaths. If you can’t handle reading about bodily fluids, you should avoid this book. All the fluids are present and accounted for. Anne is not a likeable character. She’s sex-obsessed and has no empathy for other humans. For Anne, people are just obstacles to overcome. She either kills them or manipulates them until they give her what she wants.

I like this book because it’s unusual. I’ve read and watched a lot of stuff about male serial killers, but you don’t often hear about women committing a string of brutal murders. To me, Anne’s behavior makes a twisted kind of sense. She’s spent most of her life in isolation, and she’s used to being handed whatever she asks for. She doesn’t know how to behave appropriately in public. When she meets Fub, she doesn’t understand why she can’t marry him. She’s never been told “no” before.

Anne’s murder spree is also a reaction to the oppression that women faced in 1700s England. Since Anne is a girl and can’t take over her father’s business, her father doesn’t see a reason to educate her. Her parents mostly ignore her. They give all their attention to her younger brother. Anne’s only purpose in life is to marry a wealthy, upper-class gentleman. Her parents have a man picked out for her, but Anne isn’t attracted to him. She wants Fub.

“Every girl hopes to find love and situation neatly bundled. It is hardly ever so.” – The Butcher’s Hook

Even as a child, Anne’s father uses her to impress his business clients. Anne’s only friend is the daughter of a rich businessman. Anne’s father encourages her to play nicely with the girl, but Anne doesn’t know how to be nice. She tries to impress her friend by showing her a rotting mouse corpse and then making her a necklace out of spit and hair.

Yeah. Anne is a strange character. She’s brilliantly messed-up. I think I’ll remember her for a long time.

“To my mind, we carry all that we need to survive, indeed to live well, in our heads and our hearts from birth. We must decide our own paths accordingly and individually. There is precious little other instruction available.”The Butcher’s Hook

I have two complaints about this novel. First, the typos. Why are there such obvious typos in a finished book? Whenever I came across a glaring error, it pulled me out of the story.

Next, the book has a saggy middle. Anne spends the middle of the novel meeting Fub in secret, having sex with him, and plotting murder. I got slightly impatient with it. I understand that Anne loves sex and only cares about Fub because he has a nice body, but I wanted to get to the murders.

Is literary historical horror fiction a genre? The Butcher’s Hook has pretty much everything I like in a story. A vivid setting, good writing, deeply flawed characters, and a few murders. I need to find more books like this.

TL;DR: Do you like historical fiction? Do you like horror? Do you have a strong stomach? If you answered “yes” to all those questions, read this book. It’s delightfully screwed-up.