Saturday, December 28, 2013

Top Ten (Or So): Covers of Books Read in 2013

I had a more difficult time with this than last year. Generally I try to read books' hard copy first, and so the covers actually make a difference to my reading experience. This year, a huge chunk of the books I read were read on a two month trip to Europe, and thus all on my Kindle. I only ended up seeing the cover once or twice. But I'm going to give it a shot anyway, using the preferred covers I saw for each book on Goodreads. Note that I am not in any way a graphic artist or anything, so these are based purely on what I like in book covers.
So here they are, in semi-approximate order, favourite first:

It's rather sad I didn't get to see this awesome cover when reading Mr. Was, as it might have increased my reading pleasure considerably. I didn't like the book at all, but this cover has a lovely blue colour scheme, with light streaming through a slightly open door onto an intriguing title. And I must admit, the knowledge that the book is about time travel is another primary reason for me liking it so much. I don't like it as much as my favourite cover from last year, Anna Dressed in Blood, but it does make me wish I could buy it and stick it on my bookshelf and admire it.

Music, Language, and the Brain. I think this cover might actually be tied with Mr. Was, although the effect does not come through very well in the picture above. It's definitely better in person. Anyhow, the musical symbol swirly-ness and shimmery colours give hint of the immense complexity of language and music that is examined in this book.

Game. There's just something about blood that I really like on covers. It's something about the redness (usually if on a cover, contrasted strongly with another colour such as grey), and the fluidity. As an added bonus, the inside cover is all blood-splattered and lovely. I actually have it on my shelf without the dust jacket because I like the inside cover so much.

And speaking of bloody covers: Slice of Cherry. Oooo, just look at that--so creepy and pretty!

And for yet another one I like for its blood: Antigoddess. (I like blood, ok?) I don't think this one is quite as good as it could be, but I like it. It fits the story well.

The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle. I put the cover of the first book on last year's list, and this one is just as good. I really do love illustrated character covers.

Ender's World. Look, it's all spacey and pretty!

Seraphina. Pretty town, pretty dragon--pretty, pretty. There's a new version of this cover that is weirdly blue and green, and completely destroys the effect, I think. This one is the best.

The Princess Curse was illustrated by the awesome Jason Chan, who I consider my favourite cover illustrator (although that doesn't really say much, since he is the only cover illustrator I know by name). Any cover by him pretty much automatically makes a Top Ten (Or So) cover list. He also did The Humming Room (from last year's list) and The Kneebone Boy (which would make a list of my favourite covers ever, I think) and Winterling (which I also read this year, and so is listed below).

And because it is also illustrated by Jason Chan, here is Winterling:

Runners Up (in No Particular Order): the infinity sign and general swirly-ness of Breath, the humorous suitability of the two Pirates! books, the black background and white geese of Goose Chase, the importance of the letters on Lexicon, the colourfullness and promise of Ordinary Magic, the simplicity of the silhouette on The Spark, the colour scheme and suitability of Unbroken, and the character illustration of Stolen Magic.

P.S. See also my list from last year: Top Ten (Or So): Covers of Books Read in 2012.


by Kendare Blake

Grade: 2 1/2 stars
Story summary: The gods are slowly dying--whether succumbing to a feral madness, being eaten alive from the inside, or having being choked by sprouting owl feathers, they are every one of them facing imminent death. But in one little town in America, there lives a girl who is a reincarnation of the prophetess Cassandra, who may just be the key to saving Athena, Hermes, and the other gods.

Thoughts: It wasn't actually that bad. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it to fans of Greek mythology. Odysseus, Hermes, and Athena played some of the most major roles, and they are among my favourite characters from the Greek mythos. Also the creepiness factor was pretty awesome--Athena's feathers especially, and Poseidon's madness. And spoiler (translate): Oynxr unq gur thgf gb xvyy dhvgr n srj punenpgref, juvpu V yvxrq.

But, it was also very...teenager-y. All the important characters were teenagers, and there was a fair bit of teenage angst. Not that there's anything wrong with teenagers, of course, but I would have preferred a better impression that these beings were actually thousands of years old. Also, Odysseus is definitely my favourite Greek hero, but his cleverness wasn't actually shown here, just talked about a lot. True, the descriptions of his cleverness could be rather cool, but all he actually really did was follow Athena around and admire her.

I think I was mostly disappointed because Kendare Blake's other book, Anna Dressed in Blood was so cool, so I immediately bought this one in hardcover when it was available, and it wasn't quite worth it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Pirates! In an Adventure With Napoleon

by Gideon Defoe

Grade: 3 stars (or maybe 2 1/2 stars?)
Story summary: When the Pirate Captain loses his longed-for prize of Pirate of the Year, he is so devastated that he retires to an island to keep bees. An island which just so happens to be St. Helena, of Napoleon fame. The bee plans don't last long.
Sequel to The Pirates! In an Adventure with ScientistsThe Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling, and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists.

Thoughts: I didn't find this quite as enjoyable as the previous instalments. Perhaps it was the circumstances I was reading this under (it was basically the only thing I could read during a rather bad period), or perhaps I've simply got used to the style and don't find it quite as funny anymore. There were still parts I found immensely funny: the fake index in the back, the dedication (the joke in which was built up over all four books), and any time bees were mentioned, for example.

There is now a fifth book in this series, which I'm still planning to read. I've read some reviews saying it was better than this one, plus I enjoyed this one enough as light reading and I'm assuming the next one will be the same.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The View From Saturday

by E. L. Konigsburg

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story summary: Four Grade 6 children are making history by beating the Grade 7 and 8 groups in the Academic Bowl. This is the story of how four individual children become a best man, save baby turtles, buy heart-shaped puzzles, and invite the others for tea, and how they came together to form "The Souls".

Thoughts: I'm not surprised this won a Newberry Medal. The themes of the story were woven through beautifully, and the structure was unusual and intriguing.

In general, I love stories like this, where learning (especially academic learning) is a primary focus. I also love smart kids, academic contests, and unique adult mentors who help smart kids with academic contests. So this was definitely up my alley.

The treatment of race did seem slightly strange to me. Everybody was commenting on the Indian (from India) characters, and how they were different and strange. This was a fairly long time ago, and in the States (which can definitely be different than Canada in that regard), so perhaps it's accurate. I don't know, and I don't really feel qualified to comment, but it did stick out to me, so I thought I'd mention it.

But it was a very good book, filled with interesting observations like: "The fact was that Mrs. Olinski did not know how she had chosen her team, and the further fact was that she didn't know that she didn't know until she did know. Of course, that is true of most things: you do not know up to and including the very last second before you do." I'm looking forward to trying more books by E. L. Konigsburg.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Music, Language, and the Brain

by Aniruddh D. Patel

Grade: 3 1/2 stars

Thoughts: This was actually the textbook for a university class I recently took called "Language and Music". Normally I would never include textbooks on my book blog, but this was the exception for a few reasons:
a) I actually read it all the way through, cover to cover, without skipping sections. This is unheard of for me and textbooks.
b) It was more a book than a textbook, we just happened to use it as our textbook.
c) It could be quite fascinating, and I wanted to talk about it briefly.

The book is divided into six sections, each comparing an attribute that language and music both posses: sound elements (pitch and timbre), rhythm, melody, syntax, meaning, and evolution. Patel goes into great depth, discussing current thought, dispensing with outdated ideas, and laying out new areas to study further.

I'd like to share a few random little facts here that I picked up along the way. And they really are random--not the focus of the chapters or anything, simply a few things that struck me.

--There is this Amazonian tribe, called the Pirahã, whose language doesn't have numbers or fixed terms for colours, who don't have a creation myth or any drawing outside of stick figures, and yet they have music in abundance. (pg. 3)*
--There is evidence that children's rhythm is syllable-time (like French speaking adults), as opposed to the stressed-timed rhythm of English speaking adults. This doesn't really mean much to most people, especially if you haven't had "syllable-timed" and "stress-timed" explained to you, but I thought it was a super cool observation that made a surprising amount of sense. (pg. 134-5)
--There are important syntactic features of language shared by ALL human languages. There are very few of this syntactic universals in music. (pg. 242)
--When musicians and non-musicians are asked to draw something that visually describes short orchestral pieces, musicians tend to create abstract representations (focused on structural aspects such as repetition and theme structure), while non-musicians draw images or stories. (pg. 323-4)
--Simply overhearing a different language casually (if before the age of 6) will better your pronunciation of that language's phonemes when you're an adult. (pg. 362)

*All page numbers are for the 2008 paperback edition.


by Max Barry

Grade: 3 stars
Story summary: Basically, it's about a school for Slytherins. Clever and ambitious people go to a special school to learn about the art of persuasion. Also, there's a very ordinary fellow named Wil who's suddenly kidnapped, subjected to strange procedures, chased about the country, and generally being very confused as to why this is all happening. Gradually you see the connection between these two parts.

Thoughts: The premise of the book is lots of fun, and as language and words are things I've loved since a very young child, I was really looking forward to this. Unfortunately, I had issues. It seemed in some ways like a fantasy book trying to disguise itself as a scifi or thriller novel. The use of language and words by the characters in this book was so cool, and yet it required way too much suspension of disbelief for me. If it been treated slightly more like magic and less like hard science, I would have enjoyed it a lot more, I think. I usually don't mind mixing of genres either, but this time it just didn't seem to fit very well. However, it was very gripping, with an interesting structure, where you only very slowly begin to understand what's going on (I really enjoy books like that).

Sunday, December 15, 2013


by Alethea Kontis

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story summary: Sequel to Enchanted, this time about the second youngest Woodcutter daughter, Saturday. She is the sister who has never been magically special, who spent her time chopping wood in the forest with her father and her brother. But everything changes when disaster strikes, and Saturday is off on the adventure she always wanted. Except this adventure, of course, ends up quite differently than she expected.

Thoughts: Strangely enough, for a book where the heroine decries romance, and wishes it didn't always have to "be part of the adventure", I actually liked the romance more than anything else. It was a highly unusual romance, which I tend to quite enjoy*. This was especially true in the case of Peregrine, the "hero". There are a fair many other books out there nowadays with slightly more masculine heroines such as Saturday. But rarely is anybody willing to go the other way and make their hero slightly more feminine. (Note, it can be interesting discussing gender as a Catholic (or as anything, of course), as the Church's thought and teachings differ both from modern day "traditionalists" and "progressives". But it seems to me (on quite limited analysis) that Saturday's "masculinity" and Peregrine's "femininity" are of the sort to be accepted by the more "traditional" and the more "progressive" alike.**)

The rest was quite enjoyable as well--it had a slightly less confusing plot with less random fairy tale references than Enchanted, and it had more of Thursday. (More Thursday makes everything better.) I think Kontis is a terrific "story-teller", meaning the books are best enjoyed if you don't try to fit everything together and understand everything, but delight in the strange events and interesting people and romance. Much like the original fairy tales.

Since Saturday was my favourite sister besides Thursday, I'm hoping I'll still like all the sequels as much as this book. Though I wouldn't be surprised if this ended up being my favourite of Kontis's books. (Unless perhaps it's Thursday's book. I hope to goodness there's a Thursday book some day. Did I mention I love her?)

*See The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer for another set of male and female protagonists (brother and sister this time) who are unusual in a somewhat  similar fashion.

**Sorry for the ridiculous amount of quotation marks I've used in this review. It seemed necessary--none of these words are the exactly the ones I want to use, but I'm not sure how else to put some of these things.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase

by Jonathan Stroud

Grade: 4 stars
Story summary: Lucy and her co-workers, Lockwood and George, own their own ghost-hunting business. (Yes, they are teenagers, but it actually makes sense in this world, as the young are they only ones who can see ghosts.) But their cases have gone badly recently and they're desperately low on funds, so they agree to take the case of one of the most haunted houses in England.

Thoughts: Normally horror, including ghosts and the paranormal, isn't really my thing. There needs to be something else (generally awesome characters) to allow me to enjoy it. Thus Anna Dressed in Blood was able to be one of my favourite books read last year, due to its humour, great characters, unusual romance, and gorgeous cover. Supernatural, similarly, is one of my favourite TV shows because of Sam and Dean and Castiel and mostly just how darned funny it is. But frankly, despite how essentially intertwined the ghostly elements are with the plot and story line of that show, I could actually do without them. But this book--this book is one of the only times I have actually greatly enjoyed that part for its own sake. Jonathan Stroud created a world which preyed on my Ravenclaw nature. I wanted to know how it all worked. The world building isn't completely original (it has many of the standard ghost-hunting tropes, although several new elements too), yet somehow it completely fascinated me.

And, as is normally the case with me and Jonathan Stroud, I really liked all the characters. George is really funny and grumpy and more complex that one might expect. I rather wish he was not looked down on quite so much, especially concerning his weight. However, you really do get the impression that it is Lucy's personal bias at work here (Lockwood doesn't have the same reaction to him). Lucy is talented and spirited without being a clichéd YA heroine. And Lockwood himself is charismatic and wears long coat. In a lot of cases I might decide this makes him to much of the kind of handsome hero I find fairly boring. But actually, I liked him immensely, though I wouldn't have expected to.

It's not quite up to the standard set by the Bartimeaus trilogy (spoiler warning for the Bartimeaus reviews, if you plan on reading them), but then very few books are. And even with the Bartimeaus series (as amazing as it is) you don't realize the greatness of the character arcs until you've read the whole trilogy. And this series has lots of potential already, so I am terribly excited to see what comes next.