Archive for category Recommendations

Castle TV Series

Bottom line: A murder mystery TV series with great characters, acting, and storylines.

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Castle is my favorite TV show. Maybe of all time, but definitely my favorite currently running show. It’s a murder mystery that features Detective Kate Beckett and her crew, who have been told to bring a writer, Richard Castle, along with them in the course of their investigations, so that he can gather information to write a series of books.

I only tried it because it stars Nathan Fillion, who was the male lead in the tragically short lived TV series Firefly. Castle is fantastically good. It’s one of those rare shows where everything comes together: the writing, characters, casting, acting, plots, etc. are all just incredibly well done. They even managed to handle the sexual tension (it’s TV, therefore there must be sexual tension) well. I stopped watching Bones because at the end of every season, there would be this huge “will they/won’t they” cliffhanger, and then when they started the next season they just pretended the last episode hadn’t happened. After 5-6 seasons like that, I just got fed up. I’m not a huge TV watcher in general, but any time the writers start to obviously manipulate the audience, I lose interest instantly (this annoys my husband – we’ll be invested maybe a couple of seasons deep and all of a sudden, I’m done.). I want to be thinking about the story and the characters, not be wondering about how the writers are going to yank my chain next. Anyways, in Castle the relationship between the male and female lead feels natural, and progresses and regresses (for the vast majority) according to believable events within the context of the show. As the characters are the main draw for me, this is even more important than usual. And ALL the characters are great, even the supporting cast – they feel realistic and interact well and are basically the kinds of people that you wish you could go hang out with.

The only downside for me is that sometimes you get an incredibly intense, edge-of-your-seat, gruesome show, and sometimes you get a fun, lighthearted show, and you never know which you’re going to get. Although I think in general that’s a good thing (keeps it fresh), it is the reason I stopped watching about a year ago when I was pregnant and tired and stressed out and couldn’t handle anything even remotely intense. I haven’t managed to get caught up yet, but I will.

Side Note: As an interesting promotional tactic, the powers that be have created the Nikki Heat books that are supposedly written by the character Richard Castle (the Amazon author page even shows Nathan Fillion). They’re actually not bad mysteries. The writing style is a little more sensationalized and occasionally cheesy than I would typically go for, but it’s a fun extension of the Castle world. This is one of the incredibly rare times when I’ll tell you to watch the TV show first, but there it is. I’ve read the first two Nikki Heat books and enjoyed them. I don’t know yet if I’ll read the others – my “to be read” list has become quite enormously high again – but not because I don’t think I wouldn’t like them. Do be aware, especially if you typically read cozies, that these are fairly intense and PG-13-y.

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Family Fridays – Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series by Rick Riordan

Genre: Children’s Fantasy

Ages: 9 and up

Blurb for the first book:

The Lightning Thief

After getting expelled from yet another school for yet another clash with mythological monsters only he can see, twelve-year-old Percy Jackson is taken to Camp Half-Blood, where he finally learns the truth about his unique abilities: He is a demigod, half human, half immortal. Even more stunning: His father is the Greek god Poseidon, ruler of the sea, making Percy one of the most powerful demigods alive. There’s little time to process this news. All too soon, a cryptic prophecy from the Oracle sends Percy on his first quest, a mission to the Underworld to prevent a war among the gods of Olympus.

Review:  

I will try very hard to restrain my enthusiasm during this post, or we could all be here for a while. At least I would be, the rest of you would probably give up and head to greener pastures after the first 1,000 words. The Percy Jackson series is one of my all time favorite series. Though written for middle school aged children, the books appeal to children, teenagers, young adults, and not so young adults. They are, quite simply, amazing. The characters are more lifelike than just about any other author’s I can think of (Lindsay Buroker being another excellent example). Percy’s narration is clever, hilarious, snarky, and maintains a very realistic voice for an early teens boy. The world building is interesting, unique, and thorough without being overwhelming or tedious. The plots are well executed and you see characters develop (and not just physically) throughout the series.

Another thing I liked about it: Percy and most of the rest of the demigod children are ADHD and Dyslexic. Riordan takes these challenges and turns them into advantages in Percy’s new reality. I love that – a reminder that not all of us are wired the same way, and that can be a good thing. Also, in a later series, one of the demigods is lactose intolerant. Represent!

Something you see quite often with book series written for this age group is that the themes and characters become more mature and darker as the series progresses. Here there is a little bit of that, but not nearly as much as, say, Harry Potter. A child who can handle the first book emotionally will be able to handle the last book as well, which is not necessarily the case with the Harry Potter series. The bottom line is that I cannot think of anything negative to say about these books. Some books you just read with a big smile on your face, and for me, the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books are way at the top of that list.

Random side notes:

The five books in this series in order are: The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth, and The Last Olympian. There is a continuing series, The Heroes of Olympus, which features some of the Camp Halfblood gang as well as some new characters. It is also excellent, but even though the age ranges given for it at various online sources is the same as the original series, it feels older to me (the characters are in high school now and, for example, focuses more on girlfriend/boyfriend relationships) – not a bad thing, but something to be aware of if you started Percy Jackson with children on the younger end of the spectrum.

I debated on whether to make this a regular post or a Family Fridays post. Although I feel like any age of fantasy (or even book) lover would be able to enjoy this series, I decided to post it under FFs because this is something the whole family could enjoy together.

Riordan sold the creative rights to the movies, had nothing to do with them, and claims he hasn’t even watched them. As of now only the first movie is out, with plans to release the second later this year. The first movie was terrible. I cannot even begin to describe how much I hated it. They took much of what made the book so great and either ignored it or did the opposite. In the interests of fairness, I have met people who really liked the movie.

Riordan also has an adult mystery series, which is quite good, but not something I’d care to read with a nine year old. So make sure you know which brand of Riordan you’re getting.

Whew – kept it under a thousand words…but not by much.

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Review of JET by Russell Blake (2012) (Jet Series)

Bottom line: JET is a free, full length novel introducing the JET series. If you’re a fan of thrillers, give it a try!

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Blurb:

Code name: Jet 

Twenty-eight-year-old Jet was once the Mossad’s most lethal operative before faking her own death and burying that identity forever. But the past doesn’t give up on its secrets easily.

When her new life on a tranquil island is shattered by a brutal attack, Jet must return to a clandestine existence of savagery and deception to save herself and those she loves. A gritty, unflinching roller-coaster of high-stakes twists and shocking turns, JET features a new breed of protagonist that breaks the mold.

Fans of Lisbeth Salander, SALT, and the Bourne trilogy will find themselves carried along at Lamborghini speed to a conclusion as surprising as the story’s heroine is unconventional.

Review:

I recommend reading this book when you can devote a few hours to it and finish it all in one gulp – otherwise, you’ll still end up finishing it all in one gulp, but there will be babies crying, dogs barking, chores neglected, and food uneaten as you frantically race through the pages. The style reminded me the most of the Bourne trilogy (as suggested in the blurb). We have an extremely competent assassin: a female character far more strongly developed than one would normally expect to see in this genre. We have international shenanigans, scary bad guys, cool weapons, and clandestine government agencies. The writing was very tight, and as I said earlier, I was very impressed with the lifelikeness of the main character. Blake managed to create a ruthless assassin who still feels realistically human and also manages to be a sympathetic character. Descriptions were evocative without being tedious, and there are enough logistics and details (e.g. what kinds of weapons they used, how they get from point A to point B) to give the reader a good flavour of setting but not so much that your eyes start to glaze over. The only thing I know about guns is that they fire bullets, and the only thing I know about cars is that they come in different colours. (Yes, I’m a girl. Yes, I know that’s a stereotype, but seriously, I look at a car and I can generally tell if it’s an SUV, truck, or car, but that’s it. I’m a mess trying to find my car in parking lots. Do you know how many gray cars there are?!? Anyways…)The only aspect I wasn’t crazy about was how the story jumped around in time and place, but I recognize that these were all important for the plot and/or backstory. My brain is very linear and I just have a hard time coming into and out of the main story line.

So basically, we have an intriguing premise, lots of action, an interesting main character, and last but not least, very good writing. Oh, and it’s free. What’s not to like? I’ll definitely be reading more in the series as time (and budget) allows, and will be checking out some of Blake’s other works.

Side note: This is a violent story, and while the writing certainly conveys that, it never felt overly graphic to me (and I am a total wimp).

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Summer Reading List – travel through time and place

These aren’t time travelling books, though that might make a good reading list in and of itself, but I’ve called this travel through time and place because the books featured were written as far back as 1869. (Please keep in mind the date these books were written as they will reflect the cultural norms of the day when it comes to dealing with other races, religions, cultures, and so on.) Some of the funniest books that I’ve ever read are travel memoirs. I think that is partly because being out of one’s element resonates with me (I spent most of my “growing up” years abroad) and partly because nothing brings out the extremes of life like travel – you see the best, the worst, the most absurd, the most profound , and therefore, the funniest (at least after the fact). I hope you enjoy some of these armchair journeys this summer in addition to (or instead of) your actual trips.

  1. The Innocents Abroad (1869) by Mark Twain. (Free on Kindle!) This is the only book on the list I haven’t read, but it is on my “Read Soon” list. I’ve had several recommendations for this book and look forward to diving into it.
  2. Three Men in a Boat (1889) by Jerome K. Jerome. I believe you can get a free version of this on Kindle, but please do yourself a favor and get the audiobook version narrated by Hugh Laurie. It is excellent. For the most part, you would never guess that this book was written well over a hundred years ago. It is absolutely hilarious, even more so for those of you who, like me are cursed blessed with an extremely energetic terrier (is there any other kind?).
  3. Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946) by Agatha Christie. This reveals a completely different side to Hercule Poirot’s creator. Funny, wry, and self-deprecating (the book starts out with Christie attempting to buy plus-sized summer clothes in 1930’s London in the winter), it shows glimpses of the life she and her husband led while on an archeology dig in Syria. I have lived in a similar part of the world myself, and it was interesting to see her take from sixty-ish years before my impressions were being formed. Cross-cultural communication attempts are always…interesting. Some things that we take for granted as being inherently important are dismissed with a shrug in other cultures, and vice versa.
  4. Tales of a Female Nomad, Living at Large in the World (2001) by Rita Golden Gelman. I wouldn’t classify this books necessarily as “humorous” although there are funny parts in it, but it will make you want to sell off all you possessions and hit the road. At least that was my response. There’s something both freeing and envy-inspiring about realizing that some people have actually left everything behind and just gone.
  5. Anything by Bill Bryson. Bryson is another contemporary writer and one of the funniest across any genre, in my very humble opinion. He’s an American who lived for several years in England. Consequently, I think some of his writing on both the US and the UK is among his best work. Some of my favorites include: Notes from a Small Island (the UK), A Walk In The Woods (his travels on the Appalachian long distance hiking trail, although the first half by far outshines the second), and In a Sunburned Country (Australia). In a Sunburned Country I don’t think is as consistently funny as some of his other works, but it does contain two of the funniest passages I have ever read. The first addresses sleeping in public, and I have never been able to read it aloud without snorting myself into incomprehensible speech and having to hand the book off to someone else, and the second deals with his crazed flight through a suburban park from a pack of dogs that may or may not be anywhere near him.
  6. Bonus: The Rough Guide to First Time Around the World by Doug Lanksy. I’m not sure when this was first published, but I believe they occasionally release updated versions. If you’re the type who has as much fun in the planning as the actual execution of the trip (please tell me that’s not just me), this is a book to satiate, or possibly inflame, your wanderlust. It contains practical information on how to do it as well as region guides and some anecdotes from the author. This was one of my favorite forms of escapism while I toiled away in grad school.

There are lots of great travel books out there. What did I miss?

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Interview with Evie Woolmore, author of Equilibrium

Equilibrium

A few nights ago, I was in the mood for trying something different, and the baby was actually asleep, so I downloaded the sample for Evie Woolmore’s Equilibrium. It certainly was something different for me. I had never even heard of the genre, magical realism, before, but I thought I might as well try the free sample. Well, that was my evening (and night) shot. Immediately after finishing the sample, I bought the book and read straight on through til morning (does 1:00 a.m. count as morning?). I am a person who needs strict boundaries in my life: this is science fiction, this is mystery, this is travel, and so on. Of course life doesn’t fit into tidy little boxes and neither does this novel. There is some mystery, some fantasy, some history, and the categories all blur smoothly together. Essentially this is about different people trying to untangle the mistakes and questions of the past so they have some hope for the future. What sucked me into the book was the rich characters – I felt like I was there with them, a part of their struggles and joys. Read the blurb, try the sample. I dare you to put it down after that!

For more information, check out the author’s webpage here (from here you can buy the book as well as try the first chapter), or you could click through and keep reading for my own INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR EVIE WOOLMORE!!! Not that I’m really excited about it or anything…

Read the rest of this entry »

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Review of The Alphabet Mysteries Series by Sue Grafton

Bottom line: A great example of the hard boiled genre, featuring a strong female P.I.

Rating: Recommended

Blurb for First Book: A is for Alibi (1982)

A IS FOR AVENGER
A tough-talking former cop, private investigator Kinsey Millhone has set up a modest detective agency in a quiet corner of Santa Teresa, California. A twice-divorced loner with few personal possessions and fewer personal attachments, she’s got a soft spot for underdogs and lost causes.

A IS FOR ACCUSED
That’s why she draws desperate clients like Nikki Fife. Eight years ago, she was convicted of killing her philandering husband. Now she’s out on parole and needs Kinsey’s help to find the real killer. But after all this time, clearing Nikki’s bad name won’t be easy.

A IS FOR ALIBI
If there’s one thing that makes Kinsey Millhone feel alive, it’s playing on the edge. When her investigation turns up a second corpse, more suspects, and a new reason to kill, Kinsey discovers that the edge is closer–and sharper–than she imagined.

Review:

It’s been a while since I’ve read any of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mysteries, so I got A is for Alibi from the library and started over at the beginning (not all of them – I’m dedicated to you, my loyal readers, but not THAT dedicated). I’ve read up through T, though Grafton has published up through V (W is for Wasted comes out this fall). For a series that has 22 published books, plus some short stories (none of which I’ve read), the level of quality is surprisingly consistent – and high. The mysteries and characters are interesting and varied enough so that you don’t feel like you’re reading the same book over and over again. There are, obviously, some books that are better than others, but for the most part they’re very good reads.

One thing to note is that just because this series features a female detective, do not mistake these for cozies. They are definitely hard boiled: gritty and full of the realities of life – sex and bad language and all the rest of it. Kinsey is a tough, prickly, character, one that you come to respect before you necessarily start to like her. In the first book, you get enough details about her earlier life to keep you interested, without there being an info dump of backstory. I find it annoying when within a few strategic conversations in the first chapter you learn everything you need to know about a character. Real life doesn’t work that way. You do learn more about her as the series progresses, in a very natural way.

I’d recommend this series for anyone who likes the hard boiled mystery genre, or even mystery fans in general. Be warned that there is quite a bit of detail involved in tracking down various aspects of the cases; facts don’t seamlessly fall into place on the first try, which I quite like. Another great thing about these books is that any library is almost guaranteed to stock them. So, pick one up and give it a try – if you like it, you’ll eventually have 25 more great books to keep you entertained. Even for someone who reads as fast as I do, that’s at least a hundred hours of happiness.

 

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Summer Reading List – Golden Age Mysteries

I’m going to be posting some summer reading lists throughout the, well, summer. These won’t be in-depth reviews, just a list of “hey, these are great and you should drop everything and read them now!” books. I’m going to be doing it by genre, and for my first genre I’m picked Golden Age Mysteries. These are the mysteries that many people think of as the “classic” mysteries, typically written in the 1920’s or 1930’s. I love this era – so much so that they comprise the vast majority of the mysteries on my personal bookshelves that survive my frequent purges. So, here’s your summer reading list for Golden Age Mysteries:

  1. Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy Sayers. Normally I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one (just because it’s not the first and I’m a bit obsessive that way), but I think it really is her best and if you want to give Sayers a try, this is the one to do it with.
  2. Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie. Probably my favorite Christie, and a great introduction to her work.
  3. Opening Night / Night at the Vulcan (alternate title) (1951) by Ngaio Marsh. I’ve only read a handful of Marsh’s works, but I’ve enjoyed all the ones that I have read. I’d rate her a bit below Agatha Christie, but still very fun to read if you like this genre. She was from New Zealand and worked in the theatre, so several of her works are set in the theatre as this one is (and also features a heroine fresh off the boat from NZ).
  4. Death of a Ghost (1934) by Margery Allingham. This is my favorite Allingham. Her work is a bit darker than any of the others I’ve mentioned, but this one especially is extremely well crafted. Some of her books I found the characters to be flat, but in this one they are more fleshed out.

The four authors above are considered the four original “Queens of Crime”, and reading one of each of their works would certainly constitute a good introduction into the golden age of detective fiction. Another author that I hear frequently recommended along with the four above is Josephine Tey, but I have yet to read any of her works.  So, as a bonus, I’m including:

        5. Anything by Josephine Tey. This is going on my reading list for the summer.

I hope you enjoy your first reading assignment from me – look for more to come!

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