Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's LibraryI normally don’t read or review middle grade books, but Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a happy exception. My daughter received it as a present for her eighth birthday, and asked me to read it to her and her (almost) six-year-old brother. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks sharing the adventures of Kyle Keeley and his fellow competitors and it has been such a blast!

Kyle, the 12-year-old hero of the story, is the youngest of three brothers. His oldest brother, Mike, is a star athlete; his other brother Curtis, is a genius. ┬áKyle is good at video games and board games, but that hasn’t offered much opportunity to shine–until he learns that the town’s new library will feature a game-filled lock-in for twelve lucky 12-year-olds. The lock-in–and the library–are sponsored by the mysterious Mr. Lemoncello, a Willy Wonka-like figure famous for his amazing array of games.

I loved the idea of setting an action-packed, puzzle-filled story inside a library. Kyle is a smart kid, but not much of a reader. By the time his stay in the library has ended, he’s seen first hand some of the amazing things the library has to offer, and compiled a list of books he wants to read once the competition is over.

Amazingly, the author has even managed to make the Dewey decimal system a key plot point. I have always loved books and libraries, but never had the slightest interest in learning what those numbers actually meant. Explaining how library classification works to young readers in the context of a fun and engaging book filled with puzzles and rebuses to solve is simply brilliant.

Even though my youngest son was probably too little to really grasp the nuances of this book, the exciting, suspenseful plot had him literally demanding more chapters every night, and my daughter insisted on studying the rebuses and clues for a few minutes before we closed the book, hoping to solve the puzzle before the kids in the story.

In short, this was a great book, fun for book lovers, puzzle fanatics, and anyone who loves their local library.

Genre: Middle grade puzzle-packed library adventure

Read it if: You would have loved a library lock-in when you were 12 (or you’re looking forward to being twelve and having adventures.)

Skip it if: You dislike rebuses, puns, references to a wide range of children’s books, or middle grade books in general.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please!

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Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

Warm BodiesI had heard good things about this book but for the longest time couldn’t quite convince myself to read it. Zombies I’m okay with, but a zombie love story? Really? Wasn’t that a bridge too far?

As it happens, Warm Bodies is a truly amazing accomplishment: a zombie story with heart. The narrator, R, can’t remember his name or anything about his life before he joined the ranks of the undead. All he knows for sure is that he’s wearing a suit and a snazzy red tie, and he hasn’t decayed much, at least in comparison to his more decomposed buddies. He can only manage a few syllables of conversation with his large zombie friend, M. He can stand for days staring at a spinning record on an old record player.

Everything changes when he eats the brain of a young man heading a scavenging team. Although it’s common for the zombies to get a flash of memory from the brains they consume, this one is different. This brain is potent stuff and conveys one message above all else: R must protect Julie, the 19-year-old girl his victim loved. And she’s currently surrounded by ravenous zombies.

Already that sounds crazy as the beginning of a love story. How would anyone seriously consider romantic involvement with an undead guy who just ate their boyfriend’s brain? That is messed up. Yet Isaac Marion pulls it off. R isn’t just lurching around moaning. He has thoughts and feelings he can’t express and, most unzombielike of all, focused desire for human connection. It’s a strangely beautiful story, and it’s R’s engaging voice that keeps you reading.

The plot is also loosely based on a classic work of literature–I’ll leave you to figure out which one; I’m embarassed to say how long it took me to connect the dots. And although the ending gets a little crazy, I didn’t mind at all.

Ultimately Warm Bodies asks some big questions: does it make sense to love anyone or anything when life is so brief and uncertain? The answer is a resounding yes.

Genre: Zombie love story

Read it if: You don’t mind a little brains and gore; you love to root for the underdog, even if he’s a zombie; you prefer your heartwarming, feel-good love stories set in bleak dystopian futures.

Skip it if: You are squeamish and/or stopped reading this review when I said R eats Julie’s boyfriend’s brain; you prefer novels that share the same general approach to zombies as Tallahassee from Zombieland.

Movie-worthy: It’s already happened! That’s partly why I read the book, so I could finally watch the movie.


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Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave EggersSharing is caring. Secrets are lies. Privacy is theft.

The Circle, a cautionary tale by Dave Eggers, conjures up a slippery slope from the inane belief that “sharing is caring” to a much more sinister worldview in which failure to share equals a selfish decision to hide what should be commonly held property: the details of your life, from your most meaningless preferences to your most closely guarded secrets.

When Mae Holland first comes to work at the Circle, the world’s preeminent social media company, she is overcome with gratitude. Her college roommate, Annie, has attained an enviably high status at the Circle and rescues Mae from a grim future of dronelike work at a utility company. Mae is eager to prove herself and quickly excels at her work in Customer Experience, answering client queries and keeping her positive feedback numbers impressively high.

Soon, however, Mae learns that there’s more to working at the Circle than just work. To truly succeed, she must share her preferences on everything, all the time. She must join groups, comment on the posts of others, send “zings” that others will enjoy and re-zing. Basically, her life becomes focused around improving the Circle-equivalent of a Klout score.

It can be slightly frustrating to watch Mae’s reaction to the escalating demands of the Circle. She drinks the Kool-Aid big time, and comes to share the Circle’s values in ways that may be hard for the average person to imagine. Yet her acquiescence to Circle culture has the ring of truth; for Mae, a person with self-esteem issues and a sense of having failed to live up to her own potential, answering endless survey questions, sending “smiles” and “frowns” to register her approval or disapproval, and watching her rankings climb as a result provide a tangible sense of accomplishment and validation, however illusory.

Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, attempts to get through to Mae, to get her to tear her eyes away from her many screens and connect with her parents in real time. Unfortunately, he writes her a five-page letter on the subject. TL;DR.

Tension builds as Mae’s star rises and the Circle nears completion. In the meantime, Eggers offers myriad ways that sacrificing privacy could make life more convenient, keep children safe, give individuals the sense that they know everything there is to be known. The reader is left contemplating the optimal balance between privacy and transparency, and wondering what the future holds. Right up until they tweet their review of the book, give it four stars on Goodreads and check their Facebook page for likes.

Genre: Speculative fiction

Read it if: You enjoy a quick thought-provoking read that will make you question societal trends; you like to kayak but don’t ever tweet about it; you have considered living off the grid and would like additional reasons to add to your list.

Skip it if: You are looking for literary profundity, three-dimensional characters or a scene like in that “1984” Apple ad.

Movie-worthy: Definitely. I could totally see Jason Segel as Mercer, earnestly explaining how he made his antler chandeliers.


Review: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange BodiesHow attached are you to your carcass? Is there a ghost in the machine, or are the two in fact one and the same? Marcel Theroux’s intriguing novel Strange Bodies explores the essence of consciousness and identity in a story that brings the Gothic novel into the digital age.

Before I go any further, I should probably mention how much I loved Theroux’s 2009 novel Far North. Makepeace Thackeray was an unforgettable character, a lone survivor in an all too plausible future of elegiac decline. So I pre-ordered Strange Bodies the second I heard about it, but tried to keep my expectations reasonably low, just in case.

As it happens, that wasn’t necessary. Strange Bodies is a very different story, but equally powerful in its own way, and Nicholas Slopen is a memorable, if significantly less sympathetic character.

When Nicholas wanders into a shop run by his old girlfriend, she doesn’t recognize him. He’s changed, but it’s been years since she’s seen him and once they get talking she’s sure it’s him. When Nicky comes back a second time and collapses in the middle of her book club, his ex discovers that the man she spoke with can’t possibly be who he claimed he was: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months.

What follows is a gripping, thoughtful and sometimes downright strange tale of humanity’s hubris in the face of mortality. Nicky is not an exceptional man; facing down middle age, he has achieved only moderate success as a Samuel Johnson scholar, his marriage has steadily deteriorated and his track record as a father is poor at best. Yet his entanglement in an international conspiracy to overcome death grants him a perspective few ever attain: to see himself as he truly is. To question what makes a human being unique, conscious, alive.

Genre: 21st century Gothic

Read it if: You love nothing better than a literary take on a genre tale; you wonder what Dr. Frankenstein would be up to if he were around today; you wish there had been more Samuel Johnson references on Dollhouse.

Skip it if: You don’t like to read books that make you think about mortality, failure or the general malaise of middle-aged existence; you really hate Samuel Johnson.

Movie-worthy: Hmmm. Christopher Nolan might be able to do something amazing with it.