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Gabriel’s Inferno by Sylvain Reynard (2011)

Cover artThis book was recommended to me by a friend’s wife. Looking for a lighter read, I delved in and, much to my chagrin, I was stuck in a quagmire. Like a witness to a horrific car accident or a devastating nature disaster, I was enthralled… transfixed… unable to turn away, all the while my face contorting in disbelief, despair, and finally, the insane laughter of disbelief and mystification.

Never have I read a book so utterly without style, plausibility, or intrigue. The characters were laughable. The author-professed intellect of the two main characters was undermined ever time the author gave utterance to their thoughts or allowed them to speak. There were so many mixed messages and descriptions, the characters lost all form. All supporting characters were inane and frivolous, merely props.

I can’t help but laugh when I think about this book. It’s absolutely ludicrous. How anyone who maintained consciousness through high school English could enjoy this is beyond my comprehension. To call this literature is a great stretch and entirely too complimentary. To say it strings words together to form semi-intelligible sentences is slightly closer to the truth.

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The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013)

The Golem and the Jinni cover artThe golem is a creature of earth, commissioned by a dying man and brought to life by a witch. The Jinni, a being of fire and impulse, imprisoned in a bottle for centuries. When the two arrive, separately, in 1899 New York, they must assimilate or be discovered and, most likely, destroyed. A chance meeting between the two allows a curious and mutually beneficial friendship to ensue. Each will challenge the other and, if lucky, they will survive their circumstances which are revealed to be inexorably linked.

Blending elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, Helene Wecker’s  debut novel is atmospheric, even (if slow) paced, and deftly written. This will appeal to fans of Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (2012)

HabitI listened to this book and, while the narrator’s voice was dissonant and annoying (I’m very picky about my readers), the content soon drowned him out. With each new revelation about how strongly habits dictate our lives - individually, at work and in society – I began to examine my own patterns of behaviour. I thought about the successful changes in my life (abstaining from sugary drinks and fast food) and those I have been less successful with (doing cruches at the gym) and how I might alter my routine in order to achieve my goals. Identifying the pattern is the first step. What is the cue that sets you off down a desired or undesirable path? What is the unthinking routine? What is the reward? Some other take-aways: After identifying the need, make a plan that substitutes a new routine to acheive the same reward. Set yourself up for small victories. Then go for another small victory. This will add up to a big victory. Illuminating.

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Vanish by Sophia Jordan (2011)

Jacinda, her mother and sister, Tamra, find themselves back at square one. Having revealed her dragon side to her boyfriend, Will, and his dragon-hunting family, Jacinda seeks sanctuary in the home she and her family abandoned at the begining of Firelight. Because of Jacinda’s rare fire-breathing talent, she is granted a second (but closely monitored) chance. Then Tamra manifests an ability as rare and precious as Jacinda’s.

Most of the book putters around and not much happens. After Jacinda is forced to bond with Cassian, the pride’s heir apparent, the hunters arrive. At the conclusion, Jacinda, Will, and Cassian set out to rescue Cassian’s younger sister from a hunter compound. What can I say about this series? Great covers but the worst kind of food for my brain. But, hey, everyone needs a funnel cake now and then.

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The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke (2012)

In a medieval world, Ananna is a pirate princess. Desirous of captaining her own ship one day, she bulks at the marriage her parents have arranged for her in order to advance their own political and strategic agenda. So she hops on a camel and runs away. Unfortunately, her betrothed and his family take offense and send an assassin to kill her. In the process of defending herself, Ananna saves her attacker’s life, triggering a curse that binds the two together. A long road, a series of trials bring the two closer together but this is the start of a series and the romantic aspects are muted. The writing is solid, the male lead is not an insufferable pretty boy and the plot is engaging. I’ll be picking up the sequel, The Pirate’s Wish, in June 2013.

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Sutton by J.R. Moehringer (2012)

The alienation from the mother and father, the sibling abuse, the grim poverty, the simultaneity of your life span with a series of the most violent economic convulsions in history, it all created a uncommonly dangerous and potent witches’ brew. By the time you came of age you were very likely to go down the wrong path, to have a great deal of trouble controlling your impulses, but by God, Willie, add to all that the convergence of your first crime with this overpowering first love – that sealed it (p 241).

Moehringer’s romantic take on Willie Sutton, one of America’s most notorious bank robbers, disarms you – just as I imagine Willie charmed his victims – before waking you at the conclusion with a whisper, a hint that alerts you to reality. But it is too late. You were duped.

After Willie is released from prison on Christmas Eve 1969, he is taken on a tour of NYC with a reporter and photographer. In flashbacks, we see Willie’s life from his perspective. As Moehringer smoothly transitions from past to present, we lose track of what is communicated to Reporter and Photographer. And Sutton/Moehringer carefully excludes or hints but it isn’t until the conclusion, when the past meets the present full on, that Willie is revealed. An engrossing book that I savored.

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The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech (2012)

On Sunday afternoon, I met Lizzie at her church so we could go over our duties with Mrs. Mudkin for helping the poor, unfortunate elderly. If you saw Mrs. Mudkin you might wonder why she herself was not on the list of the poor, unfortunate elderly (p 59).

Naomi and Lizzie are two orphans among the many in their town of Blackbird Tree. Lizzie is a chatterbox and Naomi is curious. A perfect friendship… until a boy named Finn falls out of a tree. As the story of these two young girls develops, another story, set in Ireland, unfolds. It is a story of two sisters, charmed and cheated by the same man.

While the writing is lyrical, as many have pointed out, and while Lizzie and Naomi are delightful and fully developed, I was completely bored while reading this. A short novel that I should have tackled in one sitting took me four days. It wasn’t exactly a fantasy (though fairy rings are mentioned and though Finn appears to be a ghost) and it isn’t exactly a fairy tale retelling. It seems to be a satire in the style of Louis Lowry’s The Willoughbys but this isn’t entire true either. I wasn’t sure what this was going for and I walked about with the impression that it was more an experiment than a finished product.

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The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009)

The Magicians surprised me. It took the comfortable worlds of my childhood (Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts) and soiled them. It was unsettling but, in its own way, magical as well. It resonated with me because I am very familiar with the subject of Grossman’s critique and beacuse I can distinguish between the rose-colored glass of childhood and life as surveyed through a glass of chambertin (see footnote). The underlying moral, at least the one I took away from this – that you cannot escape yourself but must find a way to live with yourself – may have been long in coming, requiring a lot of patience by the reader, but it was one I am glad I reached nonetheless.

Footnote: From Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers - “Life is a chaplet of little miseries which the philosopher shakes with a laugh. Be philosophers, as I am, gentlemen; sit down at the table and let us drink. Nothing makes the future look so bright as surveying it through a glass of chambertin.”

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Heroes of Olympus: The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan (2012)

All seven of the main characters from the first two Heroes of Olympus tomes unite to stop Gaea’s minnions from killing Nico Di Angelo and razing Rome. Meanwhile, the Roman and Greek demigod camps prepare for war against each other due to a slight misunderstanding – while possessed by evil spirits, Leo Valdez fires on the Roman demigod camp with his warship.

Adventure ensues, set against a ticking clock. Various gods and monsters enter and exit. Detours are followed and mini-quests are filled. The template remains the same. The character development is slow because we’ve all come to know the prinicipal characters so well (and let’s face it, the gods aren’t going to have an epiphany and suddenly become smpathetic or helpful) but kids will eat this one up just as they enjoyed the previous books in the series.