The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud

The Amulet of SamarkandDear Bartimaeus, You are wonderful, let’s go hang out together. Love, Alison.

I listened to this book back in the day and fell madly in love with it — I mean, how could you not fall in love with Simon Jones? It’s impossible! Ever since, this book has been one of those books that I find not many people know about, and when I do find a person who has read it and loved it we are clearly meant to be BFFs (well, at least in one case!). So obviously I was really excited when my in-person book club put it on the schedule for September, although I wasn’t going to have time to listen to it again and was a bit worried about reading the book without the help of the handsomely voiced Mr. Jones.

I needn’t have worried; the book is nearly as fantastic as read by the voices in my head and also THERE ARE FOOTNOTES. Why was I not informed of the footnotes earlier? Goodness me I love a footnote, and actually I felt like the constant asides made a heck of a lot more sense having a party at the bottom of the page as opposed to hanging out in parentheses as I had assumed. There’s just something about seeing that little superscript and knowing there’s something hilarious waiting for you just inches away…

Ahem. I digress. Without footnotes. How disappointing!

So anyway, the book is as hilarious as ever. Our intrepid narrator is the aforementioned Bartimaeus, who enters the book in a cloud of stereotypical demon trappings because wouldn’t you, if you were a demon, and proceeds to joke and trick and mostly luck his way out of all sorts of magical problems, most of which are caused by the third-person-narrated Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a very young magician in a world where magicians rule via threats, intimidation, and the enslavement of demon-types, and even though we first meet him doing that third thing and also he’s young and therefore dumb and annoying (I do not miss being dumb and annoying), he’s a decent kid and I was pulling for him the whole book.

The plot of the novel involves Nathaniel having Bartimaeus steal an unexpectedly potent magical thing from an expectedly potent magician, which of course turns out to be a very terrible idea and ends with lots of magical fights and a few deaths. But the reason I love this novel is its world-building. Stroud takes your average fantasy world with magic and spells and pentacles and whatnot and makes it disturbingly like our regular world with class struggles and power-hungry politicians and foolish children and also wisecracking djinnis. Well, I wish our world had wisecracking djinnis, anyway.

I also, as you may guess, love Bartimaeus, who is basically the greatest character ever characterized. He’s a demon who just wants to do his thing, no matter what he is actually required to do, and who will grumble amusingly until such time as he can figure out how to do his thing. He also has a healthy sense of his place in society (not too high on the demon scale, not too low) and uses it to great advantage, which is a pretty good life lesson, actually!

I’ve read the rest of the (increasingly inaccurately named) Bartimaeus Trilogy, and they were all pretty decent, but this remains my absolute favorite of the series and one of my favorite fantasy novels in general. If you haven’t read it, take a few hours and rectify that situation!

Recommendation: Read it, even if you don’t think you like fantasy, and especially if you like sarcasm and awesome fight scenes.

Rating: 9/10 (I have to admit that Simon Jones is what makes it a 10!)

an RIP read

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The Neverending StoryOh, The Neverending Story. I watched the movie version probably several times as a short person (read: child), but it’s one of those movies that I’m incapable of remembering, so mostly what I knew going into this book was that there was a kid and a dragon thing and Atreyu and something about the kid going into the book?

At first it was kind of cool, knowing just a tiny bit about the book. I was having fun listening to basically a brand-new story, but I also had an idea of where things would go and I could look forward to dragons! I like dragons.

I also like the way Ende writes this story. I am a sucker for a frame story, which is what we’ve got here: our hero, Bastian Balthazar Bux (pronounced like “books” by the audio narrator), steals a book from a similarly alliterative bookshop owner and hides in his school’s attic to read it. Go with it. He starts reading the book, and we are treated to a story about a Childlike Empress and kid hero called Atreyu who goes off on a dangerous quest to save said Empress and also the whole of Fantastica. Frame story? Quest? You know I’m in.

Then the story gets even more interesting, with characters in Bastian’s book seeming to react to things that Bastian says, or seeming to see him via magics, and soon Bastian finds himself written right into the book he’s reading, and then finds himself writing the book, which is absolutely insane and I like it a lot.

Except… once my vague recollection of the movie had been fulfilled by the book, I was basically done, but it turns out that there’s a whole second half to the novel that got made into another movie that I didn’t see. So for those six or seven hours of audio, I was like, seriously, this book isn’t done yet? Is this book done yet? This really is a neverending story, isn’t it?

That’s entirely on me, though, and it’s not to say that the second half of the book isn’t interesting, but it basically repeats Atreyu’s quest plot of the first half with Bastian in the lead role and with more melodrama and self-absorption. From a literary standpoint, this seems really cool. From a listening-at-work standpoint, this seems really boring.

I may try this again at some future date after I have completely forgotten the story again, but in print form this time, because I feel like I missed out on a lot of cool things in the story. The audio was rough for me not just because I got bored halfway through, but because the narration and sound mixing is such that some characters are super loud and some are practically silent, and for the parts I listened to while on a road trip it was basically impossible to hear both sets without causing some sort of accident. If you’ve eyes-read this, what do you think? Is it worth another shot?

Recommendation: For lovers of quests and fairy tales.

Rating: 6/10

Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead

Liar and SpyAfter reading When You Reach Me, I had basically decided I was in heart with Rebecca Stead, because, I mean, I love A Wrinkle in Time and so does she and therefore BFF(aeae), right? That’s how it works, I think.

So when I heard about Liar and Spy, I was all, wait, like Harriet the Spy? Swoon! It took forever for the book to even show up at my library, but when it did it was mine and I read it.

And it was pretty okay. I was wrong about the Harriet the Spy connection, at least in that this story never mentions that one once. So, kind of a disappointment. But obviously you can still find similarities between the two, because they’re both about spying kids and ultimately how spying on other people living their lives is not as fun as living your own (spoilers?).

Stead’s story is about Georges, a poor kid with too many letters in his first name whose dad gets downsized and who has to move from an awesome house to a less awesome apartment. On a trip to the laundry room, Georges ends up agreeing to attend a spy club meeting, and from there meets a kid named Safer who is a super-duper master spy ready to teach Georges how it’s done.

There’s spying done, of course, and some intrigue about a mysterious neighbor, but there’s also quite a bit about being a nerd at school and losing a best friend as well. It’s super cute, if a little obvious in places and a little silly in others, just as a good kids book usually is.

Recommendation: For nostalgic adults and precocious kids.

Rating: 7/10

A Mutiny in Time, by James Dashner

A Mutiny in TimeOkay, so, twenty pages in I knew this wasn’t the book for me. However, I promised my younger brother that I would read it and he is not the type to forget a promise made to him, and also the book is really short so whatever, I read it. And it was soooo bad.

Basically, this is the first in a series that is similar to The 39 Clues — two precocious kids find themselves in the middle of a crazy plot that extends hundreds of years into the past and are the only ones who can solve the puzzles and save the world, with the help of a slightly older but still underage guardian. I don’t know if there are trading cards with this series, but there’s definitely an online component and I’m sure there’s lots of money being made.

Anyway. The premise here is that a history-loving kid, Dak, has a great idea to let his science-loving “BFF forever” Sera into his science-loving parents’ lab, and she goes ahead and finishes building their time travel device, as a ten-year-old is wont to do. But of course, it’s not quite that simple, as the two kids are living in an alternate universe where some shadowy organization (the SQ) runs everything because they’ve changed history in their favor, and the kids end up recruited to a second shadowy organization (the Hystorians) dedicated to putting history right, but before they can learn all the things they need to save the world the first shadowy organization attacks the second one and Dak and Sera and Riq (a language-lover) end up going back in time by themselves.

There’s… kind of a lot going on. And it happens really really fast, because there are not many pages in this book and they have to invent time travel and then use it and then solve some puzzles and then fix this first problem in history. So the last part is like, look! We’re in Spain in 1492! The voyage to America must be the problem! Oh no, we’re being attacked by an SQ operative! Oh, good, we’re saved by a Hystorian! Now we’re on a boat! Now we know how to solve the problem! Now we’re in the brig! Now we’re not in the brig! Now we’ve saved the day!

The speediness wasn’t the only thing that bothered me, either. The very first thing that made me wary of the book was the naming. Dak Smyth. The Hystorians. Riq. Brint. Fraderick. I get it, we’re in an alternate universe where people don’t know how to spell. Awesome. But then also I noticed that this book was ostensibly about history and didn’t teach me a darned thing. Sure, Dak spouted off a bunch of history stuff, but considering what universe he lives in I’m not sure how true it is. And even when we’re actually on Columbus’s ship and the kids are trying to stop a mutiny, I was like, well, was there a planned mutiny? Are these SQ mutineers real people? I’m thinking maybe or sort of.

Probably a lot of what I didn’t like was caused by First-Book Infodump Syndrome, but I can’t imagine the series is going to get vastly better. Maybe if I were ten again I would be totally into this — my brother certainly loves it at fourteen — but as it stands I’m glad I have Liar and Spy on my TBR pile to cleanse my brain.

Recommendation: Probably for the tweenage history buff or series devourer in your life.

Rating: 4/10

The Penultimate Peril and The End, by Lemony Snicket

Normally I would do two separate posts for two separate books, but then there would be two short and boring posts about these books, and I promised to be more generally awesome this year, so you’re going to get just one slightly longer and hopefully slightly less boring post about these books.

Okay, so, the Baudelaires. When we last left them, they were eating some horseradish. Mmmm, horseradish.

The Penultimate PerilIn The Penultimate Peril there is less horseradish, but more AWESOME LIBRARY, so this is a good trade here. This book takes place in the Hotel Denouement, or the tnemeuoneD letoH as it actually says on said hotel, and this building has nine floors and a basement whose rooms are arranged in Dewey Decimal order, which is just fantastic. I had fun trying to guess what numbers Daniel Handler would pick for the various characters’ rooms, which is extremely nerdy but I am totally okay with this. Anyway, library shenanigans aside, this book introduces some new characters (particularly a second set of twins who are actually triplets) but mostly does a roundup of all the surviving characters from the previous books, the conceit being that they’ve all arrived at the hotel to take part in a trial of the Baudelaires. The idea is that they’ll get exonerated of all the stuff they’ve been blamed for but haven’t done, but the orphans have done plenty of bad things themselves (like using disguises!), so they’re not sure they’re really on good footing, here. And then of course completely ridiculous things happen and the trial is disrupted and then the orphans set the hotel on fire and end up out to sea. As it goes.

The EndAnd so then in The End the Baudelaires wash up on a coastal shelf that is inhabited by a sort of utopian community, whose members are only not quite as stupid as the rest of the Baudelaire’s world in that they can recognize and dislike Count Olaf, who has washed ashore as well. But unfortunately they are all boozed up beyond belief and also completely bogged down in stupid stupid rules, and so they are of no help to the Baudelaires in either staying safe on the island or getting off of it. And then the Medusoid Mycelium shows up again and bad things happen and good things are prevented and more people die whether you want them to or not and then there is an epilogue and then I am like… sigh.

While we were listening to these Scott kept mentioning that Handler must have been being paid by the word because he just gets so incredibly repetitive and tangential and loses track of the plot quite often, and I was like, “Nooooo it’s awesome just enjoy it” but secretly (or, well, not-so-secretly), I totally agree. I enjoyed the heck out of this series when I read it, but I think I must have skipped over these parts or just blocked them from my mind, because damn, those passages are super boring.

I really loved the beginning of this series, but the end is just not the same at all and I’m finding myself really recommending against reading these last books. But I also can’t figure out where you should stop reading the series, because all of the books have their excellent parts that are totally worth it. So maybe you could just skim through the print versions and read the good parts and not the bad parts. You’ll finish in a few hours that way. Or, you could read the series to a member of its target audience, i.e. short people, and then their enthusiasm for the repetitiveness will make you smile instead of bang your head against the wall.

Ratings: Really a 7/10 for both, but PP gets 8/10 for library awesomeness and TE 6/10 for awful awful epilogue

The Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

After finishing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was super-interesting in a “So that’s how the story is meant to go!” way, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try out a completely unknown-to-me Oz story. It didn’t hurt, certainly, but it was… weird.

Which, I mean, it’s weird in the same ways that the first book is weird, because that’s how Baum rolls, except that this time I wasn’t prepared for the specific weird-ities and so was like, what?

So there’s a kid called Tip, and he tries to pull a prank on his guardian, Mombi, except that the prank totally backfires and now Tip is running away to the Emerald City with a formerly-inanimate pumpkin-head scarecrow-thing called Jack. Along they way, Tip meets a girl called Jinjur who is set to overthrow the Scarecrow as bigwig of the Emerald City because, of course, all of those shiny emeralds and whatnot would be much better served as necklaces and other shiny things for Jinjur’s girl army. Of course. So, Tip finds the Scarecrow and they all go running off but even though the Scarecrow is all about abdicating, Jinjur still apparently wants them dead, so she recruits Mombi to pull some hocus-pocus and trap the group. And then some appropriately Baum-weird stuff happens and it turns out that there’s someone else who’s meant to be leading Oz…

It’s all very strange, but also very delightful, and Anna Fields is absolutely perfect in narrating this series. There’s not much else to say, really! I am sad that I don’t have quick access to the next few books, but considering all I’ve got on my plate for the near future, I think that’s all right!

Recommendation: For those days when you just need something that makes you smile at its ridiculousness.

Rating: 8/10

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

Dorothy. Toto. Witches. Wizard. Hot-air balloon. The end! Review over!

Okay, no. I’ll tell you more, as I actually found this book quite intriguing. My experience with Oz is primarily Wicked, the musical, which is fantastic; Wicked, the book (and its first sequel), which is frickin’ weird; and The Wizard of Oz, the movie, which I have seen all the way through maybe twice and probably not more recently than a decade ago. So as I was reading the book, I was constantly asking the husband, who has seen the movie many times, whether these things in the book were the same at all. Mostly, they were, but even the things that were the same were a little bit different!

The general story is the same, with all those words up at the top. Kansas is still super-duper grey, but no one bicycles outside the window during the tornado. Dorothy still squashes dead the Wicked Witch of the East, but no one really cares about her. The Good Witch of the North is not Glinda, and is also awesomely self-important (see her line that is something like, “The witches of the North and South are the good ones, which I know because I am one”). There’s a wonderful road of yellow brick, Dorothy meets some needy fellows, Oz is like, “I’m totally all-powerful but could you maybe go kill the Wicked Witch of the West for me?” Said W3 has not only flying monkeys, but also wolves, crows, and bees, but even with all that at her command she gives Dorothy a bucket of water which ends up melting the witch. The Wizard is like, crap, and placebos the needy fellows but offers Dorothy a ride in his hot-air balloon, which Toto totally screws up. Dorothy journeys to actual-Glinda of the South for help, with the needy fellows getting offered kingships along the way, and Glinda’s like, “Well, you could just use those shoes you took off of W2E and wish yourself home,” and Dorothy’s like, “Sweet,” and does just that.

So, interesting! I think that the book version manages to make more internal sense than the movie, except for that whole bucket of water thing, but of course there is no singing in the book and that is just disappointing! So, I should probably go watch the movie again, preferably with my cute little cousin-in-law dressed up as the Tin Man, as she is wont to do.

Recommendation: For lovers of delight and those who want to complete their movie experience.

Rating: 8/10

Juniper Berry, by M.P. Kozlowsky

One of the nice things about putting the stickers on library books is that I get to see these books before they make it out to the shelves, and often before regular library-goers even know these books exist. Sometimes I have no idea why the library buys some of these books. At better times, I go “oooooooh shiny want” and pull out my smartphone and put the book on hold so I can get it first!

This is, obviously, one of those books, and what struck me about it first was the cover, which is delightfully stylized. Then I saw the bit about “a tale of terror and temptation,” and then I looked at the back which reads only “Be careful what you wish for.” I didn’t even have to read all the way through the book flap to know I wanted this book to come home with me. Phone! Hold!

Now, the book is not quite as exciting as all that, unfortunately, but I still found it rather adorable and worth a read by the braver children in your life. Juniper Berry is our protagonist of the amusing name, and she’s the daughter of some very busy acTOR parents who have been acting increasingly weird of late. She is isolated in her giant house surrounded by forest, but one day she meets a boy called Giles in her backyard who is worried about his own strange-acting parents. He followed them to Juniper’s yard, where they disappeared. Juniper and Giles set off to find out what their parents are doing, and it turns out to be a lot more creepy and sinister than they might have imagined.

It’s sort of like a Coraline, I’d say. Very sort of, actually, but the mood is similar and I think it is looking for the same audience. In this case, it’s the parents who have gone off looking for that elusive greener grass, but Juniper is still the one who has to set everything right because, you know, parents are useless. This book is also a little more obvious with its message of “no seriously just chill and make the best of the life you have because the life you want can kind of suck,” but it’s still a totally valid message.

Recommendation: For those who like kick-butt kids and creepy demon types.

Rating: 7/10
(A to Z Challenge)

The Grim Grotto, by Lemony Snicket

This is the second and last of the Unfortunate Events books Scott and I made it through on our road trip… Scott spent too much time sleeping for us to listen more. That’s right. I’m blaming him. I’m sure he cares.

Right, so, this is the one, as I recalled before we started it, that features horseradish. And a submarine. I have an excellent memory, you can see. But it is true that there is a submarine, and it is captained by a man who says “AYE!” a lot and crewed by AYE!-man’s step-daughter and the optimistic dude from The Miserable Mill. And there is a fungus among us and it is super-deadly except that the deadliness can be cured by horseradish. And so of course it is. Spoiler.

I liked this better than the previous book largely because it seems to have more going on — there’s the fungus and the sugar bowl and some capturing and releasing and only a few more questions and a decent number of answers, aye. But overall the series is getting more tedious than I remember and I am really hoping that it picks up in the last two books, or I am going to be apologizing to Scott for the next five years.

Recommendation: I think you know if you’re going to read this one or not.

Rating: 7/10

The Slippery Slope, by Lemony Snicket

Another road trip, another journey along the sad, sad path of the Baudelaire orphans! I’m not sure why that gets an exclamation mark, but it does.

Unfortunately (HA), I had forgotten how frightfully boring this installment is. After the violence and sloppy eating of The Carnivorous Carnival, this trip up a snow-covered mountain is just… meh.

What happens is this: Violet and Klaus have been separated from Sunny and are trying to find and rescue her, but they get sidetracked when they meet a wayward triplet and end up going to find the VFD headquarters, which has been set on fire. Meanwhile, Count Olaf is pretending it’s The Bad Beginning all over again and making Sunny do chores. Yawn. Various secrets about the VFD are revealed, but of course they lead only to more secrets and more questions, and then in the end there is a very strange showdown that lets the orphans go on their not-so-merry way one more time.

I enjoyed it, certainly, because as always — TIM frickin’ CURRY. But there is simply not enough exciting and treacherous in this story.

Recommendation: I mean, if you’ve read the other nine books already… 🙂

Rating: 7/10