Armchair BEA: Exploring Middle-Grade Novels

ArmchairBEAI’ve never stopped loving children’s books, and have reread my childhood favourites many many times despite having become an adult many many years ago (lots of many’s there!).

Whenever I’m in the library, I always like to include the children’s section in my meanderings through the shelves, and always find at least a handful of middle-grade books to take home with me.

This Armchair BEA topic got me thinking about some of my recent favourites, the middle-grade novels I didn’t grow up with, the ones I discovered when I was already all grown up. And I also realize I’d like to explore the middle-grade range more than I have been – not just being content with whatever I might stumble upon when I have a chance to browse at the library (although that makes me quite contented!) but also searching out the latest middle-grade books, following more middle-grade book bloggers and reading more than just the most recent award winners.

I’ve only just embarked on this new exploration, and expect many delightful finds to come as a result, so my choices below aren’t particularly recent books, although none of them go as far back as my own childhood.

Mysteries

I love a good mystery, and as an adult reading middle-grade novels, it’s not that easy to find a really good middle-grade mystery. Unlike adult mysteries, middle-grade mysteries don’t tackle murder that often. As you expand out into the young adult book world, this changes, but generally speaking the middle-grade mysteries I’ve read have been mostly about robberies, burglaries, and bad guys up to no-good schemes involving burglary and robbery.

A good middle-grade author can, however, take these themes and make them as exciting as the latest Harry Hole mystery by Jo Nesbo. Yes, without any serial killers or deranged murderers. My favourites include the Herculeah Jones mysteries by Betsy Byars and Blue Balliett’s art-themed mysteries (I rave about Balliett’s The Calder Game here.)

Dead Letter

Calder Game

Fantasies

When it comes to fantasies, the middle-grade range continues to offer a fabulous selection. This was true when I was growing up, and the whole fantasy area has exploded since then, with many thanks to JK Rowling and Harry Potter. Two recent favourites of mine are Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Jinx by Sage Blackwood (I reviewed Jinx here). Book 2 of the Jinx series, Jinx’s Magic came out earlier this year, and it’s definitely on my to-read list.

Graveyard Book

Jinx Sage Blackwood

These are my two favourite genres in general, so it’s no surprise I tend to be drawn to middle-grade novels in these genres as well. I am, however, currently reading Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen, a contemporary middle-grade, and I’m enjoying it (it’s on my son’s upcoming Battle of the Books list, and we’re reading it together. It’s not really the type of book I should be reading with my eleven-year-old son, but we’re having fun with it.)

What about you? Do you read a lot of middle-grade novels? Have any must-read titles to recommend to me? I’m looking to add to my middle-grade to-read list, so any help would be appreciated!

A Page Turner Week

It’s been quite a good reading week for me – I got through several books, including three “page turners”!

I categorize a book as a page turner if it’s one I just couldn’t put down. Sometimes I do have to put a page turner down, but it’s usually because I realize if I keep reading, I’ll be finishing right around the time I normally get up in the morning. This, as you all probably know so well, is very hard to pull off when you’ve got work and kids calling for your attention in the mornings. (I imagine you’ve all, like me, given the all-nighter the old college try a few times and realized those college times are long gone, right?)

I used to think page turners were, by their very nature, usually thrillers – it’s almost implicit in the name (but really only applies to well-written thrillers) – but for me they can actually be any genre, as my page turner week proves. And for me, a page turner doesn’t mean a book that flies along at a frenzied pace, with the author throwing one plot point after another at you without any time in between to rest (or, ahem, for character development). I find such books utterly exhausting and rarely finish them.

So how did my page turner week go?

First up: Divergent!

Divergent

Yes, I finally read a YA dystopian! And I have now given up my bias against dystopian novels. It occurred to me as I was reading Divergent that a dystopian novel is really just a fantasy set on a devastated Earth. I love both fantasies and urban fantasies, and now I can add dystopian novels to the list.

This opens up a whole new world to me, so to speak.

Divergent was a definite page turner. I figured out early on that the place was heading towards war, but reading about Tris’ journey as her world progressed to that war was just so much fun. So many exciting things happened, but all very well-paced. And some nice twists at the end. I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

So after I finished up Divergent, I had to decide what to read next. I’d recently been contacted by a publicist who sent me an ebook copy of D.J. Donaldson’s Louisiana Fever. The book, which features medical examiner Andy Broussard and psychologist Kit Franklyn, is the fifth in the series, but I had no trouble getting up to speed with things despite never having read the first four novels.

Louisiana Fever

I think the main reason I enjoyed this one so much was because it involves a virus. Plots revolving around viruses – either biological or computer – are among my favourites. Throw in a medical examiner and it was more or less the perfect concoction for me.

Louisiana Fever was originally published in 1997 and I gather it’s just been released in ebook format this year, but I didn’t find the book to be dated at all.

Part mystery, part thriller, Louisiana Fever was a fun read and well-paced – the events were not so fast-paced you were left too exhausted to turn the page.  The happy endings – especially in Kit’s case – did stretch credibility somewhat, but still, it was all very nicely done.

And finally, my last page turner of the week:

Where'd You Go Bernadette

What a wonderful, funny, quirky read!  Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, takes the epistolary narrative to new heights. Made up of emails, official documents,  even a hospital bill, interwoven with a bit of narrative by Bee, Bernadette’s daughter, this is a lovely novel with many twists that had me guessing right to the very end.

And did I mention it’s such a funny read? I actually laughed out loud at various points in the book.

I’m so glad I picked up this novel. I’d borrowed the ebook version from the library – I’d put a hold on it a while back (which means I must have read someone’s lovely review of it somewhere, but I can’t find any mention of it in my Evernote account so I obviously forgot to make a note of the review the way I normally – well, okay, sometimes – do). I had three days left before it would disappear off my iPad forever, and when I refreshed my memory as to what it was about – an epistolary narrative! a woman who outsources her life to a virtual assistant in India! (oh, and I checked the library’s site and saw there were 81 people on hold for it – I admit, that was a big motivator, knowing I would have to wait in line behind 81 people before I’d get the chance to read it again) I decided to read the first few pages just to see how I’d like it.

Well, since it’s listed here as one of the page turners this week, you already know how those first few pages went. Let’s just say they flew by, and before I knew it, I was halfway through the book. I finished it with a smile, and all I can say right now is – if you haven’t read it yet, you really should give it a try. A very enjoyable, fun, quirky read.

So that’s been my week of page turners. Have you read any page turners recently? And what do you think of books that clip along at a frenetic pace? (I just want to see if I’m the odd one out, in my feeling of exhaustion when I read such books.)

A Mystery Dream

I woke up from a dream that’s been driving me nuts all morning. I have very vivid dreams, and in about half of them, I’m more of an observer, watching events unfold. It can be like watching a movie, and I’ve dreamed many thrilling, blockbuster movie types of dreams.

But never one like the one I had this morning.

One of the characters (let’s call him Bob, just to give him a handle, although he was utterly nameless in my dream) was a detective. And he was investigating the murder of someone. The murder took place in a room filled with about ten people. The room looked like the library in an English manor house. And of course, none of the people saw a thing.

Bob suddenly finds himself back in the same room where the victim died, among the same crowd of people, attending the same kind of cocktail event in which the first victim died. And he’s peering down at the spot where the victim met his end, and suddenly I see his expression change. Something’s flashed through his mind. He knows something! And then BAM! He’s murdered too.

Enter detective no. 2. Let’s call him Lawrence. (He too was nameless in the dream. In fact, everyone was nameless.) Lawrence is now in charge of investigating both murders. He spends some time peering at Bob’s lifeless body, then there’s a fizzy bit (which felt absolutely normal in the dream) and suddenly, just like Bob, he’s back in the room, and it’s filled once again with the same group of people.

And Lawrence is standing where Bob was, examining the spot where both victims died, and I see the same flash of sudden understanding in his face. I mean, I’m prickly all over with his knowledge – except that I don’t know what that sudden knowledge is!

Lawrence straightens up, and my attention is drawn to this auburn-haired woman standing at the other end of the room.

And then I wake up.

So frustrating! Since the dream presented me with no information about motive, or even the identity of the first victim, there’s very little to go on. No forensics evidence – I don’t even know how the victims died. All I know is that the auburn-haired woman is (maybe) the culprit, but I don’t know how she did it.

The questions! What did both Bob and Lawrence see? How did Lawrence know it was the auborn-haired woman? Was it even the auborn-haired woman? And if it was, how did she kill both men in that room, in front of all those people?

I angsted over this all morning and the only thing I could come up with was the not-very-credible idea of a golden hairpin that shoots self-dissolving micro darts filled with a deadly poison. Which might have worked if 007 had been involved in the dream, but Bond was nowhere in sight. No, this one was a classic kind of mystery story.

I think maybe it’s a sign that I’ve been reading way too many mysteries lately.

Any ideas, anyone? And have you ever had a mystery dream, either with or without the solution? This is my first. Despite the frustration of not knowing whodunnit, I did quite enjoy it!

Book Review: Never Tell, by Alafair Burke

I read Alafair Burke’s 212 last year; it was my first Ellie Hatcher novel and I enjoyed it thoroughly. 212 was the third in the series, which means the Ellie Hatcher series is one that can definitely be read out of order. (I wanted to add this right at the start of this review because I have, in the past, raved on and on about specific mysteries in a series, only to discover that a lot of things were lost to readers who read the books out of order; rest assured, that won’t happen with this series.)

Never Tell, the latest book in the Ellie Hatcher series, starts out in a mild way (for a mystery, that is): sixteen-year-old rich girl Julia Whitmire is found dead in her bathtub, suicide note nearby. Ellie Hatcher arrives on the scene and is convinced it’s a suicide, but this pronouncement is not acceptable to the wealthy and powerful Whitmires, who use their influence to assert pressure on the police to continue the investigation into their daughter’s death.

(An aside here: when you see this suicide/possible homicide scenario in mysteries, it’s usually everyone else who’s convinced the case is a suicide, while the protagonist detective feels in his or her gut that it’s murder. I loved that Burke kept the situation realistic, and had Ellie weigh the evidence and decide “suicide”, because that’s what the evidence supported.)

As Ellie is pressured to investigate further, she discovers Julia may have been engaging in some serious cyberbullying. Things take a mysterious turn when the target of the cyberbullying continues receiving death threats. Was Julia the cyberbully? If she was, who’s taken over now? Did she commit suicide, or was she murdered?

I find Ellie Hatcher to be such a refreshing character. Burke has created a strong female protagonist, one who is memorable without being at all gimmicky. Ellie is fully fleshed, and as a reader you find yourself pulled into both her personal and professional lives.

But it’s in the plotting that Burke truly excels. Her plotting in Never Tell is tight and complex; she weaves her plot lines together in a way that will leave you breathless. And just when you think you know exactly where she’s taking you, she throws yet another stunning little twist in, and you’re flipping the pages, reading as quickly as you can, thinking to yourself, “Wow. I didn’t see that one coming!”

After I read 212 last year, I kept meaning to add more of the Ellie Hatcher series to my TBR stack. I was very pleased when Trish Collins from TLC asked if I’d like to join in the blog tour; even though I haven’t participated in a book blog tour in a very long time, I didn’t hesitate to accept.

And when Never Tell arrived, I read it right away, all in one sitting; I stayed up late into the night reading because I absolutely had to know what happened. I loved the very intricate plotting – to me, such complexity combined with an interesting protagonist always proves to be a rewarding read. Never Tell definitely didn’t disappoint.

You can find out more about Alafair Burke at her website, on her Facebook page and on Twitter. She recently hosted the second annual Duffer awards, a zany “competition” that pits series characters in the mystery and thriller genres against each other in crazy categories like “Most Likely to Take Down a TSA Agent” (Barry Eisler’s John Rain won that one, beating out Joseph Finder’s Nick Heller) and “Least Likely to be Fazed by Autopsy of Disemboweled Body” (Tess Gerritsen’s Maura Isles beat Jonathan Hayes’s Edward Jenner by a mile).

Review: A Study in Sherlock, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger

A Study in Sherlock I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading A Study in Sherlock. The tagline is “stories inspired by the Holmes Canon”, so I was thinking the stories would be about Sherlock Holmes.

Which would have been fine. It’s been a while since I read one of the original Holmes stories, but I quite enjoyed them when I did. Whether anyone could write a Holmes story that way Arthur Conan Doyle could – well, that I wasn’t too sure about. Still, I was willing to find out.

I was pleasantly surprised, though, to discover that while the stories in A Study in Sherlock have to do with Sherlock Holmes, very few of them actually had Holmes as a character in the story. And those that did feature Holmes himself were written in a different style than the original Holmes stories.

Since my latest, greatest media indulgence is the BBC series Sherlock, it was also refreshing to find that several of the stories were set in the present day. (But no, not with Holmes as an actual character … )

I didn’t like every story in the anthology, but really, that’s the nature of an anthology, isn’t it? With all the different writing styles showcased, there are bound to be a few that you might not like. Since I have no problems with not finishing something that doesn’t catch my attention, when I came across one that didn’t really suit me as a reader, I just quickly flipped over to the next story.

There were also a few stories in which the whole Holmes connection rather escaped me, but on reading the little author blurb at the end of the story, usually there was reference to how the story was very similar to one of the original Holmes stories.

I did enjoy most of the stories, though. When I finished the last one, it was with regret that there weren’t a few more to read.

My favorites? It’s hard to choose, but I’d have to say:

“As to ‘An Exact Knowledge of London”’” by Tony Broadbent. Broadbent is a new-to-me author, but after reading this story, I’ve put his novel The Smoke (about a roguish Cockney cat burglar in postwar London who gets blackmailed into working for M15 and is then trained by Ian Fleming) on my to-read list. I think the thing that appealed to me most about this story was how Broadbent integrated the pop culture aspect of Holmes into the narrative.

The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s tale was one of the few in the book that actually featured Holmes as a character, but it’s not told in the style of Doyle. It is pure Gaiman – imaginative and thought provoking. Very enjoyable.

A Triumph of Logic” by Galey Lynds and John Sheldon. I admit, I figured out whodunnit soon after we visited the scene of the crime, but what I liked about this one were the main characters, Judge Boothby and Artie. Sheldon is working on his first suspense novel which will feature these two characters, so I’m adding this to my to-watch-for list (or rather, I would, if I kept such a list. Which I really should.)

The Eyak Interpreter”, by Dana Stabenow. This story features Stabenow’s Kate Shugak. The first Kate Shugak mystery, A Cold Day for Murder, has been sitting in my TBR pile for a while. After reading this story, I’m definitely moving it up near the top of the file. (By the way, the Kindle version of A Cold Day for Murder I’ve linked to above is currently free.) The short story is told from the perspective of Johnny (I’m not sure what relation he is to Kate), a teenager who’s in Anchorage and blogging about it as part of a school assignment. A fun way to structure a story.

I liked several of the other stories too. For example, Jacqueline Winspear’s “A Spot of Detection” had a nice, unexpected twist at the end that made me smile. Charles Todd’s “The Case That Holmes Lost” has a very fun premise – someone is suing Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character.

All in all, this was a great read. And it’s resparked my interest in reading mystery short stories; when I was in my 20s, I read a lot of mystery and science fiction short stories, and reading this anthology I was reminded how really nice it is to sit down with a well-written short story.

I’ve also decided to reread the original Holmes stories. I put a hold on Leslie Klinger’s The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, so hopefully I’ll be able to get a start on that soon!

A Mysterious Week (during which I read Jo Nesbo, Robert Crais and Deborah Crombie)

There’s one side benefit of the flu – there’s lots of time for reading. As a result, I had a marvelous reading week last week – it’s amazing how many books you can read while soothing your child’s fevered brow!

The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo

The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo

I’m pleased that I finally got around to reading Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. It’s been on my TBR list for a while, and I’ve read so many reviews raving about it. What a great read – so many twists!

Oslo in November. The first snow of the season has fallen. A boy named Jonas wakes in the night to find his mother gone. Out his window, in the cold moonlight, he sees the snowman that inexplicably appeared in the yard earlier in the day. Around its neck is his mother’s pink scarf.

Hole suspects a link between a menacing letter he’s received and the disappearance of Jonas’s mother—and of perhaps a dozen other women, all of whom went missing on the day of a first snowfall. As his investigation deepens, something else emerges: he is becoming a pawn in an increasingly terrifying game whose rules are devised—and constantly revised—by the killer.

I did have my suspicions about who the murderer was, but they were just mild suspicions; I was never sure. There were so many questions I didn’t have answers for. I like reading mysteries where I feel this way – at the end, there’s a sense of “aha! I was on the right track”, but you don’t lose any of the enjoyment of the read the way you do if the solution is so obvious to everyone but the main detective character. Very enjoyable read.

The Elvis Cole Series, by Robert Crais

I’ve also seen a lot of reviews recently raving about Taken, by Robert Crais. Taken is the latest book in the Elvis Cole series, and while the reviews had me eager to read the book, many of the reviewers talked about how the book was very much about the relationship between Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.

Since I’d never read any of the books in the series, I thought it might be a good idea to read some of the earlier books first; it just seemed to me that Taken would have even more impact if I was already familiar with the characters.

So last week I read:

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And I’m very glad I did. The series reminds me a little of Robert Parker’s Spencer series, but grittier, with harder, darker edges.

I started with Stalking the Angel, the second book in the series, and enjoyed it thoroughly; it was a little slow to start but Elvis Cole is such an engaging character I found myself willing to put up with the slow start.

Bradley Warren has lost a very valuable thirteenth-century Japanese manuscript, the Hagakure, and hires Elvis Cole to recover it. Elvis and Joe Pike search through Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and the nest of the notorious Japanese mafia, known as the yakuza.

Next up was The Last Detective, which definitely started off with a bang. It was an intriguing storyline, and even though I figured out what was happening before Cole and Pike did, that didn’t make the read any less enjoyable.

P.I. Elvis Cole’s relationship with attorney Lucy Chenier is strained. Then the unthinkable happens. While Lucy is away on business and her ten-year-old son Ben is staying with Elvis, the boy vanishes without a trace. When the kidnappers call, it’s not for ransom, but for a promise to punish Cole for past sins he claims he didn’t commit. With the LAPD wrestling over the case, and the boy’s estranged father attempting to take control of the investigation, Cole vows to find Ben first. But Cole’s partner, Joe Pike, knows more about this case than he has said. Pike lives in a world where dangerous men commit crimes beyond all reckoning. Now, one of those men is alive and well in L.A.—and calling Elvis Cole to war. . . .

From there I read The Monkey’s Raincoat, the first book in the series (as you can see, I have no problems reading a series out of order …!). Another very enjoyable read. I particularly liked witnessing Ellen Lang’s transformation.

Ellen Lang walks into Cole’s Disney-Deco office and hires Elvis to find her husband and son. Elvis and Joe search through Hollywood leads them to a world of drugs, sex and murder.

The best thing about coming in on a long-running series late in the game is having a whole lot of good reading ahead of you. Right now, Lullaby Town, L.A. Requiem and Free Fall are waiting for me on the Overdrive app on my iPad.

The Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James Series, by Deborah Crombie

All that downtime also gave me a chance to catch up on the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James Scotland Yard series by Deborah Crombie.

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In No Mark Upon Her, the latest in the series, the victim is Rebecca Meredith, a high-ranking Met officer who’s also making a comeback as a rower in contention for the next Olympic games. As always in this series, there are several enjoyable twists, and the secondary characters are as fully fleshed as the main series characters.

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I then turned to Water Like a Stone, an older book in the series, in which Kincaid and James take their blended family to spend Christmas with Kincaid’s parents, in the town of Nantwich. The mystery begins with the discovery of an infant’s mummified corpse within the walls of a building that Kincaid’s sister is renovating. Another murder occurs, and Kincaid and James find themselves assisting the local police in putting together all the pieces.

Both reads were very satisfactory, and I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series that are still on my TBR.

So that was my “mysterious week” (of reading) (well, actually, it was more like ten days). Not that I’d welcome the flu again, but at least there was a silver lining!

I’m Reading: Zombies, Gaming and Legal Shenanigans

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Last year was so busy and so chaotic, I really fell behind on my fiction reading, and when I don’t read, I find I’m not as creative as I can be. The ideas don’t come as quickly, and I don’t write as much. I play a lot less and when it comes to doing artful little things, I never seem to have the time.

This year, I’m changing things around in my life. I’ve come to realize that I need to make the things I want to do a priority. Reading is high on my list, and so it’s one of my four daily intentions (the other three are writing, meditating and creating).

How did I do last week? Not very well, I’m afraid. Not just with the reading, but with each of my other three intentions. But that’s okay. I had the last of the deadlines from my busy work season last week, so it was understandable.

On Monday, I logged onto my library’s ebook lending site, and had a field day. Here’s what I’ve been reading this week:

Z, by Michael Thomas Ford

Z, by Michael Thomas Ford, is a YA zombie book. I haven’t read very many zombie books, despite the recent zombie-book-craze; as far as I’m concerned, Justin Cronin’s The Passage set the zombie-book bar quite high. But I decided to give Z a try, as it looked like an interesting, quick read, especially since I like books about gamers and gaming:

The First Rule of Torching: Cleanse with fire.

Josh is by far the best zombie Torcher around—at least, he is in his virtual-reality zombie-hunting game. Josh has quickly risen through the player ranks, relying on the skill, cunning, and agility of a real Torcher.

The Second Rule of Torching: Save all humans.

But luckily for Josh, zombies exist only in the virtual world. The real zombie war is now more than fifteen years in the past, and the battle to defeat the deadly epidemic that devastated his family—and millions of others—is the stuff of history lessons.

The Third Rule of Torching: You can’t bring them back.

Charlie is the top-ranked player in the game. Since all the players are shrouded in anonymity, Josh never expects Charlie to be a girl—and he never expects the offer she makes him: to join the underground gaming league that takes the virtual-reality game off the screen and into the streets. Josh is thrilled. But the more involved he gets, the more he realizes that not everything is what it seems. Real blood is spilling, members of the team are disappearing, and the zombies in the game are acting strange. And then there’s the matter of a mysterious drug called Z. . . .

I finished Z last night. An interesting book with an interesting premise. I found the action towards the end a little bit too fast-paced, but for a young reader who’s interested in zombies and gaming, there’s enough thrills and chills to keep those pages turning.

The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly

The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly. Confession: this is my first Michael Connelly book. It’s been on my to-read list since forever, or so it seems, so when it showed up as available at my library’s ebook site, I grabbed it.

How am I liking it so far? Very enjoyable. I’m only at the beginning, but I’m already very intrigued by lawyer Mickey Haller.

For defense attorney Mickey Haller, the clock is always running. With two ex-wives, four Lincoln Town Cars that he uses as offices, and dozens of guilty clients, he can’t afford to miss a trick. When he gets picked by a Beverly Hills rich boy arrested for assault, Mickey sees a franchise case: a nice, long, expensive trial with maximum billable hours–until it hurtles him into the last place he wants to be. Suddenly hustling, cynical Mickey Haller is confronted with pure evil and someone who may be truly innocent. Now, for a lawyer who has always gone for the easy score, getting justice means taking the deadliest risk of all.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, narrated by Wil Wheaton. Yes, just call me a crowd follower – everyone was raving about this book last year, so I decided to spend an Audible credit on it. After all, Wil Wheaton’s the narrator! Plus, it’s a book about gaming. How could I resist? Have I mentioned, I love books about gamers and gaming?

I started chapter one last night, and despite feeling quite sleepy, I was enthralled from the very beginning. I listened for as long as I could before the call of sleep proved to be too much for me. I will definitely have to find some wakeful time for listening to the rest of Ready Player One!

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them. 

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.

A quest for the ultimate prize.

Are you ready?

So this is what I’ve been doing reading-wise so far this year. What about you? What books have you picked up to start the new year off?

Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, by Jennifer Allison [Visual Review]

gildajoyce (Click on picture to enlarge)

Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, by Jennifer Allison, has been on my TBR list for a while now. I finally started reading it a few days ago, and was really glad I did. I loved this book! Gilda is such a fun, quirky character.

I also recently stumbled on Austin Kleon’s blog and started reading about visual note-taking, which lead me to look at sketchnoting. It looked like a lot of fun, so I thought I’d give it a try by doing a visual review.

One caveat: I was already near the end of Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator when I started doodling this. So a lot of my notes are from the end of the book.

It was an interesting experiment, and I’ll probably do it again with the next book I read. I certainly had a lot of fun! My favorite part was capturing quotes that I liked, something I’ve never done before while reading. Interestingly, it didn’t disrupt the flow of my reading.

More about Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator:

Ever since her father died, quirky Gilda Joyce has been working hard to sharpen her psychic skills. She’s determined to communicate with spirits from the Other Side and become a crack investigator of spooky, twisted mysteries. After wrangling an invitation to visit relatives in San Francisco, Gilda discovers that her dreary, tight-lipped uncle and his strange, delicate daughter need her help to uncover the terrible family secret that has a tortured ghost stalking their home. From poignant to hair-raising and hilarious, this is a behind-the-scenes, tell-all account of the very first case in the illustrious career of Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator.

The Lineup, edited by Otto Penzler

The Lineup

A couple of months ago, I bought The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives, edited by Otto Penzler. I decided to purchase it in ebook format, so it’s been sitting there on my iPhone, ready for me to dip into whenever I’m in the mood.

If you love crime fiction, or if you like to write crime fiction (and personally, I think if you like to write it, you should like to read it), this is a really fun collection of essays.

I wasn’t acquainted with all of the authors who contributed to this book; but I now have a list of enough new-to-me authors and their mystery series to keep me busy for quite a while.

The contributions I liked least were the ones where the authors wrote “getting to know me” scenes about their characters – I found these harder to get into (and in some cases, I didn’t finish the chapter), even when it was a character I both knew and loved (like Robert B. Parker’s chapter on Spenser). I think it’s because, especially when the characters were unknown to me, without any sort of plot to enhance things, it was just too difficult to get very interested in them.

But most of the contributions are first person essays in which the writers detail how they came to develop their series characters, and I really enjoyed these. I was very sorry when I came to the last essay and realized the book was over (that’s one of the drawbacks of reading ebooks on the iPhone – there aren’t any physical clues that you’re almost done).

The essay I found the most interesting was the one by David Morrell, writing about how he came to develop the character of Rambo in his novel First Blood. Now, I have never seen any of the Rambo movies, nor do I have the faintest desire to see them, and up until reading this essay, it would never occur to me that I might like to read the book on which the movies are based (although apparently not particularly faithfully based when it comes to Rambo’s character).

But now First Blood is on my to be read list.

I have lots of other favorites in this book; in addition to authors unknown to me, I did get the most enjoyment from essays by authors I already knew. I’ve always been a big Mallory fan, and Carol O’Connell’s essay was such a fun read (especially since at the time I read her essay, I was also in the middle of Find Me).

Reading Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s lighthearted back and forth essay detailing how they came to create Agent Pendergast was really delightful, and it made me want to reread Relic, the first in the series (it also answered something that I’ve wondered about for a while – mainly, what on earth happened to Pendergast when it came to the movie version?)

It was also interesting to read how Ian Rankin developed the character of Rebus, and how powerful an influence Edinburgh itself was in the process.

And as a result of reading these essays, I am now currently reading my way through the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter, which I’ve never read before; yes, I already know what happens in the final book, but that’s okay. There are a lot of lovely books in the series and I have a lot to look forward to.

Otto Penzler, editor of The Lineup, is also the owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York; the only time I’ve been to NYC was to attend a wedding, and there was very little time for sightseeing. But next time I go back, The Mysterious Bookshop will definitely be on my itinerary. The Lineup is a collection of the profiles and stories that Penzler asked authors to write specifically for The Mysterious Bookshop – bookstore patrons would receive a new one with their purchases; those of us who live too far to physically visit are very lucky to get the chance to read all of these contributions in The Lineup.

Kobo eReader, and What I’ve Been eReading

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I was given a Kobo eReader for my birthday and yes, it’s definitely been keeping me busy!

I was able to move my library of ePubs bought from the Sony Reader Store onto my Kobo eReader – it was something I could have done before on my iPhone, by moving the ePubs to the Stanza app, but I never got around to it before now.

If you’re new to the Kobo eReader, or thinking of getting one, I highly recommend downloading the Calibre ebook management program. I was already using it to convert public domain PDFs from Project Guttenberg into ePub format, as well as converting my own WIPs into ePubs so I could do a first readthrough on my iPhone, but as it turns out, it’s a fabulous program for managing ebook content on the Kobo eReader; it’s a great way to selectively weed out the 100 classics that come preinstalled on the device.

But the thing I really like about my Kobo eReader is that I can now read DRM-protected PDFs on the go!  I have several of these, and up until now, they’ve been stuck in my “I’ll get around to reading them someday” pile because I haven’t been using my netbook very much, and I simply don’t like reading books on my desktop monitor.

Mind you, it’s not perfect (and that’s a function of PDF as a format for ebooks, and not the device itself)  – the reading experience depends on each individual PDF. With some PDFs, I can select an optimum font size and I’m still able to read each page in whole on the screen; other PDFs require me to choose either a too-small font size in order to fit an entire page onto the screen, or scroll back and forth. And let me just say, scrolling back and forth on a page (or up and down), is not fun.

So DRM-protected PDFs are now (mostly) readable on the go. But when it comes to my preferred ebook format, it’s definitely ePub.

I’ve been reading a fair bit on my new eReader. The funny thing is, I still prefer reading on my iPhone (which is why I’m holding out for an iPad for Christmas …).

What I’m eReading on my Kobo eReader right now:

No One Lives TwiceNo One Lives Twice, by Julie Moffett. This ePub came to me courtesy of NetGalley and Carina Press. Carina Press is Harlequin’s digital-only imprint publishing across a wide range of genres, and No One Lives Twice sounded like a book I’d love:

I’m Lexi Carmichael, geek extraordinaire. I spend my days stopping computer hackers at the National Security Agency. My nights? Those I spend avoiding my mother and eating cereal for dinner. Even though I work for a top-secret agency, I’ve never been in an exciting car chase, sipped a stirred (not shaken) martini, or shot a poison dart from an umbrella.

Unfortunately, it turned out I was wrong – and this is through no fault of the book itself. It’s just that it isn’t a match to my taste as a reader. I’d been anticipating more of a thriller novel with a female genius computer hacking main character doing lots of extraordinary things, but No One Lives Twice is more of a romantic suspense novel, with two possible love interests (who are both referred to in the rest of the synopsis, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t warned), and the extraordinary genius computer stunts are performed by one of the love interests and a set of super-smart twins (so far, anyway – I’m on chapter 18 of 26).

While it’s not really to my taste (I’m just not much into romance when it comes to books), there are lots of fun dollops of humor in it and the writing style is an easy read, so if romantic suspense is a genre you enjoy, you can check out the excerpt at Carina Press here.

Hacking Timbuktu

Hacking Timbuktu, by Stephen Davies, is a YA novel scheduled for release this coming November. I received my ACR courtesy of NetGalley and Clarion Books, and have just started reading it.

Danny is a freelance IT specialist–that is, a hacker. He and his pal Omar are both skilled at parkour, or freerunning, a discipline designed to enable practitioners to travel between any two points regardless of obstacles. This is fortunate, because they’re off on an adventure that’s filled with obstacles, from locked doors to gangs of hostile pursuers. Together they follow a cryptic clue, find a missing map, figure out how to get to Timbuktu without buying a plane ticket, and join the life-and-death treasure hunt, exchanging wisecracks and solving the puzzle one step at a time.

I am familiar with parkour, or freerunning, because it’s something my husband is interested in (and participated in, until he hurt his knee last year). It’s exciting to watch, and the pairing of it with the computer hacking is intriguing to say the least. So far, I’m on page 70 of 274, and Hacking Timbuktu is living up to its promise.

The LineupI am midway through The Lineup: : The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives, edited by Otto Penzler:

What was the real-life location that inspired Michael Connelly to make Harry Bosch a Vietnam vet tunnel rat? Why is Jack Reacher a drifter? How did a brief encounter in Botswana inspire Alexander McCall Smith to create Precious Ramotswe? In The Lineup, some of the top mystery writers in the world tell about the genesis of their most beloved characters–or, in some cases, let their creations do the talking.

If you find these questions interesting – and I definitely do! – you’ll love The Lineup. I’ve also discovered some mystery series that I’ve now added to my TBR list. As a writer, the essays in this book are especially interesting; it’s a peek into how a series character has developed, and absolutely fascinating from a writing point of view.

The Element

I’m also on chapter 3 of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson:

The Element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When people arrive at the Element, they feel most themselves and most inspired and achieve at their highest levels. With a wry sense of humor, Ken Robinson looks at the conditions that enable us to find ourselves in the Element and those that stifle that possibility. Drawing on the stories of a wide range of people, including Paul McCartney, Matt Groening, Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, and Bart Conner, he shows that age and occupation are no barrier and that this is the essential strategy for transform­ing education, business, and communities in the twenty-first century.

I’m really enjoying reading the various stories of all the different people in the book; the rest of the material isn’t quite as interesting, as it simply reinforces what I already know to be true. But it’s fun learning things like the fact that Elvis Presley didn’t make his high school glee club because the director of the club thought Presley couldn’t sing!