The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper LeeSo sorry for the lack of updates over the last few weeks! I was taking an extended summer vacay (and reading plenty of new books) so there should be many reviews ahead of us ūüôā

I was intrigued by The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee when I first heard about it last year, blogging about it in one of my earlier posts, well before news of Go Set A Watchman erupted. So of course I finally had to get around to reading it since Watchmen was our August book club pick Рwatch out for my upcoming review!

As author Marja Mills tells it, she befriended the Lee sisters in 2001 after interviewing them for a piece in¬†The Chicago Tribune¬†about the “One Book, One Chicago” program, which encouraged the entire city to read To Kill A Mockingbird.¬†In 2004, on medical leave from her job, she moves in next door to them (apparently with their blessing, despite their previous disregard for journalists) and spends the next eighteen months sharing coffee, friendship, and memories. Among the topics largely off the table was their allegedly mentally-ill mother and the rift with Truman Capote. On the table was conversations about the South, history and literature, and¬†To Kill A Mockingbird¬†and (ironically) Harper Lee’s failure to publish another book.

Unexpectedly, this is Mills’ story as much as it’s about the Lees. I appreciated the framework this¬†provided, but I was undoubtedly not reading this book to hear about her life story so it made for some jarring transitions. For example, the book follows a relatively chronological narrative thread for Mills while jumping around wildly between topics concerning the Lees, leading to¬†redundant moments and off-topic meandering. Mills does do good work in sharing¬†Nelle’s and Alice’s characters with a curious audience, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the past of such inspiring women.

Unfortunately, after the book’s publication, Nelle¬†disavowed it so take its content with a grain of salt. While I enjoyed¬†the collected anecdotes¬†and selfishly appreciated that¬†it put¬†Watchmen¬†into better perspective for me, I feel bad about the abuse of trust perpetuated by both books. ¬†Perhaps its publication should’ve waited until Nelle’s death, but if you want to know more about the genius behind¬†Mockingbird, this is an insightful read.

3 Stars

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The Last Unicorn by William deBuys

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures1992, Laos РA remote team of scientists stumble across an unusual pair of horns on the wall of a village hut. Excitedly interrogating the residents, they confirm the discovery of a new species of animal, the first large land mammal discovered in fifty years Рthe saola.

Infrequently¬†seen alive in the wild and only once kept briefly in captivity, saolas are considered to be¬†The Last Unicorn,¬†practically a mythological creature. They are¬†so rare and elusive that they could be¬†extinct and we wouldn’t know it.¬†Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nature writer William deBuys set off with famed biologist William Robichaud into the wild mountain forests in the hopes of becoming the first Westerners to spot a saola – I’ll let you read it to find out if they did! But along the way, the expedition must tangle with belligerent poachers and unhelpful locals as well as untangle snares, traps, and the truth about the difficulties of conservation in a developing nation.

DeBuys gives us¬†fascinating glimpse into a place that most of us will never go and a creature that we will never see. I particularly¬†appreciated the bounty of photos to help the reader gain a clearer insight into¬†his adventure. His eloquent writing also draws an in-depth background picture of saolas – the history of their region, the¬†people cohabiting their habitat, and the culture that both reveres and hunts them. I was less impressed with deBuys’ interjections about his travel woes than his factual knowledge or even his philosophical musings on humans and nature, but it lightened the depressing parts (i.e. extinction) I guess.

Overall, an informative and engaging read for fans of nature and travel.

4 Stars

Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale

For forty years, peace has prevailed between the kingdom of Goredd and the dragons, whom have taken human shape to serve as ambassadors, scholars, and teachers. Gifted musician Seraphina Dombegh has benefited from their knowledge, and was recently hired to be assistant to the court composer when a member of the royal family is found murdered. All signs point to a dragon as killer and tensions run high as the anniversary of the treaty approaches. Seraphina finds herself at the center of the investigation, under the watchful eyes of Prince Lucian Kiggs, and must struggle to uncover the truth even while hiding her own deadly secret.

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Rachel Hartman’s¬†Seraphina¬†was one of the best books I’d read in 2013, well before I started this blog, and one of my favorite fantasy books of all time. Seraphina proved to be a bold and intelligent, yet relatably vulnerable heroine – so very human despite her hidden part-dragon nature. Her supporting cast, from the menagerie of “grotesques” to the swoon-worthy Kiggs to the charming Princess Glisselda, were all equally compelling as was the surprising villain. And the dragons are like no other dragons in print. This book had it all – politics, art, religion, all wrapped up in strong writing that ended with me begging for more.

Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)So I obviously picked up¬†Shadow Scale as soon as I could get my hands on a copy from the library. In the sequel,¬†Seraphina has exposed herself as half human, half dragon and must search for more of her kind to halt the deadly war between dragons and humans. I was thrilled to widen the world she inhabits, especially as Hartman increased the character diversity and was respectful of race and sexuality, but sadly many of my favorite parts of the first book were shafted. We barely glimpse Kiggs and Glisselda, and the resolution to their love triangle was frustrating. Most of the book follows Seraphina slowly meandering to find her kind, but there’s too many found to keep track of or develop well. The villain of this piece is disappointing, and is vanquished in an even more dispiriting deus ex machina. Worst of all, Seraphina lacked her character spark and agency¬†– she doesn’t play music or hunt down murderers, she just¬†sulks and twiddles her thumbs for 2/3rds of this lengthy volume.

I’d still take another glimpse into this world, though it seems like this is Hartman’s last, at least focusing on Seraphina. But I was incredibly disappointed by how the duology wrapped up since my expectations were so high following the first book. I’d still highly encourage fans of music or dragons to pick up Seraphina¬†as it’s a truly magical, well-constructed YA fantasy but continue on to Shadow Scale¬†at your own risk.

5 Stars to Seraphina & 3 Stars to Shadow Scale

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

The Uninvited Guests1912 – The kitchens of Sterne, a crumbling English manor, are bustling to create a splendid supper for Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. The guests invited include Emerald’s fading femme fatale mother Charlotte, broody brother Clovis, impish but neglected little sister Smudge, childhood friends Patience and Ernest, and eligible bachelor John Buchanan. However, when a horrific railway accident occurs nearby, Sterne is forced to play host to the survivors, a miserable band of lower-class sufferers who throw all plans into chaos¬†and among whom¬†lurks a¬†gentleman whose upper-class appearance¬†belies his malevolent spirit.

(Spoilers ahead)

Well,¬†a Gothic mystery tinged with the supernatural and set in the historical – sounds right up my alley! The gorgeous cover fits Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests¬†extraordinary well, mirroring a scene in which Charlie (the lurking “gentleman”) spies on Emerald attempting to call the railway for answers while also sufficiently adding to the creepy atmosphere.

I did like most of the characters, despite their upper-crust snobbery, but the shortness of the novel caused most of them to lack depth. Since I didn’t understand them fully, I wasn’t particularly attached to any of them so when a certain scene (i.e. the hounds game) exposed the horrific cruelty of their inner human nature, I wasn’t even upset. But I appreciated that they all bucked up in the end – on the whole, the cruelty was balanced by the concluding kindnesses.

The darkly comic tone and flowery Edwardian writing style fit the story well, but the plot was as crumbling as the manor itself. I can’t say the twist is particularly shocking, with the “survivors” actually having not survived the crash. But frustratingly their exact nature (ghosts? zombies?) was left unexplained as was the source of Charlie’s mysterious power.

It was not a very spine-tingling read and probably too bizarre for many readers, but if you can cheerfully throw reason out the door, it proves to be a suitable tale for¬†a dark and stormy summer night¬†that’s a little more literary than your average horror story.

3 Stars

Happy 1st Birthday!

Image result for dancing animalCraziness – it’s this blog’s first birthday already. I’m really proud of what I’ve done this year. Defying the name, there hasn’t been many tomes read¬†– but this is my 150th blog post! And while it’s not a review (not much of anything really except an expression of my skipping sheep-like joy at getting this far), I hope that I will continue on for another year and that y’all will continue to follow it. Thank you so much for reading! ūüôā

Brock Clarke’s The Happiest People in the World

The Happiest People in the World: A NovelBrock Clarke’s The Happiest People in the World¬†has been on my to-read list for awhile, so I was thrilled when (for once) our book club picked something that I meant to get around to.

Denmark, home of the happiest people in the world – and to second-rate cartoonist Jens, who takes on the task of drawing a cartoon depicting the controversy over¬†the recently-published caricature of Mohammed. After he is attacked by angsty teenage wannabe-extremists, the CIA fakes his death and moves him to Broomeville, a small town in upstate New York, where he is to serve as the new high school guidance counselor. With no experience in that field, he blunders into a love affair with the principal’s ex-wife and a minefield of new enemies even as the people from his past track him down to destroy his future.

The pop art cover pretty adequately reflects the story being told. It’s as cartoonish as the subject that catalyzes the action, and all the characters come across as caricatures. A few characters were tolerable, like Jens himself and principal’s kid Kurt, but CIA agent Locks and principal Matty were frankly irritating. In addition, the majority of the rest of the town are also CIA operatives, who are incredibly incompetent at their jobs in a twist that proves more ridiculous¬†than humorous. When you hate half the characters, you know the book isn’t quite for you.

The writing style jumps to and from these various characters’ points of view, so brace yourself for the sections with characters who you dislike. Despite being in each of their heads, they all have the same voices and think in lengthy and repititive run-on sentences. It makes for confusing reading at times, resulting in our half-serious conclusion that the mounted moose head at the bar serves as the primary narrator for the story. Like the sentence structures, the plot flow also meanders without ever building to an exciting climax – rather, it falters and ends with a whimper instead of a bang, despite the (spoiler alert) multiple deaths by shootout.

Ironically, our discussion proved to be funnier than the actual content of the book as we vented our varied frustrations. It’s not a book that stirs any of your emotions, even humor, as it always seems to be circling around a moral point carefully while failing to exploit either satiric¬†or tragic¬†potential to expose that point. Incidentally, no one in the book seemed particularly happy nor was I reading it.

2.5 Stars

Buzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey

Buzz KillAfter intrepid high-school reporter Millie Ostermeyer and the friendly janitor accidentally stumble across the recently murdered corpse of the unlikeable football coach, all clues point to Millie’s father being the murderer. Desperate to clear his name (and prevent her arch-nemesis¬†Vivienne from getting the scoop), Millie begins to investigate with the help of mysteriously handsome classmate Chase and her local librarian, who are both struggling to hide their¬†own secrets.¬†

Beth Fantaskey’s Buzz Kill¬†was billed as a Nancy Drew meets “Clueless” kind of book, but both Nancy and Cher are far superior to Millie, who comes across as self-absorbed and slow-witted. She spends the book bumbling into near-death/illegal situations, far more concerned about her childish rivalry and blooming crush than her own father’s impending imprisonment.¬†The real (unsung) hero of the story was Baxter, an adorable basset hound, who deserved far better than being adopted by Millie¬†and does more detecting than she does. Chase wasn’t terrible, but he and all the other supporting cast, including Vivienne and the librarian, were basic high school caricatures.

The writing style also felt very young, with copious use of sanitized teenage slang and a¬†plotline that meandered like a toddler. The story¬†was neither funny nor fresh, more suited to a middle-grade than young adult audience.¬†Overall,¬†Buzz Kill¬†quickly buzzkilled my enthusiasm for a light mystery. It wasn’t even mediocre, it was as actively annoying as a lingering fly.

2 Stars