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Laura Joh Rowland

The Way of the Traitor / by Laura Joh Rowland

The Way of the Traitor - Laura Joh Rowland

What I liked:

1) The setting--Nagasaki in the 1600s, at a time when Japan was beginning to have trade relations with the Western world. This allowed for the exploration of some interesting tension between the Japanese and the Dutch traders, and Laura Joh Rowland did a great job of highlighting and explaining these tensions.

2) Hirata's refusal to allow Sano to sideline him for his protection.

What I didn't like:

1) Sano's stupidity and naiveté! This man just bumbled from one self-made crisis to another. A man this clumsy in his investigations has no business being the Shogun's chief investigator!

2) The repetitiveness of the writing. From Sano's repetitive naval gazing, to the constant re-outlining of who the bad guys could be and what their motivation(s) might have been, I really did not feel like this novel was going anywhere most of the time.

3) Again, the device of someone always being out to get Sano. I get that we need roadblocks in order to keep the story tense, but crimony! Enough with the dastardly villain trying to take out personal revenge on Sano!

Heavy Weather / by P. G. Wodehouse

Heavy Weather - P.G. Wodehouse, Anthony Lane

Thoroughly delightful from beginning to end!


Elephants can Remember / by Agatha Christie ; narrated by Hugh Fraser

Elephants Can Remember - Agatha Christie

Elephants can Remember is not Agatha Christie's best book. It's a little predictable, the mystery isn't all that difficult to piece together, and the characters aren't particularly interesting.

I listened to the audiobook version which was narrated by Hugh Fraser, and he was an excellent narrator. His style brought the book to life, his voicing of the characters was nuanced and delightful, and I think that it was he more than Christie that made the story enjoyable.

The Sea Wolf / by Jack London ; narrated by Brian Emerson

The Sea Wolf - Jack London

Wolf Larsen was a right old bastard, but I liked the old devil.

The Ghost at the Table / by Suzanne Berne

The Ghost at the Table - Suzanne Berne

Meh. I didn't like it, but I didn't hate it, either. I think that all of the characters had a lot of depth, and they all seemed realistic. Jane was perhaps a bit cliched, and I'm sorry, but if one suspects a teenager of cutting themselves, one doesn't just ignore that--one would think that Jane's father, the doctor, would have been all over that, but apparently not.

I didn't really feel like this story went anywhere, and I'm not sure what I was supposed to come away from this book thinking or feeling. Things happened, but nothing really went anywhere. It certainly was not the, "searing, important, beautiful novel" that was advertised on the back cover, but it was nicely written, and rich in setting and character development--it just was not so much there in terms of plot. It was like a beautifully decorated cake that lacked moisture and flavor.

Jason's Gold / by Will Hobbs ; narrated by Boyd Gaines

Jason's Gold - Will Hobbs

Jason's Gold wasn't a bad story about the Klondike Gold Rush, and as a Seattleite I have to say that people here are particularly attuned to that gold rush.  Our city would have never become anything but a backwater without that event.  It put Seattle on the map.  For that reason, I'd particularly recommend this book to kids who live in the Puget Sound area.


Jason's Gold is very much a story in the same vein as the classic adventure stories like The Call of the Wild, and White Fang (in fact, Hobbs pays homage to Jack London in this book), Huckleberry Finn, and Treasure Island.  It is above all else an adventure story, but it doesn't quite strike the same chord as those greater adventure tales do.


It is clear that Hobbs has done his research and has written a nice piece of historical fiction.  That is well done.  Unfortunately, Jason's Gold lacks what those other great adventure stories I mentioned above have in abundance; the ability to pull at your heart.  Generally speaking, Jason's adventures, especially initially, don't have much to them.  He moves quickly through them, and we never quite get a chance to be really affected by who Jason meets, or what Jason experiences (with one notable exception, but I can't talk about it because it would be a spoiler).  Jason does see and experience some horrible things, and it's not that those passages aren't well written.  It's just that Jason moves through them so quickly that there isn't a chance for the reader to let the experiences sink in.  Because of this rapidity of pace, the adventure is muted in exchange for historical reporting.


Still, the book was enjoyable, and very accessible to kids between 5th and 8th grade, maybe even 9th grade.  There are some pretty gruesome passages.  The Klondike Gold Rush lead to nothing but violent death for some people and many animals, and Will Hobbs makes that point quite clearly.  Kids who are more sensitive might find those particular passages disturbing.  But this book is based on an historical event, and history is seldom sterile.  Kids looking for a historical fiction adventure book could do worse than Jason's Gold.  


The Crossroads / by Chris Grabenstein ; narrated by J.J. Meyers

The Crossroads - Chris Grabenstein

The Crossroads is a pretty good ghost story aimed at kids in maybe 5th-7th grade.  It was creepy, there was some violence, and there were kids in peril.  All of this was enough to make kids in this age range appropriately freaked out, but not enough to be really and truly terrifying to them.


While the ghost story does take center stage in this book, it's also a story about Zack having to come to terms with the verbal and emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of his now deceased mother.  He learns to lean on himself, to find value in himself, and he learns to trust in the bond that he's formed with his new step-mother.  All of this is well done, and does not get in the way of or overshadow the ghost  story.


As for the ghost story, it was good, but the majority of the ghosts in the story died in the 1950s.  There is a lot of 1950s terminology and culture that goes on in the story, and I do wonder if that might not make too much sense to younger readers.  I guess kids could understand the slang and the culture from context, but in some places it did come off as a little bit corny or dated.


Overall, though, I think it's a good story for those kids who like their books to lean a little dark.  This one does have a dark streak, but it's the light that triumphs in the end.

The City of Ember / by Jeanne DuPrau ; narrated by Wendy Dillon

The City of Ember - Jeanne DuPrau

I am having a hard time figuring out what to say about The City of Ember.  I enjoyed the book.  I liked the main characters, and I liked the supporting characters.  I liked the dystopian aspects and the mystery aspects of the story, although Lina and Doon's efforts to decipher the message written on a torn up piece of paper did not translate too smoothly to audio format, which made the mystery aspects a little tedious at times.  DuPrau carefully built Ember, and took care to make her two main characters three dimensional.  


That said, I guess I feel a little bit chagrined by the abrupt way in which this first book in the series ended.  I suppose that it ended at a "good spot," but just when things were starting to get really intriguing, when the questions really started to flood my mind, the book stopped!  Great way to boost sales of the next book, but frustrating to me as an adult.  I don't know if I feel invested enough to read the next book in the series, but I do want my questions answered, so we shall see, I suppose.  If I were a 5th or 6th grader, I'm sure I'd be reaching for the next book in this series before I even pulled my bookmark out of this one. 


Enough about that.  What I really did love about the book was the allegorical aspects.  I thought the book was an allegory for an awakening.  Perhaps spiritual, perhaps intellectual, perhaps emotional, but awakening, nonetheless.  DuPrau really wrote some lovely passages that explored awakening, and I thought the book was the strongest at those points.  Adults will pick up on the allegory quickly, I think, but this is going to be subtle to kids.  In other words, the allegory was not heavy handed for the audience that this book was intended for, and I appreciated that.


I would recommend this book to my 5th grade niece.  I believe she would like Lina, and I think she'd become invested in her struggles to improve life for her family and for her city.  I also believe that this is exactly the kind of book that would make the gears in her mind click.  She'd want to know why things were the way they were in Ember, and unfortunately, that doesn't really quite get explained too clearly in this book.  I don't think I'd be able to answer her questions.  I guess those unanswered questions are what drive readers to the next book in the series.



Revived / by Cat Patrick ; narrated by Tara Sands

Revived - Cat Patrick

Revived wasn't bad.  I enjoyed the sci-fi aspects of it a great deal, and I enjoyed the lessons about life and death and about how to cope with loss.  It wasn't heavy-handed, and it felt like it would be accessible to teenagers who are about Daisy's age (16).  I lost a close friend when I was Daisy's age, and it really was my first exposure to the death of someone I loved.  The emotions that Cat Patrick gives to her teenage characters felt authentic, and I recognized the struggle to understand and to cope.  Anyway....  Not pleasant memories to relive, but it is good to realize that learning to live with loss comes with time.


I'm a little less certain about other aspects of the book, but I'm sure that's just because I'm an adult and not a 16 year old.  There was a cute guy, and of course there was a bunch of sweet kisses that, "make [Daisy's] stomach flip," and lots of  "hands just knowing how to hold each other," (barf), but I get it.  First forays into love are like that, I suppose, Cat Patrick got these emotions down right (just last night a 15 year old girl I know was carrying on about the cute new guy and his long, curly hair--she sounded just like Daisy).


I liked the book, but I'd love to know what the people it's targeted at would think of it.  It rings true to me, but does it to them?   

Aliens Ate My Homework / by Bruce Coville ; narrated by William Dufris

Aliens Ate My Homework - Bruce Coville, William Dufris

I enjoyed Aliens Ate My Homework.  The story was creative, and the characters were fun, and I definitely think that it would appeal to reluctant readers, perhaps especially to boys.  Our main character is a good boy who suffers at the hands of bullies.  He does what he knows is right, even when that winds up working against him.  I really liked how the author portrayed Rod, and I do think that a lot of boys out there would identify with his personal struggles.  The personal troubles are not the heart of the book, though; the adventure is.  The author's ability to pull a little bit at a reader's heartstrings while mainly delivering fun action is why I would not hesitate to suggest this book to a kid who isn't so hot on reading.


I adored William Dufris' audio narration.  He became one of my favorite narrators after I listened to his reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a few years ago.  He did tremendous justice to that book, and he was extremely entertaining as he narrated Aliens Ate My Homework.  The man can do very diverse voices, and he understands the importance of tone and expression as he reads a story.  Really a top-notch narrator!

Middleworld / by Jon Voelkel and Pamela Voelkel ; narrated by Scott Brick

The Jaguar Stones, Book One: Middleworld - Jon Voelkel, Pamela Voelkel

Middleworld was kind of a strange book.  It was entertaining-ish, I suppose.  It did not lack action or adventure.  Max and Lola were a nicely paired couple of characters.  The scenes were vivid.  I stayed with the story to the end, so I can't say that I hated it, but I didn't particularly like it either.


The biggest issue I had with Middleworld was the abrupt jogs in the plot.  The story would go along a certain course just as nicely as you please, and then some event would happen that suddenly took the plot, even the feel of the story off in a completely different direction.  I have no way of describing this plot other than to say it zig-zagged.  It didn't meander--the shifts weren't subtle, but abrupt and sharp.  It left me feeling a little whiplashed, and I don't think it did any favors for the story.  The result was an overly long book that contained a story that came across as not able to decide what it wanted to be.  So there's that.


Then there is Scott Brick, the narrator of this audio book.  Scott Brick brings a certain narrative style to all of the books he reads, and I have not heard him vary this style no matter what he narrates.  He always employs the same tone, the same intensity to every book, no matter what it is.  I find his style to be a touch over-dramatic; a little like William Shatner acting his role as Captain Kirk in Star Trek.  Now, there are some things Brick's style works well with.  Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes spring immediately to mind.  I'm a bit ambivalent about Brick's contribution to Middleworld, though.  On one hand, I think that Brick's serious, dramatic style may have given a bit more depth and weight to a story that often went off the rails.  He kept it anchored--no small feat (see previous paragraph).  On the other hand, Scott Brick's style is completely at odds with a narrative that involves flatulent howler monkeys.  His style is simply not suited to ribald humor (one of many course changes in plot/tone  to be found in this book).  


Middleworld is the first book in a series.  But this book went on too long, and with too many zig-zags to keep me happy.  Middleworld sapped any interest I might have had in reading more books in this series.  I can totally walk away from Max and Lola without even a backward glance.



Urchin of the Riding Stars / by M.I. McAllister ; narrated by Andrew Sachs

Urchin of the Riding Stars - Margaret McAllister, Omar Rayyan, M.I. McAllister

Before I even finished reading the first chapter of this book I was on the phone texting my sister and recommending this book to my eleven year old niece.  The opening was beautiful, moving, and magical, and it caught my breath!  This story was wonderful all the way through; so rich, so beautiful, so well written--it's been a long time since I've read anything this good that was aimed at upper elementary school kids.  It's been a long time since I've read anything this good, period!


The writing itself was captivating, and it just made everything come vividly to life in my mind.  There were actually passages in this book that made me pause and marvel at how stunningly well written they were.  And the storytelling!  Seriously, Watership Down meets Macbeth.  I know that sounds weird, but, well, it worked!  This was an emotional, complex plot with characters that just happened to be non-human animals!  This story felt as crisp, and green, and lush as the island it was set upon, and yet it also felt like it was as old as time--it felt like a story that people have been sitting around fires listening to for thousands of years.  It was just lustrous and timeless! 


I listened to this on audiobook, and that was narrated by Andrew Sachs.  He is simply an exquisite narrator, and he was perfectly matched to this story.  He did a marvelous job--very entertaining, very rich, nuanced voice acting.  


There wasn't anything that I disliked about Urchin of the Riding Stars.  It was just brilliant all the way around.  What a way to start off the new year!



The Ravenmaster's Secret : Escape From the Tower of London / by Elvira Woodruff ; narrated by Simon Vance

The Ravenmaster's Secret: Escape From The Tower Of London - Elvira Woodruff

Ok, I enjoyed this story.  It had heart, it had a message, it had the ability to stir my emotions.  I also like my kid lit to end the way the stories should end (for me, that usually means don't kill off any characters I like, and generally give me happily ever after--I cannot abide sad stories, especially in kid lit), and this book does give me the ending I wanted.


I do sort of have questions in my mind about this book, though.  It appealed to me, but I'm an adult.  I found the imaginings of the main character to be sweet--I found peace in reading about the daydreams and flights of fancy of childhood.  The thing is, the story didn't really move quickly, and there wasn't really anything captivating about it.  It was just a good story.  As such, I wonder how much it would really speak to or grab the kids it's aimed at (upper elementary aged kids, I believe).  I honestly can't imagine too many kids in that age range sticking with this past the first chapter or two.  It starts out sedately, and it does ask readers to be a little bit patient while it moves into the main plot.  I just don't know how patient young readers are likely to be with their stories.  Like Tuck, the raven in this story, today's kids are easily distracted by shiny objects, there are multiple blinking, flashing, noise-making things demanding their attention.  Will a good, but quiet story really hold them amongst all that glitz?  Hmm...  I'm not so sure.


Honestly, while I liked the book I can't really imagine myself recommending it to too many kids.  Maybe to kids who happen to love anything to do with English history, or to kids who had been on a tour of the Tower of London, but that is just about it.  Now, that said, adults who like kid lit, and who like a little sweetness in those stories could do worse than The Ravenmaster's Secret.

Dragon / by Jeff Stone ; narrated by Kiki Barrera

Dragon - Jeff Stone

And so, The Five Ancestors series comes to a close.  The ending of the series was very martial arts-y.  It's not that it ended with lots of action (although, it did), it's that it came full circle.  In martial arts this idea of a circle, of the beginning being the end, and the end being the beginning, of a journey starting at a destination,  is a *big deal*.  It might even be the biggest deal.  And true to proper martial arts form and ethos, The Five Ancestors comes full circle.


I've offered up a lot of complaints about the series, but overall it gets it right.  The martial arts is right (and by that I mean the philosophy more than the action, although that rings true, too), the entertainment is right, the message is right.  I critiqued, but I enjoyed, too.


The series is violent and bloody in spots, but I'd argue that it's no worse than what's served up in The Hunger Games.  It might even be less shocking than what's in those books.  I do think that this series is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school kids, and I think it could really appeal to reluctant readers who like action, anime, or fast-paced exciting video games.  In other words, to my nephew.  Unfortunately, he's seven, and while I *know* he'd dig this series, his mom would need to check these out before I'd feel comfortable reading these with him.


The Five Ancestors is a respectable series.  Like every martial artist, it is not perfect, especially in the beginning.  But like every good martial artist, it perseveres, and in the end it achieves its goal and looks ahead to the next.

Mouse / by Jeff Stone ; narrated by Kiki Barrera

Mouse - Jeff Stone

It's a little bit odd, I think that the author chose to introduce a new character into the series and give him his own book, but ShaoShu is an endearing little guy, and I suspect he has a much greater role to play in this epic (we shall see, I suppose--one more book to go).


I think that Mouse is probably the most complex book in The Five Ancestor's series (up to this point, anyway). Mouse focuses less on emotions that would be easy for older elementary school kids to understand (revenge, anger, jealousy), and we dive into a world of complex political machinations and power plays. While Mouse features the youngest character in the series, the book is likely to be best understood by middle school readers, as opposed to elementary school kids who would have had little difficulty in understanding Tiger or Monkey.


There is less martial arts action in this one, too, but that's not to say less violence. The violence has taken on a different tone--now it's war, and there are naval battles and gunfights. Gunpowder takes center stage in Mouse while flying side kicks are kept to a noticeable minimum. I definitely prefer martial arts action to cannon fire, but this book also felt more mature to me, so I guess things balance out.


Eagle / by Jeff Stone ; narrated by Kiki Barrera

Eagle - Jeff Stone

I thought that Eagle was the most intimate and most tight story of the five books I've read so far in The Five Ancestors series.  Eagle really shined a light on Ying and his psychology.  Unlike Snake, and to a lesser extent Crane, Eagle wasn't weighted down by the introduction of tons of new characters--most of the story focused on Ying and Hok working together toward common ends.


I'm not sure that I fully accept the relative ease with which the monks and Ying come together to form an alliance.  Ying's hatred of his brothers and his sister had been pretty intense up to this point, and I don't know that there would have been such a willingness on their part to put aside their anger toward Ying for destroying their temple and killing their Grand Master.  Still, I liked the story, and am beginning to look toward the end of the series with anticipation as to what will become of our monks and their relationships with one another.