Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde (unabridged audiobook read by Emily Gray; 12.75 hrs on 11 discs): With every book I’ve read in this series, I’ve said the same thing: this was fun but I doubt I’ll continue on with the series. Well, this is the fourth book and I give up. I’m going to keep reading Thursday Next books because they’re absolutely ridiculous and they make me laugh. This time around, Thursday is back in the real world, where she has to deal with fictional would-be dictators, semi-dead presidents, a husband who may not actually exist, violent cricket matches, 13th century mystics, a perpetually dithering Hamlet, and – most daunting of all – motherhood. The whole thing is just marvelous. My favorite part was “Avoid the Question Time,” which is pretty much what all political interviews and debates actually are but won’t admit it. Nothing is too outlandish to show up in these stories, and I can’t wait for the next book.

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Don’t Know Much about Geography by Kenneth C. Davis

Don’t Know Much About Geography by Kenneth C. Davis (unabridged audiobook; 13 hrs on 10 discs): This was just the book I was looking for. Geography is a science not just of place names and boundaries, but of politics and culture and environment and history. I learned tons about exploration and wars and colonization and weather and climate and more, all in bite-sized chunks that somehow managed to be very accessible without talking down to the reader. I never felt embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, and it opened my eyes to a number of subjects I never knew could be interesting. Definitely recommended as a solid introduction.

A note on the audio: There are six narrators credited here. Joe Ochman read about 95% of this book. Paul Boehmer read the “geographic voices” quotes. Kenneth C. Davis read the introduction. The rest of the folks read some (but not all) of the chapter titles. I have absolutely no idea why they were included, but I wish they hadn’t been, since changing narrators is kind of jarring.

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The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore (unabridged audiobook read by Chris Henry Coffey; 8.25 hrs on 7 discs): When his father has a stroke, Ephraim’s family moves to Maine to live in his ancestral home, a place called the Water Castle because his family used to bottle the local spring water and sell it. The town of Crystal Springs is full of unusually talented people, which makes Ephraim feel even more out of place. Soon, however, he begins to suspect there is something strange going on in his family’s home. With the help of some new friends, he investigates a legacy that goes back more than a century. Tied into all this are the North Pole expeditions of Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, and Frederick Cook. This mix of fantasy and history and mysterious old houses is right up my alley. I liked this story as an adult, but I would have loved it in middle school. I was forever hoping for secret passages and magical relics to uncover. The story took a little bit to really get going, and the ending was a little abrupt (without technically leaving anything hanging), but otherwise it was a lovely little tale.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs: A man decides to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. This was not quite the book I thought it was going to be. I expected it to be a lot of commentary on the information itself and the layout of the Britannica. And it was, in part, but it was also about Jacobs’s relationship with his father; his attempts to get on trivia game shows; enthusiasts of “intellectual” pursuits like crosswords, speed-reading, and Mensa; he and his wife’s difficulties conceiving; one-upping his perfect brother-in-law; and the constant connections he finds between his life and what he’s just read about in the encyclopedia. It was very readable and sometimes quite funny, but in the end it’s basically the diary of a magazine editor who decides to do something bizarre. He never says anything of the sort, but I could not shake the feeling that writing this book was a significant part of his motivation behind the project. Still, I did enjoy the random trivia shared here and there. If nothing else, it convinced me that I have exactly no desire whatsoever to read the Encyclopedia Britannica myself. So Jacobs has saved me a whole bunch of time.

P.S. – The back cover refers to “10 billion years of human history”. Um. Humans have been around less than a million years; latest estimates say about 200,000.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris: On the spine of my copy, this book is categorized as “fantasy/mystery.” Which is only partially true. I mean, sure, there are a few murders to be solved but mostly it’s about what it’s like to date a vampire. Sookie is a telepathic waitress with the reputation of being crazy because she has trouble blocking out the continual chatter of other people’s thoughts. I appreciated this little detail, actually – usually telepathic characters have to actively read people’s thoughts, as opposed to being constantly bombarded by them. Her life is turned upside down when a sexy vampire shows up in her tiny town and acquaintances start turning up dead. It’s a quick and mostly entertaining read, and while I am mildly curious about the vampire politics only hinted at in this volume, I feel no desire to continue on with the series. It didn’t draw me in enough: I wasn’t emotionally invested enough in the characters to care who committed the murders, and I’m honestly not all that interested in Sookie’s love life. But I can still see the appeal to fans of “paranormal romance” and “romantic suspense”, and it’s always nice to expand my pop culture lexicon a little bit.

Side note: this book is about a psychic woman who falls in love with a vampire and/because his are the only thoughts she cannot hear. Twilight is about a psychic vampire who falls in love with a human woman and/because hers are the only thoughts he cannot hear. Both include love triangles involving shapeshifters. Both have protagonists who lose their virginity to vampires. I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism; it’s just a weird set of coincidences.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz: Once Upon a Time, all fairy tales were connected. That’s the long and the short of this book, which follows the lives of Hansel and Gretel from their parents’ first meeting through the gingerbread house and beyond. I wasn’t familiar with any of the tales besides the classic gingerbread house, but they were all told like regular fairy tales, with things happening in threes and characters not having names and things like that. What makes this memorable, though, are the constant interruptions by the narrator to comment, explain, or (most often) warn of/apologize for the violence. The original Grimm tales were pretty bloody, and while this book leaves nothing out, it doesn’t dwell on the gore either. If you like fairy tales you’ll probably enjoy this one, but be sure to heed the narrator when he tells you to make sure there aren’t any little children around for certain parts. That said, older children would probably get a kick out of it.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld: We might call them vampires, but in Cal’s world, they’re called “parasite positives,” or peeps. They have similar symptoms: an aversion to sunshine and other familiar things, a thirst for blood, an affinity for rats, that sort of thing. Shortly after starting college in New York City, Cal spends the night with a woman and winds up a carrier of the disease himself – all the special powers without the nasty side-effects – and is later recruited to help hunt down all the women he’s infected. The idea of vampirism-as-disease is not new, but I’d never seen it done quite like this before. Every other chapter is about real-life parasites, so if you’re squeamish about such things, you probably want to skip those parts. Personally, I found it all fascinating (if a bit stomach-churning at points), and I enjoyed Cal’s adventures as a peep hunter as well – like many of Westerfeld’s characters, he’s quite likable. I’m looking forward to the sequel, as the story is clearly ramping up to something big.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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Xanadu at the Reston Community Center

This past Saturday night my husband and I saw the Reston Community Players production of Xanadu. I’ve never seen the reportedly terrible movie, and before RCP staged it I didn’t know the musical even existed, but I had been told to expect roller skates, Greek mythology, and a heaping helping of the 1980s. And wow, did it ever deliver. Clio, the leader of the nine Muses, comes to earth to inspire chalk muralist Sonny Malone to embrace his artistic dreams. He wants to create a space where all the arts come together: dance, music, painting, even athletics. He wants to build….a roller disco! (“How timeless!”) Meanwhile, Clio’s older sisters Melpomene and Calliope plot to curse her to fall in love with a human (strictly forbidden), but mostly just succeed in stealing the show.  (Especially Calliope, played by Emily Jonas, who was by far my favorite character in the entire show.) The music is all ’80s pop, including some familiar hits like Evil Woman and Strange Magic.

It took me a couple scenes to realize that the acting was supposed to be campy, melodramatic, and completely over-the-top, but once I did I really began to enjoy myself. The humor is not subtle: people sing guitar solos, dance around on roller skates, speak in hilariously terrible accents, and are all generally ridiculous. I laughed hard and often.

In addition to never taking itself at all seriously, with only a single act Xanadu doesn’t drag or overstay its welcome. This production in particular kept things moving at a steady clip, with quick dialog and upbeat songs and, more often than not, something bizarre going on in the background. Definitely recommended if you get the chance, but be prepared for some intense silliness.

Xanadu is playing at the Reston Community Center for one more weekend. Purchase tickets here.

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The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland: A fictionalized look at the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter in the 17th century. I’d never heard of her before this, and I found looking up her paintings enhanced my enjoyment of the book. The story begins during the latter part of the trial of her rapist, and continues through her times in Florence, Genoa, Rome, Naples, and London. It’s interesting how the rape trial was all but skipped, seeming to imply that we all know that story already, even though it shaped the course of her life for the next several years. I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but taken as a whole I’m a little disappointed. Huge chunks of time are glossed over, few of the characters are given any personality or physical description, and the main plot arc – Artemisia’s relationship with her father – feels like it was shoehorned in. Despite all that, I’m still glad I read it. Reading about painted is often inspiring, and I’ve now been introduced to another talented artist.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson

The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson: The concept is clever: take superhero stories and apply real-world US law to them. Could someone testify in court while concealing their true identity? How does property law work for immortal beings? Does Superman have to file flight plans with the FAA? Not only is it a fun take on familiar comic book characters but it’s also a very good introduction to law in general. Parts are a bit dry, when the ratio of law to comic book leans a bit too far to the legal side, but by and large it’s very accessible and entertaining. You don’t need to be a legal scholar to appreciate follow along, and while it helps to at least be reasonably familiar with such big names as Superman, Iron Man, and the X-Men, you don’t have to be a huge comic book geek either. Definitely recommended for comic book fans looking for a broad overview of law, or even just a new way of looking at some of their favorite characters.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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