Monthly Archives: November 2011

THE VAGABOND KING by James Conway – Review

Since starting this blog, I have had the opportunity to read several debut books by new writers who are publishing their works exclusively for the digital market. Today I am happy to introduce James Conway, whose ebook The Vagabond King is now available.

Written in poetic prose with the blues as a driving rhythmic force, The Vagabond King is a coming-of-age story about a teen whose mother has just died, and his journey to find himself in the wake of this tragedy.  Chris is directionless and discontent at school.  His father is constantly trying to push him to make a decision about his future, one that involves a good job and a steady income.  Their relationship is strained at best, and after his mother dies, it worsens until Chris decides one day to leave home for good.  He seeks out a woman he meets at a bar named Magda, and, although it stretches credibility, he moves in with her and her cantankerous father, a Hungarian refugee with many stories to tell. Chris is smitten with Magda and dreams that “she will take me upstairs and lead me to her broad and well storied bed, the Promised Land, and there she would make a man of me.”  Life at Magda’s doesn’t go exactly as planned, however.  Christ must contend with Magda’s father Mick, who Chris refers to as “the Old Man,” and his tragic stories of his life in communist Hungary and his eventual escape to America.  Magda, a much older woman, seems uninterested in Chris and does not even want him there.  And in the background of every waking moment, the blues plays on Mick’s record player, a scratchy soundtrack reminding Chris that he does not belong.

Before long, Mick gets Chris a job at a printing plant, and he befriends a man named Atman who has his own life lessons to impart.  After several months of this existence, an unexpected tragedy, and a change in Chris’ relationship with Magda, he finally decides to go home and confront his father about a long-buried secret.

Along with Mick’s ramblings of the old days and Magda’s ongoing conversations with Chris about the history of religion, the story sometimes loses focus as Conway slips into what feels more like a lesson on history and philosophy than a narrative tale. Many passages, although poetic, are overwritten and unfortunately take the reader out of the story, and even though it is Chris telling the tale, I can feel the author intruding during these ramblings. Some of the characters, too, feel more like props than flesh and blood people. Magda, for instance, who could have been one of the more interesting characters, felt strangely two-dimensional to me. I actually preferred Atman as a character, who is also searching for his real father.  Although he, like most of the others, has valuable information for Chris, his energy was infectious and his appearance in the story was too brief.

I did appreciate the consistency of the central theme, however, which finds Chris on a constant search for something that will make his life meaningful: his real father, an adult relationship with Magda, and even an understanding of God and the universe. References to “The Vagabond King” in connection with Mick and God give the title meaning and the story focus, and the recurring theme of the blues as a metaphor for life work nicely as a backdrop for Chris’ sorrow and confusion and his eventual acceptance of his mother’s death.

If you like your fiction mixed with musings on philosophy, religion, and the meaning of life, then The Vagabond King just might be your cup of tea. You can purchase it here.

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Read Me! LEGEND by Marie Lu – Recommended Reading

This week I’m recommending another young adult title.  Legend by Marie Lu is a dystopian tale of a future Los Angeles.  It has received great reviews, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who I consider to be the go-to place for book reviews.  I have not read it yet, but I have some fellow bloggers that loved it a lot, so I’m really looking forward to it.

Here is the description from Goodreads:

“What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Full of nonstop action, suspense, and romance, this novel is sure to move readers as much as it thrills.”

And some reviews:

“…a well-written, emotionally satisfying read…” – VOYA, starred review

“…cinematic adventure featuring endearing, compelling heroes.” – Kirkus, starred review

“…the delicious details keep pages turning…” – Booklist, starred review

“…many dystopian books are filling the shelves, but this book stands out.” – LMC, starred review

“Lu’s debut is a stunner.” – Publisher’s Weekly, starred review

Marie does a bunch of other things besides write, she sounds really busy! You can check out her website here.

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Book Into Movie: HUGO

This is the first post of a new category here on Books, Bones & Buffy, where I am going to recommend movies that have been successfully translated from some of my favorite books.  You may not realize it from reading this blog, but I love movies almost as much as I love books, which means I love good movies.  Just released this past Wednesday is Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, and based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  I recently reviewed Selznick’s latest, Wonderstruck, and I suspect it’s no coincidence that the movie has been released right on the heals of its publication.  Although I haven’t seen it yet, Hugo got rave reviews from my friend Wendy, not to mention a great rating from Entertainment Weekly, so I’m very excited to see it.

I also have to mention that Jude Law is in the movie, whom I love, and Chloë Grace Moretz, from Kickass, who is just amazing.  The movie is in 3D (only, I believe) so get ready to pay a little extra for the ticket. Hopefully, it will be worth it.

Here’s the trailer:

See you at the movies!


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Read Me! THE FUTURE OF US by Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler – Recommended Reading

I’m sticking with my “retro” theme this week, and recommending a new release that once again takes us back in time to explore the roots of technology and online social interfacing.  We’re not going back quite as far as Ready Player One, but we are rewinding fifteen years to 1996, the time when the internet was just starting to gain popularity.  The Future of Us has a simple yet intriguing premise: what if you could see fifteen years into your future via your new AOL internet account?  Here’s the (very short) description from Amazon:

“It’s 1996, and less than half of all American high school students have ever used the Internet.

Emma just got her first computer and an America Online CD-ROM.

Josh is her best friend. They power up and log on–and discover themselves on Facebook, fifteen years in the future.

Everybody wonders what their Destiny will be. Josh and Emma are about to find out.”

Here are a few editorial reviews:

These two top-of-their-game authors don’t disappoint.” – Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review

“A clever, timely story that will attract any teen with a Facebook account.” – Booklist, Starred Review

“Without question a page-turner.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Highly engaging.a tremendously likable, soul-searching romantic comedy and a subtle reminder to occasionally unplug and live in the moment.” School and Library Journal

Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler have both published teen fiction on their own, so it will be interesting to see how they work together. This book is marketed for teens, but you can bet that I am going to read it anyway!

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READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline -Review

So, after reading Ready Player One, it turns out I’m a geek.  I suspected I was, since I’ve always had a fondness for all things geeky. But although I was never really into video games (I do remember, however, obsessively playing a game called “Castle” sometime around 1988 or ’89.  It was loaded on my computer at work and my coworker Dilip and I played it every chance we got), I realize now that it is possible to geek out over reading about people playing video games. If you aren’t a geek now, I guarantee you will be after reading this fantastic debut by Ernest Cline.

Ready Player One takes place in 2044, where a desolate Earth has fallen on hard times that feel very familiar: fossil fuels are all but used up, the predicted effects of global warming have finally come to pass, and the economy has gone to hell in a hand basket. The world is in the midst of the Global Energy Crisis, and Wade Watts, our eighteen-year-old hero, is struggling to survive in “the stacks,” a low-income housing area consisting of hundreds of mobile homes stacked on top of one another, just outside of Oklahoma City. Life is grim, and most people spend their waking hours inside the OASIS, an intricately constructed virtual reality world where every bit of 80’s pop culture has been lovingly recreated.  Here avatars are free to explore the galaxy, play video games, slay opponents, and earn credits by collecting magical objects and winning games. Wade’s avatar, Parzival, like many others, is obsessed with finding Halliday’s Easter egg, which has been hidden somewhere inside the OASIS by James Halliday, the brilliant and eccentric creator of the game who died five years earlier. Because finding the egg first means acquiring Halliday’s fortune and control of the OASIS, Parzival spends his days learning every possible bit of minutia about the 80’s, hoping he will stumble upon something that will unravel the first clue. Pursued by “Sixers,” the identical employees of Innovative Online Industries, who are collectively trying to find the egg and gain power of the OASIS for nefarious purposes, Parzival and his avatar competitors Aech and Art3mis race to find the egg.  But when the danger of the OASIS spills over into Wade’s real life, Wade joins forces with his friends to try to stop the Sixers from getting to the egg first, win the prize, and save the world.

If you think this plot seems overly complex, then you would be right.  Ready Player One is stuffed with so much information that I marveled at Parzival’s (and Cline’s) exhaustive knowledge of the 80’s. (In fact, I’m pretty sure the aforementioned “Castle” makes an appearance somewhere in this book.)  And this review barely scratches the surface.  Dive into the story on your own and you will discover a story driven by frenetic energy, likable characters, and enough suspense to keep you going for the rest of 2011. Add in some social commentary and witty dialog, and you’ve got a winning combination. Will the good guys win? Will Parzival ever meet Art3mis in real life? Will the coin Parzival won at Pac-Man figure into the final showdown? You’ll just have to read to find out.

Ready Player One is a wild and exhausting romp through time and space, and the most fun I’ve had reading in a long time. If you love the 80’s (and even if you don’t), you will find this action-packed trip down memory lane an unforgettable experience. So stop what you are doing right now and Go. Read. This. Book.


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HAZARDOUS CHOICES by Joseph Rinaldo – Review

Joseph Rinaldo’s first book, A Spy at Home, was a thriller about a CIA operative who embezzles nine million dollars from his employer and the repercussions of his actions, and featured an endearing character with Down syndrome.  Hazardous Choices, his second release, also has a main character with Down syndrome, but that is about the only thing the two books have in common. Where A Spy at Home was loaded with over-the-top drama and unlikely scenarios, Hazardous Choices focuses on a real danger that is much closer to home: gang violence.

The story centers around Darnell Jackson, a gang member from Chicago who has been given a football scholarship to Western Kentucky State University. Darnell is trying to escape his violent and hardscrabble life in the gang and dreads the upcoming summer vacation when he will have to return to Chicago and take his place in the Nights of Neptune, a brutal gang that patrols Chicago’s Garfield Park, dealing drugs and trying to keep the rival neighborhood gang, the Warriors, out of their territory. Most of the action, however, takes place in Owensboro, Kentucky, where Darnell bonds with his football team and proves himself a rising star on the field. Coach Ben Rotelli and his family live a comfortable and conservative life in typical small-town fashion.  Ben is the head football coach at WKSU; his wife Caroline cares for their two children, fifteen-year-old Nicole and eighteen-year-old Eric, who has Down syndrome. Life seems near perfect as Ben vows to coach the team to a winning season and Nicole goes about her life as a typical teenager, occasionally getting into trouble. That is until school ends and Darnell is forced to go home to Chicago in order to protect his mother.

Here the tone of the story shifts abruptly as we are thrown into Darnell’s home life in the gang. His summer in Chicago is spent dealing drugs and defending his fellow gang members against the rival Warriors. Shootings are commonplace, and Darnell seems to take it all in stride, although he desperately wants out. As the violence escalates and he becomes entangled in a situation that can only end in death, he lies to his gang leader about killing a Warrior and makes up a story that allows him to go back to WKSU early. Back in Kentucky, life seems far away from the horrors of his home life, but all too soon the two worlds collide in an unexpectedly violent way, and life for the peaceful, hardworking folk in Owensboro will never be the same again.

I have to give Rinaldo credit for keeping me engaged in a story that revolves around football.  He clearly loves the game; football is an important element in Hazardous Choices. For that reason I would never have picked up this book on my own, but I’m glad I got a chance to read it. I loved the shifts between the two worlds, and I thought the serene family life and team camaraderie contrasted well with the darker elements of gang life. The characters in particular were completely engaging. Eric, Ben’s Down syndrome son, was one of my favorites. One compelling storyline has Ben and Nicole learning sign language so that Ben, who is not able to speak, can better communicate with his family.  There are also several dysfunctional characters that keep the story balanced, such as Darnell’s mother Marlena, who lives alone in fear in her Chicago apartment while Darnell is away at school, and has a history of sexual abuse. But Darnell is the real hero of the story as a character trying to overcome a bad childhood and better himself at school and on the football field. Although the book ends too abruptly for my taste, and Rinaldo could have spent more time helping his characters find closure at the end, I felt myself immersed in the story from beginning to end. Rinaldo’s courage to forgo the expected happy ending and take the harder path gives Hazardous Choices a poignant quality that I found refreshing. Whether or not you are a football fan, Darnell’s journey and redemption will not disappoint.  You can visit Joseph Rinaldo’s website here, and purchase the e-book here.


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HANDLING THE UNDEAD by John Ajvide Lindqvist – Review

Usually in this blog, I try to keep my reviews to current releases, which makes sense because I rarely “go back in time” to try to catch up with books I’ve missed.  This October, however, I broke that rule and picked up Handling the Undead, a book that was released a year ago.  I did this for three reasons. First, it was October, and I wanted to spend the entire month reading only horror (with the exception of our Book Club book).  Second, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first American release, Let Me In, is one of my all-time favorite vampire novels, and I felt bad that I hadn’t yet found time to read his second book. Finally, I wanted to mention Let Me In in this review, because I liked it a whole lot better than Handling the Undead, and I want people to read it. I may even mention the two movie versions at the end of this review, so keep reading…

Handling the Undead is a zombie novel, yes, but at first glance, it is a kinder, gentler zombie novel with an unusual premise: what happens when everyone in town who died in the past two months starts coming back to life?  And what if these walking dead aren’t dangerous, but merely confused?  Do you take in your recently deceased father who stumbles back home and try to care for him?  And what about the dead who have already been buried?  Do you dig them up and save them from the confusion of waking up underground?  How exactly do you handle the undead?

It is August 2002 in Stockholm, Sweden.  One day the citizens in and around the area of Stockholm begin to experience strange phenomenon:  blazingly painful headaches, electrical appliances and lights that refuse to turn off, and a loud buzzing noise that won’t stop.  All over the city, fat white worms fall from the sky and burrow into graves, presumably bringing the dead back to life (although this is never fully explained).  The dead awaken, and they want one thing: to go home.

The story alternates among three groups of characters and their individual experiences. David, whose wife Eva is killed in a car accident shortly after the dead rise, and comes back to life in the morgue; Elvy and her granddaughter Flora and Elvy’s recently deceased husband Tore who shows up on their doorstep; and Mahler, a reporter who decides to exhume his beloved dead grandson.  

Mahler’s story in particular is the most emotionally engaging and elevates the book above normal zombie fare.  His grief for his grandson Elias is still fresh (Elias died from a fall off a balcony while trying to catch a ladybug).  Mahler realizes early on what is happening, and goes to the cemetery where Elias is buried, digs him up, and brings him home. Mahler’s daughter Anna, Elias’ mother, is appalled to see her son in this condition, since he has been dead for two months and looks it, but her motherly urges kick in and she and Mahler begin the task of not only keeping Elias hidden from the authorities, who are trying to round up the dead and put them in a holding cell, but bringing Elias back to his former state by feeding him salt water.

Like the shambling dead, the pace of the story was slow and lurching. I was on edge waiting for something horrific to happen, and it isn’t until near the end that we learn a dreadful truth:  the walking dead are meek and harmless as long as the citizens of Stockholm are thinking nice thoughts.  But when people become angry and start to threaten the dead, the dead strike back, and their true zombie nature comes out. The walking dead, you see, can communicate telepathically with the living. Once the anger and fear start spreading, things begin to quickly deteriorate, and patient readers will finally get the carnage they have come to expect from zombies.

In comparison to Handling the Undead, if I had reviewed Lindqvist’s vampire story Let Me In I would have given it five stars, so if you love vampire stories and the creepiness of Swedish novels, I highly recommend Let Me In, which is more atmospheric and dark, and has a more straight-forward narrative with less characters to contend with. Whether you read the novel or not, please consider watching the two movie versions, Swedish and American, which in my opinion are equally brilliant. The Swedish version, which was retitled Let the Right One In, should be watched with subtitles, rather than the dubbed cut which just sounds ridiculous. The American remake (which uses the original title) is just as good; in fact the two movies seem to have the exact same script and mirror each other scene for scene.

Halloween is over for another year, but don’t let that stop you from indulging in some great horror, either in the form of a book or a movie. As for me, I will make sure to read Lindqvist’s next book as soon as it comes out…


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Read Me! 11/22/63: A NOVEL by Stephen King – Recommended Reading

Finally, it’s here. Seems like I’ve been waiting forever for the new Stephen King book.  Out today is 11/22/63: A Novel, King’s massive (960 pages) epic time travel story, about Jake Epping, a man who discovers a portal to the year 1958.  His friend Al, who just happens to have the portal in the storeroom of his diner, encourages Jake to go on a mission back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination.

Here’s the book description from Amazon: “On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed. What if you could change it back? Stephen King’s heart-stoppingly dramatic new novel is about a man who travels back in time to prevent the JFK assassination—a thousand page tour de force.

Following his massively successful novel Under the Dome, King sweeps readers back in time to another moment—a real life moment—when everything went wrong: the JFK assassination. And he introduces readers to a character who has the power to change the course of history.  Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students—a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.

Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane—and insanely possible—mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life—a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.  A tribute to a simpler era and a devastating exercise in escalating suspense, 11/22/63 is Stephen King at his epic best.”

If you’ve read this blog before, you know I am a huge Stephen King fan.  I recently waxed rhapsodic about his series The Dark Tower here.  I am happy to see him take on a more serious subject this time around, and paired with the time travel element, I expect this will be a great read. Now I just need to figure out a way to freeze time so I can read it…


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ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead – Review

Let’s get this straight: Zone One is a zombie novel.  There is blood, viscera, various bodily fluids streaming through the gutters, dead men walking, and heads being blown off right and left.  There is terror and running away and hiding from the dead.  There is a dying world without electricity, ash-covered streets, and bleak prospects for all. But Zone One was not at all what I expected.  And in a good way.

Zone One takes place over a three-day period, as a motley crew of “sweepers” works the buildings of lower Manhattan to clear out the skels and stragglers that pocket the island. An unnamed catastrophe has rendered most of humanity zombies, and the humans left unaffected have banded together in various scattered groups to try to stop the dead.  Our  protagonist, Mark Spitz (whose nickname is explained mid-way through the novel), is part of a small band of sweepers whose job is to look for the remaining skels (the walking, shambling, dangerous dead) and stragglers (the dead that don’t move and are frozen in mid-activity, but are presumably harmless) that are left after an initial military sweep and exterminate them. As they move through the city’s skyscrapers, floor by floor, guns at the ready, the story skips from present to past and back as Mark Spitz remembers the terrifying events of “Last Night” and other significant moments since then. 

Colson Whitehead loves words.  And that love is evident in every paragraph of this book. Fair warning: for some readers, this love of words will get in the way of the story, and for those who experience his wordiness as a mountain too tall to climb and give up before the end, I’m sorry that you will not get the full reading experience of Zone One. Whitehead’s descriptive talents are vast. He can take a seemingly irrelevant experience and turn it into poetry, and he does so throughout the book.  Because the world is ending, these descriptions become laced with a nostalgic yearning for times past.  As things start to go downhill, Mark Spitz remembers with a cynical fondness the better times since Last Night.  Even the grim reality of this ash-drenched world contains moments of small happiness: a brief stay in a toy store with a woman named Mim, a stretch of time living in a farmhouse in Massachusetts with a group of survivors and their fabulously executed kitchen, a woman called the Quiet Storm who leaves messages by arranging abandoned cars in artfully staged installations. Even the sight of his Uncle Lloyd’s city apartment as he trudges through his sweeper duties reminds him of how he used to visit his uncle as a child, and how much he has always wanted to live in New York.  Wish granted. And as the massacred zombies pile up, the body disposal teams are forced to incinerate them to keep the plague from spreading. What results is a constant rain of ash, “the dust of the dead.”  Even in this horror, Whitehead finds poetry.

What sets this novel apart from other zombie novels, however, is Whitehead’s ability to skewer the human condition in the midst of the world falling apart. His wry observations on everything from smartphones to internet auctions serve as a warning: don’t get too comfortable with modern life because sooner or later the world will end. Instead of worrying about climbing the corporate ladder, you will be running from a dead person that wants to eat you.  It’s a standard zombie story allegory: the consumers become the consumed. In Whitehead’s hands, though, the reader can actually step aside from the horror and appreciate the subtle humor.

Zone One is a series of out-of-order vignettes that when patched together form a pastiche of horror. To jump around in time and still manage to tell the tale takes skill. In the case of Mark Spitz, reading his story out-of-order makes a certain sense. The world is no longer functioning, and so the tale becomes fractured. Take heart, readers.  Be patient. By the end you will be able to look back and appreciate the madness.

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BONES Season 7 Premiere Tonight!

I have been neglecting the “Bones” and “Buffy” content of this blog, so today I bring you good news: FINALLY, the Bones Season 7 Premiere airs tonight on Fox!  Those of you who know me realize how happy this makes me. Tonight’s episode is called “The Memories in the Shallow Grave.”  Click on the photo above to be whisked away to the Fox/Bones website where there are videos galore. If you follow the series, you know that Brennan and Booth are having a baby. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I’m pretty sure the writers will figure out a way to keep the standard tv pregnancy schmaltz out of the story. At least I hope so. When the main characters of a tv show finally “get together,” it usually signals the end of the series, and it would really kill me if Season 7 is the last…

Now I’m off to set the DVR. So I can watch it more than once, of course.

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