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Review: The Oracle Code

Recap: An archaeological dig in Afghanistan is where we find Professor Thomas Lourds and his friend Boris. Boris has recently discovered a set of scrolls, said to be the scrolls of Alexander the Great. But they’re written in ancient writing — writing that Boris cannot read or understand. That’s where Professor Lourds steps in.

Boris believes the scrolls will lead them to the tomb of Alexander the Great. But before Lourds can get a good look at the scrolls, their archeological group is attacked. Soon an all-out battle takes place, leaving Boris dead and Lourds to work alongside a young Russian newspaper reporter, Anna. It becomes clear to them that someone — particularly a Russian ex-military man — is after the scrolls and wants to see the two of them dead. To add to the hysteria, President Nevsky, of Russia, has invaded Ukraine, with plans to bring back the USSR.

Professor Lourds’ task of revealing the meaning of the scrolls has become a matter of life and death. Not to mention, it’s the only way he can honor Boris after he has died. But can he uncover the meaning? And do the scrolls, in fact, lead to the grave of Alexander the Great?

Analysis: The format, pacing and writing style in Charles Brokaw’s The Oracle Code is very similar to Dan Brown and his Robert Langdon series (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons). Even the character, Thomas Lourds, bears striking similarities to Robert Langdon — though the knowledge of symbols is replaced with a knowledge of ancient languages and mythology. While enjoyable, I couldn’t help but compare the novel to Dan Brown’s work.

What I found is that Brokaw took the action that existed in Brown’s Angels and Demons, but left out much of the analytical research and explanations of The Da Vinci Code. That was a good move on Brokaw’s part; it certainly kept the story moving. That being said, I found myself hoping for more explanation of Lourds’ work. Brokaw presented several scenes in which other characters comment on Lourds’ sleep-deprived state. He explains that he was up for hours working on the scrolls, and he shares what he learned from them. While it was great to finally learn what was in the scrolls, I wanted to know what Lourds was doing in those late-night hours to interpret them. How did he figure out the language and the scripture?

The last moments in the book also felt rushed, making it a bit difficult to keep up. The epilogue, however, does a good job of wrapping up the few subplots that the last chapter seemed to bypass, certainly leaving it open to yet another Code book with Thomas Lourds as the leading man and a historical mystery as the leading lady.

MVP: Anna, the reporter. A complex character with a shocking story line, Anna personalizes the story that’s otherwise about a set a scrolls. Her courage is commendable and her loyalty to getting the scoop admirable.

Get The Oracle Code on your Kindle for $2.99.

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Review: Deuce Delaney

Recap: As young teenagers, we all made mistakes, but not like middle schooler Deuce Delaney. Deuce — whose real name is Mansfield, but prefers “Deuce” — sets off stink bombs, steals money to buy tranquilizer guns, and does some of the normal teenage stuff too, like smoking, drinking, and terrorizing his younger sister.

In this modernized story about the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf,’ Deuce starts off as a boy with an imaginative mind. He thinks he sees a ghost or creature near his secret hiding spot in the woods. He follows clues through a sewer to find out what the creature is. But the story quickly moves past the ghost story to one of a boy who can’t escape trouble. Deuce is constantly being grounded. He gets his friends into trouble. In an attempt to do well, he joins clubs but is soon kicked out of them. He gets suspended from school, fails a class, and has to attend summer school. And that’s where he meets another troubled boy like himself, named Russell.

That’s when things start to escalate. When Deuce tries to put out a fire in his school, he is blamed for starting it. He realizes that Russell probably had something to do with it. But Russell mysteriously dies, and Deuce is the only one who knows how. He must prove it to those who don’t believe him.

Analysis: Deuce Delaney is a coming-of-age story, combined with mystery, action and thriller. Sadly, the most exciting parts of the novel are saved for the beginning and end. Upon beginning the book, Delaney reminded me of Now and Then in that it combined themes of growing up with uncovering a mystery. But that ghost/creature story was completely dismissed until the end.

Much of the middle of the novel was devoted to Deuce’s mishaps and troublemaking. I understand that this is what the author, Michael Murray, intended. Showing what a “bad kid” Deuce is serves to explain why people in authority positions wouldn’t believe him in the end when he uncovers the mystery. But while this character-developing portion of the book serves a purpose, it’s very long; so long, in fact, that the reader forgets about the “creature” from the beginning altogether.

That being said, the writing itself is well-done. Told in first person, the author does a good job of writing or speaking as a 13-year-old would. It’s a little disorganized, but very self-centered and straightforward, which is fitting for Deuce’s personality. At the end, Deuce proves his point, but it leaves me wondering how much he really learned and if he grew from this experience at all.

Get Deuce Delaney for your Kindle for only $2.99.

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Get The Invention of Hugo Cabret in Hardcover for Just $14.99

Here’s one last Oscar book for you — The Invention of Hugo Cabret — which Martin Scorsese made an Oscar nominee this year with his movie, Hugo.
A fun and animated book, Hugo tells the story of a boy who lives inside a Paris train station. It’s a long book, but it’s also full of pictures. Likewise, Scorsese is getting a lot of critical acclaim for his movie adaptation — one of the few movies, he’s said multiple times, that he’ll allow his 12-year-old daughter to watch. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, the book seems to be a fun one, with quite the journey.

Get The Invention of Hugo Cabret in hardcover for just $14.99.

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Review: Mockingjay

**Spoiler Alert: If you have only read my Hunger Games review and Catching Fire review and not the actual book, you might not want to read the following review. Spoilers from previous books are included.

Recap: In the third and final book of The Hunger Games series, we’re still trying to make sense of what happened in book two, Catching Fire. And it seems, so is the main character, Katniss. We quickly learn District 12 has been destroyed, and its remaining inhabitants now live in District 13. Destruction, betrayal, and confusion fill Katniss’s mind as she tries to come up with a plan to get Peeta back from the Capitol — where he’s being held captive — and kill President Snow.

But as I mentioned in my review of Catching Fire, the second book was really just a connector to Mockingjay, which focuses on the rebellion against the Capitol lead by Katniss. Mockingjay holds up the promise of letting a rebel war play out the way it should. The  guys work on new equipment, while the soldiers train. But everything gets turned around when Peeta and Katniss are reunited. The Capitol has tortured, abused, and brainwashed Peeta with tracker jacker fluid, turning him against Katniss.

Now an untrained Katniss, an unstable Peeta, and a willful Gale must work together — along with their fellow soldiers — to take on the Capitol. But their unfamiliarity with the layout of the land, their well-known faces, and the strength of President Snow work against them. Not to mention, Snow isn’t their only enemy.

Analysis: In Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins does a great job of demonstrating the themes of the entire series — trust and loyalty. Here, Katniss grapples with who she can trust. And for the first time, so does Peeta.  With the dynamic between Katniss and Peeta so stunningly different from how it’s been in the past, the reader understands what a twisted world these kids live in. Everyone is questionable, even the closest of friends.

Mockingjay also takes the dark concepts of the previous books to another level. For instance, death and mourning plays a big part in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, when Rue and Cinna die. But the importance of some of the losses in Mockingjay go deeper. And the way Katniss deals with it is a little crazy, but also very real.

And the action — well, it’s a war. A purple haze that shoots blood from everyone’s orafaces, a ground that opens up, parachutes that explode — it’s absurd and it’s violent. Mockingjay makes The Hunger Games looks like child’s play. Katniss, Peeta, and Gale have been thrust into a world where they have to grow up fast — and that they do.

The only issues I had were with the ending. A number of characters’ plotlines were not tied up. Not to mention, the epilogue was unnecessary and very Harry Potter-esque. Nonetheless, it was nice to peak into the future.

MVP: Peeta Melark. Yes, Peeta’s kind of a bastard for much of Mockingjay. But he’s also been brainwashed and doesn’t know any better. Plus, it’s amazing to see this violent, angry side of him, when we’re so used to seeing him as a calm, tender kid. He wasn’t my favorite character in this book, but he was the most interesting.

Get Mockingjay in hardcover for just $8!

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Review: Painted Ladies

Recap: Not a new book, not a new author, and not a new character, but still the same old awesomeness. Robert B. Parker’s Painted Ladies follows the next case in the long list of those covered by Spenser, a private detective from Boston. In his latest triumph, Spenser works as a bodyguard for Ashton Prince — a world-renowned art expert — as he attempts to give a criminal ransom money for a stolen painting. But Prince is killed, and Spenser –unable to accept failure — seeks to find out who killed Prince and why.

Spenser works to solve the mystery with the help of his buddies in the Boston Police. They quickly find themselves stuck in a complicated case concerning paintings, daddy abandonment issues, and the Holocaust. Along the way, Spenser discovers Ashton Prince is a Jewish man with relatives who were murdered by the Nazis during WWII. But he must determine if this stolen painting case dates back that far or not.

Analysis: As a newcomer to Robert B. Parker’s prolific detective fiction, I didn’t know what I was getting into. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that Parker’s fast-paced storytelling and quick-witted dialogue are his best literary assets. The dialogue is snappy and had me laughing out loud at parts. I’m always impressed by an author who can describe a character without having to write a set “description paragraph.”

His dialogue also works well to describe the relationships between people — like that of Spenser and his long-time girlfriend, Susan. From their conversations, we see what a charmer Spenser is and how much these two characters really love each other — despite their decision not to live together.

Susan’s role in this particular story is also fairly relevant, as Spenser questions her about her Jewish background in regards to the Holocaust parts of his case.

One important thing to note is that this was the last book Parker published before he passed away — his last (not counting posthumous) publication of roughly 40 books in The Spenser Series. 40! To have readers turning pages after 40 books with the same character is highly commendable.

MVP: Spenser — no first name. Spenser is undeniably smart and suave — in the same way many detectives in these novels are. But more importantly, he’s likable, which isn’t always the case in this kind of story. Often the good-looking, smart detective comes across as snooty. But Spenser is the kind of guy I’d like to grab a beer with at a bar. And that’s pretty great.

Get Painted Ladies for just $10 or in a special 4-for-3 deal.

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Captain G-Unit: 50 Cent to Pen Comic Book

Rapper 50 Cent is already a New York Times bestseller with his book, The 50th Law. But now he’s looking to capitalize on his writing success by penning a comic book (which will be co-written by Robert Greene).

According to this article by XXL News, the comic will be based on his bestselling book. The 50th Law (co-written by Robert Greene) is a how-to for achieving success. SmarterComics will publish it next year in print and e-book versions. As Lauren Carter explains, the publishing company “combines the educational power of textbooks with the visual appeal and entertainment value of comic books.”

I hadn’t known that 50 Cent had a book, but now I’m curious to read it. I’m also wondering how a self-help book will become a comic book. After all, aren’t most comics fantasies?

Get The 50th Law for just $11 — a total savings of 44%.

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Review: The Lost Symbol

Recap: The Lost Symbol begins in much the same way all of Dan Brown’s books in the Robert Langdon series do: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is abruptly interrupted to respond to a symbol emergency. In this particular novel — the third and most recent in the series — Langdon’s mentor, Peter Solomon, requests that he give a speech at the United States Capitol. So Langdon flies to Washington D.C. But he’s in for much more than he imagined. 

He soon learns he’s been tricked. In fact, Peter Solomon has no idea Langdon is in town. And as Langdon attempts to find him, he instead finds his mentor’s severed hand, lying in the middle of the Capitol Rotunda. In a moment of chaos, Langdon learns Solomon has been kidnapped by a man named Mal’akh. Mal’akh tells him the only way Solomon will be spared is if Langdon locates the Lost Word and Mason’s Pyramid.

And so begins a new symbolic saga for Langdon, who must find the Lost Word, the Mason’s Pyramid, Peter Solomon, and deal with the CIA in its attempts to find the kidnapper.

Analysis: It’s apparent that Brown uses a specific guideline for his Robert Langdon stories. They all start the same and take Robert Langdon to another city on a quest to find or decode something. Always, there is an exotic woman involved — in this case, Peter Solomon’s younger sister and brilliant scientist Katherine — and the entire long-winded story takes place in the course of an evening.

Brown not only uses similar formatting in his novels, but common themes as well: religion, symbology, ancient art, architecture, and history. The same holds true in The Lost Symbol, in which the reader is taught about the world of Freemasonry. Also included is information about the architecture in Washington D.C. and the art that adorns it. You know when you’re reading a Dan Brown novel, it’s going to be  heavy. There’s a lot for the readers to wrap their heads around. And as overwhelming and intimidating as it looks, the background information is necessary in the long run.

In The Lost Symbol, Brown also focuses a lot on character development. Learning about Katherine’s Noetic science research and the many transformations of Mal’akh are particularly fascinating.

But there’s nothing like Brown’s pacing and storytelling. The short chapters help the novel move along quickly, and the major twist toward the end is breathtaking.

MVP: Katherine Solomon. Girl power! This woman is brilliant and kicks ass. She works well with Langdon to try to uncover the Ancient Mysteries and the location of her brother. There’s an underlying tone of romance between her and Langdon, but Brown keep its realistic. But most importantly, Katherine’s emotional ties to their work –namely, trying to saving her brother’s life — makes the reader feel for Katherine and the pressure she is under.

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Positive Reviews for Pottermore!

If you’re still waiting for the email saying you’ve been chosen to enter the wonderful wizarding world of Pottermore, then you’re wasting your time.

It seems the Sorting Hat has already picked the special few who get an early look at the Harry Potter-infused web site. And so far it’s getting good reviews.

Writers from Huffington Post and Entertainment Weekly got first looks (I’m not sure if that was purely by chance or because they’re writers for Huffington Post and Entertainment Weekly), and it seems they had few bad things to say about it.

The cons: moments of slow connectivity, glitches in hidden content, trouble stirring potions, not much to do upon first entering the site.

The pros: character backgrounds, location histories, excluded plot lines, fun facts (like Hermoine’s last name was originally going to be Puckle), having a wand choose you (and match your personality traits), few ads, House points, House Cup, surprise video clips from J.K. Rowling herself, etc, etc, more fabulousness, etc.

It’s clear that the pros outweigh the cons here. But probably the most interesting thing I learned upon reading the reviews is that only Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone content is available at this point. I suppose content related to the other books will come in due time, but that’s kind of a downer. The good news is…October is just around the corner, and Pottermore will be free to all of us Muggles!

For more, here’s my take on the web site, the Huffington Post review, the Entertainment Weekly review, and more photos from Entertainment Weekly.

**Edit: It has come to my attention that all those who have signed up for Pottermore WILL gain full access to the site prior to October. The site is operating on a rolling admission. Please see comments below.

Get the entire Harry Potter box set in paperback for only $50 — a total savings of 43%.

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Review: Catching Fire

**Spoiler Alert: If you have only read my Hunger Games review, and not the actual book, you might not want to read the following review. Hunger Games spoilers are included.

Recap: In the second book of The Hunger Games triology, Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, with Katniss and Peeta as victors of the Games. The novel takes the reader through their tour of Panem, meeting fans (and enemies), partying, giving speeches, and generally relishing in their 15 minutes of fame. But Katniss quickly learns there’s a lot more mayhem going on than it seems.

President Snow privately explains to Katniss that her act of defiance during the Games — attempting suicide with poisonous berries — has started talk of uprisings in the districts. He threatens to kill her loved ones, unless she can prove that her actions were not rebellious, but done out of love for Peeta.

So Katniss is faced with the task of proving her genuine love to Peeta, but will it even matter if she does? If President Snow’s stories of uprisings around Panem are true, it’s hard to believe Katniss will be able to save anyone, let alone the ones she loves.

And on top of everything else, another year has passed, which means another reaping. But this time it’s the Quarter Quell, a special Hunger Games event that happens only every 25 years. And that means anything can happen.

Analysis: By the time you get to the end of Catching Fire, it becomes stunningly apparent that the second novel acts as a bridge to the third and final book, Mockingjay. But that doesn’t mean there’s any less action.

The height of Catching Fire‘s story takes place at the Hunger Games. And this time around, the environment of the arena is strikingly different from the one in the first book. Collins does a better job of describing the layout and setting here, which adds to the story. With more sensory information, we as readers are better able to understand what the characters are dealing with. Not to mention, this particular arena is far more complicated.

Collins also focuses more on the other tributes in the arena. In The Hunger Games, Rue is the only other tribute we really get to know,  besides Katniss and Peeta. But here, we learn about a handful of them — Mags, Finnick, Beetee, Wiress, and Johanna. We also see a different side of Katniss, as she teams up with the other tributes and forms alliances. But as Katniss and the reader learn, alliance doesn’t necessarily mean trust.

MVP: Finnick Odair. Like Peeta in The Hunger Games, it’s difficult to decide whether or not to like Finnick. But we’re nonetheless intrigued, both by his actions and Collins’ handsome description of him. We ultimately learn how we’re supposed to feel about Finnick at the end of the novel, but his mysteriousness remains in tact. Let’s face it: he sounds dreamy.

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Pottermore Challenge is Up and Running

After a month of anticipation, J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore web site is finally underway. Yes, it’s been accessible since June, but now the fun begins.

As I explained last month, Rowling’s Pottermore web site is designed to offer not only e-book versions of the entire Harry Potter series, but also inside information and exclusive details about the world of Harry Potter from the creator herself.

The site does not launch publicly until October, but a number of people will be able to log on sooner. Today through Saturday, people may register on the site for a chance to gain early access. But you must decode Rowling’s clues. New clues will be posted each day, as Rowling explains.

Those of you who would like the chance to gain early access to Pottermore must find The Magical Quill and then submit their registration details. Each day, from 31 July to 6 August, a clue will be revealed here. Solve the clue and you will be taken to The Magical Quill. Be quick, The Magical Quill won’t be there for long and registration will only be open while spaces are still available each day.

Leave it to Rowling to make her web site as suspenseful as the Deathly Hallows.

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