Reading Apps

2

A couple days ago, my friend Mr.Book (aka Jason Vigorito) posted a question on Litsy asking everyone to list their favorite reading or bookish apps. I dutifully went off to look at my Reading folder, and realized I might have a teeny-tiny problem.

I have A LOT of book-related apps. However, they are all there for a purpose, meaning I use most of them at least once a month. Some are better than others, some are spectacular. I thought I’d share them with you here.

Apps for Reading E-Books

I source my e-content from multiple locations, and some require different apps to download and open the content.

  • Kindle – probably my most frequently used app. Judge me if you will, but I adore Amazon.
  • Bluefire Reader – an alternative to Kindle which I use most often to open advanced reading copies from NetGalley.
  • Aldiko Reader – another alternative, when Bluefire won’t format the content in a readable size.
  • Adobe Digital Editions – the Momma of PDF readers. Sometimes a little quirky depending on which device I’m using.

Apps for Acquiring Content

I read widely – current fiction and non-fiction, stories, essays and recipes published in earlier centuries, self-published work, longreads, shortreads, and so on. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Overdrive/Libby – The BEST source of free content, offered through your local public library. As a New York resident, I have library cards for my home (Monroe County), New York Public Library, and Brooklyn Public Library, which triples the amount of content I can access. The Overdrive app has dramatically improved since it was first launched so downloading and opening content is a breeze.
  • BiblioBoard/Self-e – Provides access to classics, rare volumes, and independent publishing.
  • Playbooks – Provides access to reading content via GoogleBooks.
  • Audible – The best source for quality e-audiobooks. Pricey, but they often run amazing deals.
  • BookShout – Another source for purchased content which frequently offers great deals.
  • Open eBooks – I have access to this huge database of children’s books because I am a librarian and have worked to make this content available to kids who qualify for it. This was an initiative of the Obama Administration.
  • Serial Reader – Very like “Chapter a Day,” an email reading “club” from the 90s. A portion of a selected title (usually a classic) is pushed to your app daily. This is one I use less than most. I have found that Wuthering Heights is no more engaging in small chunks than it is in full.
  • Simply-e – The fabulous app from New York Public Library that makes selecting, downloading, and reading from their enormous e-book collection a total snap. You’ll also find content here that is not available in other library collections.
  • Gutenberg – Gives you access to a variety of public domain books.
  • FanFiction – A treasure trove of fan fic, heavy on the sci-fi/fantasy side but still entertaining.

News Readers

I use fewer news readers, but do find different content on each that I regularly check.

  • Pocket – You can save longreads from various websites to Pocket so you can go back later when you have time to spend with your selections.
  • Flipboard – Aggregates stories based on my preferences; I really like the grid layout of the app.
  • Feedly – Sort of a grown-up version of a RSS aggregator.
  • Medium – My current favorite for longreads written by real people on topics that matter. Each article tells you how long it will take to read. Slightly similar to Reddit in that articles get more exposure as people “like” them.

Miscellaneous Apps

  • NYPL Biblion – This was an early product from NYPL that opened access to some of their marvelous collecitons of images and documents. Get lost in the World’s Fair, or Frankenstein collections. My iPad keeps telling me Biblion is not compatible with future versions of iOS, so I hope NYPL updates it.
  • BookOut – This is a neat little app that lets you track how long you spend reading.
  • Litsy – I’ve saved the best for last, so I hope you’ve read all the way through. Litsy is the best thing to happen to Readers…maybe ever. Simply put, this is a mashup of Instagram and Goodreads and is a community of people who (gasp!) are nice to each other! There’s no judgment – people share romances next to graphic novels next to classics next to whatever.

So, are you beginning to see why I say I am a Reader with a capital R? I hope you check some of these apps out and find one or two that speak to you.

Helen by Anita Mishook


IMG_1299A dream turned inside out. That was California.” Helen Rice, the protagonist in Anita Mishook’s masterful debut novel, Helen, certainly finds truth in this statement. We first meet Helen as she travels from New York to California to join her older sister and her family in lovely Glendale, California. The sisters, Polish Jews orphaned jointly by the Great War and influenza, survived great hardship and made it to New York, where Sarah labored to ensure Helen acquired the best education possible. Now an adult, Helen finds herself drifting and decides to join Sarah, her husband Harry, and their two children in the land of golden opportunity.

However, Helen soon learns that sunny California has a dark and dirty underbelly which includes gangers, corrupt cops, and Nazis. Helen, passing as a “Good German Girl,” becomes the darling of a dangerous group of Nazi supporters known as the Silver Shirts. At the same time, Helen’s friend from New York, a spy for the Anti Defamation League, arrives and immediately enlists Helen as a spy. Helen, by default, begins to live a dangerous double life, culminating in foiling a Nazi plot and triggering a new life as a double agent.

Mishook, a psychologist, developed Helen’s story out of research into her own family history. She uncovered evidence of the emergence of an American Nazi Party in California in the 1930s as she researched her mother-in-law’s immigration from Poland to California, and spun that family history into a readable, informative novel. There are wonderful and disturbing nuggets of historical information here about the motion picture industry and American Nazis, much of which I never knew. Mishook’s writing is smooth and conversational, and she handles dialog well, especially given this is her first novel. The character development is skillful, resulting in some very well-drawn personas. Helen, for example, walks a fine line between irritating, charming, shallow, and badass. She’s a rather vain, unformed young woman who has drifted through her life pretty much guided by her older sister. We watch her move from uncertain girl still depending on older sister Sarah to tell her what to do, to a more confident, daring young woman who has a purpose.

Other characters like Harry and Ralph are interesting, while Joe and Winona could have used a bit more development. However, these characters all fit their roles just fine and contributed what was needed to the story. If I have one quibble with this story, it’s a small one. Sometimes authors really, really like a descriptive phrase and tend to repeat it multiple times throughout a book. That happened here, with the author repeatedly describing Helen as “chewing the soft interior of her cheek/lip” during moments of uncertainty. By the end of the book, the inside of Helen’s mouth should have been a bloody pulp if she chewed her cheek so much! But, that is a minor quibble with an otherwise wonderful book. I hope Mishook continues to produce novels and am looking forward to her next one! Recommended.

Dragonwatch by Brandon Mull


dragonwatchFablehaven fans, rejoice! Kendra and Seth are back and as badass as ever!

Dragonwatch opens with a mysterious early morning meeting between Grandpa Sorensen and a shady, cloaked being, where Grandpa is warned of a coming disaster. Kendra, out for her morning run, over hears some of the conversation and realizes that she and Seth will likely be called upon to do battle again. This time, however, more will be asked of the two than ever before. Can they handle the responsibility?

As with the earlier Fablehaven books, Mull creates a vivid landscape filled with all sorts of glorious and deadly creatures. At center stage in Dragonwatch are, of course, DRAGONS! Celebrant the Just takes his places among Dragons of Literature here, right up there with Smaug, Orm, and Saphira. Mull moves the story along at a rapid pace, and successfully keeps Kendra and Seth pretty normal kids who just happen to have mystical powers. The dialog is breezy and colloquial, which will appeal to readers and keep them going. The story arc begun here leaves so much room for more entries in this series that fans will be thrilled and left eagerly awaiting the next. Well done, Mr. Mull. Well done.

The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth


airthRennie Airth’s first novel featuring Scotland Yard detective John Madden,River of Darkness, grabbed me by the throat in the first chapter and never let go. I’ve been a fan of the series ever since. The Death of Kings is the 5th Madden book, and confirms what I began to suspect by the 4th book: Airth’s intricate, suspenseful, brain-crushing storytelling has followed an arc from edgy-detective-damaged-in-the-Great-War to retired-detective-turned-farmer-and-doting-father.

The story here is, in turns, interesting and deadly dull. Madden is roped into quietly investigating an 11-year-old murder of a lovely young “actress” who suffered an untimely death on the estate of Black Jack Jessup. At the time, the murder was quickly solved when an itinerant hop-picker confessed to the crime and was executed for it. Now, new evidence has shown up but not enough to warrant an official re-opening of the investigation. Madden begins the tedious process of tracking down the people who were present that fateful weekend, and quickly realizes that there was much more going on than the police realized.

Airth does his usual skillful job bringing some colorful and appealing characters to life. In this case, Adele Castleton and Richard Jessup are the best drawn of the bunch. By the end of the story, I wanted to know these people, and Airth succeeded in surprising me yet again with the final resolution. Madden’s daughter gets more page time here as well, and she is also becoming a more interesting character.

While the plot kept my attention and the characters appealed, over all the story was sleepy and sometimes boring. Quite frankly, I’m bored with John Madden. If I had Rennie Airth’s ear, I would ask him to please drop John and Helen Madden down to peripheral characters and start writing about Lily Poole, the female Scotland Yard detective who Madden has mentored, and Lucy Madden. I envision a kickass series featuring Lily and Lucy. What a way to invigorate a tired series!

Overall, this will appeal to fans of the author, but my go-to recommendation for the series is still River of Darkness.

Strange Magic by Syd Moore


img_1212“Just because things are strange, Rosie, doesn’t mean they’re not true.” This sentence aptly sums up the premise of this new series from Sydney Moore. We first meet Rosie Strange as she travels to the Essex Witch Museum, which she has inherited from her estranged grandfather, Septimus Strange. As she wanders the moldy museum, she meets the semi-creepy caretaker Bronson and the handsome & quirky curator, Sam Stone. Soon she finds herself smack in the middle of an adventure in which she and Sam must acquire the bones of a witch dead for 400 years in order to save the life of a small boy possessed by the spirit of said witch’s son.

Underneath the expected editing issues you typically find in an advanced reading copy is an entertaining plot and a budding chemistry between the likable Rosie and Sam, making this a series to watch. The introduction two-thirds into the story of the MI5 Occult Division (and the suave agent Monty) was a little jarring, but holds promise for the series. This will be a welcome addition to other “witchy” series like Juliet Blackwell’s Lily Ivory books. Recommended.

The Z Murders


imageI read a number of early 20th century mystery/crime novels while working on my 2011 reading project – 100 years, 100 Books – including such classics such as The 39 Steps by John Buchan and The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne, along with, of course, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

J. Jefferson Farjeon was a lesser known but still accomplished member of the cadre of writers who produced these early mysteries. The Z Murders follows the typical plot of many mysteries from that era – a dashing, clever man meets a mysterious damsel in distress and attempts to outwit the police and the criminals while embarking on a madcap chase across England. In this instance, Richard Temperley spends most of the book chasing the mysterious Sylvia Wynne, who spends most of the book refusing to explain her predicament to Temperley. A disfigured villain with no arms, plenty of disguises, quaint and trustworthy villagers all combine with the likable Temperley and the reticent Wynne to make a pleasant if somewhat confusing mystery.

The lack of foreshadowing throughout most of book left me fairly unsatisfied and irritated. The reason for the “Z Murders” and the relationship between the two villains is only explained in the last couple of chapters, and not very well. If you really love British mysteries from this era, you’ll like this book well enough, but it’s not one that I’ll remember for very long.

The Death Chamber


imageThere are very few books that give me real, wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares. This is one of them.

I’ve stopped giving a synopsis of books in these “reviews” because *everyone* does that; instead, I am just going to say that the first scene with the blind guy locked in the execution chamber totally did me in. I dreamed about his experience two nights in row. Then I got to the *second* time the blind guy (and our heroine) are locked in the same place, then pursued by a very creepy guy. Cue third sleepless night.

Rayne does a masterful job of telling three stories concurrently – in 1917, 1938-1960, and present day. It’s a rare author who can pull this off, but she does it really well, and brought all three stories together in one satisfying conclusion.

Death Chamber joins Peter Straub’s Ghost Story as scariest books ever.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler


image“Once you’ve held a book and really loved it, you forever remember the feel of it, its specific weight, the way it sits in your hand.” The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

There are only a few books I’ve encountered in my reading life that have left that kind of mark on me, and I am always surprised when a new one gets added to that category. The Book of Speculation is one of those unexpected gifts.

I didn’t go looking for it. I was browsing in B&N, killing time between some meetings a few days before my much anticipated July vacation, when I happened upon TBOS on the New Releases rack. I recognized the title as one I’d added to my GoodReads a couple weeks ago, and it looked promising. I liked the feel of it in my hand and I loved the way the text looked as I flipped through the pages, so I bought it and tossed it in my vacation book bag.

Days later, unpacked and at ease on the shore of a Northern NY lake, I opened TBOS and lost myself completely in this lovely story of a librarian, a bookseller, and a mysterious book that served to blend past and present, fairy tale and tragedy.

Simon Watson is a reference and archival librarian living in an ancient house perched precariously on the north shore of Long Island. Simon receives a mysterious book from an unknown bookseller just as he is let go from his position at the library. The bookseller has sent him the book because it has in it the name of one of Simon’s great-great grandmothers. The book piques his interest, as it recounts the movements of a traveling show which apparently included the women of his family, all of whom died by drowning on July 24, including his mother. Simon becomes obsessed with the idea that his sister, now also a performer in a traveling show, will suffer the same fate as July 24 comes closer. Using his library connections and his own research skills, he pieces together a lovely, tragic, and ultimately frightening story of love and loss that reconnects the family first established in that 18th century traveling show.

Swyler skillfully blends the past and present in a way that doesn’t jar the reader, but floats you gently along two parallel currents that eventually meet in a fury of a storm. There are plenty of unexpected events that surprise, delight, and sometimes frighten, keeping the readers attention throughout. Swyler’s use of water as a metaphor knitted into the fabric of the story successfully binds the past and present, and her details around circus and show life are wonderfully colorful.

I savored each sentence of TBOS, pacing my reading to draw it out over a few days because I loved it so. This is a book I will come back to again, without a doubt, and is one of those books I will remember long after this reading. In that way, The Book of Speculation joins Jane Eyre, The Historian, Peace Like a River, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and a handful of others on my “Read and Read Again” shelf.

Highly recommended.

The Mapmaker’s Children


“While Sarah’s family had lost nearly everything at Harper’s Ferry, the good would rise as unstoppably as a river after the storm.” This one sentence aptly describes the tone of this lovely little piece of historical fiction from Sarah McCoy. The stories of two women, Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson, are told through alternating chapters where we experience the frustration, heartbreak, and joy of their lives. McCoy connects Sarah and Eden in two specific ways – they both experience transformative love in the same house, although more than a century apart, and both experience the utter heartbreak of not being able to bear children.

Sarah Brown is the daughter of abolitionist John Brown who was executed after his history-making raid on Harper’s Ferry just prior to the Civil War. We first meet Sarah as she is recovering from a near-death experience with dysentery which leaves her barren. She is determined that her life, that *she* will not be defined by her inability to procreate, and so she begins using her artistic ability to draw maps for slaves on the Underground Railroad. Immediately after her father’s failed raid in Harper’s Ferry, Sarah, her mother, and her sister Annie travel to New Charlestown to stay with the Hill family while her father prepares for his execution. While there, Sarah begins to care for Freddy Hill, son of their host. Their budding romance grows through a lively correspondence and occasional meetings, until Sarah finds herself in the position of having to refuse Freddy’s marriage proposal. Sarah leaves the Hill home and returns to her studies in Saratoga, until she is called again to Freddy’s side as he hovers near death after being shot in the War. Ultimately, Sarah joins her family and moves West to California, where she lives out her days, without Freddy but caring for two free-born twins sent to her for safety.

One of those twins and her doll becomes the thread between the past and present in New Charlestown, between Sarah and Eden.

Eden Anderson is a successful businesswoman married to the love of her life who is nonetheless broken by her inability to conceive. We first meet Eden and her husband Jack as they struggle to acclimate to a new home in the small town of New Charlestown. Jack is away on business most of week, while Eden rarely leaves her bed, paralyzed by years of fertility treatments, hormone injections, and failed pregnancies. Eden slowly comes back to life as first a puppy then a neighbor child come into her life and reintroduce her to the joy of living. Eden, fascinated by a porcelain doll head she discovers in a root cellar in her kitchen, begins the process of getting her house on the National Register of Historic Places. She enlists the aid of locals whose families have lived in the area for generations and ultimately discovers a very real connection of the past to the present which helps her begin to heal.

When authors attempt to tell to separate stories at once with the goal of twining both together throughout and at the end, the effort can be awkward and clunky. It takes a skillful author to make the multiple transitions needed through the narrative. McCoy does a good job of that by keeping the chapters short so the reader remains connected to the past while reading the present and vice versa. There were a few moments that did not ring true and didn’t really add anything to the story, but this was an ARC and some of that clunkiness may be tidied up when the final version is published. Nonetheless, this is a good read, and will appeal to readers who like a blend of history, mystery and romance in their reading.

Reading Round-Up


Lately, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. You know how it is – you start a book, drift away from it, start something else, drift away…and so on. Nothing has gripped my attention lately, so I have re-read a few old favorites along with some odd little fluff, and some ARCs from Netgalley and Edleweiss. Here’s my round-up:

  • Book of Life by Deborah Harkness – This was the hotly anticipated conclusion to the All Souls trilogy. Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver. The storyline was bloated and felt extremely rushed, like Harkness and her publisher were so pressured to deliver the manuscript that they skipped the editing process. I found the main character, Diana, really irritating this time around, and the love triangle introduced at the end was ridiculous and unnecessary. Someone suggested I should go back and read all three books consecutively to see if that makes The Book of Life hold together. I may make that a summer reading project because I really did enjoy the first two installments in this series.
  • Call the Nurse by Mary MacLeod – This was a delightful, autobiographical treatment of the author’s time spent as a nurse on a remote Scottish island. The characters were not extremely well-developed, but were colorful and highly entertaining. After I finished this, I had an overwhelming desire to visit those Scottish islands. Google images is a wonderful thing for satisfying that kind of curiosity. Just saying….
  • The Secret of Greystone Hall by Elizabeth Wide, Cauldstane by Linda Gillard, and Secrets in Stone by Rebecca Engel were throwbacks to my early teen obsession with gothic mystery/romances. None of them were great literature, but all of them were fun.
  • Blood Faerie by India Drummond, Lord James Harrington by Lynn Florkiewicz, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Faerie Tale by Raymond Feist, The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett,and Snow White Red-Handed by Maia Chance were all books I started and couldn’t finish. I know, I know – Station Eleven??? The book on everyone’s “Best of 2014?” Yep. I thought it was predictable and boring, but I am not a fan of dystopian, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories anyway. Be truthful – how many of you who did read it and loved it didn’t see the big twist coming at the end?
  • Books that I have finished and need to write reviews: The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier, Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah & Agatha Christie, The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero, Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes, Goodnight June by Sarah Jio, Stoker’s Manuscript by Royce Prouty, All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn, Winter at the Door by Sarah Graves (an excellent new mystery series set in Maine), House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy, Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, and As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Allen Bradley.

Now, I just have to sit down and write the reviews!