30 December 2009

The Time Pirate; Ted Bell

The Time Pirate: A Nick McIver Time Adventure (Nick McIver Adventures Through Time) The Time Pirate: A Nick McIver Time Adventure by Ted Bell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wish I could get my MS boys interested in this series, because it seems to have everything they want all in one package: wars (in this case, the American Revolution and WWII), flying, pirates, gun and sword fighting, spying and the "magic" Time Machine. The accuracy of the events is, of course, limited by the Time Travel, but Bell's comments about anachronisms should pique any readers interest in further historical fiction.

ARC provided by publisher

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29 December 2009

Queen Victoria and the Bonapartes; Theo Aronson

Queen Victoria and the Bonapartes Queen Victoria and the Bonapartes by Theo Aronson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whenever I read this type of book I'm reminded of the lack of real background many Americans have about who overlapped whom in world history. This account of Queen Victoria's relationship with Napoleon III and, more specifically, his wife Empress Eugenie is filled with the types of details that make history so fascinating. The disparity between the two women's looks and sense of dignity, for example, speaks volumes.

I particularly liked the fact that the foreign terms were simply left, no translation provided.

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Little Brother; Cory Doctorow

Little Brother Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this after seeing the theatrical adaptation in Chicago this past summer. Doctorow's vision of techno-rebellion in the face of increased surveillance/"security" certainly resonates (just last week we had yet another attempted bomber on a plane) but... there's part of me that vividly remembers what happened on Sept. 11 and is not convinced that we have gone too far in our methods. Sure, some are stupid and some are just ill-planned (really? a color-coded alert system??) but we do have an enemy with whom there is no middle ground for bargaining.

His love of technology led to several passages I just had to tune out (how one sends a tunnel in or through DNS, for example) but the rest of the story sounds relatively plausible, particularly the bits about the rest of the country not caring about SF and the gradually creeping increased measures. One would like to think that we couldn't get to that point here, but it's a definite possibility. When he went off on a tirade, as with the conversion of a "real" neighborhood to create City Center, again: tune out time.

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28 December 2009

So Much For That; Lionel Shriver

So Much for That So Much for That by Lionel Shriver
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This "searing, ruthlessly honest new novel" (per the back jacket) is more polemic than novel, and very timely in terms of the health care debate. The characters seem to exist as vehicles for extended lectures on the health care crisis, asbestos, subsidized housing and other topics, rather than in their own right. Unfortunately, this meant that I didn't actually care about them, or their issues.

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The Eternal Kiss; various

The Eternal Kiss: 13 Vampire Tales of Blood and Desire The Eternal Kiss: 13 Vampire Tales of Blood and Desireedited by Trisha Telep
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On their own, I'd probably have enjoyed the stories (sorry, tales) more. But taken together, and as part of this seemingly never-ending tide of vampire stories, not so much. Occasionally there was a glimpse of something new and different with the genre, but mostly it was just the insertion of a vampire, or vampire lore, into a rather generic story.

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26 December 2009

War Dances; Sherman Alexie

War Dances War Dances by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another collection of short stories from Mr. Alexie, and another chance to laugh (sometimes shamefacedly) at the tragic humor. His stereotyping of Indians is, at times, difficult to read (is it "natural causes" when an Indian dies of alcoholism?) but that makes his words all that more powerful.

His tale of his menengioma struck home because a friend had one; his did not require surgery, hers did. Other stories hit in different ways, none terribly comfortably. Luckily, they're always short enough that the discomfort doesn't reach the 'put the book aside' level, and there's always humor mixed in.

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Woe is I, Jr.; Patricia O'Conner

Woe is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English Woe is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O'Conner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cute examples will help younger readers/students understand the intricacies of English grammar. Recommend even though I disagree about comma usage.

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The Magicians; Lev Grossman

The Magicians The Magicians by Lev Grossman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading the jacket, you'd think that this was purely a "magic" book - steeped in Lewis' Narnia, Rowling and others of that ilk. However, the relationships between the main characters seemed far more informed by Tartt's The Secret History than by anything else. I mean really, what other SFF book for teens has a threesome?

The similarities to the other source books were sometimes clever, and sometimes a direct ripoff (who didn't see that Janet was Jadis from early on in the book? her distress in the Nietherlands was just icing on that cake). The clever stuff made me want to read more, while the rest made me roll my eyes and think "really, that's the best you can come up with?"

One particular niggle was the retreat upstate. If you can drive, with relative ease, to Buffalo for supplies, you cannot see the sun setting in the Adirondacks. You just can't. The sense of Brooklyn, on the other hand, felt real.

Overall, a good read that I'd recommend to anyone who likes this genre. What I hope - pray - is that this is Grossman's only trip to Fillory. More would be, well, too much (just as I enjoyed his earlier work, but found that it was enough).

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24 December 2009

The Dower-House; Annabel Davis-Goff

The Dower House The Dower House by Annabel Davis-Goff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An Aga-saga, this time set in mid-century Ireland. The author does a great job detailing the decline of the Anglo-Irish way of life: the set rituals, the delicate class prejudices and structure (who knew about pearls and paste?), the slow seeping of change. This is one of those leave-it-to-your imagination books, where the ending is a gentle glide rather than a full stop.

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23 December 2009

Best Friends Forever; Irene S. Levine

Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend by Irene S. Levine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I know the author!)

As the year winds down and we make lists (of course checking them twice), don't we also think about our friends in a slightly different light: is this a gift friend? a card friend? an invite over for eggnog friend? can I ignore them this year? and a multitude of other variations. Or am I the only one?

The reality is, many of us are, or have been, friends in unequal relationships that we still include under the rubric BFF. Then, when it goes south, we feel responsible and guilty and well, it's not necessary. It's good to get away from those toxic relationships, and this book can tell you how (and how to spot one). It would have added to the book for her to discuss the various gradations of friendship - IMVHO we leap all to quickly to the word "friend" when what we mean is "colleague" or "acquaintance."

I'd love to see a follow-up on male/female friendships, but I suspect that might be a generational thing; my mother doesn't have any males in her life that aren't family or "the husband of...".

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20 December 2009

Miss Bianca trilogy; Margery Sharp

The rescuers ;: Miss Bianca ; The turret The rescuers ;: Miss Bianca ; The turret by Margery Sharp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What a delightful trilogy - I'm not sure why the Miss Bianca books appear to be out-of-print, but I do hope someone corrects this soon! This series is very British, with talking, heroic mice rescuing prisoners of all stripes. The Prisoner's Aid Society will be familiar to anyone reading "those sorts" of British books, as will the characters (I loved Miss Bianca's attitude of noblesse oblige at all times).

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Candor; Pam Bachorz

Candor Candor by Pam Bachorz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stepford lives - not an incredibly original concept, but interesting execution. Candor (yep, intense irony alert) is a town in Florida created by a man whose reality is just too difficult to bear after his eldest son dies in a freak diving accident. If only Winston had listened!

So off the family goes, to a world created by subliminal Messages programmed by Campbell Banks (wonder if the name is a deliberate riff on the family from Mary Poppins)... except they drive Mom away and Oscar is able to reprogram not only his brain but those of others with enough money to pay for his Special Messages. Oscar's cockiness at being able to fool his father and the rest of the town telegraphs his fall loud and clear.

Since most teens have never heard of Stepford (except perhaps as a bad Nicole Kidman movie), this will definitely appeal. And perhaps make them wonder about those seemingly goody-goodies in class.

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The Brutal Telling; Louise Penny

The Brutal Telling (Armand Gamache, #5) The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having finished four-in-a-row of this series, I can firmly state that Ms. Penny needs an editor. It's one thing to have repetitive tag lines (how many times did Rex Stout remind us of Nero's 1/8 acre of yellow silk pajamas?), it's another to repeat paragraphs. At times it feels as though she just doesn't know how better to describe or comment on something.

Other than that, my affection for the characters continues as does my enjoyment of the plots. Luckily, I don't have another sitting here and by the time the next one arrives my problems with her writing will have receded.

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19 December 2009

A Fatal Grace; Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace: A Three Pines Mystery (Armand Gamache, #2) A Fatal Grace: A Three Pines Mystery by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book that cites one of my favorite Beau Dommage songs? How cool is that?!

Armand Gamache really is growing on me. If Ms. Penny were a different, sparer author, he could be Quebec's answer to Commander Dalgliesh. The only nit I have to pick with this series is that she does tend to get a little repetitive with her descriptions, but the story is a huge help in getting over than nit.

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13 December 2009

A Rule Against Murder; Louise Penny

A Rule Against Murder (Armand Gamache, #4) A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm really liking this quiet, less deliberately twee series - it's similar to the Richard Jury series in many ways, but Armand seems more real than Richard, and his relationships also feel more real and less "written". Sometimes Grimes' books feel as though they are written for maximum effect (is this character strange/annoying/pathetic/tic-y enough?) while I don't get that impression from Penny's writing. It's also made me want to visit the area in which Three Pines exists - having spent much time in the Northeast Kingdom and in Montreal, it's a pity I've never explored the English Townships in between.

As with many in this cozy procedural genre, skipping around doesn't seem to matter. Can't wait to read the rest, in whatever order.

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11 December 2009

The Way We Were; Marcia Willett

The Way We Were: A Novel The Way We Were: A Novel by Marcia Willett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yet another AGA saga, so nothing really to discuss: the usual "things from the past coming back to haunt us", misunderstandings about love and friendship, etc. This didn't actually have an AGA, but still it very much fits the genre's mold.

And, of course, it's a great reading-palate cleanser.

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06 December 2009

Lit; Mary Karr

Lit: A Memoir Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Note to self: stop reading memoirs about people who simply survived something (horrible parents, poverty, being "different").

I know this is heresy, because Lit is appearing on so many Best Lists, but "meh". Yes, Karr's childhood was difficult - her parents were not what we would consider to be good parents, and she had things to overcome on her way to being an adult, a writer, a whole person. But beyond that? "meh"

Here's one of my problems with the book. I love writing that sounds good, words that just feel good to read. A.S. Byatt... Julian Barnes... Robertson Davies... P.D. James... they all have that ability. Karr? She's enamored with words, to be sure. But I, the reader, shouldn't notice that. I should be so engrossed in the story that the technique and the love of words doesn't hit me over the head, I should just feel wrapped up in them. And unfortunately, after reading this, my head hurts.

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05 December 2009

Nation; Terry Pratchett

Nation Nation by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Asking if I liked this is one of those trick questions: it's Pratchett. Of course I liked it.

Having said that, let me say that this non-Discworld book was pretty good. Not as funny as Discworld, and a little heavy (at times) on the polemic (but no more so that some of his more recent Discworld books), but the story of Mau and "Daphne" was fun to read. I wish there'd been more footnotes... and the ending was a bit of a cop-out.

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01 December 2009

When You Reach Me; Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books like this leave me tongue-tied (finger-tied?) because so many others have been so eloquent about why this is a great book, and I'm not up to their level.

Having said that, I felt for Mira and her confusion about her relationship with Sal, her struggling to find other friends (and succeeding), and her realization about "never feeling meaner than the moment you stop being mean". The 12-year-olds here are really 12 - it doesn't feel as though the adult writing the book is trying to remember what it was like, she knows what it was like.

As for the tie-in to A Wrinkle in Time, well, that was one of my favorite books when I was 12. I remember having discussions with my father about tesseracts and time travel; he was never as informative as Marcus.

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Inside the Jihad; Omar Nasiri

Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda by Omar Nasiri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure where to begin with this one: the in depth "behind the scenes at a jihad training camp"? the ineptitude of the French (and British and German) intelligence services? the casualness of dedication to a specific jihad in favor of any jihad? All of the above?

Nasiri's tale of his life as a spy is at times riveting and at times horrifying but always readable. When describing his training, I kept thinking about how the guns, explosives and chemicals were simply toys to him - you can almost see him internally jumping for joy the first time he handles an AK-47. His motivations for joining in jihad are a mixture of belief in getting American (and European) influence out of Muslim lands, the opportunity to play with cool toys, and his desire to be "taken care of" by the DGSE.

I wonder how many other jihadis share his background and his sensibilities, and whether we will ever be able to find a middle ground.

Copy provided by publisher.

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30 November 2009

Still Life; Louise Penny

Still Life (Armand Gamache, #1) Still Life by Louise Penny

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My first impression of this series was that Ms. Penny really loves description: almost too many adjectives for my tastes. I say "almost" because after a while I barely noticed them as the story took over.

This falls into the not-quite-cozy genre, a rather gentle mystery in the "Midsomer" mold. M. Gamache's first foray into the world of the Anglais Three Pines is, I hope, a hint of equally good books to come. It feels odd to say that, because my recent mystery reads have been darker (Stephen Booth, for example) yet something about this one spoke to me. And the solution? It was not telegraphed, and even a bit surprising.

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Everything Asian; Sung J. Woo

Everything Asian: A Novel Everything Asian: A Novel by Sung J. Woo
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Another memoir that I just couldn't find a good reason for; the change in perspectives was unnecessary, and the anecdotes weren't that interesting. I felt as though I'd read similar stories before.

Copy provided by publisher.

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29 November 2009

I'm Down; Mishna Wolff

I'm Down: a memoir I'm Down: a memoir by Mishna Wolff
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I'm sure that it was not easy to grow up as the only white in an all-black neighborhood, nor can it have been easy to have lived with the father and sister that Ms. Wolff had. However, her memoir reads more like a series of semi-bemusing anecdotes told by a friend's relative than anything else. YMMV, of course.

Free copy provided by publisher.

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Birthmarked; Caragh M. O'Brien

Birthmarked Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Set about 300 years in the future, after the "cool age" (which seems to represent both the time during which we were dependent on oil and possibly pre-serious global warming), this dystopian novel hits all the usual notes: babies born with genetic problems (here, due to inbreeding), a division between the haves and have-nots, babies taken from families are reared elsewhere, etc..

The Enclave's insistence on perfection is what ultimately saves Gaia (yep, the name is significant), who has a disfiguring scar on her face. She's also saved by her naivete and intelligence, and by her non-unexpected knack for getting people to help her (even when they'd be at risk for doing so). None of the characters feel real, they're more like character sketches that still need to be filled in.

While the ending, and the uncertainty of what the rest of America is like at this time, lends itself to a series, my hope is that this is a one-off.

ARC provided by publisher

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28 November 2009

Things We Didn't See Coming; Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn't See Coming Things We Didn't See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Apocalypse Blah... Apparently, Y2K really did crash the grid and we spend the next 30-odd years living through the food shortages, weather disruptions (massive rains, fires, hurricanes, etc.), cancers and other catastrophes, thanks to our unnamed narrator.

Starting on New Year's, 1999, he and his parents load up a survivalists amount of stuff and leave their home to stay with his grandparents. Dad leaves to wait at some secret location in the woods, and we're off. Surviving by his wits (theft, mostly petty) and several government-related jobs (Relocation, mostly), he finally ends up - many cancers and relationships later - doing tours for the nearly dead and dying. The final tour takes a detour to Dad's house, a veritable eden with clean water, air and food. It is there we (and he) end this tale.

While some of the images are interesting, it seemed more of a mish-mash of every The End Is Coming scenario than taking readers on a new journey.

Free ARC provided by publisher.

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Under a Red Sky; Haya Leah Molnar

Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania by Haya Leah Molnar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This memoir reminded me of Leaving Glorytown (they're even set at a similar time), exploring what it was like living under a Communist regime and what happens when you decide the Worker's Paradise isn't, well, paradise.

Here, Ms. Molnar's family is a group of Jews (something she's unaware of until about age 8) living in Bucharest. Her father was in a Nazi concentration camp and then Soviet lagers, her mother's family survived the war in Romania. Her stories of the deprivation they suffered (although the fact that they had a maid belies real deprivation!), and her experiences at school (she becomes a proud member of the Communist Pioneers) and with the non-family members she meets (her neighbor, Andrei, feels her head for Jewish horns) are engaging enough to interest readers a little tired of this genre.

One of the things I appreciated most was that in the foreword, we're told that the stories are based on memories enhanced by others' comments/stories: we are not expected to believe that at this remove, all dialog and events are remembered exactly as they happened. It would be great if other memoirists included the same disclaimer.

Free ARC provided by publisher.

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24 November 2009

13 Treasures; Michelle Harrison

The Thirteen Treasures The Thirteen Treasures by Michelle Harrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
While exploring the same kind of world as Wicked Lovely and Strange Angels, this book is a younger version and will be a great way to get those readers into this genre. The themes of the changeling child, Seelie/Unseelie Courts, second sight, faeries and all that will be new to younger readers; however, for older readers, there's no new twist.

The world Tanya inhabits feels familiar to any reader of Nesbit or Eager (or Boston or pick another faerie fantasy author) and yet because there's no modern technology (cell phones or computers) it will also feel foreign to today's readers. That's ok, because the story will keep them interested and engaged. It's also clear that this book will have a sequel, and I wonder if Harrison can keep things as interesting as she did here. Why do I think there'll be a sequel? There were enough ends left deliberately loose for me to believe it was sloppy writing/editing.

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23 November 2009

Kiss; Jacqueline Wilson

Kiss Kiss by Jacqueline Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What happens when your BFF is the boy next door - the boy you're in love with - and that boy is in love with another boy at school?

Sylvie and Carl's Glassworld seems to rip-off Bridge to Terebithia and The Secret Language, but that's a minor complaint. Far more important is the way Sylvie grows up with her new friend, Miranda, and learns to accept change (like Mom dating). Carl's "secret" is handled sensitively, although I did wonder whether having his family (and Sylvie and Miranda) accept him as gay so easily was realistic. Paul's reaction felt far more honest.

A definite "to buy" for our GLBTQ-friendly collection.

ARC provided by publisher.

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20 November 2009

Finding My Place; Tracie L. Jones

Finding My Place Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Yet another in the "girl starts at a new school/grade/town" genre; the twist this time being that she's Afro-American (in the 70s) and she's just moved to an all-white neighborhood. So her family, while fitting in in terms of economic status, is *not* like the other families - her parents sat-in at lunch counters, and they have high expectations for Tiphanie (pronounced Tiffany).

Years ago I read Mary Jane, another story about a black girl integrating a school. Because this one was written far closer to the time, the language and situations rang truer to me; in one passage Tip talks about her name and how her parents were at the forefront of the movement that altered spellings of names. I'm not sure that any teen in the 70s would be aware that this was going to be a lasting movement - to me that feels like a revelation that would come later in life, something one might say in one's 30s (although I could believe that there might be some teenaged eyerolling about the strange spelling and being embarrassed about having to explain her name to people).

There were many such moments, ones that felt as though either Tip was preternaturally aware of what would happen in the future and could comment on it in the past or language that felt more modern than the time in which the book is set. On the other hand, Tip's sense of being alone, of trying to fit in and her friendship with Jackie Sue do feel real.

ARC provided by publisher.

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16 November 2009

The Chosen One; Carol Lynch Williams

The Chosen One The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What is it with the polygamist Mormon theme? Is it because of "Big Love"? This is the third book (The 19th Wife and Latter-Day Cipher being the other two) that explore that realm.

First of all, this is not an easy read - much like Sold is not an easy read. And because it takes place in America there's not that comfort level of thinking it's about another, completely foreign culture. We know that there are these groups, we know that this sort of life does happen.

Kyra's life among The Chosen Ones is not idyllic, but it is relatively normal, except for her feelings for (and flirtation with) Joshua, and her "sin" of going to the mobile library to read forbidden books. Her six mothers seem to get along, and she's close with her many siblings, caring for them as though they were all her biological family. And her father appears to be kind and loving. But when she's Chosen to marry her 60+-years-older uncle, she rebels, and in the processes potentially destroys her family.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this to younger teens.

Free copy provided by publisher.

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Witch and Wizard; James Patterson

Witch and Wizard Witch and Wizard by James Patterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last night I had to stop myself from staying up well past my bedtime to finish this book - it's that engrossing. The dystopian society is Handmaid's Tale-esque, and the magical touches will make it more fun for students to read. Obviously I can't say too much because of the spoiler issue, but this will be a huge crossover hit (at MPOW, Patterson really only appeals to boys, but girls will enjoy meeting Wisty).

One non-spoiler (and a taste of the book's appeal): in the New Order, the book Pitcher in the Wheat has been banned. Gotta love it, right?

ARC provided by publisher.

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15 November 2009

The Book of Samuel; Erik Raschke

The Book of Samuel: A Novel The Book of Samuel: A Novel by Erik Raschke

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not being that Bible-literate, I have no idea how closely this Book tracks that Book of Samuel, but I'll bet that the heavy religious overtones create quite the controversy. This story of a boy (Samuel) growing up in Denver, with a father who has "found religion" (enough to leave the family and go off to preach the Word of the Lord), a mother suffering physically from the after-effects of polio, and the encroachment of Mexicans on his lower class American life has something to get under everyone's skin , be it religion, language, race or violence.

Beyond that, however, the plot is in that "nothing new" category, which is too bad because it could have been a far better book had the author chosen to go outside the coming-of-age convention.

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13 November 2009

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To; DC Pierson

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To (Vintage Contemporaries) The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, this is a first: blurbage that actually tells the truth! The "normal" part of the book (which is to say, the first two thirds) is spot on regarding the lives of teenage boys, particularly those that are too geeky to be jocks or belong to some other well-defined clique.

Darren's take on what it's like to be in high school, to want be cooler then the social dregs, to find a girl, and to be obsessed with Alien Mythology just feels completely right. The oddity of his friend Eric's inability to sleep gives their relationship just enough of a twist to keep it from being the standard buddy book, and that's without the whole problem of Christine.

What made this a three-star, rather than a four-star was the final third, wherein our two heroes become escapees from The Man, the aliens appear to come to life and Things Happen. It felt rushed, and while the lack or realism was probably intended, it just didn't work as well as the earlier parts of the book.

Free ARC obtained from publisher.

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11 November 2009

Fallen; Lauren Kate

Fallen Fallen by Lauren Kate

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

How to review this without giving major spoilers (pub. date is next month)? Not sure that's possible, but I'll try.

Luce (Lucinda) has spent most of her HS years at Dover Prep, a New England prep school, making friends and doing normal teenage stuff. One day, she and Trevor go into a cabin and start making out. Something happens - she's not sure what - but a fire breaks out and Trevor doesn't survive. Turns out that for years she's been seeing these shadows hovering around, and her time at Dover was part of an attempt to "cure" her (she'd been on meds, seeing shrinks, etc. to no avail).

After the fire? There's no choice but to send her to a reform school, Sword & Cross, near her parents. There she's schooled on "meds, beds and reds", and meets Cam (the gorgeous boy she just might get) and Daniel (the equally gorgeous boy she seems to remember from before but who clearly wants nothing to do with her). There's the usual girls being teen girls, and of course the typical HS rebellion (as much as you can rebel in a school where you're under constant surveillance).

Any more would be spoilers - but if you liked the Wicked Lovely series you'll probably like this one; however the writing isn't quite as good and the characters not as strongly drawn.

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08 November 2009

The School of Fear; Gitty Daneshvari

School of Fear 1 School of Fear 1 by Gitty Daneshvari
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The cover and the blurb led me to believe this would be one of those whimsical books mashing-up the Mysterious Benedict Society and Allbright Academy with perhaps a smattering of Unfortunate Events. And it did start out that way: the extreme ways in which the four children manifest their fears, and their parents reactions hit just the right notes.

It's when we arrive at the School that things fall apart. Miss Wellington and Schmidty are just too grotesque, the "learning" too odd, the food too awful to sustain a reader's interest. There are no lighter moments, no sly winks at the reader to tell them that "it's ok, this really isn't as awful as it appears".

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01 November 2009

Freaks and Revelations; Davida Wills Hurwin

Freaks and Revelations Freaks and Revelations by Davida Wills Hurwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another one of those difficult to read books. Difficult in style (figuring out who is who, and when) and difficult in ideas (would a mother really kick her gay 12-year-old son out? how can anyone get that high and hate that much? can you really forgive?). Like The Hate List, this is a book that teens should read, if only to understand how twisted people can be inside and how sad our world really is.

Doug's journey from an abusive home through drugs to Punk Rage to skinhead to working to protect others from people like him is far more dramatic than Jason's, and in some ways it's his story that stays with you after the book is done. Jason, a beautiful gay boy living on the streets, first in The Castro and then in L.A., is easier to reach but no less heartbreaking. The events that lead to their collision seem so random, both the first time and the second, adding to the discomfort that one feels when reading this.

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31 October 2009

Totally Wired; Anastasia Goodstein

Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online by Anastasia Goodstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a difference two years makes... and doesn't make. In 2007, MySpace was bigger than Facebook by sheer virtue of the fact that FB was a "closed" community; today, some of my FB friends are my parents age (my mother's cousins seem to have embraced it). In that regard, Totally Wired feels a little dated.

However, once you get past the Name Brands (has anyone Xanga'd recently?), the message is alarmingly the same as the message in the parenting books my mother used to read: kids will be kids, either in Real Life or Online Life. Deal with it. They'll experiment with a sense of self, they'll bully, they'll test limits, etc., all the things I did years ago and that my mother did decades before that. What's changed is the 24/7/365 instantly on quality of it all - teens can't always hide from a bad choice, and the effects of those choices are far greater than they were in my day.

I'd love to see this updated because I can see parents reading it, using the wrong terms (or product names), leading to their children tuning out the important messages about considering who you are Out There. And I'm amused by the thought that this generations midlife crises will be to simply unplug - how very peaceful their lives will seem.

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The Faceless Ones; Derek Landy

The Faceless Ones (Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 3) The Faceless Ones by Derek Landy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The idea that a "normal" girl, albeit one mentioned in a prophecy and possessing incredible strength and other powers, could be involved with some secret semi-monstrous group of Others has been done before (namely, Buffy). Of course, the living-skeleton-as-mentor hasn't been done before, and that's part of what sets this series apart.

Unfortunately, this third book in the series seemed far more serious, and far more violent, than the previous two. There were few moments of by-play, and those only served to set up the next fight scene. I would have liked to learn a little more about some of the newer characters, and perhaps to spend a little time with "Stephanie", Val's reflection - the contrast would have been interesting. There were a few brief moments of downtime but the rest seemed very rushed, as though the author didn't quite know how to slow down his plot effectively. Fewer fights, more exploration of the world, and some humor to relieve things would have made for a far better book.

I also wonder about the fact that there was a huge pile of ARCs available for this book. Usually by the third book in a series, ARCs are less freely available (in the Percy Jackson series, they'd stopped giving them out; ditto Harry Potter).

(Free ARC provided by publisher at ALA)

27 October 2009

Unseen Academicals; Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals (Discworld, #32) Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite the many other books on Mt. Bookpile, the sight of DEATH on the cover made me choose this as my next read. Unfortunately, DEATH has a very minor role in this book...

On the other hand, it's Pratchett, which is never a bad thing! And this is a great return to previous form, with less preaching than his past few books and more humor (although none that made me laugh out loud, as some of the older books did). Nutt's journey to worth was a lot of fun to watch, and if the supporting characters (Trev, Glenda, Pepe and Jools/Jewels/Julia) show up again that wouldn't be too bad.

Maybe it's my failing, but the "foot-the-ball" passages were the ones I enjoyed least. Some of the early version seemed to have a lot in common with Eton's Wall Game, and the "final" version was a little incomprehensible. Again, this might be me not understanding the game of soccer... which raises the issue of the American audience not understanding that when Pratchett says football, he doesn't mean what we think of as football.

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25 October 2009

Stealing Death; Janet Lee Carey

Stealing Death Stealing Death by Janet Lee Carey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know this book is getting a lot of Great Book Buzz, but I just found it enjoyable (as opposed to a Must Read). The author blends the hero's journey from different cultures (the Lostwalk, the Naqui powers, the caves, etc.) and grafts them onto a culture that lives with dragons and slavery.

Kipp has stolen Kwaja (a bag into which souls go when the body dies) from the Gwali (a Grim Reaper). Why? Because he thinks that he can rescue the souls of his parents and younger brother, as well as save Zalika (the girl he loves) from entering Kwaja. Of course, we learn by the end that his understanding of what Kwaja is, and what the role of the Gwali is, is wrong and that his dreams of what his life would be like have been superseded by his fate. It all felt a little obvious, but perhaps that's because I've read Campbell and Eliade.

The one thing I found really interesting was the flipping of cultures. Here, the dominant culture is black (well, very dark skinned) and Kipp is often referred to as a "pale", and pales were considered less than worthy in this society. That alone made me want to read more about this world, not as a sequel necessarily, but as a series.

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14 October 2009

An Irish Country Doctor; Patrick Taylor

An Irish Country Doctor (Irish Country Books) An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Did you see the tv series Ballykissangel? This is the medical version, just not quite as modern. Set in the 50s, newly minted Dr. Barry Laverty heads to the incredibly small town of Ballybucklebo to learn about being a GP from Dr. Fingal O'Reilly. Of course there are the usual "I can't believe you're doing/not doing that" moments, but by the end of three weeks (!!) he's proven himself to be a good doctor, been offered a permanent position (and eventual partnership), met a girl and generally made inroads in the life of the town. Three weeks seems awfully quick for this, but this is a work of fiction so who am I to quarrel?

Perfect for those that want an old-fashioned quiet read. Oh, and there are two sequels.

(Free copy obtained from publisher at ALA Annual)

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12 October 2009

American-Made; Nick Taylor

American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work by Nick Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This extremely readable accounting of the WPA feels prescient. Yes, I know that jobs are a lagging indicator of recovery, but reading how Hoover kept insisting that we were in a recovery while the country clearly wasn't sounds similar to what we're hearing now. Not being an economist I'm not making any predictions, and we're clearly not in the same place now that we were in 1933, but still...

When FDR started to tackle the recovery, setting in place any number of government programs, it was simple necessity. What's not clear is whether he intended the scope to be as broad as it ended up being, or if Henry Hopkins' (leader of first the CWA and then the WPA) ambition was the reason that the program expanded the way it did. I knew that the WPA reached into almost every walk of life - from packhorse "bookmobiles" in Appalachia to road building to the arts - but I didn't know that New York's Laguardia Airport was a WPA project (ditto the Bay Bridge).

While we may not be in the same crisis we were in 70 years ago, reinstating some of these programs and allowing the recovery to "trickle up" is worth considering.

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04 October 2009

Walking Chicago; Ryan Ver Berkmoes

Walking Chicago: 31 Tours of the Windy City's Classic Bars, Scandalous Sites, Historic Architecture, Dynamic Neighborhoods, and Famous Lakeshore Walking Chicago: 31 Tours of the Windy City's Classic Bars, Scandalous Sites, Historic Architecture, Dynamic Neighborhoods, and Famous Lakeshore by Ryan Ver Berkmoes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit it: while traveling I like looking at architecture and I'm not above peering into windows (hey, if you don't want me to peek, get curtains!) When I was in Chicago this past July I got to do some of that, and then I took one of those bus tours of South Side, which I'd not really been to before. Unfortunately, the driver/guide spent most of his time telling us that the abandoned factory to our right/left was now condos going for some large dollar amount (something I could have guessed given the signage on the buildings) when he wasn't telling us minute details about the Obamas.

As we drove along, it was clear that there was information missing, so being a good librarian I went to the nearest bookstore to find a good guidebook. This was the book I chose and what a good choice it was. The author's serious discussion of the architecture and history is nicely mixed with a humorous tone (telling us to beware of little girls in front of the American Place store, for example) and belongs in the same family as such books as LondonWalks and ParisWalks.

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03 October 2009

Keeping Corner; Kashmira Sheth

Keeping Corner Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't realize that this was written by the same author as Blue Jasmine, but I should have because the metatheme is the same: old traditions are not always best, and change is modern and good.

Here, Leela is a young wife - so young, in fact, that she hasn't yet left her parent's home (nor has she really spent any time with her husband). She's in school, waiting for her anu (the ceremony where she'll leave home and join her in-law's household), and just starting to notice and have feelings for her husband when he is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies. In pre-independence India, among the Brahman, this means that Leela's hair will be shaved, that she must "keep corner" (basically, stay inside her house and in one corner of the inner courtyard) for a year, that she gives up all her fancy clothes and jewelry, and stays a widow forever. Her family is also expected to share her year by not entertaining, not attending the religious ceremonies and generally shunning society.

Leela does have a brother, Kanubhai, who is 22 and unmarried (quite unusual for that time and caste), and who lives in Ahmedabad. This is important because Ahmedabad is also a base for Gandhi's movement - there are many new ideas (like protesting taxes, women are equal, castes are equal) that Kanubhai is surrounded by and inspired by. He manages to have Leela taught by the town's teacher during her year, and (unknown to Leela) vows not to marry until she is allowed to study and have a life despite now being a widow.

The news of how India is changing, slowly breaking free from the rule of the Raj parallels how Leela and her family changes. At times this can be a little heavy-handed, but I think readers will root for Leela's future because it does seem so very unfair. Besides the obvious outcome (it really would have been surprising had the author allowed Leela to stay at home, a widow with no future) I got annoyed when she translated the foreign words into English for us - there's a glossary in the back so if felt redundant.

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27 September 2009

Home; Marilynne Robinson

Home: A Novel Home: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book that was just so apt for the day in which I read it! While not about Jewish themes, the overall message of forgiving and making peace with each other and the past resonated.

Robinson's return to the Iowa town of Gilead is just as quiet, just as infused with Presbyterianism and morality as Gilead was. This time, we're with the Boughton's, Rev. Ames' neighbors. Jack, the troubled namesake that has worried Ames so much comes home after twenty years away. Glory (or Pigtails), the youngest daughter, has moved back to live with and take care of their failing father. The interactions between the four never reach the realm of real drama, it's all about the interior life.

Glory's return seems to be predicated on her losing her teaching job after marrying her longtime fiance - only there's no sign of a husband, ex or otherwise. She's settled in "temporarily", taking care of her father and the house (which she hates, feeling it's too old, too large, too something for the town). Her older siblings seem content to let her take on this burden, although there are plenty of letters and a few phone calls from them to ease her way. Of course, she has a secret that she shares, after a time, with Jack.

Jack, on the other hand, is clearly broken and just as clearly suffering from alcohol withdrawal. The shaky hands made me wonder how bad his condition was, although he swears he was sober for the past 7 1/2 years. Turns out he met a woman, fell in love and tried to turn his life around... except her father decided that he was nothing but trouble (having heard about Jack's past) and kicked him out. How much of that is true is open for debate, but clearly Jack has come home not to reconcile with his father but to reconcile with Ames (who's having none of it).

In the end, Glory is trapped in the house that her father has left her, Rev. Boughton's dying, and Jack has once again left, not appreciably more at peace than when he arrived. Della, his wife, comes by shortly after, bringing with her their son (unmentioned by Jack in any of his conversations). There's a slight twist here, one that should be obvious to the reader, but I won't give it away.

As I said, the themes of forgiveness, forgetting, redemption and morality are so well drawn here that the book is not an easy read: you will think about this long after you're done. Two friends/readers that read Gilead didn't like it, and I suspect it's because they're Jews and the Christianity made them uncomfortable. Here, that part is less front and center; I hope they give it a chance.

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Songs for the Butcher's Daughter; Peter Manseau

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn't intended to start this book (or finish it) during the High Holy Days, but much of this book is about bashert (fate) so let's just chalk it up to that, shall we?

Manseau's book Vows caught my attention at ALA years ago, and when I heard him at RUSA's Notable Tastes Breakfast this year I knew I needed to read it. The experience of Itsik/Isaac may very well have been the experience of my family: the escape from the tsar's army, the coming to America and living in an American shtetl, the changing from Jewish to American to who knows what.

To my knowledge, however, none of my family are the poet, failed or otherwise, that Itsik was. It is his journey, his willful choices to do/not do, see/not see that make this such an incredible read. At times I felt that he needed a Simon Cowell to say 'look, you'll never be a real poet', because clearly no one had ever said that. The lives he casually ruins and the obliviousness he has to those results is stunning and yet very familiar.

For those that are not Jewish, this is a great way to experience what it was like (albeit with a little fantasy - the self-delusional kind, not the dragons/castles kind - thrown in).

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25 September 2009

Elf Realm: The High Road; Daniel Kirk

Elf Realm: The High Road Elf Realm: The High Road by Daniel Kirk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This took longer to read than it should have - I let life distract me. Overall, this is a good Quest story. In part one (which I didn't read), the Humans have managed to destroy part of the Elves home. In part two, there are two Quests undertaken: a Human (Matt), an Elf (Tuava-Li) and a Troll (Tomtar) head first to Argant (that's Pittsburgh, to us humans) and then to the North Pole to relive an ancient Epic; there's also a Human (Becky, Matt's sister), an Elf Princess (Asra) and her mad former fiance (Macta) heading to where Becky's parents are being held and where 1,000 human children will be sacrificed to either a demon or the Goddess (it's not quite clear who wins when this happens).

Of course, nothing goes smoothly or as planned. The first trio get sidetracked into finding shelter and then rescuing Tomtar's uncle while the second have this pesky demon (and two horrible Elf Mages) to deal with. There are Green Men, humans that can see the faery world (including Pixies), discussions about gambling, the promise of body parts in return for favors (like assuming the shape of an Elf Prince) and other flights of fancy. I'm not trying to sound flip - this really was a good story in this genre. Younger readers will enjoy it, but there is a menace to the story that might not make this a good read for anyone under, say, sixth grade.

I liked the book enough to keep my eyes open for the first, and the upcoming third.

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13 September 2009

Secret Society; Tom Dolby

Secret Society Secret Society by Tom Dolby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If it's not the Masons, it must be the Catholic Church... or perhaps it's ZOG... or, well, there has to be some secret society running things, right? Making lives smoother for members, amassing incredible wealth, etc.. Unfortunately, this book reads like Gossip Girl meets Skull and Bones, with maybe a little Frankie Landau-Banks thrown in. The references are a little too hip (by which I mean already almost out-of-date) and one character has a "headband screwed on a little too tight" (Blair, anyone?).

Still, it's good trash for YA readers.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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Pictures at a Revolution; Mark Harris

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only one of the 1968 Oscar nominees for Best Picture that I saw during it's original theatrical release was Dr. Doolittle, so the impact of the other four (The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming for Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and Bonnie and Clyde) was completely missed. For those older and more aware at that time, I can only imagine what it was like to see such a change in the American movie scene.

The struggle that all five films encountered - finding stars and directors, studio funding (or lack thereof), public opinion and public taste, not to mention the final year of the old Production Code - is part of what makes this book enjoyable. Getting the behind-the-scenes scoop on how Beatty threatened a studio, or how Truffaut and Goddard might have directed Bonnie and Clyde, or the search for both Hoffman's Graduate and the Doctor's love interest was as much fun to read as was the political commentary about how the times were a-changing.

Harris' research was, of course, made easier by the memories and the bits of paper left behind - as he remarked at RUSA's Notable Tastes breakfast, how will future researchers be able to find the same depth of detail among the discarded bytes of this electronic era?

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06 September 2009

A Duty to the Dead; Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very atmospheric mystery set in WWI England - Elizabeth Crawford is a nurse serving on the Britannic when it is hit by a mine and sinks. She survives with a broken arm and is sent home to recuperate. There, she decides to finally fulfill her deathbed promise to Arthur Graham, a lieutenant she nursed. While at the Graham house, she starts to become involved with the family and realizes that their Deep, Dark Secret (that the oldest, Peregrine, murdered woman when he was 14 and is now in an asylum) might be just that little bit more.

When she returns to London, it appears that Peregrine has escaped and followed her. Together, they set out learn the truth behind the murder and his nightmares (ok, at first she's not all that eager to help but a pistol does go a long way to persuade someone!). What's interesting is not the actual sleuthing but the evocation of that era and of what "shell shock" is (and how it can be manufactured in innocent people).

I particularly liked how Bess' feelings for Arthur change over the course of the book, and yet the expected ending doesn't occur. That little twist lifted the book for me from a 3 to a 4.

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