29 July 2009

The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children; Keith McGowan

The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children by Keith McGowan

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
This book starts out so promisingly, but by the end it's just lost it. What happened to the parents? The "parents"? The owner of the pet shop? Was Swift really a dog? Why did Sol feel he wasn't alone at the end? Where were they going?

As I said, this starts out as a nice updating of the Hansel and Gretel story, with the witch having survived to today and still in the business of "children removal". That stays strong for about the first half of the book but after that it's muddled, rushed and leaves too many loose ends.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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28 July 2009

Ash; Malinda Lo

Ash Ash by Malinda Lo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At MFPOW, I used to do a Cinderella exploration with our combined 4/5 grade. Ash is definitely a Cinderella story, but I wouldn't put it in a Middle School library!

This version explores the boundaries between the fairy realm and ours - greenwitches, "old ways", the Hunt, etc. all fall into place here. Ash's passion for fairy tales is also explored, with some of the usual tropes brought out in new clothes. That comes out sounding like a criticism, but it's not: I like reading new versions of things (usually). The setting is almost "in a kingdom far, far away", with the author very carefully talking about The Wood and The City and The Sea without really placing them anywhere - it's all familiar, yet somehow not.

Where the story starts to veer from the usual versions is that rather than a fairy godmother, there's what appears to be a Fairy Prince who wants repayment for his help. Ash's impetus for attending the ball is not to see the Prince (she's remarkably unimpressed with him) but to see Kaisa, the King's Huntress. It's Ash's relationship with Kaisa that might make parents nervous, and why I'm happy that the book has a "Ages 15 & Up" on it (nothing graphic, btw).

My biggest problem with this book - and with almost all Cinderella stories, excepting Ella Enchanted - is Ash's meekness. Why doesn't she just leave her stepmother's house and return to her village? Here, her decision to leave does not come in the form of the Prince rescuing her, she rescues herself. In my opinion, she leaves it a little late.

Still, a great take on Cinderella and an author that I hope continues to do interesting things.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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24 July 2009

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.; Kate Messner

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wished I'd liked this more, but there were too many things that I think the author tried to do at the same time for it to work. Take, for example, Gianna's procrastination/inability to organize. I thought we'd get some AD/HD information, but no. Or perhaps her mother was afraid that with Nonna showing signs of Alzheimers, that Gianna was acting a little too like Nonna? Again, no.

The leaf identification project really seemed interesting, and I wish more information about the different types of leaves had been incorporated. Gianna's problems with Bianca seemed very real, as did her not talking to anyone about them (although it was hinted at the Coach knew about them - in which case, why didn't Coach actually do or say anything to cheer Gianna up?). The poetry was wonderful, but again, snippets were doled out.

As I said, just too much going on for this book to really work for me. Younger readers (say, 5th or 6th graders) will probably have fewer problems with this.

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23 July 2009

Fade; Lisa McMann

Fade (Dream Catcher, # 2) Fade by Lisa McMann
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So, now I get how this becomes a series: Janie and Caleb are underage crime fighters (a little like 21 Jump Street). Caleb's role seems to be supporting Janie's Dream Catching, while Janie's health deteriorates and she learns to control what she's doing.

That might make for a really interesting series, but the plot to this was pretty average: teachers suspected of having sex with students. There were no real surprises, nothing to make the reader say "oh! that's new or different". It was like an episode of SVU with younger cops and dreams.

I don't think I'll read future books in this series.

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22 July 2009

Pastworld; Ian Beck

Pastworld Pastworld by Ian Beck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The publisher''s rep told me that this book was akin to Un Lun Dun and Neverwhere - wrong. It's more like England, England with a Truman Show twist (or, perhaps more accurately, Running Out of Time).

Set in the mid-21st century, Pastworld is a replica of Victorian Era London. "Gawkers" come to experience the fog, pickpocketing, fashion and life of that time. Our heroine, Eve, has grown up in Pastworld (she thinks) with her nearly blind guardian, Jack. Jack protects her, keeping her indoors and away from most people. One day, Eve escapes.

What follows is a police investigation into the Fantom's (a Ripper-alike character) killings, Eve's disappearance, the murder of Jack and the hunt for Caleb, a Gawker accused of murder. To give this a sense of familiarity, the Chief Inspecter is named Lestrade; the phrase "the game's afoot!" is used. And, of course, where there's an Eve, there's sure to be an Adam.

While well-written, there were no real surprises here for me. Younger readers may enjoy it more.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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Hate List; Jennifer Brown

Hate List Hate List by Jennifer Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do you remember high school? Where you hated things, like the assignments you got in Alegbra or the teacher that gave you a hard time in class or the popular kids who made fun of you? Even your parents, your best friends could sometimes end up on your Hate List. Sometimes it was people you barely knew.

Thing is, I remember feeling that way, so I understood Valerie's Hate List. What happened next, however, is different. I didn't have a crazed boyfriend who opened fire on the people on my list - she did.

Brown writes a very compelling story about how it feels to be the one that possibly set everything in motion, how difficult it is to put one foot in front of the other when everyone thinks you're guilty of something. We get flashbacks to happier times for Valerie and Nick, to the day of the shooting, and spend time with her as she heals mentally and physically.

There is one moment, when her new friend Jessica uses That Voice, the one that used to call Val "Sister Death" on her friends, that felt very real to me. Rather than having that 'aha' moment of "wow. she does this to everyone, it wasn't just to me", Val just runs away because she sees Jessica bullying her friends into allowing her to bring Val to the lunch table. The fact that the author was confident enough to let that be, to not force understanding and compassion on Val at that moment speaks volumes.

Highly recommended.

(Free ARC received from publisher)

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Wake; Lisa McMann

Wake (Dream Catcher, #1) Wake by Lisa McMann
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Hmmm... I'm really unsure why (or how) this is part of a series, but apparently it is. I've got Book Two, and I guess I'll find out. However, the idea behind the book (our heroine, Janie, is tugged involuntarily into other people's dreams, which, to the outside world, looks like she's having a seizure) doesn't seem rich enough to support a series.

Janie's character is pretty well defined, but with one exception, the rest are left as sketches. Cabel (the exception) struck me as a stereotype, so the Big Surprise doesn't really work as a surprise; her mother and BFF Carrie are far lesser characters.

All-in-all, the book was ok. No great surprises, character-wise, dream-wise, plot-wise.

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20 July 2009

Genesis; Bernard Beckett

Genesis Genesis by Bernard Beckett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Part Lowry's The Giver, part Data's exploration of what it is to be human, part Socrates/Plato, and a few other things. All derivative and the Big Surprise at the end, well... not so much.

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19 July 2009

Manhood for Amateurs; Michal Chabon

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently this was written as a sort of response to the furor over Chabon's wife's statement that she loved her husband more than her children. Honestly, I didn't read this book as a response, but an author's intention does not mandate that the reader see things that way.

This is a series of essays, often very funny essays, that cover Chabon's life from early (age just over 5, when he's introduced to his younger brother) through his oldest child's bat mitzvah. At times it seemed as though he was trying too hard to show the warts, which made me wonder what wasn't shown. Why these incidents, and not others? Were these chosen to illustrate his intense love for his wife? How he, too, could be a "bad father"? That he was human, and his wife merely loved a human? I also failed to read this as a "manifesto" for being a man. But perhaps that's because I'm female and... oh, I don't know.

What dropped this from a 4 to a 3 was the occasional pretension in the writing. Example? Talking about pommes frites, not french fries. "Freedom fries" is ironic, pommes frites is pretentious.

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Anne Frank: The book, the life, the afterlife; Francine Prose

Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can understand why HarperCollins was a little nervous about this book: Prose does not play into the cult of Saint Anne. Rather, she looks at the "diary" (which, according to the evidence, was as much a literary creation - edited, reedited - as it was a documentation of Anne's thoughts and life) as the work of an author learning her craft under extraordinary circumstances.

The version I read, and the stage play I saw, in junior and high school are not the version that Anne wrote. Back then, who imagined that Anne had re-written almost the entire diary? We knew that her father had edited it somewhat, and obviously things are lost and changed when being translated, but Prose points to major changes that many may not be aware of.

Prose also looks at what happened before Anne began writing (was our vision of her, of the Annex, correct?) and what happened both to Anne, the others in the Annex and the diary after the arrest. Knowing that all, except Otto, died wasn't a surprise, although Prose seems to suggest that for many it is. Readers may be surprised to learn that it was not an immediate success as a book - rejected by a great many publishers, not a huge seller when it was published - and that the play and film were so difficult (and acrimonious) to create.

The book humanizes Anne in a way I didn't think possible, and is a definite Must Read to any one also reading the diary.

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13 July 2009

So Punk Rock; Micol Ostow

So Punk Rock: And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother So Punk Rock: And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother by Micol Ostow

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a cute book, I kept thinking as I read. I know these kids... I know this world... how cute!

This story of Ari, who doesn't fit in (he's the beta to Jonas' alpha), has one goal: to be a punk star. Have some indie cred. There's a secondary goal of not going to Brandeis, but the punk rock star thing is paramount. Especially after learning a few chords at Camp Ramah.

So, Ari schemes and plots and convinces Jonas to join a band. Then he get Yossi, the weird, Talmud-addicted student at their Conservative Jewish high school. Yossi's parents insist (whether this is actually true is never established) that Reena, their daughter, also join. And off they are on a great adventure that includes an opening "gig" at a bar mitzvah, a foray to NYC's indie band scene (and the Battle of the Bands), and the battle between Sari and Larafromcamp for Jonas' affections.

As I said, I know these kids. Not just the Conservative Jewish part, but the kid part. Ari's voice felt very, very real (difficult to do with a 16/17-year-old character), as did those of the other characters. There were a few quibbles (of course) but I'm guessing most will be taken care of in the final editing process. One bigger question that wasn't answered in the book or in the credits: were the authors aware of, or inspired by, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes' 2004 album "Ruin Jonny's Bar Mitzvah"

(NOTE: Free ARC received from publisher)

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09 July 2009

Jarrettsville; Corneila Nixon

Jarrettsville: A Novel Jarrettsville: A Novel by Cornelia Nixon

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you think of Civil War-era novels, you usually think Deep South and just before or during the War (ok, maybe you don't; I do.). Jarrettsville takes place in Maryland, very close to Pennsylvania, in the days immediately following Lee's surrender/Lincoln's murder through four years later.

The story is based on real events, real people (the author's ancestors) - one of those "we don't talk about him/her and What Happened" things. I'm glad Ms. Nixon did find out what happened, because the murder and the "whydoneit" are fascinating. The concept of Southern Pride being so close to my Northern home surprised me - whoda thunk that Maryland was such a hotbed of Southern sympathizers? Or that even freed slaves were considered (by some) "property"?

The era and the setting alone give this book an original flavor; telling Martha's story from multiple perspectives reminds us that no one event is clear cut. Like the War itself, there are layers and layers to unfold.

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03 July 2009

The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow; Tim Kehoe

The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow by Tim Kehoe

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is actually a slimmer read than expected because the last quarter is Vincent's invention notebook. The plot is pretty basic: Cinderella-type boy (eg, dead mother, stepmother hates him, wicked stepsisters, father usually away) is an amazing inventor, finally gets appreciation and recognition for his work.

But beyond the basics, Vincent's story is fun. His inventions are, well, inventive, in a Willy Wonka-ish way. The "blue" episode alone is worth reading; unfortunately(? perhaps not for parents of similarly minded children) the actual inventing process is often glossed over.

Boys will particularly like this book, and I hope it becomes a series.

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02 July 2009

Under the Covers and Between the Sheets; C. ALan Joyce

Under the Covers and between the Sheets: Facts and Trivia about the World's Greatest Books Under the Covers and between the Sheets: Facts and Trivia about the World's Greatest Books by C. Alan Joyce

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another fun read filled with (little known) facts about various authors and the works they created. There were times when I wished there had been a little more information about the book or author but that's what research is for. The irreverent tone will allow non-voracious readers to feel as well-informed as those who devour books.

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01 July 2009

Oh, Say Did You Know?; Fred DuBose

Oh, Say Did You Know?: The Secret History of America's Famous Figures, Fads, Innovations & Emblems Oh, Say Did You Know?: The Secret History of America's Famous Figures, Fads, Innovations & Emblems by Fred DuBose

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

History is made up of stories, right? This book contains anecdotes that make those stories live, the type of information that helps you remember more than just the bare facts of the events, people and dates. I wish some had been embellished a little more (for example, what were the lyrics to "To Anacreon in Heaven", the song that gave us the melody to our national anthem?) but other than that this is a fun, quick read.

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