30 June 2009

Midnight Fugue; Reginald Hill

Midnight Fugue: A Dalziel and Pascoe Mystery Midnight Fugue: A Dalziel and Pascoe Mystery by Reginald Hill

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the things I love about this series is how Hill keeps the relationships fresh, and how the mysteries do not seem to repeat in tone or nature. Don't get me wrong, there are certain moments that you know will come, certain catch phrases (or catch phrasing) that will be there (eg, the fatness of Dalziel, the education of Pascoe, the ugliness of Wield), but they don't bother me as much as constantly hearing of Nero Wolfe's "eighth of an acre of yellow silk pajamas" did.

And unlike in other series I've read, the characters really do grow. I can't remember another series in which the sidekick (in this case, Pascoe) has almost outgrown the master - it's a little like what they're trying to do with the Inspector Morse series, now that Colin Dexter (and Morse/John Thaw) is dead. But in that case is feels like trying to repeat the original, while here it feels like natural growth.

As with the Lynley/Havers mysteries, it's not always Dalziel front-and-center. Here, Pascoe's almost an interfering parent figure to Dalziel's teenager, with Ivor having a larger role than usual and Hat and Wield almost totally off stage. One of my friends didn't like the lack of time together between the Unholy Trinity (as they're known), and while I'd like to see more of them I think the book is still very strong and it's only my sentimental attachment that wants that relationship to shine.

They mystery itself is relatively predictable, resolving itself into two different "problems". The solutions weren't completely telegraphed (always a good thing), even though Hill gave the characters one day to figure it all out. What puzzled me is that the "24 hours in which to do it" seems more dust jacket nonsense, as there was nothing in the book that suggested that if this wasn't solved that quickly something worse would occur.

This is a far more filmable book than the previous Dalziel/Pascoe mysteries, but I really hope that it doesn't get made (and not just because I think the roles have been miscast). It's the arc of the relationship between Dalziel and Pascoe that will get lost (having skipped a few "episodes") and that's a pity.

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22 June 2009

Other Powers; Barbara Goldsmith

Other Powers Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

While the author may choose to think of this as a biography of Victoria Woodhull, in reality it is so much more. This book ties together the emerging suffrage movement, the Great Awakening, Free Love, the Civil War and just about every major event/movement in Victorian Era America. Woodhull is one of the major players, but Horace Greeley, Susan B. Anthony, the Beecher clan and Frederick Douglass (among others) all play equally vital roles in this story.

Most readers may have heard of, or studied, one or two of these topics but having them so clearly interwoven shows what a young, closely knit country we were. It would be nice of more histories (or biographies) did the same "putting into context" that Other Powers does.

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20 June 2009

To Kill or Cure; Susanna Gregory

To Kill or Cure: The Thirteenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew (Matthew Bartholomew 13) To Kill or Cure: The Thirteenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew by Susanna Gregory

My review


rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is from another one of those historical mystery series - medieval setting (Cambridge in the 1300s), town/gown tensions, monks galore. The sad thing is that every one that I've read barring Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael takes themselves so seriously it hurts.

The conflict here is threefold. One, an outsider claims to be a better doctor than the ones currently practicing in town; two, the town wants to raise rents on the hostels occupied by the varying University students; three, who killed Wenden and Lynton? Each story is interwoven, and their solutions aren't that far-fetched. The central mystery, the murders, turns out to have little to do with the other two stories except that they provide some red herrings for the Senior Proctor, Brother Michael and his Corpse Examiner, Matthew Bartholomew.

Some of the book felt like padding (we didn't need to continually hear about Brother Michael's "big bones" or how awful the food was or how much Tyrington spit), and the writing style was a little clunky. This was my first venture into this series, and I'll not revisit.

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18 June 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I read this, my thoughts occasionally strayed to the future of the epistolary novel in this era of e-mail. Yes, you can set the book in the past, but more important is how the younger, e-mail/text generation will use this device.

The book is charming. The voices of the various writers are wonderfully realized, with such personality and drama and life that you want to learn more about them. Because there are two authors, I wondered if one took on the dominant voice (Juliet) while the other wrote the other letters. The mixture of types of people and letters/cables keep readers interested, and you find yourself wondering who you'll meet next and what their story will be.

As with Reading Lolita in Tehran, there's less about the books than one might have hoped, although the reactions to a very eclectic group of books are wonderful. How many other books mix Marcus Aurelius, Phrenology, Charles Lamb and Anne Bronte? Yes, this is a little like 84 Charing Cross Road, but there is so much more to this than books and casual daily interaction. The love triangles, the interconnectedness of the characters... so well realized.

The Channel Islands and their experiences during WWII are not that well known in the US, and now I have to do more research into them and their overall history. My biggest complaint is that there's no list of suggested readings for others in the same boat.

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15 June 2009

The Children's Book; A.S. Byatt

The Children's Book The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before I go any further, I should say that I love Byatt's work; when I read about this book, I sent to Canada to get a copy as the US edition hadn't yet been released.

This is a Family Saga, only covering many intertwined families and friends rather than many generations. The detail of British history (the Victorian Era, Fabianism, pottery, children's books, etc.) is Byatt's exacting best, giving the reader places to pause as the plot moves forward. The characters are all complex; some you start out liking and end up realizing that they're not worthy of that, while some are the reverse. Only a few remain steady, and those are generally minor characters. Ending with WWI, many of the boys we first meet die (and almost all the deaths are described) while the girls are changed almost beyond recognition.

As with Babel Tower, there's another story (ok, in this case, several stories) intertwined with the Real Story. Here, these are the children's stories Olive writes, the Children's Books. They seemed nicer than the BT tale, although each had a kernel of nasty inside. I also appreciated that the sex was implied or gently described rather than reaching BT's graphic quality.

I know some people have been scarred by reading Byatt. This is the book for those people to give her another try.

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12 June 2009

Duchess of Death; Richard Hack

Duchess of Death: The Biography of Agatha Christie Duchess of Death: The Biography of Agatha Christie by Richard Hack

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for two reasons: one is, quite simply, I enjoyed reading Agatha Christie's mysteries when I was younger; the other is that our 6th grade students do research on mystery writers and this might be a good resource for them. It satisfies on both accounts.

This isn't so scholarly that younger readers won't be able to understand it, nor is it so simple that adults will give up. For many of us, the world into which she was born is so foreign (a minimum of two servants?!) that it's difficult to remember that she died within my lifetime - and I do remember her death. Yet you never feel that distanced from her or her life, possibly because of all the productions of her works (Suchet's Poirot, the endless Miss Marple's, The Mousetrap) that reproduce the era in which they're written.

It was also nice to not get a lot of psychological analysis; why she disappeared isn't necessarily solved, but the external reasons are given. Ditto her feelings about her divorce, deaths, her daughter. Our understanding of Christie comes from her own words and those of people she knew rather than from the biographer's decision that this is what she meant or felt.

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11 June 2009

Horrid Henry; Francesca Simon

Horrid Henry Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

This series is supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny - I occasionally smiled. However, I'm not an 8-year-old boy and they will definitely find this series funny. It's great that Horrid Henry is finally here in the US!

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Hold On To Your Dreams; Tim Lawrence

Hold on to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 (Material Worlds) Hold on to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 by Tim Lawrence

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I read "most important but least known" about someone, my gut reaction is "why?" All too often, it's because they weren't the most important, hence the least known. In the case of Russell, that seems to be true.

Russell (according to this book) was always on the verge of The Big Break: almost had a contract with Columbia, almost became the fourth Talking Head, almost... almost... The reason always appears to be that he was good, but not quite what was wanted, or a little too not-quite-a-good-fit for the others. Hence the "least known" part.

As for "most important", it depends on your definition, I suppose. If you count as important those who know a lot of people, can drop a lot of names, and Were There When, Russell qualifies. Did he ultimately have a huge influence on the careers of the others whose lives he touched? That's debatable.

Tim Lawrence has certainly done his research, but at times I felt he was dropping names to impress upon the reader exactly How Important Russell Was (which, if it were true, wouldn't then lead to pages of non-Russell material). It's also a bad sign when people are introduced and reintroduced in each chapter, almost as though the author assumes we won't be able to keep track of, or care about, them from before.

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09 June 2009

The Kill Call; Stephen Booth

The Kill Call The Kill Call by Stephen Booth

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Venturing into Dick Francis' territory, this mystery (about hunting, horse meat and the Royal Observer Corps) is almost incidental to the interpersonal relationships. Unlike most "partner" mysteries, Diane Fry and Ben Cooper do not really function as a unit. They work together, but they don't get along and they only seem to interact when absolutely necessary or when Cooper inserts himself into Fry's cases. It's not a sexual tension, it's just plain tension.

I like the characters, all flawed humans with sometimes good intentions, and the mystery is a good excuse to eavesdrop on their lives.

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07 June 2009

I Used to Know That; Caroline Taggart

I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot from School I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot from School by Caroline Taggart

My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ok, not as much a read as a skim - and a definite "must have" for any home (or college or work) reference collection. From the basics of literature to math to science to history, you'll be surprised at what you once (and probably still do) know.

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The New Totally Awesome Money Book for Kids; Arthur Bochner

The New Totally Awesome Money Book for Kids, Revised and Updated Edition The New Totally Awesome Money Book for Kids, Revised and Updated Edition by Arthur Bochner

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a good book for kids wanting to learn more about money - budgets, savings, investing and other topics are discussed. There are a few problems, however, so this shouldn't be the only book they use. For example, some of the charts are difficult to read; in other places, the information is wrong (pounds are not just paper money in England, there are pound coins as well). The games may be too cutesy for older teens, but overall it's a good starting point for a discussion about money.

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Exposure; Mal Peet

Exposure Exposure by Mal Peet

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting reworking of Othello, with the action taking place in some unnamed South American country with serious race issues. OthelloOtello is a black footballsoccer star, traded to an almost all-white southern team. At a party to meet the Very Important People in his new city, he's introduced to DesdemonaDesmerelda (or Dezi), a Shakira-clone. IagoDiego, his manager, sets the tragedy in motion; the other players (Michael Cass, Hector Brabanto, Paul Faustino) all do their best to keep the plot rolling. There's even a Bianca, an Emilia and the Shakespeare PR company. Just in case you've missed the similarities. Oh, and some of the action takes place in movie/play format.

The problem is, it works. The themes of race, class and celebrity are timeless and Peet does a good job of showing that they haven't gone away. The setting - football/soccer, South America - keep the action just foreign enough to interest students, while more astute readers will realize that this could just as easily happen here in America.

According to the jacket, this is the third Paul Faustino novel (and yes, I know Faust isn't one of Shakespeare's creations). Guess I'll have to look up the first two.

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Milk: A Pictoral History of Harvey Milk; Dustin Lance Black

Milk: A Pictorial History of Harvey Milk and the Story Behind the Film Milk: A Pictorial History of Harvey Milk and the Story Behind the Film by Dustin Lance Black

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wish this hadn't been a "behind the making of the movie" book. Even though the first two thirds were about Milk and his life, that last third seemed somehow wrong. Perhaps a thicker book, with more about the Castro, the gay rights movement, Milk and others would have been better; putting Milk more firmly in the context of his times and issues rather than as the inspiration for the film.


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06 June 2009

Metamorphosis: Junior Year; Betsy Franco

Metamorphosis: Junior Year Metamorphosis: Junior Year by Betsy Franco

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars

This would have been a four-star if it had been a little longer. At 128 pages, you just skim the surface of Ovid's junior year: the pairings, break-ups, crushes, disappointments, friends and his missing runaway meth-addict sister Thena.

I'm the first to blip over poetry when it appears in books, but I did read some of the poems and they were quite good - miss them, and you'll miss the backstory to the action.

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Candle Man (Book One: The Society of Unremitting Vigilance); Glenn Dakin

Candle Man, Book One: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance Candle Man, Book One: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance by Glenn Dakin

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

The back jacket blurb says that this is like Percy Jackson and Septimus Heap... I'd say it's more like A Series of Unfortunate Events meets Neverwhere/Un Lun Dun and The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Theo is one of those unfortunate/fortunate orphans - unfortunate in that he's basically a prisoner, kept separate from the world because of a mysterious disease, fortunate because Dr. Saint, Mr. Nicely and Clarice are all there to protect and care for him. On his birthday (I'm guessing 15th, but it's never stated), he's allowed a visit to the nearby graveyard where he finds a mysterious package: a snowglobe that "snows" dark soot and the message that he's in danger and needs to get out.

The conceit of a Candle Man ridding the world of dangerous criminals with Batmanesque names, of smoglings and garghouls, and a Society of Good Works battling the Society of Unremitting Vigilance is well constructed. Theo's life takes some unusual twists and by the end you wonder if Book Two's adventures will live up to Book One. We'll see.

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Food, Girls and Other Things I Can't Have; Allen Zadoff

Food, Girls, & Other Things I Can't Have Food, Girls, & Other Things I Can't Have by Allen Zadoff

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I kind of identified with Andy, not because I was a teenage boy, but because I was a teenage fat person. It's universal: not wanting to change in front of others, the hating shopping/clothes thing, the feeling invisible except you know you're not. Unlike Andy, I wasn't in love with a Hot Girl, nor was I rescued from a bully by The Football Guy. O (Football Guy's name) is one of those sports gods who pretty much floats through high school being The Guy - the cute, everyone-has-a-crush-on, not completely intelligent, doesn't quite get what friendship really is guy. And of course Andy is thrilled, albeit a little suspicious, when O befriends him.

It takes Andy (who has quite a sense of humor about life, being fat and being a sophomore guy) a few months to figure out who he is, who he wants to be, and who his friends really are. There's betrayal, but there's some genuine stuff here that readers can relate to.

And then there's the setting: Newton MA. What's not to love about that?

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Murder at Midnight; Avi

Murder At Midnight Murder At Midnight by Avi

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is set in that vaguely-Renaissancey Italy, the one where all good fairy tales are set (when they're not in that equally vaguely-Renaissancy France). The people here are ruled by a superstitious Prince and his equally superstitious (and stupid) son - magic is forbidden. Fabrizio, an orphan, works for Magnus, a Magician. Now, it's clear that Magnus is a card-trick magician, but to Fabrizio (and the Prince) he's The Real Deal.

A man in a black cloak warns Magnus that his life is in danger, and sure enough, it is. Some writing comes to light, all pages exactly the same, and that can only be done by magic (which is against the law). Fabrizio is sent to collect all the papers and try to find out from where they came, but is caught and brought to the palace to be tried for treason. He escapes, and meets Maria, a printer's devil (as she says, "this kingdom is such a backward, stupid place it has no printing press. It may be 1490, but you all dress, talk, act and think as though it were still the Dark Ages" and yes, that's an anachronism).

After several betrayals, trials and troubles, Fabrizio helps his master prove that it was the prince's son that was plotting against his own father and all is well. Except for Maria, who with her family is moving to a more up-to-date city.

Younger students may enjoy the mystery and the "magic", and of course it's Avi so there's already a huge following. Older students may just get annoyed (as I often did) at Fabrizio's stupidity and at everyone's habit of asking questions and not listening to (or allowing) the answer.

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Back Home; Julia Keller

Back Home Back Home by Julia Keller

My review


rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very well-written, but definitely a Message book, one that I could see appearing on any number of bibliotheraphy lists. And I guess that's why I didn't really warm to it, because I wanted more story and less message.

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Tombstone Tea; Joanne Dahme

Tombstone Tea Tombstone Tea by Joanne Dahme

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

At first I thought this would be a slightly creepy version of Spoon River Anthology, but it's more a revenge tale with Really Angry Ghosts.

Jessie (a spiritualist who "blanks out" occasionally) has moved to a new school, a charter school linked to a nearby cemetery. In an effort to make friends, she agrees to spend the night in the cemetery getting gravestone rubbings. The "spend the night" part just seems cruel, but then it wouldn't set up the rest of the book. Jessie meets Paul, a really cute cemetery worker. Paul takes her to some of the graves, explaining that the activity going on was part of a local actors Tombstone Tea reenactment. He explains her meeting several of the graveyard denizens as though she were at Colonial Williamsburg, but Jessie senses he's not quite telling the truth.

When Jenny, the vampire-ish mother arrives, things go from scary to terrifying (for Jessie; it's just a confused mass of action for the reader). Jenny's not a vampire in the True Blood/Angel/Twilight sense, she's one in the sucking-the-life-out-of-her-daughter sense. And the rest of the book explains how Jenny/Amy and Paul got to the cemetery, and the plotting to finally rid the dead of Jenny's unwelcome, disturbing presence.

The flashbacks were interestingly evocative, but the rest of the plot seemed a bit muddled. I wish the characters had been more developed and the terror a little more subtle.

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05 June 2009

Angel in Vegas: The Chronicles of Noah Sark: Norma Howe

Angel in Vegas: The Chronicles of Noah Sark Angel in Vegas: The Chronicles of Noah Sark by Norma Howe

My review

rating: 1 of 5 stars

Hmm... Our hero(?) is a Guardian Angel, assigned to Princess Diana but forgot to put her in "protective surveillance" one night - you know the rest, right? This is his next assignment, as Noah Sark, 16-year-old from Angels Camp CA visiting Las Vegas for, well, something. He meets Andy and his Di-lookalike girlfriend Barbra (she's the assignment) and they spend a day together: hanging out at the donut shop, touring the Strip, watching Barbra dance as her Elvis-impersonator-father's Hound Dog, etc.. In the end, they're in California (flown there by Andy's Uncle Buck) and narrowly miss being killed in a car driven by a man named Henri.

I could have easily done without all the digressions about Life In Paris, Life with Diana, Things To Do In Paris With "Margaret", etc.. For an angel that's been around forever, this one seems pretty out of it. More focus on Andy/Barbra would have made the book a much better read. And I'm guessing - based on the "Chronicles" part, that it's going to be a series. Yikes.

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Beige; Cecil Castelluci

Beige Beige by Cecil Castellucci

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
Rather predictable story: Katy (an uptight Quebecois-American) is sent by her mother to live in LA with her father. Mom's off to Peru to work at an archaeological dig and Katy hasn't seen her father in eight years - sounds like the perfect solution, right? Dad's The Rat, a Tommy Lee clone for an infamous band named Suck (no umlauts!), lives like an absolute slob and has no idea how to relate to his daughter.

Turns out, Katy's repressed. So when Lake "befriends" her (because The Rat's paying her, not because she'd actually like someone like Katy), Lake decides to name her Beige, as in bland. Boring. Dull.

There are two boys, Leo and Garth. There's punk and near-punk and drums and "merch" and by the end, well, Katy's learned to not be afraid to let her inner emotions show, to sing, to like music, etc.. The Rat is actually a pretty good father, and Lake turns into a friend. As I said, predictable.

Not quite beige-predictable, more mauve.

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