31 August 2009

Homer & Langley; E.L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley: A Novel Homer and Langley: A Novel by E.L. Doctorow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fictionalized biography of a real person - not quite historical fiction, but close. Homer, the blind Collyer brother, types out his memoir of a life first lived in the beauty that was the Upper East Side at the turn of the century, then the increasing darkness as his eyesight fails, his parents die and his brother returns from WWI having been gassed.

How much of Langley's problems were due to the mustard gas is anyone's guess, but the life he and Homer lead is fascinating. Incredibly rich, but also incredibly weird, these two men became part of New York's "Believe it or not" landscape. Doctorow extends their lives (both died in 1947 in real life, but here they manage to survive until the 1980s) and has them meet flower children, react to the moon landing and mourn a former piano student-turned-martyred nun. Moving the mansion from Harlem to Park Avenue gives the story more pathos, which (quite frankly) wasn't needed.

With the exception of stretching another 40 years and the move, Doctorow stays quite close to the facts of their lives (the court battles, their "syndrome", etc.). It's enough to make someone want to learn more about the Collyers!

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30 August 2009

Practically Perfect; Katie Fforde

Practically Perfect Practically Perfect by Katie Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice, frothy Aga-saga (with obligatory Mr. Darcy-in-the-pond reference). Perfect summer read.

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29 August 2009

Another Faust; Daniel and Dina Nayeri

Another Faust Another Faust by Daniel Nayeri
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This adaptation of the Faust story centers on five children, two twins and three others, all "stolen" from their families at age 10. The world has forgotten them until suddenly, at age 15, they appear with their governess in New York. The five become students at the Marlowe School, one of those impossibly difficult-to-get-into/only-for-the-incredibly-rich-and-powerful schools. There, four of the five set out to take over, each with their own special "gifts".

The fifth, twin Bice, isn't like the others. Her talent is hiding, learning, studying (which she does by freezing time). Belle, her twin, is beautiful (but with an awful stench that can only be hidden by bathing in emotions); Val is a poet and seducer who can go back in time, perfecting conversations and events; Christian is an athlete, bathing in some weird serum and sleeping in a coffin; and Victoria is trying to be the most powerful, successful of them all.

Clearly, all these gifts come with a price other than that black, only-seen-when-wet beauty mark. Madame Villeroy, their governess, continually plays one against the other, making deals and promises with no real method to her other than madness. At times, when talking to Belle, she sounded like Miss Havisham, but at others she just sounded stereotypically schemey.

The five children manage to make enemies of almost everyone at Marlowe, with Belle the exception (thanks to her baths and her determination to get Thomas). That didn't feel at all real to me: why make their evil so obvious to all? And the ending, with Bice, Belle and Christian escaping, was overblown and moralistic. In between there were moments that were interesting, but the entire book didn't really hold together as a read.

I also wondered about the chapter introductions. At first, I thought they were supposed to represent others that had sold their souls to Faust but Jacob and Laura? No idea who they were. If you're going to hit people over the head, make it with an obvious hammer.

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28 August 2009

Sharp Teeth; Toby Barlow

Sharp Teeth Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First confession: I don't like books in verse. Second confession: I'm a cat person. So why did I read a verse-novel about werewolves? Because it was written by a Quaker (duh).

Seriously. The author spoke at this year's RUSA Literary Tastes Breakfast and afterwords, I had to read this book. Because it's a werewolf book, there's some gore, but because it's in verse, the gore isn't as pronounced as it might be in a "real" novel.

This is the story of Anthony, a lonely guy who becomes a dogcatcher; Luke, a werewolf with a pack; several other packs; and Peabody, the detective. The intersection of these stories is a bit confusing - something about mistreatment of dogs, about drugs, about a ranch in Mexico and which pack is dominant. Luke's clearly the guy with the Big Ideas (limos, suits, nice places to "change" in), Annie's building her pack, Damon's the traitor and, well, it's a little confusing. That's that part of the book I didn't like. But the characters were very well done and you'll get a definite sense of who's who as you read.

Not sure if werewolves are the new vampires (or is it werewolves are the new zombies, which were the new vampires?), but this is a good read for anyone who wants something a little different.

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18 August 2009

The End is Now; Rob Stennett

The End Is Now The End Is Now by Rob Stennett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not having grown up in a community that awaited the Rapture, I'm not really qualified to talk about the accuracy of this book's depiction of the event. I'm also not really qualified to speak about what parts of the book were satire (per back cover description).

Having said that... If one does believe in the Rapture and visions and prophecy, the actions of Will and Amy seem completely real. As do the actions and reactions of the town - the fear, the excitement, the riots, the attempt to quell them, etc.. During the course of my lifetime I've seen other, seemingly smaller events create a huge public insanity and it's easy to imagine that in a smallish town, this is what would happen if people there truly believed (or didn't believe).

The ending reminded me a little (ok, it reminded me a lot) of the ending of Key's The Forgotten Door. And the acknowledgments struck me as a little mean (I know, I know: it's satire and satire can be mean but still, this was unnecessary mean).

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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Luv Ya Bunches; Lauren Myracle

Luv Ya Bunches: Book One Luv Ya Bunches: One by Lauren Myracle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Myracle's latest is a cross between her TTYL series and Peace, Love and Baby Ducks, and read like the start to the "Beacon Street Girls" series. Her "innovative blend" (per the back cover) of IM, screenplay and text are no longer innovative, but she does use them well.

None of that, however, will stop the legions of Myracle fans from reading this series! As she covers the tropes of finding friends (possibly even boyfriends), standing up to bullies, learning who you are, overcoming differences, Myracle has the ability to subtly teach readers. I did think that the diversity in the "bunch" was, well, obvious (and I wonder if younger readers will also think that).

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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Viola in Reel Life; Adriana Trigiani

Viola in Reel Life Viola in Reel Life by Adriana Trigiani
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I identified with Viola's life before PA (she lived near where I lived in Cobble Hill, and many of the stores were ones I'd shopped in; and she had attended St. Ann's, a school I know well) and with her arrival at Perfect Academy (because I was once the new kid at boarding school). The biggest difference was that I had a single, not a quad.

Of course, giving Viola a single would have meant that the author had to work a lot harder to show Viola's learning to live with others, to not always be Princess Snark, to lighten up on her parents (who were filming a documentary in Afghanistan, hence the boarding school) and to start learning about Boys. And, of course, the quad become good friends and by the end of the book you feel that warm, fuzzy feeling about them.

The relationship between Viola and Andrew and Jared felt as awkward as those early "are we friends/going out" relationships do - and both boys reactions are, well, predictable. However, that's not what younger readers are going to feel, because they haven't necessarily been there before. Some of the other relationships, or perhaps I mean the lessons those relationships teach, are more forced, unfortunately.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)


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By the Time You Read This; Lola Jaye

By the Time You Read This By the Time You Read This by Lola Jaye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a great idea: writing a manual for your child to read, filled with advice and helpful hints, some to be read each birthday and some to be read whenever. In this case, the impetus comes from a diagnosis of something never defined, and stretches from age 12 to 30.

There's a seven year gap between Kevin's death (when Lois was five) and the appearance of The Manual. During these years, she's learned to live with his death and to build up a mythology around him. Her mother's remarriage is not a good thing (per Lois) and when her aunt belatedly brings her this gift, Lois starts to retreat into that mythology.

Some of the advice seemed right on the nose, some seemed contrived and some, well, felt anachronistic (the slang, or the use. of. periods.). That last might be fixed in the final version, I hope. Of course, a man writing to his daughter is going to get embarrassed about certain things and be rock solid on others (the "hormonal teabag" being one of them), ditto someone writing well before the child is whatever age they are supposed to be reading said advice. Having said that, it made me think of my mother, who's mother died when she was 13. This is the sort of thing I think she'd like to have had as she grew up.

My biggest quibble is that there was one event that was telegraphed a mile away (although perhaps we, the reader, were supposed to pick up on what a teen didn't). The obvious eventuality of Corey and Lois' marriage was also a problem, partly because it was so obvious and partly because it only really happened after Lois "got over" her father.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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Little Black Lies; Tish Cohen

Little Black Lies Little Black Lies by Tish Cohen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In an effort to fit in at her new school, to erase her parent's divorce (and the shame she felt when her mother ran off with the husband of the school's most popular teacher), and to hide her father's OCD, Sara tells some little lies. Black lies, obviously, because they're not the ones we call white lies.

This is one of those wanting-to-be-part-of-the-popular crowd stories, with consequences. Of course the girl she wants to be friends with most, Carling, is also the prettiest and meanest. Of course one of the others (Izzie) will feel threatened and discover Sara's lies. And of course Sara will do something stupid to cover for her lies.

What I liked is that the consequence of all this is real: there's no last minute saving. Sara scuttles her future for stupid reasons, and she's stuck with that. On the other hand, she does - in the end - get The Guy, so perhaps things are all bad. While I wish we could have seen more about her school, or some of the more interesting characters, I'm glad that this really takes the form of a morality tale. Whether younger readers will see that is, of course, a question.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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The Secret of the Dread Forest; Gillian Summers

The Secret of the Dread Forest: The Faire Folk Trilogy The Secret of the Dread Forest: The Faire Folk Trilogy by Gillian Summers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Whenever I get an already-published book in a series at ALA, I wonder why. An ARC to me says, "this book isn't catching on and we want to get the word out" but an already-published book being given away in stacks says "help!".

Not having read the first two books, I found the "previously" part of this one a little annoying. It clearly means to drive you to the others, without really helping clarify what happened if you don't have them lying around. Only by reading the entire book do you understand one of the events. My preference is for books to stand on their own as much as possible...

There's a part of me that loves the idea that there are elves and sprites and others that are protecting (and living in) our wild spaces. So a book that talks about that is wonderful. When Keelie starts learning elven lore, I was hoping for more than a few paragraphs. The bits of their history, lore and lives the dribble out are unsatisfactory in their brevity - perhaps the author isn't that imaginative? perhaps they're there to dress up the plot? In any case, the plot seems rushed, the filler is less than filling and I'm not buying the first two or reading the next series (clearly led up to and promoted in this book).

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17 August 2009

The Child Thief; Brom

The Child Thief The Child Thief by Brom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This version of Peter Pan's story is very different from the one that Barrie wrote, and refers less to the original than Maguire's Wicked did (probably for copyright reasons). The author says he was inspired by the original text, which he claims is watered down here in the US. I'm sure he's thinking of the movie/theatrical versions, because anyone that reads the books gets that Peter kidnaps kids, that something - one's never quite sure what - happens when the children become teens, and that this is not the sweetest of fairy tales. Wendy's reaction to Peter as a grown-up alone should tell the reader that!

However, as I said, there is no real mention of the original source material here. For example, Barrie had a succession of "Wendys" following the original, Brom has several girls (including Sekou, who is something like 200 years old) in his tribe, none of whom are filling in for their mother).

I did like this take on the story - the blending of the Old Ways, Avalon, the founding of America by religious fanatics, the "saving" of lost children. What I found annoying was the assumption that an adult version of the story required the use of adult language. Really, in Roman or Medieval times did they really use the f-word? It feels anachronistic at best and sloppy writing at worst. And having Peter be 1400 years old, but somehow manage to wander into Avalon during the Roman era was another example of sloppy. By the 600s, Rome's empire in England was long gone.

Peter's final scene was very powerful, showing that even seemingly ageless sprites can change - a little. One wonders if this will lead to a sequel. I hope not. Please, let this stand on its own and tackle something else.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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Wish You Were Here; Leslie Simon

Wish You Were Here: An Essential Guide to Your Favorite Music Scenes-Punk to Indie and Everything in Between Wish You Were Here: An Essential Guide to Your Favorite Music Scenes-Punk to Indie and Everything in Between by Leslie Simon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting guidebook, but it leaves out some essentials: how do you mention Minneapolis without mentioning Prince??? The album lists were helpful, though, and I loved the snarky comments.

For music fans and those wanting to be only.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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16 August 2009

Bystander; James Preller

Bystander Bystander by James Preller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best books have child characters that feel as though they could easily be walking down the corridors of my school - this is one such book. Eric's desire to fit in, his confusion about his role in Giff's crowd, and his growing maturity rang true: I could name two or three boys I know that are going through the same stages that Eric is.

Being the new kid is never easy, and when he sees a boy running (ok, fleeing) he decides not to get involved until he's clearer on what's going on. During the next few months, he learns the consequences of not getting involved (and there's a heavy-handed sequence with adults lecturing about it, something I'm sure all my students experience whenever there's a bout of Bad Behavior at school; I'm sure my students feel the same way as these students do), and how to maybe - in a way - start moving in the right (aka "adult") direction.

My fear is that this book will be used as bibliotherapy rather than just as another great MS boy read.

(Free ARC received from publisher)

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The Miles Between; Mary E. Pearson

The Miles Between The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another weepy! I really liked The Adoration of Jenna Fox, so I was looking forward to this book by Pearson. Destiny, while living in the realistic fiction present, has as many problems with identity as Jenna. Her main quirk is that she's great at noticing, and examining, things and finding linkage where others might find mere coincidence (for example, she trots out the old Lincoln/Kenney list).

On this, her "one fair day" she and four of her breakfast mates go AWOL from their boarding school. Seemingly coincidentally, a car, running, with cash in the glove compartment, is there, ready for taking. And take they do - off on a day of improbable adventure (finding Lucky, boating, eating and shopping) and friendship. By the end, you learn that her being sent off to boarding school at age seven and her life since are more about her than her parents, and she's come to realize that not everyone will go away or abandon her.

(Free ARC received from publisher)

Lying With the Dead; Michael Mewshaw

Lying With the Dead Lying With the Dead by Michael Mewshaw
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that my mother likes - messed up family coming together at the end. Except here they don't really "come together", they meet briefly and then separate and I suspect they'll never meet up again.

This read like a retread of some Oprah novel, all this family strife and angst and secrets with no one left undamaged. The Big Secrets weren't such secrets (read enough of these types and you'll see the reveal coming a mile away).

What bothered me most was that the oldest, Maury, is supposed to be Asperberg's and OCD. Fine. But that doesn't always equate with dumb or slow and here it appears to. Since the book is told in the voices of the three children, it would have been nice had he been proven to not be either but perhaps that was his role in the family.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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15 August 2009

Black is for Beginnings; Laurie Faria Stolarz

Black is for Beginnings (Blue Is For Nightmares, Book 5) Black is for Beginnings by Laurie Faria Stolarz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This wasn't the complete book, but a "Special Preview"... as graphic novels go, this one was relatively easy to read (they're not my favorite "genre"). As plots go, the repetitiveness was annoying. I know this is supposed to be backstory, but filling in heavy portions of What Happened Earlier (aka "Previously on [series:]") doesn't make the book better, it just makes it longer.

(Free ARC received from publisher)

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Everything For A Dog; Ann M. Martin

Everything for a Dog Everything for a Dog by Ann M. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I cried when I read Martin's A Dog's Life, and hoped that this book would be more upbeat. It is... barely. This is the story of Bone, the brother to Squirrel (the heroine of the previous book). It's also the story of Charlie, who "lost" his brother RJ one year and then, barely a year later, sees his dog/best friend Sunny shot by a hunter. And it's the story of Henry, who really really really wants a dog (but gets two hamsters and a cat instead). The interweaving of Bone's story, which is a little weepy, with those of Charlie and Henry brightens the tone a bit.

Turns out, Henry is Charlie's son and Charlie doesn't want Henry to go through the pain and loss he did. However, Henry meets Bone (renamed Buddy) and has Other Plans, including being responsible, Rehabilitating the dog, and bringing him into the family. Which, of course, ultimately happens but not in the way Henry plans.

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14 August 2009

Goldstrike; Matt Whyman

Goldstrike Goldstrike by Matt Whyman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the parts about Carl's hacking into (and around) Cleo - given that there was little technobabble and more "thought", it didn't make me feel like I couldn't follow. The idea behind Sphinx and the internal defenses was also pretty cool.

Where the book lost me was with the seemingly interminable "fight" between Samuel, Sabine and Carl/Beth. It went on for too long and just felt improbable. Surely Cleo could have found a better way to deal with things?

Not having read Inside the Cage, I had no expectation of Goldstrike. And lucky for me (and other readers) the flashbacks were kept to a minimum; unlucky for me, the ending clearly points to another book. The ending chapter read like something the author added to keep readers involved and wanting to purchase/read the next one, rather than a real conclusion to this part of the saga.

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13 August 2009

Latter-Day Cipher: Latayne Scott

Latter-Day Cipher: A Novel Latter-Day Cipher: A Novel by Latayne Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I knew very little about Mormonism as a religion when I started the book (although I did grow up relatively close to the Hill Cumorah and saw annual tv ads for the Pageant); I did know about the history from Palmyra to Salt Lake City and beyond. Having read it, I'm not sure that I know that much more. At times the author is explicit about what the symbols and the rituals, vows, promises, oaths, etc. are, while at other times there's still a veil over the topics.

The mystery of who the serial killer is and the reason why is telegraphed from several chapters away. Almost every character loses their faith, which makes sense given the author's background but is a pity from the standpoint of the reader who wants to learn a little more and have a more balanced view of the religion.

This has spurred me to learn more about the practices and some of the history. I suspect it won't be easy to find dispassionate accounts.

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11 August 2009

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind; William Kamkqamba

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure if this is a real memoir, it's more a "here's what I did and how I did it... oh, yeah, and here's some about my life, too" type book. Kamkwamba's ability to bring to life for us what it was like to grow up in Malawi is remarkable. His voice - which never really seems to age - is that of a wide-eyed, excitable boy who just has this ability to figure stuff out.

When I read the book, at times I heard my father's voice talking about some scientist or other "figuring stuff out". I think he'll like this book, because (to him) it's about taking a little bit of knowledge and by trial and error making something that works. Others will read this and be inspired by the same story, perhaps less enthralled with the scientific aspects.

The biggest problem I had was, as I mentioned before, the voice doesn't age. While it was clear that time was passing (we start when he's young and progress to what I'm guessing is early manhood, although that's not totally clear), there was no sense that his aspirations, his worldview or his inner life aged. Now, that might be in part due to his life's circumstances (surviving the famine, for example) or it might be due to the way in which his coauthor helped him shape the story. In it, he sounds eternally in his late teens. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did occasionally niggle at me.

My guess is that people will read this and be inspired. Inspired to do what is the question - will they help more Williams? find ways to help the countries in which these Williams live? go off and be inventors themselves? It will be interesting to see what happens as this book (and William's story) reaches a wider audience.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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07 August 2009

Spellbinder; Helen Stringer

Spellbinder Spellbinder by Helen Stringer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She sees dead people - and has very stay-at-home parents (apparently, ghosts can only haunt one place at a time). Belladonna's "talent" for seeing, and talking to, ghosts has its perks. It also has its minuses, like when all the ghosts disappear and it seems that she's the only one that can help save them.

Maybe "only one" is a bit misleading. She has help, Steve (still among the living, and the Palladin) and Elsie (dead since the early 1900s). Together the find the red door and a few important objects, call the Hunt and generally defeat Mrs. Ashe's plan.

The plan, such as it is, smelled a little too much like something from the Buffyverse. That's not a bad thing, per se, but it does mean that there's less a sense of "oh, wow, something new" than there might have been. Aunt Dierdre's obsession with the Hunt is never really explored, leading me to think it's either going to be a Major Plot Point in a sequel or that there was more, once, and it got edited out. In either case, I'm not thrilled. Yes, I'd read a sequel, but I hate it when there's such a heavy-handed set up.

Overall, I enjoyed this and I know my MS students will, too.

(free ARC provided by publisher)

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03 August 2009

Blue is for Nightmares; Laurie Faria Stolarz

Blue Is For Nightmares (Blue Is For Nightmares, Book 1) Blue Is For Nightmares by Laurie Faria Stolarz
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I don't know much about Wicca, but I suspect that the 'craft' practiced here by Stacey isn't quite what those that practice do. I do know about boarding schools, and this seems totally off - a writer's fantasy created solely to push along the plot.

And the plot? Relatively predictable. Most of the characters appear to be caricatures, with only the friendship between Drea and Stacey approaching real.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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02 August 2009

The Eyeball Collector; F.E. Higgins

The Eyeball Collector The Eyeball Collector by F.E. Higgins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book seems perfect for Middle School-age boys: moments of humor, that deliciously gross factor that age group loves, a world they can believe. And riddles.

The plot is pretty simple: boy's father dies after losing his fortune, boy plots revenge, boy almost realizes revenge. The titular man is a blackmailer (among other things) and the to-be-revenged-upon character, with just enough "ewww" in him. Lady Mandible is creepy, and the name! Really: mandible? Love. It.

Not quite a sequel, it's a new part of Higgins' world in the same way the Fire is part of the Graceling world, a world that boys (that supposedly hard-to-reach group) will enjoy exploring.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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