31 December 2010

Forge; Laurie Halse Anderson

Forge (Seeds of America, #2)Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Given that this is the second in a trilogy, the book doesn't really suffer from "middle child" syndrome: the backstory is filled in in drips and drabs (but you could get by without having read Chains) and the ending is semi-cliffhangery, so you could use your imagination to plot Isabel and Curzon's future without feeling compelled to buy Ashes.

The horrors of serving in, not fighting in, an army take up the majority of the book: the cold, hunger, lack of shelter and clothing, etc. that Curzon's company experiences is remarkably detailed. I was at BookFest this year where Ms. Anderson described, in somewhat painful detail, her research into bloody footprints and firecake, among other 'primary sources'. I think that it is this part that will attract the most readers, because the slavery story - while compelling - isn't really news.

That's not to diminish the betrayal Curzon feels when his former(? depending on your point of view) master grabs him, or the fury he has when it's clear that "freedom" they're fighting for is for whites, not everyone. That there was slavery in the North will surprise readers who think that states like Massachusetts and New York were always free states, and that slaves preferred to fight for the British (who promised their freedom) will also surprise readers.

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30 December 2010

The Young Italians; Amanda Prantera

The Young ItaliansThe Young Italians by Amanda Prantera
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not quite an Aga-saga, but close... Irene is a newly orphaned young woman heading to Italy to live with her only living relative, an aunt who is less than thrilled to play guardian. Aunt Florence's life is based on the intellectual/artistic discussion at her Wednesday salotta, at which Irene is a complete disappointment, so Florence finds a nice young man to amuse Irene. This man, Tommasso, and Irene hit it off, somewhat, and end up married - Irene rather passively leaves her aunt for her husband's large family.

Throughout the book, Irene's reactions are passive and even her "affair" is conducted in that manner (can you call it an affair if there's only one real moment of physical contact, and the rest is glances and occasional conversations and covert stalking?). All this is set against the backdrop of Mussolini's rise, and the family consensus is that he's a bit of a buffoon but not much worse; of course, they change their mind as Italy invades Ethiopia and cozies up to Hitler.

I never felt a real connection to Irene, probably because she is portrayed as something of an observer in her life - we never get close to any of the characters. I wished there'd been slightly more about the political changes, as this is a period about which we rarely hear.

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28 December 2010

Earth; Jon Stewart

Earth (the book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human RaceEarth (the book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race by Jon Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Basically, this is review-proof: either you like the humor of the Daily Show crew, or you don't. I fall into the "mostly like, but sometimes they take the joke too far" category and this book is, for the most part, taking the joke just far enough.

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27 December 2010

Mudbound; Hillary Jordan

MudboundMudbound by Hillary Jordan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was loaned this book as a follow-up to having read The Help (and after I'd recommended The Queen of Palmyra and Wench) and this is definitely a more memorable, more sickening book than the first. Told from six different points of view, some male, some female, some white, some black, but all genuine, this story of what life in the 40s in Mississippi was like.

Laura's life was one of gentle rearing - it's not clear that she has any real racial animosity, but there's a casual class/racist attitude in her - and her late (past-30!) marriage to Henry isn't one of love and passion but more of companionship. Or so she thinks until he moves her and their two daughters to a mudbound farm miles from "home": no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no telephone, and his racist, mean father living in a lean-to are all part of her new life. She becomes as friendly as one can with Florence, the black midwife whose husband sharecrops on the farm. There's also Hap, Florence's husband; Henry, madly in love with the land and filled with the certainty that because he's white and male, he's right; Ronsel, back from WWII, where even though he was a black soldier he wasn't somehow less than a man; and Jamie, Henry's younger brother, who would have done better to live an academic life but instead ends up a bomber in the War and struggling with the aftershocks of that horror. Their lives intertwine in such a way that you know that nothing good is going to happen, but the actual climax will take you by surprise.

As with the two books I'd recommended, I can see this book being recommended to others for many years; it's a story that many people would like to forget was a part of who we, as a country, were and should not be forgotten.

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26 December 2010

A Long Walk to Water; Linda Sue Park

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True StoryA Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know this book has already been talked about as an award winner, and rightly so. Ms. Park's description of the walk of the Lost Boys and the determination of one, Salva Dut, to do something to help his country is stripped down so younger readers can get a feel for the horror and the hope, without the gory details. Combining his story with that of Nya's constant struggle to get enough water (let alone good, clear, uncontaminated water) will, I hope, raise awareness that Africa is a continent in need of help for the simple, basic things we Americans take for granted.

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Alexander Hamilton; Jean Fritz

Alexander Hamilton: The OutsiderAlexander Hamilton: The Outsider by Jean Fritz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can easily see this becoming the "go to" biography on Hamilton for younger readers - the narrative flow will help them get through some of the more confusing parts (Hamilton's ideas about a federal bank, for example, or his activities during the Revolutionary War). Occasionally the jumps make the chronology a little confusing, or information is left out (eg, was Hamilton accepted to the College of New Jersey?) but that's a rare occurrence. There were times when I wished for more detail, for example what happened to Aaron Burr after the duel, but for the most part this introduction to Hamilton's life is filled with the depth of information that will satisfy readers and encourage some of them to go further. The notes at the end were very welcome, as was the bibliography.

ARC provided by publisher.

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Close to Famous; Joan Bauer

Close to Famous
Close to Famous by Joan Bauer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This belongs in the "girl with a problem and a talent somewhat overcomes the problem and gets the guy" genre, with the romance being very light (not even a kiss). Foster's got two problems (three if you count her father being dead): her mother's former boyfriend was/is abusive, and Foster can't read. She can, however, bake incredible muffins and cupcakes.

After running away from Huck, Foster and her mother end up in Culpepper WV, where the town is slowly dying after the one business closed down and the new prison didn't hire as many locals as promised. The kindness of strangers helps them find a home and a job, while Foster wows Angry Wade with her cupcakes. Soon enough there are friends, and Foster is finally tackling learning to read with their help.

The plot is slight, and the genre is one that makes me wonder if the author didn't choose an issue (abuse and literacy) upon which to hang a story, rather than the other way 'round. When the book is published, I hope that some of the cupcake and muffin recipes are included!

ARC provided by publisher.

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No Passengers Beyond This Point; Gennifer Choldenko

No Passengers Beyond This PointNo Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This story about the Thompkins siblings (Finn, India and Mouse) has the same energy as the Al Capone books, and the same flair for dialog, but the plot is - I think - too confusing for readers. We start with the usual sibling squabbling, interrupted by Mom informing the trio that they've lost their house and that while she finishes the school year in California (where they live, and where she teaches), they will be moving to Colorado to live with their Uncle Red. Needless to say, they're not happy about this news.

The move will be happening the next day, and the kids will fly to Denver, where Uncle Red will meet them, or send a driver to get them to his home. The usual TSA stuff happens, and then we're on board the flight, which sets down somewhere that doesn't quite feel like Denver... it doesn't quite feel like anywhere they've ever experienced or heard about. Since the book is told in alternating chapters by all three, you get to hear how Mouse, Finn and India react to this change in their situation. I won't go further except to say that their reactions surprised me, until I figured out the plot twist (which, as I thought about it, was obvious in retrospect).

ARC provided by publisher.

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24 December 2010

A Severed Wasp; Madeleine L'Engle

A Severed Wasp (Vigneras, #2) A Severed Wasp (Vigneras, #2) by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Knowing next to nothing about classical piano, I spent time while reading resolving to correct this and to find copies of some of the pieces mentioned. (Obviously, the compositions by Tom and Justin won't be found, but Bach and Scarlatti will be.)

Katherine is still the relatively contained, reactive person we met in A Small Rain, 50 years older and presumably wiser. She's retired to New York, widowed, and looking forward to a peaceful life. Of course you know that that's simply not going to happen, but her reserve does prevent her from doing more than getting snitty with others when she wants them to go away (although she does come to love Emily, and tolerate Dorcas, among others). The "mystery" of who (or what) is causing the panic and fear in Cathedral Close is less of an ecclesiastic mystery than it is a way to move the plot forward and keep Katherine interacting with the residents.

Moving between her current life and her memories of her former life in Europe, as a Nazi prisoner, as a wife and mother and international pianist, and of the choices she's made, Katherine's story made me envy the peace of mind she's found. As I suspected, the dialog here is far better than the dialog in the first book, although at times it still sounds a little stilted (as does Katherine's inner monologue). I also don't remember NYC being as scary a place in the early mid-80s as this book would have it.

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21 December 2010

The Small Rain; Madeleine L'Engle

The Small Rain (Vigneras, #1)The Small Rain by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Never having read any of Ms. L'Engle's adult fiction, I wasn't sure what to expect - now I'm eager to read the sequel.

Katherine is a funny child - not comfortable around other children, a little stiff and distant around adults - whose family is in disarray. Her father, a composer, is too scattered to care for her and her mother has been away for a few years following a serious car accident (it's never clear if this was drunk driving or a suicide attempt or simply an accident), so Katherine is staying with Aunt Manya, an actress. We start with 10-year-old Katherine backstage waiting to go in in Manya's current production on the day before she is reunited with Julie, her mother.

Julie's pianist career is over, thanks to the accident, and her beauty has been dimmed due to scarring, but to Katherine she's as wonderful as ever. She continues to keep Katherine out of school (although had she stayed with Manya, she'd have gone to Professional Children's School!!) and it isn't until four years later, when Julie dies, that Katherine is sent to a regular school, this time a boarding school in Switzerland.

There she continues her solitary ways until she meets her piano teacher (and first love) Justin and until an old acquaintance from New York, Sarah, enrolls. There's young love, a "no passionate friendships" moment, and throughout all this, Katherine is relatively removed from what's really going on in her world. This distance continues through the book (including her engagement to Peter) although she does tend to cling to those she met when she was young.

The plot and pacing of the book are wonderful, but the dialog is so stilted that at times it's a little comical. However, this was a first novel and you can see promise for the future (or am I saying this because I know her YA books and love them already?).

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America's Hidden History; Kenneth C. Davis

America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a NationAmerica's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation by Kenneth C. Davis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At first I thought this look into America's history would interest readers who weren't particularly interested in the usual stories, but the chapters in this book are so jumbled that I'm not sure they will make sense to students.

Each chapter starts with a timeline, then proceeds to some "unknown" (or, more accurately, little taught) event - for example, a massacre of French troops that a very young George Washington was involved with - and then moves all over the map to talk about other, more commonly known events. Despite the fixed timeline, we get the preceding and anteceding events in what reads like a history teacher's rambling. So in the Washington chapter, we learn about his grandparents and his inauguration as well as this episode, but not in a chronological fashion. To make matters more confusing, other events are dragged in when they could have been in their own chapters (eg, Anne Hutchinson features heavily in a chapter on Hannah Emerson Dustin).

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20 December 2010

365 Thank Yous; John Kralik

365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life by John Kralik

My rating: 3 of 5 stars< This is one of those "how I changed my life" books - and the way in which Kralik did it makes this a perfect holiday read. After coming close to hitting rock bottom (there's no report of suicide attempts, which to me would be absolute bottom) he decides to play a version of Pollyanna's "glad game" and write thank-you notes to people, one a day.

Thank-you notes are one of those gracious acts we've gotten away from (I'm including thank-you e-mails in this, too) and I'm not sure why. There are times when I do write to someone's superior praising exceptional service, but it's rare that I thank the folks in the trenches in a meaningful way. Ditto friends when all they've done is be a friend. So this book reminds me to take up pen and paper and do so in the future.

Where the book lost me was the sometimes jumbled chronology and the stiffness of the earlier notes (I'm really hoping that he didn't actually address the notes to his children as "son" or "daughter" but used their names instead!). That and getting the Pollyanna story wrong: her parents were missionaries sent out of the country, not to some small town "out West". Ok, that's a pedantic grumble but still...

Overall, though, I'm grateful to have read the book in time to think about saying thanks to people during this holiday season.

ARC provided by publisher.

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The Winter Ghosts; Kate Mosse

The Winter GhostsThe Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not being a huge fan of the whole bloodline conspiracy genre, I was pleased that The Winter Ghosts doesn't touch on that. Instead, this story of loss and coming to grips with one's personal grief is solely about ghosts. Freddie's brother George is killed during World War I, part of the dead generation. As the second son, Freddie feels his loss greatly and on the day he turns 21 has a breakdown.

Ten years later, the grief hasn't lifted although Freddie seems to be able to deal with it a little better. Both parents are now dead and he's decided to take a trip through the Continent. A storm hits as he's heading towards some friends, his car crashes (deus ex machina, anyone?) and he is stranded in a tiny town, Nulle, on the eve of their great fĂȘte. He's also getting sick, so what happens next could be illness or visitation or... you figure it out.

At the fĂȘte he meets Fabrissa, a lovely girl with whom he strikes up a friendship and to whom he tells his tale of woe. In return, she tells him of the town's massacre, being walled up into a cave by the invading army; Freddie takes this to be the Germans, despite there being no German activity in that region. A feverish night or so later, he and two mechanics go to rescue his car - he also intends to search for the mountainside tomb. Of course he finds it, and the truth about Fabrissa's death sinks in: she was killed as part of the Cathar repression (Mosse's passion).

The pacing and the mixture of past and present work well, as does the message of overcoming grief by doing something to honor your dead. What didn't work, and what dropped this from a 4 to a 3, was her comparison of this to Masada. There's simply no comparison between a town being walled up into a cave and left to die and a group actively committing suicide rather than surrender. None.

ARC provided by publisher.

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19 December 2010

Reckless; Cornelia Funke

Reckless (Reckless Series, #1)Reckless by Cornelia Funke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Once upon a time" is a truly magical way to start a book, isn't it? Once again, Ms. Funke explores the world just beyond our own: in the Inkspell series, it was through the pages of a book into a world we'd never seen before, but here it's through a mirror into a world that we've caught glimpses of in other stories. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Hansel & Gretel and many more are suggested here, not quite named outright. Even the names of our two brothers, Jacob and Will, are familiar.

Perhaps because she's German, the book is Grimmishly dark (just think about the ending to Grimm's Cinderella story, not the lighter Perrault, or worse yet, the Disney, ending). It's not nightmare-dark, just shivvery dark and YA readers like that sort of read. There's Rapunzel hair and Lark Water and shape-shifting and the Goyl (a race of stonemen) and love and jealousy and a quest - all adding up to the nearly perfect read. If you've read a great number of fantasy books, you'll end up trying to match the various things in those books with things in this book and I'm not sure that one truly can (didn't stop me from trying, even when I knew it wasn't a match!).

So, the quibbles? It's another series starter. Enough already. Also, there are some pacing issues, with scenes sometimes rushing by. Of course, as with any book in translation, that might not be the case in the original. I wish I could give this a 4.5, because it's better than a 4 but doesn't quite reach a 5.

Copy provided by publisher.

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The Book of Tomorrow; Ceclia Ahern

The Book of TomorrowThe Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Ahern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Gothic genre is perfect for YAs ready to move beyond conventional romance or horror-lite; this book is a good example of what I mean. Tamara is, well, rich and spoiled is putting it mildly: there's the mansion, the villa, the chalet, minimal parental supervision blah blah blah. Dad, unfortunately, has lost all the money and decides to take the easy way out (Tamara finds the body).

All this leads Tamara and her mother, nearly catatonic with grief, to a remote village in the middle Ireland to live with her aunt and uncle. They live in the guardhouse of a ruined castle, where Arthur takes care of the grounds. Tamara's bratty behavior is understandable, given that she's grieving and she's been removed from her usual surroundings, although the joy she takes in being a mean girl feels wrong. Her aunt Rosaleen is a cleaning, cooking machine but also a control freak, not wanting Tamara to go anywhere or do anything; uncle Arthur is a laconic gardener. Mom, catatonic before, is now sleeping nearly all the time.

Into all this comes the bookmobile, where Tamara finds Marcus (the driver) and strikes up a friendship, and a strange padlocked book. Sister Ignatius, a nun living with three others in the castle grounds, adds to the mystery by insisting that Tamara is a year older than she is and dropping a few cryptic clues into the conversation. Who lives across the road - is it really Rosaleen's invalid mother? What happened to the castle? Why won't anyone get a real doctor in to take care of Mom? All these questions plague Tamara.

The gothic elements are really kept as a light touch, and the ending feels a little rushed given the earlier pace. Still, this will appeal to romance/suspense lovers.

ARC provided by publisher.

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The Mother Tongue; Bill Bryson

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That WayThe Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Usually I'd be going on about the Brysonian humor in the book, but unlike many of his works, The Mother Tongue isn't written for humor. Instead, it's an etymologists' delight: how English has evolved over the centuries. He explains the difference between a pidgin and a creole language, how (and why) colonel kept its 'r', and why British pub names are so odd, among many other fascinating tidbits. I even learned that there's a name for my not-quite-voyeuristic/Peeping-Thomasina behavior when walking down Brooklyn streets: crytoscopophilia.

The parenthetical citations are a little annoying (they're not in current MLA format, but then, the book was written a few years ago), and he repeats the whole "number of words the Eskimo have for snow" thing (semi-debunked by Language Log). But those are minor quibbles - if you love words or know someone that does, buy this book.

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13 December 2010

We the Children; Andrew Clements

We the Children (Keepers of the School, #1)We the Children by Andrew Clements
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This start to the "Keepers of the School" series ends a little abruptly, but not in the cliff-hanger style that is required. Benjamin is a student at the Oakes School, due to be torn down to make way for an amusement park at the end of the year. One day, late for class, he comes across the old, creepy, injured janitor and helps him - this help turns into a passing of the mantle of Keeping the School (there's a coin and an obscure rhyme involved). Benjamin enlists the help of Jill, and starts to solve the rhyme's meaning.

Where I got lost was not in the information about yachting and racing, but in the fact that the end ends a little with a whimper, not the "stay tuned" bang that series books of this nature need to keep readers looking for the next installment. However, this is Andrews Clements and he has quite the following already, so perhaps the ending isn't the drawback I think it is.

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The Wasp Factory; Iain Banks

The Wasp FactoryThe Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I know I go on about how wonderful Iain Banks' fiction is, and this, his first novel is as wonderful as his later works. Shorter than the other books I've read, The Wasp Factory also ups the creep factor; it's a little like We Have Always Lived in the Castle with a budding Hannibal Lector as hero.

Frank lives on a remote Scottish island, "hidden" from the real world by his father, who managed to forget to register him legally, so Frank has never been to school and has no National Registry number. That doesn't mean that Frank is stupid, just that his childhood schooling has focused on other things, like the exact length of items on the island. As a result he's also learned some odd crafts, like bomb building and making wasp-prison candles... and then there was his pre-teen "phase" where he killed two cousins and a younger brother. On the other hand, Frank is normal compared to his insane brother Eric, who set dogs on fire and fed maggots and worms to children. Eric's in an asylum, while Frank is free to go to the local bar on Saturday nights and get drunk with his friend, the dwarf Jamie.

All this starts falling apart when Eric escapes from the asylum and starts heading home, calling Frank from the road and being both menacing and increasingly deranged. Then there's the killer buck rabbit, the fire predicted by the wasp factory, his father's locked study and, well, dealing with the long-term effects of his childhood "accident". The richness with which Frank's world is drawn leaves the reader feeling let down when the ending arrives - it feels abrupt, with too many questions left unanswered.

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12 December 2010

Await Your Reply; Dan Chaon

Await Your ReplyAwait Your Reply by Dan Chaon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As with Kate Atkinson's mysteries, there are several stories going on here that eventually intertwine; unfortunately by halfway through the book I got the sense of how they would do so and the surprise (or shock?) of the reveal was lost. Because this is told through three sets of eyes (Rudy, Miles and Lucy), the other characters are understandably little flat. However, I never got the sense that we really got a good grasp of these three either.

All three are 'lost souls' in many ways: Miles thanks to his mentally ill(?) brother Hayden's disappearance, Lucy due to her parents' death, and Rudy because of his "parents" lies. Their roads toward a normal life take an incredibly wrong turn, yet one senses that they find this better than What Was... until the end, at least, for Rudy and Lucy. The end of Miles' story is not quite clear, which is a little unsatisfying.

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09 December 2010

Wither; Lauren DeStefano

Wither (Chemical Garden, #1)Wither by Lauren DeStefano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A semi-mash-up of dystopian books like The Children of Man and The Handmaid's Tale as well as The Hunger Games and Matched with a hint of "Big Love", Wither takes place in a proximate future when we've cured cancer (among other things) but it's cost us our longevity. Men die at 25, women at 20, but that's newer generations. First generations, however, have normal lifelines, provide they aren't killed by other means.

Rhine's parents, scientists, were killed in an accident so now she and her twin brother Rowan are hiding in and protecting their family home, but one day Rhine is kidnapped and brought with a number of other women elsewhere. There's a culling and she and two others end up in a mansion, replacement/successor wives for Lady Rose, who has reached 20 and is now dying. Their husband, Linden, is a rather ineffectual boy, under his doctor/scientist father Vaughn's thumb, in addition to just being 20 with all the maturity that brings. Held captive in Florida, Rhine plots and plans to get home - or at least away - as she tries to care for her sister wives and falls in love with Gabriel, one of the house servants.

The Hunger Games tie-in comes from the stated fact that there was some sort of war and everything except North America has been destroyed. Not just bombed, but missing. Think "Waterworld" with one continent. District 13, anyone? And, of course, this is the first in a trilogy, so the plot stretches a bit at times so as to fill space until the next installment.

ARC provided by publisher.

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07 December 2010

The Shadows in the Street; Susan Hill

Shadows in the Street (Simon Serrailler 5)Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you're looking for a PD James read-alike, Susan Hill's Simon Serrallier series might fit the bill. Adam Dalgliesh is a poet with a deeply private streak, Serrallier is an artist with a deeply private streak. The books are dark procedurals with many well-drawn characters, with Hill's Lafferton providing the same rich lode for stories as London does for James. The biggest difference is that we do get glimpses of Serrallier's personal life, meeting his mother, father, stepmother, triplet sister and her family, throughout the course of the series.

As a cathedral town, Lafferton would appear to be peaceful but there is a red light district; the girls there mostly know each other and (to some extent) look after each other. Loopy Les brings hot drinks and sandwiches some nights, Damien and the Baptists have a van that does the same on other nights. In other town news, there's a new Dean bent on dragging the congregation from the 1622 service to "happy-clappy" modern services, and his wife is making friends and influencing people all over. Thank God for Miles Hurley, the Dean's best friend and second-in-command, who helps smooth over Ruth's excesses (in this case, her decision to form the Magdalene Refuge, for "those poor girls, who, like Mary...."). There's also the murder of two of the prostitutes and attempted murder of a third.

Simon's in Taransay, a very remote Scottish island, recovering from his last case. Returning to Lafferton, he also has to deal with his sister's ongoing grief over her husband's death and reaching a place of emotional ease with his new stepmother and his father's remarriage. But wait! There's more... Sounds complicated? The author is more than capable of handling all this, and more.

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03 December 2010

The Anatomy of Ghosts; Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of GhostsThe Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This historical mystery is, like most of the genre, not particularly gory or dark, although the goings-on of the Holy Ghost Club do take a rather sinister, creepy turn. Set mostly in 18th century Cambridge (UK, not US), in a college, the story of a young man's madness and the question of whether or not he did, indeed, see a ghost one evening in the college grounds is one of the more interesting examples of the genre I've read.

There are several different levels of mystery here, some of which are resolved and some of which are presumed solved but perhaps weren't: what killed Tabitha? who killed Sylvia? did Soresby steal the book? did Frank see Sylvia's ghost? etc.. I liked the fact that for some, there appears to be a solution or explanation but it's not absolutely clear and there could, possibly, be another answer. The bigger question, to me, is whether or not there will be a second book (my hope is not, simply because this is so intricate that in the rush to publish a series something good might be lost).

The author has done a lot of research into the era that you can almost smell Tom Turdman coming. This isn't a cleaned-up peek at the past, nor is it set in the upper-class world where things always look and feel relatively comfortable. Only the speech is modern (not anachronistically so), but writing in an "accent" would distract from the narrative flow.

ARC provided by publisher.

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27 November 2010

Soul Catcher; Michael C. White

Soul CatcherSoul Catcher by Michael C. White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Soul catcher" is a nice way of putting "fugitive slave catcher" - although I'm not sure why people who own slaves would think their property has a soul. Anyway, Cain (yep, he's marked) is the first son of a smallish farmer, slated to marry a beautiful belle but he chooses instead to go fight in Mexico, where he's wounded. He's now estranged from his family and catches souls for a living. He also has a tidy little laudanum addiction, he drinks, and gambles badly.

To resolve one debt, he agrees to head north to find two slaves: Henry and Rosetta. The former is a field hand, the latter is someone quite special to her owner. There are two brothers and an evil man named Preacher included in this posse. Of course, they find the slaves and head home, with all the attendance fuss and run-ins with abolitionists (including THE John Brown).

During the course of the book, Cain realizes that Rosetta has a soul, one worth saving for real. So he decides to do the honorable thing and send her to the Free States (or Canada), putting his own life in danger. My guess is that we're supposed to applaud his ethical choices and feel comfortable with his "salvation". Except... it seemed too pat. It didn't surprise me in the least that he would change his mind, that he and Rosetta would take care of each other, etc.. As historical fiction goes, this plays into our current thinking about slavery and freedom, not how people thought back then, with characters that are relatively one-note.

ARC provided by publisher.

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24 November 2010

Room; Emma Donoghue

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm so happy that the student who wanted this book forgot to take it before Thanksgiving Break! What a wonderful page turner (although I can understand where parents might find it difficult to read).

Jack's five years of life have been spent in Room and everything else is Outside, which seems to be TV or Outer Space. Ma keeps him on a tight schedule, with PE and games and food and bed all at prescribed times. Occasionally, Ma is Gone, but Jack can take care of himself those days. And then there's Old Nick, who makes Door go beep beep and takes the trash and brings Sundaytreat (and sometimes toys). He also makes Bed creak. Then one day Ma tells him that what's on tv isn't pretend, and starts teaching him the steps that will help him escape.

After the escape, Jack and Ma find the world a bit confusing - understandably so. Of course there's the media frenzy, as well as the mental and physical adjustments to being Outside (like, germs and sunscreen and choices). This part of the book went on just a little too long for me, but it did balance out the time spent in the Room. Because this is Jack's story and told from his point-of-view, there are parts that don't quite make sense. It also didn't make sense when Ma gave the interview on tv (despite Jack's skill at the Parrot game, he wouldn't have gotten as much of the interview as is presented in the book).

Still, highly recommended for older teens and adults.

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Under the Banner of Heaven; Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of HeavenUnder the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The intertwining of the story behind the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her daughter with the history of the Mormon church is interesting, as it lends context to the murder. However, the "bone-chilling" atmosphere that others have mentioned is lessened because of this continued flipping between modern and historic reporting.

Krakauer's mission seems to be to explain (and condemn) the so-called fundamental movements, those adhering to Joseph Smith's Principle 132 encouraging polygamy. As a result, mainstream Mormon leaders have taken fault with the book and there's a lengthy response/rebuttal at the end of the edition I read. By merely recounting the more sensational and troubling aspects of the religion, he does a disservice to the reader by not giving us a background on their beliefs, customs and practices. I'm still a little unclear about the wards, stakes and other divisions, while I'm quite clear on the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

This isn't to say that I approve of the breakaway sects like the UEP, but that this isn't a balanced view of the religion as a whole. If you're looking for a book the murders and the thinking that leads to a Warren Jeffs compound (or the compound on "Big Love"), this is a good resource, but if you're looking to understand who and what the Mormons are, not so much.

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21 November 2010

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise; Julia Stuart

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise: A NovelThe Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise: A Novel by Julia Stuart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this out of our Just In books with an eye to recommending something whimsical to our Upper School students; having read it, I'm not so sure it's whimsical or that younger students (9th/10th grade) will enjoy it.

Balthazar Jones is a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) at the Tower of London; his son has died, his marriage is falling apart, and he's tired of living in a round tower with fungus behind his knees. The Palace decides to move the Royal Menagerie back to the Tower from London Zoo, and Warder Jones is put in charge of their care. Why? It's not quite clear. His wife, Hebe, works in the Lost Property Office of the London Underground; Rev. Septimus Drew, the Tower's chaplain, is in love with the barmaid; the Ravenmaster is having an affair with the cafe's chef (if you can call her attempts with food cooking); and then there's Arthur Catnip, in love with Hebe's co-worker and the finder of many interesting items for Hebe and Valerie to reunite with their owners. The collection of characters is, at first glance, giggle-worthy, but Ms. Stuart never brings their stories to that level. Despite this lack of whimsy, the book will interest readers who enjoy character studies.

It was interesting to learn about new animals: the zorilla, the bearded pig, the crested water dragons and the sugar glider (the next time I'm at a zoo I want to see if I can find any of them!). Ditto the history of the Tower, which is interspersed throughout the book. While I have no way of knowing that Sir Walter Raleigh is truly haunting the people living there, it was a surprise to learn that while he was imprisoned there he was allowed to grow tobacco and potatoes! And, of course, as a librarian, the lengths Hebe and Valerie go to to find the owners of the lost objects is impressive (and all without a computer!)

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You; Charles Benoit

YouYou by Charles Benoit
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At first I was really annoyed with the use of the second person singular and the interminable "you"s but after a while I got sucked into the action... or perhaps non-action is a better descriptor.

Kyle (the "you" of the book) is a hoodie. What's a hoodie? They're the disaffected, do-nothing slacker types that inhabit a corner of every school. Kyle's observations about school, his parents and his teachers are pitch perfect ("It makes no sense kicking a kid out of class for not doing his homework." "Your mother is master of the obvious. Most of what she says to you is either stuff you already know or stuff you'd have to be an idiot not to see. Kyle, your rooms a mess.") - sometimes painfully so. By the end of the book, you are Kyle, wondering at what point the choices or non-choices you've made have brought you to, well, all this blood.

There are so few books that speak to this population of teen boys (The Outsiders is one, and I'm having problems thinking of others right now) that it's a Must Have for your collection.

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17 November 2010

This is How it Happened; Jo Barrett

This Is How It Happened This Is How It Happened by Jo Barrett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You have to love a book that starts with someone baking a batch of revenge arsenic brownies, testing it on themselves and ending up being sick. Seriously - who does that? So, from the start you know this will be a rather cute/fluffy book designed to appeal to the woman scorned but who still has a sense of humor.

Maddy veers from being annoyingly dumb (with her big powerful lawyer friend Michael around, she never got a real contract for Organics 4 Kids?) to cleverly vengeful. However, between those two notes there's nothing else. The same holds true for all the characters: one, maybe two notes and nothing more. I did really like the whole "Dick" as Vengence Maven (my words, not Maddy's) plot and immediately thought that he should be the hero of a book: clever revenge strategies for the recently dumped. Or duped.

Copy provided by publisher.

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Halo; Alexandra Adornetto

Halo (Halo, #1)Halo by Alexandra Adornetto
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This battle between good and evil takes place in a tiny town called Venus Cove. Good is represented by literal angels (including Gabriel, aka "Strength of God" or Archangel Gabriel), while evil is a teen either from hell or possessed by demons (it's not quite clear).

The idea that an angel could fall in love with a human and crave - however chastely - human affection and touch is kind of interesting. That the angels have an internal glow and radiance is nothing new, but it does tend to sound like either the usual pr package or someone's trying to make them the equivalent of the Cullens. I did like that Bethany loses herself so much into her relationship with Xavier that she misses the warning signs about Jack, but the fact that Gabriel also misses those signs is a little more problematic.

My guess is that this is designed to be a good spiritual, Christian version of the whole vampire/shapeshifter/supernatural explosion and as such it's not bad. Not great, either. I didn't like that the "family's" life without cell phones, tv, etc. was described as "Quaker" (uh, the Quakers haven't given up modern technology - plain living doesn't preclude tv!" and that the librarian was "cranky). But those are minor quibbles compared to the fact that the plot didn't say anything new and that the characters seemed lifeless.

Copy provided by publisher.

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15 November 2010

We Are Not Eaten By Yaks; C. Alexander London

We Are Not Eaten by Yaks: An Accidental AdventureWe Are Not Eaten by Yaks: An Accidental Adventure by C. Alexander London
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I guess younger readers really like that slightly snarky, tongue-in-cheek tone because there are so many books that utilize it, including this one. Not quite An Unfortunate Event (or Adventure), this book is in the same family as Mysterious Benedict Society or the Blue Baillet mysteries.

Of course there are double-crosses and people who aren't quite what they seem, impossible escapes, interesting locales vaguely based in reality - all the elements we now expect from this genre (although the television series names would be funnier if I didn't suspect that we'll see similar shows in the near future!). And equally of course the ending leads directly into the next in the series.

ARC provided by publisher.

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13 November 2010

Started Early, Took My Dog; Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My DogStarted Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The number of plot threads introduced and kept going here should overwhelm the reader and the author, but that's simply not the case. All the Jackson Brodie mysteries are complex and it is to Ms. Atkinson's credit that she makes it look simple.

We're a year (or so) after the events in When Will There Be Good News? and the characters there are referred to only tangentially. Jackson is working as a private detective trying to find out who Hope McAllister really is (she's an adoptee looking for her parents). This thread intermingles with that of Tracy, a recently retired police Superintendent, Tilly, an old and going slightly senile actress, and the events of 1975. There's also a new killer on the loose (three victims), the mystery of Courtney and the other Jackson. Not every thread is followed through to completion, and it'll be interesting to see if any of them are picked up in future books.

This is not a "cozy", but there's no physical violence.

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09 November 2010

Fixing Delilah Hannaford; Sarah Ockler

Fixing DelilahFixing Delilah by Sarah OcklerMy rating: 2 of 5 stars

I realize I'm in the minority here - and this is probably a review-proof book for fans of Sarah Dessen - but this just didn't do it for me.

Delilah's family life was relatively typical: single, overworked parent and child who is somewhat rebellious and angry. Her "boyfriend" isn't more than a passing phase in her life. Then the news comes that Mom/Gran has died and off they go to New Hampshire and Big Family Revelations and Reconciliations. This was one closed family, with Secrets and Things Not Spoken About and Arguments Never Explained. But beyond that, it was a normal family. Finding Patrick, learning the truth about her family and growing closer to her mother didn't seem to be all the unusual, or even presented differently than other books in this genre.

However, as I said, if you love Sarah Dessen or Jodi Picault, this is definitely the book for you.

ARC provided by publisher.

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07 November 2010

Moonlight Mile; Dennis Lehane

Moonlight Mile (Kenzie & Gennaro, #6)Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I hate reading a book mid- or end-series and really loving it because it means going back and finding the previous books. Ok, so it's not really "hate", it's more like a regret that I didn't find this author or series earlier. Anyway, this is one of those books.

Never having read Gone, Baby, Gone or other Kenzie and Gennaro books, I have nothing to compare it to but the noir/dark tones were right up my mystery genre alley. I also liked that Kenzie's regrets about returning Amanda to her unfit mother were so clearly stated: he'd done the legal right thing, but not the humane right thing. Amanda's personality really didn't come out until the very end, another plus. The twist at the end? Didn't see that coming and I'm usually pretty good about those sorts of things.

My real complaint is that the bad guys seemed to all get theirs in the end, when in real life that's often not the case (ok, you could argue that Helene and Brian Corliss didn't exactly end up so badly, and that Yefim and Pavel should have had some consequences, but that would have really stretched credulity). Whether or not Patrick really has tossed his gun away and is starting a new life remains to be seen - my guess is that he hasn't.

ARC provided by publisher.

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The Radleys; Matt Haig

The RadleysThe Radleys by Matt Haig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sigh. Yet another vampire book... the good news is that this isn't going to be a series (at least, there's no indication that it will be). Thing is, this isn't a bad book - it's just one too many in the genre. (and let's not talk about how in one day I received a book entitled The Mockingbirds and this one - or that there's a character here named Harper.)

So, what are abstaining vampires like? Can they actually blend? Helen and Peter seem to think so, and pass off their children's "ailments" as being a rash, or anemia, or something like that. The reality is that they need blood, and not just animal blood. Everything else is going just fine (if you can call daily bullying and teasing "fine") until Harper decides that he really likes Clara, to the point of forcing himself on her. Ooops.

The aftermath doesn't play out the way one might expect. There's some "oh cool look at me now" but mostly there's a sense of "this is wrong", that you can overcome your nature to be a decent human, blood or unblood notwithstanding. The moral questions posed are what kept the book interesting because honestly, other than that, it was just another vampire book.

ARC provided by publisher.

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06 November 2010

The Mockingbirds: Daisy Whitney

The Mockingbirds (The Mockingbirds, #1)The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't as powerful as Speak, but it raises some good questions about date rape, responsibility and ethics. We start the Morning After, with Alex waking up in an unfamiliar room, unsure of what happened and how she got there. Turns out, she drank too much and went back to Carter's room and, well...

Alex' reaction - the confusion, shame, disappointment in herself - rings true, as does her desire to not report what happened and to simply avoid being in any situation where people might know about it (including going to the dining hall). Because she's at Themis Academy, there's a real sense that it's either the police or nothing, as the school's administration won't step in. However, there's one other route: the Mockingbirds, a "secret" group (secret in the sense that everyone knows they exist, but no one knows exactly who they are) dedicated to justice. Alex tells them about her date rape, and they agree to help her.

The part that interested me most about this was the fact that it seems that no one goes against the Mockingbirds. Carter could have simply said "no, not going to deal with a student group" and gone on with life (albeit one with decreasing privileges as the Mockingbirds lessen his points). But it seems that the students recognize the need for some sort of court that can impose justice when needed. The justice exacted is usually in the form of the guilty party losing the thing they love most (in Carter's case, water polo). While most students don't think that school administrations give out appropriate punishments, I wonder if they'd prefer something like this (student led, student policed).

I vacillated between 3 and 4 stars because I thought Alex' reaction to her rape (and confusion about what date rape is) and the Mockingbird's sense of right/wrong and punishment were interesting ideas students would respond to, and the sense that it's just not realistic to expect that a group like the Mockingbirds could get the respect and obedience that it does.

ARC provided by publisher.

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04 November 2010

The Girl Who Became The Beatles; Greg Taylor

The Girl Who Became The BeatlesThe Girl Who Became The Beatles by Greg Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What happens when you make a wish, a really, really big wish? Regina's a huge Beatles fan and, when her band (the Caverns) starts to implode, she wishes that the group was bigger than the Beatles. Next morning, she's not bigger than the Beatles, she's taken their place in history. According to her Fairy Godmother - one who communicates via e-mail - no one can be bigger than the Beatles, so you just have to be them.

The wish comes with a deadline: after a certain amount of time, she has to decide if she wants to stay in that world, or if she wants to return to her previous existence. Of course there are lessons learned about her parents, their divorce, her relationships with the band members and music, etc.. And in the end, her decision doesn't surprise the reader.

At times it felt as though the author hung the entire plot around the theme "what you have isn't so bad after all" (or words to that effect), so the tension one might expect wasn't there. Using the Beatles is probably a good choice, as many younger readers do know who they are and are familiar with their earliest works (unlike, for example, the Rolling Stones); that Regina has to explain about the Hollywood Bowl concerts just made me feel old.

ARC provided by publisher.

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02 November 2010

Hold Still; Nina LaCour

Hold StillHold Still by Nina LaCour
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Best friend tries to figure out why her BFF committed suicide. Not exactly new territory, is it? Here, the "clues" come in the form of a diary deliberately left for Caitlin, who learns how depressed and desperate Ingrid really was. However, there's less about their relationship than there is Caitlin's healing and finding new friends (like Dylan, who is a lesbian because... well, I guess to add some diversity and to place the book near San Francisco?). With the exception of her photography teacher, the adults in Caitlin's life are remarkably distant in terms of helping her cope. Veema, on the other hand, is also grief-stuck and takes it out on Caitlin. Of course there's a big reconciliation scene, and everyone keeps moving past this tragedy. And then there's Taylor, the really-cute-popular-guy, and the growing romance between them.

I kept fluctuating between feeling that this was a book that might help teens cope with the loss of a friend and feeling that this book didn't dig deep enough into the emotional part. It wasn't that Caitlin's feelings were closed off (with suitable interior monologue) it's that they weren't always present in the book. She didn't even seem to be automatically going through the motions, or coming out of her grief as the book went along.

Ultimately, other books have covered this territory better.

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01 November 2010

The Last Olympian; Rick Riordan

The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #5)The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the first time this series made me think of the tv show "Hercules". As a final episode this wasn't bad: most questions answered, a few left to the reader's imagination, and a sense that going further would be just too much.

The big fight, taking down Kronos/Luke and restoring the Olympian gods to their rightful place, is both chaotic and satisfying. Thalia's return and Nico's help close the circle of the series nicely; it was also interesting to see how Percy is able to lead everyone despite his fears. His decisions (including jumping on his father's throne) are definitely those of a teen - I've always liked the fact that he hasn't been preternaturally matured during the course of the series. I also enjoyed going to the realms of the Big Three, seeing their palaces (and the interplay between Hades, Demeter and Persephone? Priceless.)

Percy's overall quest, to be normal, is somewhat interrupted by the whole Achilles thing, but his decision to not be immortal and his delight at spending two straight years at the same school mean that he at least has the possibility of normal. He's also got Annabeth and Rachel, Grover and others to help him in this.

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31 October 2010

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer; Lish McBride

Hold Me Closer, NecromancerHold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No book should ever make you hear Elton John every time you look at the cover. Just sayin'.

Anyway, this book was really interesting, if a little chaotic. Sam (short for Samhain) is a college drop-out, flipping burgers at Pudgy's and hanging out with Brooke, Frank and Ramon. One day they get on the wrong side of a guy (they broke his taillight during a game of potato lacrosse) and, well, it gets complicated from there. There are necromancers, witches, fey hounds, werewolves, Harbingers, Ed and a talking head - oh, and a zombie giant panda - it just felt like one thing after another was poured into the plot to keep things going. The Big Action Sequence towards the end felt a bit rushed, with a completely different pace than the rest of the book.

Despite that, it was fun getting to know Sam and his friends and to wonder what it would be like to assume you're "normal" and then find out that there's this whole scary world out there. The pop references were an interesting choice, as they weren't all up-to-the-minute current (a good thing, not a bad thing!). My hope is that the vague-ish ending is just that, an ending, and that this isn't going to be a series.

The whole book is grittier than other fantasy books, but readers of The Demonata series will find it tame.

ARC provided by publishers.

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29 October 2010

Girl, Stolen; April Henry

Girl, StolenGirl, Stolen by April Henry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine you're blind... sick... and suddenly carjacked. Or that you're trying to prove to your father that you can play with the big boys by stealing an expensive SUV, only to find that you've inadvertently taken a girl along with the car. That sums up the story of Cheyenne and Griffin.

The problem is that the device of telling the story through alternating points-of-view doesn't quite work: the voices are too similar, ditto their reactions to the external characters (Ray, TJ and Jimbo). It also wasn't a surprise that Griffin turns out to be a good guy, or that Ray is worse than he first appears. The final interplay between TJ and Jimbo did come as a surprise, one of the few in the book.

So why three stars? I can see teen readers enjoying the story and wondering about "what happens after". It also raises some questions about doing the right thing, and presents being blind (particularly when sighted at birth) in a way readers can relate to.

ARC provided by publisher.

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28 October 2010

The House of Dead Maids; Clare B. Dunkle

The House of Dead MaidsThe House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written as a sort of prequel to Wuthering Heights, this has just the right amount of creepiness for the Hallowe'en season.

Tabby is an orphan working at Ma Hutton's knitting school when she's 'chosen' by a woman to work in a house in some remote location. Remote means a long trip (including a boat ride), and only one village (filled with strange people) nearby. She ends up at Seldom House and isn't quite sure if she's the maid, a guest or something else. Adding to her questions is the fact that she's locked into her bedroom at night and that there's only Mrs. Winter, Arnby and Mrs. Sexton around. Oh, and then there's Izzy, also from Ma Hutton's, who seems to be a ghost.

A few days later a "heathen git" arrives. He's somehow the master of the house, and completely uncontrollable. Tabby's responsible for taking care of him, including protecting him from whatever's going on. Without spoiling this too much, let's just say that there's an escape from Seldom House and that Tabby ends up (after a while) as maid at Haworth Parsonage, home to the Brontes. That formerly nameless "heathen git" becomes Heathcliff.

As I said, there's a definite creep factor: shiver inducing, not necessarily nightmare category. The shortness of the book helps, as does the tight storytelling. If you know Wuthering Heights, the ending will make more sense but even readers who don't will enjoy it. The author has also provided a website that explains some of the mysteries/questions raised by Bronte.

ARC provided by publisher.

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27 October 2010

I am Number Four; Pittacus Lore

I Am Number Four (Lorien Legacies, #1)I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A student cam running in to the library to tell me about this book - we looked it up and I immediately purchased it. She was so excited... until she realized it was the first in a series. Now, she's not sure she'll read it.

As for my reading, I think the idea is good. Of course, it's vaguely like Superman, except John/Number 4 has a Lorian 'minder' to help him survive and the Mogodorians apparently arrived on Earth around the same time he did. The idea of being tied in to ninesix people, with your survival depending on never being able to meet them despite having complimentary Legacies.

Forgetting about the alien overtones and Legacies, John's life on the run means that he learns to keep as insignificant as possible; in Paradise OH that's not possible from day one. He's the victim of a bully, as is Sam. Together, they need to negotiate the hell that is high school social strata. John's life is even more complicated because he's falling for Sally, ex-girlfriend of the bully-in-chief.

This mixture of realistic look at high school and aliens on earth makes me think of "Smallville" (really, the links to the whole Superman saga just kept coming back to me). Because of that and the cliffhanger ending and the expectation that we'll be looking for yet another series to add to our shelves, I'm not inclined to give this a five-star rating. It just didn't feel as though this was anything really new and different, plot-wise, and I'm tired of series. On the other hand, the fact that this is more boy-friendly than other series might be reason to purchase for work.

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21 October 2010

Dick and Jane and Vampires

Dick and Jane and VampiresDick and Jane and Vampires by Laura Marchesani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think there should be a rule: when you get to the Dick and Jane treatment, the genre is officially over as a trend. I declare the glut of vampire books to be, henceforth, superfluous.

In this installment, Dick and Jane, Mother and Father and Spot (and Tim and Sally? when did they arrive?) are all playing, reading, running and - oh oh oh - they see something. Sometimes. Great fun for all ages. And I do mean all ages.

Copy provided by publisher.

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Voltaire's Calligrapher; Pablo de Santis

Voltaire's CalligrapherVoltaire's Calligrapher by Pablo de Santis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd enjoyed The Paris Enigma, so when I was asked if I wanted to read/review Voltaire's Calligrapher, I said "yes". I'm so glad I did!

Historical fiction is tricky at best, particularly if you start inserting real people and events into the plot. Our hero, one M. Dalessius, is an orphan who has not quite been taken in by his uncle, the marachel Dalessius. His uncle created the Night Mail, a nighttime coach with the dead as passengers, and thus has some influence. He secures his nephew a place at the most prominent school for calligraphers, and expects him to make his way thereafter. After a "mistake" transcribing a court decree with disappearing ink, Dalessius accepts a position with Voltaire.

After a slight mishap, Voltaire sends Dalessius to Tolouse, where he (Voltaire) is interested in the facts of the Calas case; while there we meet Koln, the executioner. Later, we're in Paris where Voltaire is again agitating against the Church. Calligraphy, automatons, the jockeying for power between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, and a beautiful girl, Clarissa, who is included to go completely immobile complicate Dalessius' mission.

There's no happy ending, rather it's man looking back on a period of time in his life when he was in love and in danger. I liked that the historical events are inserted in a way that implies that of course you, the reader, know all about them (I didn't - I actually looked up some of the references to see if they were real or fiction). That sparseness is a wonderful device in a mystery/thriller of this type.

As this is a translated work, I don't know if the different in tone and the deftness of the prose are the work of the author or the translator. No matter which, this was a better read than his previous book (although I do recommend that as well).

Copy provided by publisher.

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19 October 2010

Payback Time; Carl Deuker

Payback TimePayback Time by Carl Deuker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know kids like Mitch - kids with drive, with passion, intelligence and curiosity, who want to change things during their last year or so of school.  Mitch's determination to go to Columbia for journalism, leaving Seattle behind, sounds like so many students I've met.  His relegation to sports after he loses the newspaper editor election rankles at first, but the way in which he embraces the task (a by-line in the Seattle Times doesn't hurt, ditto the promise of a summer internship).

It also doesn't hurt that he's working with Kimi, a very cute photographer.  Their partnership also feels very real: the negotiations between boy/girl, American/immigrant, reporter/photographer are like those I've seen many times before.

The underlying mystery in this book (who is Angel Marichal) and Mitch's determination to solve it are fun, but for me, watching Mitch grow was more fun.  His mistakes and successes didn't feel as though they were there just to move the mystery along.

ARC provided by publisher.

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17 October 2010

The Distant Hours; Kate Morton

The Distant Hours: A NovelThe Distant Hours: A Novel by Kate Morton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How can you not love a book that includes the following: "After all, it's the librarian's sworn purpose to bring books together with their one true reader."?

While the blurb calls this "gothic literature", it's more goth lit lite - the scary isn't there to the degree that I'd expect from that genre. Think more Rebecca than "Fall of the House of Usher." The switching between 1941 and 1992 helps, I think, keep the tone light. Of course there are some Dark Family Secrets that get revealed, and a Literary Mystery gets resolved.

Edith's trip to Milderhurt and the Castle is, at first, accidental but it's clearly fate, thanks to her mother's year-ish there during the Blitz. The Sisters Blythe (honestly, the characters are really well named here!) aren't quite as Miss Havisham as they originally are made out to be, but the Castle certainly is trapped in time. That Edith is ultimately able to unravel the past, not to mention bury it (in a manner of speaking) is not what you'd expect from the start because there are all sorts of Portents and Clues that lead the reader to think that Something with Happen to Edith.

This isn't quite what my friend Wendy would call a "comfort read" because of the gothic overtones, but it's definitely on that continuum (and there is an Aga!).

ARC provided by publisher.

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16 October 2010

The 10 p.m. Question; Kate de Goldi

The 10 P.M. QuestionThe 10 P.M. Question by Kate de GoldiMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first I thought this was going to be a book about a boy with some form of OCD or on the Asperger's Spectrum - it's not. Frankie's life is just, well, complicated.  Sometimes there's no bus money... sometimes he has to do the shopping... and always he has to take care of Mom. He family is a little different than most, but that's ok because he has Gigs, his best friend. Until Sydney comes, asking too many questions and ultimately creating a crisis for Frankie.

What's wrong with Mom is never quite explained: it could be 'merely' agoraphobia, or it could be something more. The two times he went to live with the Aunties hints at more, and it also explains his so-called 10pm question, wherein he goes to his mother's room and asks questions about things that worry him unduly (like the rash on his chest, or if they have enough put by in case of swine flu).

Like Diary of the Madman Underground, you know that Child Services could/should be called in, but you also know that Frankie (unlike Karl) does have adults in his life that have taken care of him since he was very young. It's just that most of them don't know what's going on because he, Frankie, won't tell them about the "rat voice" in his head, among other things.

I particularly liked the language that Frankie and Gigs make up, and his addiction to cricket. His relationships with his brother and sister felt very real, but I was unhappy about Uncle George's being so left out when it's clear that he was a part of Frankie's life.

ARC provided by publisher.

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12 October 2010

Six Men; Alistair Cooke

Six MenSix Men by Alistair Cooke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mr. Cooke uses words so well... These six portraits are of men whose names are familiar us (Bertrand Russell and Adlai Stevenson, to name two) but whose lives and personalities are no longer on our radar.

These aren't biographies, more sketches of the life at a certain moment with glimpses of the past and present. Each selection is rather personal, with the author interacting in some way with each person. Most of the time he's an observer, listening to the pontifications and musings (which in the case of Russell and Mencken is really quite interesting).

Recommended as an entry into these six lives

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10 October 2010

Toads and Diamonds; Heather Tomlinson

Toads and DiamondsToads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I particularly liked the Indian overtones to this updated fairy tale; while the story is familiar, the setting is different enough that it made me wonder why we don't read more tales from that part of the world.

The question of whether the "gift" of Naghali is the lesson of humility or whether it is a representation of the inner person is left somewhat unanswered.  It didn't appear that Tana was deserving of the toads and snakes, but it also didn't appear that Diribani was so saintly that jewels and flowers were deserved.  Both girls seemed rather equal in that regard, but the tale's structure meant that one got one gift, etc.. 

Also left unanswered was whether or not the plague ends; the ending, with the "gifts" rescinded (and no crushing moral to take away) is a little vague.  That's not a negative, and could lead to some interesting questions in a readers circle.  The same applies to whether or not the girls go back to their town and live normal lives, whether they meet their Prince/Trader, and what was the lesson each girl was supposed to learn (if there was one).

The religious differences were interesting, particularly since they seemed based on real beliefs and practices (they aren't).  And, of course, seeing only a brief glimpse of the good part of the Believer's religion meant that one comes away slightly biased in favor of the followers of the twelve. 

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Tender Morsels; Margo Lanagan

Tender MorselsTender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was definitely one confusing book - at times I was unsure who was narrating, which Bear was which, and whether we were in Liga's world or in the real world. I'm also unsure if this was based on a story I should have known, since it was part of a "updated fairy tales" list.

Liga's very difficult life was dealt with relatively sensitively: the incest, abortions and gang rape are not graphically depicted but it's clear what's going on. Her "heaven" appeared, at first, to be almost a dream but it was a real place, a place that she and her daughters escaped to when the real world because too much.

As with all heavens, there are bad things, like the leetle man getting eaten, second-Bear's relationship with Branza, and Urdda's desire for something more. When Urdda is able to return to the real world, Liga's heaven suffers a huge rift from which it will not recover; one 'real year' later, she and Branza are reunited with Urdda in the real world.

While Liga seems to accept this change, I got the feeling that was not actually the case. She tries to recreate her heaven by restricting her interactions with others and by keeping to the lifestyle she created 'elsewhere'. At the end of the book, when Davit proposes to Branza (who accepts) and with Urdda living in Rockerly, I wondered if Liga would try, again, to find her heaven - this time with Davit as her husband and her daughters permanently young.

Despite the confusion, I liked this modern fairy tale - although I would not recommend it for younger readers.

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