30 March 2010

Ship Breaker; Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those dystopian books that leaves you feeling vaguely unsettled (not necessarily a bad thing). Set in a climate-changed future, Nailer's life is pretty rough: drunken, addicted, abusive father, dead mother and to make ends meet he works "light crew" stripping ships for salvage (the description here is very much like what I'd read in an article about ship stripping in India today). He's part of a crew, trying to make a daily quota, when Fate takes him in hand.

The "lucky strike" he has of surviving near death in an oil pocket, then surviving a "city killer" (hurricane) and finding Lucky Girl (a "swank") all set up the second half, which is him trying to help Lucky Girl get back to her father (owner of one of the rich shipping companies).

What I liked most about this is the questions it raises about society, about friendship vs. family, what family is, how one can choose one's destiny and how luck is a tricky thing. I also liked that Nailer's life didn't radically change at the end; things were left a little messy and there's no "happily ever after" on this horizon.

ARC provided by publisher.

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27 March 2010

Finnikin of the Rock; Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the Rock Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first 3/4 of this book were wonderful - but that last 1/4 dropped it from a 5 to a 3.

The story of Finnikin and Evanjalin, the "lost" land of Lumatere and their travels to break into the cursed kingdom really kept my interest; all the different lands they went to, their adventures with Froi, and the eventual return to Lumatere was written in such a way as to interest readers of both genders (I particularly liked the Southern Yuts). The author's choice of names that sounded just familiar enough, but also just a little bit different helped create a world that felt real.

Unfortunately, the last bit devolved into a love story that, well, didn't fit in with the rest of the book. Painful as it was to hear about Lady Beatriss' life during the time of darkness, and interesting as it was to see this country come back to life, the will-they-or-won't-they parts just lost me. I was also unimpressed with the Big Reveal about who (or what) the resurdus would be, ditto why Evanjalin was so important.

I was pleased to see that this book ended - no tantalizing "what will happen next" phrases, no "to be continued" cliffhanger. If this does turn into a series, with luck it will be similar to Cashore's Seven Kingdoms trilogy, with books that stand alone.

ARC provided by publisher.

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26 March 2010

Love in a Time of Homeschooling; Laura Brodie

Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter's Uncommon Year Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter's Uncommon Year by Laura Brodie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Part of me envied Julie, because I certainly didn't thrive in my local public school. But the idea of having either of my parents for a teacher? No thanks. Unlike Ms. Brodie, my mother was a trained teacher (who actually taught 1st grade until I came along), so she certainly knew how to teach... just not quite how to teach me (and my father was, until retirement, a college professor). They may not have agreed with the standard curriculum, but I doubt we'd have agreed on one that I would enjoy during a "sabbatical" year.

If you are a parent with an "unusual" child, this may help you take a good thoughtful look at what homeschooling your child can do. As a teacher, there are certainly things I can take from it and think about as I work with students, but the thrust is very much toward "here's what I did and how we did it together". This isn't a fairy tale, there are setbacks and problems, and their inclusion is all to Ms. Brodie's credit.

ARC provided by publisher.

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25 March 2010

The Quickening Maze; Adam Foulds

The Quickening Maze The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was historical fiction done right: set in an insane asylum in Epping Forest, swirl of thoughts and actions/reactions are almost nonlinear, and the history doesn't matter. The asylum is real, as are some of the characters, but it's not really about them and what they did as much as it's about their inner lives... mostly.

The peasant poet, John Clare, has been locked away (although the asylum is rather interesting, and several inmates are given keys so they can leave at will... as long as they come back each night). His delusions are that he is (occasionally) Lord Byron or a boxer, and his "wife" Mary was someone to whom he was never married. He's the hinge for much of the non-action, and we meet others through his eyes. Also at the asylum is Septimus Tennyson, brother of Alfred (himself given to "melancholy"). The ways in which the different inmates are treated is very much in keeping with Victorian era care (remember, this is also when the OED was being created with the help of Dr. W.C. Minor).

The encroachment of technology also plays a role, and our Head Asylum Keeper, Matthew Allen (a real person) loses interest in his inmates in order to pursue mechanical production of wooden furniture. I kid you not!

Why this book was not publicized more in the US is beyond me - it deservedly made the Booker shortlist. If you can find a copy, read it.

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19 March 2010

Starlighter; Bryan Davis

The Starlighter (Dragons of Starlight) The Starlighter by Bryan Davis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those two people in different worlds managing to communicate books - although that's too simplistic. Koren is a slave on a dragon-dominated planet (so nothing like Pern, for example). Jason is a peasant in a Middle Ages-type society, a good fighter and believer in myths about the Lost Ones. His brother takes off to find these Lost Ones, and Jason gets involved in a murder/coup and flees (gathering as allies a jailed childhood friend who can See, a jailed nutcase who knows something about the passageway to the dragon world and the son of the murdered leader).

Koren, meanwhile, is a slave serving a reasonably nice dragon and his family; she has the ability to Storytell, which can hypnotize the listeners into believing the story is real. She, too, is looking for a passageway out, and in her desire to help a friend, ends up as a slave to an unborn dragon Prince.

There's a Ozian field of flowers guarding the entryway to this passageway, but soon Jason and Koren are communicating via a crystal egg (sounds very much like Incarceron!) and then the gateway between the worlds opens and... well... I won't spoil things any further. You'll have to read this.

Of course nothing is completely resolved, and of course it's part of a series (hence my 4-star rating). I'm really tired of this trend towards fantasy series and cliffhanger endings.

ARC provided by publisher.

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17 March 2010

The Eternal Ones; Kirsten Miller

The Eternal Ones The Eternal Ones by Kirsten Miller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Where to start with this book? How about with Audrey Rose and Somewhere in Time, not to mention all the other eternal love/reincarnated love books? That's not to say that The Eternal Ones is bad, just that it's rather predictable. The younger ages of Iain and Haven seems to be a nod to the Twilight crowd, not really adding too much to the plot otherwise. This is one of those timeless tales, no pun intended, and I imagine teen readers will enjoy it (not that they're the intended audience).

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15 March 2010

Sir Charlie; Sid Fleischman

Sir Charlie Chaplin Sir Charlie Chaplin by Sid Fleischman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well-written biography, aimed at middle-school students. There was much I learned about Chaplin (that he and Stan Laurel toured together, for example, or that he was unsure of his paternity), and I'm sure that most of this will be unknown to today's students. It may even spark a revival of interest in his films!

Because this was an ARC, I don't know if there will be a "glossary" of the people mentioned, but it certainly would be helpful. Most younger readers today do not know the greats of the silent era (Marie Dressler? Keystone Kops?) and additional information about them will lead to greater understanding of both Chaplin and the era. This is the type of book that would lend itself nicely to a web presence, with links that could help expand on the people, places and events mentioned.

ARC provided by publisher.

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13 March 2010

The English Teacher; Lily King

The English Teacher The English Teacher by Lily King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why was this book set in 1980? The only thing I could think was that it gave Ms. King the ability to count off the days of the marriage (which took place on the same day the Iranian Hostage Crisis started), and the ability to bemoan the addition of technology to schools. It also means that modern communication tools (e-mail, cell phones) can be ignored. Other than that, this could have been set today.

It still would have been a modern update of Tess of the D'Ubervilles, and some of the parallels would still have been, to put it kindly, obvious and overdone. Luckily I didn't see the "Readers Questions" at the back of the book before reading - I think they would have ruined the elements I did enjoy.

Copy provided by publisher.

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11 March 2010

A Question of Belief; Donna Leon

A Question of Belief: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery A Question of Belief: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We open in the heat of a Venetian August - and on almost every page there's a reference to the heat, sweat, the sun, or clothing going limp or sticking to one's back. I got it: the place is unbearable in August.

Vianello (Commissario Brunetti's trusty second) approaches Brunetti with a problem: his aunt is spending a lot of money on something - they don't know what - and his cousin suspects it's some sort of scam. Brunetti agrees to help, and finagles some trainees into trailing the good Zia, only to learn that she's seeing a fortune teller with A History of Presumed Corruption.

Then there's the file that he's given, showing a perhaps illegal slowing down of trials to benefit... someone. With the help of Signorina Elettra, he starts "accessing" information at the Tribunale. Of course, their lead source winds up dead.

I wondered if the two cases were related, or simply running parallel. I won't spoil the mysteries, but the resolution was interestingly muddy. This isn't a procedural series I've read before, but it's one I'd be happy to encounter again.

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03 March 2010

Upstate; Kalisha Buckhanon

Upstate: A Novel Upstate: A Novel by Kalisha Buckhanon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ooooh I wish there were a half-star option because this just missed being a 5-star! I've always liked epistolary novels, and this one, chronicling the relationship between Antonio and Natasha is a great example of the genre.

Starting just after Antonio's arrest for killing his father (did he do it? and if so, why?) and ending nine years later, both characters grow in unexpected ways. The pain and despair, longing and general late teenage angst is magnified through the lens of the separation. Natasha's letters go from being very Harlem 4 Life in tone and subject to being a married lawyer with a degree from U. Chicago and then U. PA., while Antonio's stay at the same level in terms of tone, but it's clear that he is growing as well. His essay on The Catcher in the Rye was one of the best I've read (almost made me want to re-read the book, which I didn't like the first time I read it - and please, no comments about that!). By the end, though, it was clear that they were no longer really involved, except through the phantom of their youth and being each other's first love.

Why the 4.5 and not 5? Because the novel does end on an upbeat, and there's a part of me that felt it was just a little too neat, too pat an ending.

Copy provided by publisher.

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01 March 2010

Wench; Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench: A Novel Wench: A Novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After I reviewed The Help I was asked by someone at HarperCollins if I'd like to read/review Wench; I'd already gotten a copy of the book at ALA Midwinter, so I declined. The ties between the two books are relatively loose: the former takes place 100 (or so) years after the latter.

Wench is told through Lizzie's eyes, jumping around a little in time. Lizzie is a slave, brought by her master to a resort in Ohio (then a free state); there are three other slave women there, also with their masters. The wives are back home. There are a few scenes where the horror of slavery is emphasized (Mawu's beating, for example) but the true horror was in the everyday things - the rape/sex, the chains, the language. That casualness highlighted the "peculiarity" of that institution in ways that more graphic descriptions could not.

My biggest problem was that the characters never fully came to life for me, there was always something just a little cold, a little sterile about them.

Copy provided by publisher.

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