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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