29 December 2011

The Road to Petra; D.C. Baramki

The Road to PetraThe Road to Petra by D.C. Baramki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Petra has been a fascination of mine since reading Richard Halliburton's description of the city in his Complete Book of Marvels.  While I don't remember where or how this really slim book came into my life, that's definitely why.

This isn't really travel writing, it's a factual tour guide for those interested in visiting Transjordan; since the 6th edition is dated 1961, one can only imagine the trip the author describes as much has changed in the intervening half-century.  Example: the recommended route is Jerusalem to Amman then to several cities, a simple process (albeit one with many police check-ins) back then.

The many black-and-white photos hint at how beautiful these antiquities must be (describing the es Siq gorge, "Here one enters a dream-like, unreal world. Soft sandstone cliffs of varied and unusual colours and fantastic shapes tower to a height of 200 to 300 feet").  One of these days, I'll get to visit and this book will come with me.

Folly; Laurie R. King

FollyFolly by Laurie R. King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another psychological thriller that's less of either - the scary bits don't come until the very end, and by then it's pretty obvious what's going on. 

Rae has her Watchers, voices and noises that drove her to attempt suicide following the accident that killed her husband and daughter and the attack/near-rape a few months later.  After spending time in a mental hospital, she finally has the health and direction to attempt to rebuilt the house her great-uncle built on a remote island in the San Juan Strait.  There are still Watchers, but slowly she finds the work healing on an emotional level - there's also her growing relationships with Nikki, Ed and Jerry.

She's also haunted by the problem of her son-in-law, a shady businessman determined to fleece her out of her money (or prevent her from seeing her granddaughter), and the guilt of not being a better mother to her elder daughter.  All of this could have added up to many more flashes of mental terror and questioning, but instead we get long - and I do mean long - passages about the building/rebuilding of the house and her life on Folly.  The same applies to her finding the bones of her Great-Uncle Desmond (who supposedly disappeared in New Mexico, not on the island).

While this is well-written, the creepy terror 'noises-that-go-bump'/'am-I-going-mad?' factor just isn't there.

27 December 2011

The Night Lawyer; Michelle Spring

The Night LawyerThe Night Lawyer by Michelle Spring

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is supposed to be a psychological thriller, but ultimately it wasn't so thrilling.  Eleanor is haunted by her past (her father's death and her mental breakdown and hospitalization) and is starting to pick up the pieces, including becoming a purple belt in karate and joining a tabloid as their night lawyer.  We see how she's filled with self-doubt, punctuated with moments of real confidence and happiness.

The thriller part comes from her having a stalker, someone who has apparently waited 20 years for justice.  There's also her relationship with one of her female colleagues, with whom she thinks she can be friends, and a few of her male ones, from whom she desires respect.  Finally, her next-door-neighboor has an abusive boyfriend and with the thin walls between their houses...  Getting to see glimpses of the others' lives is supposed to immerse us in Eleanor's world, ratcheting up the terror quotient.  That doesn't quite happen because those glimpses allow us to make really educated guesses about what's happening or going to happen.  There was one real surprise, but even that felt a little like a letdown.

Speak Ill of the Living; Mark Arsenault

Speak Ill of the LivingSpeak Ill of the Living by Mark Arsenault
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our reporter/investigator/hero Eddie Bourque is the much (20 years) younger brother of Hank, who is serving life for the theft of 1MM lbs of gold and the murder of the two security guards guarding the gold. Why is this relevant? At first we're not sure, but slowly the kidnapping (and possible murder) of businessman Rick Lime, the suicide of the coroner Caine and the death of the writer/editor/dogsbody of the Lowell weekly start to tie together. The ending is nicely ambiguous - what will Eddie do next? how will what happened in this book affect his future? will he continue to report on/investigate mysteries only now with his brother's behind-bars help?

The mystery was relatively easy to follow, and the Big Reveal was hinted at earlier (or maybe I've just read far too many mysteries?), but overall this wasn't bad. Even better was that General VonKatz wasn't portrayed as some cutesy addition to Bourque's life but as the only constant being in his life. At times I'm not sure why we get all the Lowell-Kerouac ties, however. Perhaps it's to separate Lowell from other small, semi-rundown towns? There seemed to be little other reason.

26 December 2011

The Merry Recluse; Caroline Knapp

The Merry Recluse: A Life in EssaysThe Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays by Caroline Knapp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was one of those "how did I end up with this book?" reads - I suspect a colleague weeding her collection, possibly grabbed because of the title. However it happened, this is a wonderful selection of essays that will remain in my mind and on my shelves.

Knapp is incredibly honest about her life as an anorexic and alcoholic (both of which are also covered in her two previous books), funny about her problems as a nester and compulsive shopper, open about her reaction to September 11, men named "Dave", girl crushes and other life-related items. I giggled through her "Letter to Corporate America" and the "All-Girl Marine Corps" and hoped I can deal with my parents' eventual deaths and dismembering their house better than she did.

There were essays I want to share with others so I'm definitely going to look for them on-line, but the book stays with me.

The Athenian Murders; José Carlos Somoza

The Athenian MurdersThe Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This mystery tried so very hard to be clever, but honestly? More trying and less clever. It also brought to mind Sophie's World, with the supposed translator becoming a part of the book but perhaps more of a literary device than a real character.

Ostensibly this is an ancient Greek text about the murders of a few young boy/men in Athens, students at Plato's Academy yet also partaking of the arts (forbidden by the Academy) and Heracles is a "Decipherer of Enigmas" asked to find out what really happened. Then there's the translator of the original into Italian, Montalo, who apparently went mad at the end of his life and may have been killed in the same manner as the first death. Finally, there's the modern day translator who realizes that this is an eidetic novel, goes somewhat mad, is kidnapped and finally written out of the text by the original writer. Confused yet?

There is a lot going on, and quite a bit about what life was like in Athens at the time of the "original" murders. For lovers of literature and literary devices there's also much to chew on (although "eidesis" is not a real literary device - I checked). The problem is that there's almost too much going on and, as I said, the author is trying to be too clever.

Switched; Amanda Hocking

SwitchedSwitched by Amanda Hocking
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've heard so much about the self-published phemon Amanda Hocking that I was really curious to read this - and now that I have, well, "meh". The writing isn't bad, but a good critical editor is definitely missing (four books? really? there's material here for two at most).

>Wendy (named after the heroine of Peter Pan and all her descendants) has a temper, doesn't look anything like her family (she's dark, they're fair), can manipulate people with her mind and was nearly killed by Kim, her mother, when she was six. Since then she's been taken care of by her aunt Maggie and her brother Matt, while Mom/Kim languishes in the looney bin. Flash forward to high school and she's semi-stalked by this cute guy, Finn. Turns out she's Trylle (fancy name for a branch of the troll family) and a changeling, while he's a tracker sent to bring her back to the Trylle compound to take her rightful place as Princess.

As with the Inheritance series by Paolini, you can really see Hocking's influences here and there's little to surprise the reader. The other problem is that this is written (I'm guessing) for high school students but in a style that 7/8 graders will appreciate - and neither group is going to really care about that.

ARC provided by publisher.

25 December 2011

Ripley Under Ground; Patricia Highstreet

Ripley Under GroundRipley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this, I had to wonder if the perpetrators of the forgeries outlined in Provenance had read this! Here, Ripley is living a life of relative ease as a married man in France; his wife knows he's a little on the shady side, but doesn't seem to mind (theirs is also what one can only term an open marriage). One source of income is from the forgery of Philip Derwatt paintings and the licensing of his name for art supplies and an art school.

Of course things start to go wrong, and Ripley is called upon to impersonate Derwatt... and then - oops! - kill people to cover his tracks. Once again, the murders fall into the "he had it coming/it wasn't really murder" category, and Ripley manages to skate through. Or does he? At the end of the book it's clear that his proximity to all these deaths is starting to raise eyebrows.

Now I need to read the next book at see what happens. Only I don't have that one. Sigh.

20 December 2011

The Talented Mr. Ripley; Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely old-school from the pacing to the plot. We have Tom Ripley, amateur con man, who is sought out by Herbert Greenleaf, father of Dickie. Dickie has escaped the family and gone to Italy and his father (and mother) want him back home, would Tom go over and convince him to return? Tom takes on the job and turns into a SWF (ok, SWM)-stalker, imitating Dickie's walk, talk and life. And then it's not about imitating, it's actually inhabiting Dickie's life, avoiding friends and living off Dickie's money until Freddie Miles comes and Tom's life as Dickie starts to unravel.

Except it doesn't completely, as Tom miraculously manages to evade detection as a double murderer. As I read I kept thinking how much a period-piece this was: fingerprinting is primitive, ditto police methods. Could someone take on another's entire personality and life in this day and age? That didn't lessen my enjoyment of the book, but it did occasionally run through my mind.

19 December 2011

We Shall not Sleep; Anne Perry

We Shall Not Sleep: A Novel (World War One Series, #5)We Shall Not Sleep: A Novel by Anne Perry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This finale to the WWI series was the first - only - book I've read by Perry, and I'm intrigued enough to read more. Because this wraps up a series, there are allusions to previous murders and doings, although you can definitely read it as a stand-alone and not feel as though you've missed something,

The horror of the war and trenches is clear, as is the confusion and rage that soldiers near the end of the war felt. The rape and murder of Sarah Price brings those even more forward, particularly as this is October 1918 and no one is sure what waits for them back home. There's also the question of the Peacemaker and how he can finally be brought to justice.

The mystery is pretty good, but the characterizations sometimes seemed to be a little pat. There are too many pronouncements, some holier-than-thouishness and a few implausible twists, not to mention far too many emotions flaring (briefly, usually). I'd have to read another of her books to see if this is her usual style.

The Tsarina's Daughter; Carolly Erickson

The Tsarina's DaughterThe Tsarina's Daughter by Carolly Erickson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the problems of historical fiction is how well the history is portrayed. While the first part of the book isn't that far off (although some of the relationships between the various European rulers is mangled and unclear), the tsarina's escape to (eventually) the United States lost me. Usually it's Tsarina Anastasia who is rumored to have survived, so that this is based on her older sister Tatiania is a little different. Not different enough, though, to overcome the writing or the plotting.

Obviously Tatiana's history prior to 1918 has to adhere to what we know, but there are weird time jumps and several suppositions (that she would help her maid's sister and visit the poor at night) that just don't quite ring true. Also, because these are Russian-born, native Russian speakers, it doesn't work when words are translated by the speaker (eg, what "Rasputin" means).

16 December 2011

Exploring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials; Lois H. Gresh

Exploring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials : An Unauthorized Adventure Through The Golden Compass,Subtle KnifeExploring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials : An Unauthorized Adventure Through The Golden Compass,Subtle Knife by Lois H. Gresh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the perfect book for anyone interested in the "behind the text" of Pullman's series, however the slightly too-chatty tone combined with first-person narrative (eg, "I have a few modern books about angels" or "In the last chapter, we discussed..."). I found it distracting from the actual information, but for middle grade readers - whom I suspect are the intended audience - that might not matter.

15 December 2011

Cinder; Marissa Meyer

Cinder (Lunar Chronicles, #1)Cinder by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do love Cinderella stories and this is an interesting mix of that genre with the Lost Prince/future-with-cyborgs-and-androids genres.

Cinder is a cyborg, technically the property of the stepmother (Andri). She works as a mechanic and her best friend is Iko, an android owned by her family. There's one mean stepsister (Pearl) and one nice one (Peony), both of whom are going to Prince Kai's ball. Prince Kai is, of course, gorgeous and one day brings Cinder his broken-down tutor android, Nainsi; they flirt. So far, so familiar, right?

Add to this the fact that there's a colonized moon with a population of humanoids called Lunars, noted for their "magic" (actually just bioelectrical manipulation in the form of glamors), ruled by an evil, usurping Queen who wants to take over the Earth; there's also a modern-day plague that is killing people. Cinder's sister Peony contracts the plague and Cinder is sent to the hospital as part of a program to see if the cyborgs somehow hold the key to the cure.

Anything more would be spoilers, so let me just say that of course Cinder does get to the ball. The big questions about Cinder's pre-cyborg identity are relatively easy to guess, but the way in which she - and others - find out isn't a detraction. The fact that this is the first of a four-part series, on the other hand... I think the second book will be interesting (given what we know about the characters by the end of the book) but can this be sustained over four books? There were signs of padding in this one, and I suspect we'll see more. However, as the French say, on verra.

ARC provided by publisher.

14 December 2011

Clearcut; Nina Shengold

ClearcutClearcut by Nina Shengold
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What is it about Forks WA? Another book about a love triangle, this time without sparkly vampires but with an ecological message.

Earley is a 29-year-old shake-rat (someone who goes to a forest clear-cut and cuts stumps down for shingling) originally from Georgia - he has a broken-down truck and lives in a bus parked up in the woods. His showers are taken in dime-per-minute campsite showers, and his life is anything but going somewhere. One incredibly rainy day he picks up Reed, a trust-fund hitchhiker who left Berkeley to head to Alaska (but first, he wants to see Xan, the girl he's in love with).

Reed and Earley end up working together, sharing the bus and daily chores. Reed's newness to the job frustrates Earley but they find a way to make it work, particularly as Reed's skills grow. And then there's Xan, who is in love with Reed but flirts with Earley.

The love triangle is messy but, unlike most, the twist of who ends up with whom may surprise readers. The characters don't really change (although Reed grows up some over the course of the book), and the ecological message isn't pounded in - both of which would have made for a more compelling book.

10 December 2011

World's End and other stories; Paul Theroux

World's End and Other StoriesWorld's End and Other Stories by Paul Theroux
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of short stories is supposed to be tied together by a diversity of places, but it's more the inherent sadness of the characters that is the thread that carries through. Each, of course, sad in their own way; some aren't sad in the truly unhappy sense but in the "reader looking at their life" sense.

As an introduction to Theroux this might discourage readers, but each story, on its own, is so well crafted (except perhaps "The Greenest Isle") that if readers take their time - perhaps spacing the stories out - they'll appreciate his writing more. (Note: "Zombies" is not a nod to the latest paranormal craze!)

08 December 2011

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri; David Bajo

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri: A NovelThe 351 Books of Irma Arcuri: A Novel by David Bajo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book about books? Yay! When that book includes lots of math? Uh, not-so-yay. Irma Arcuri is an author, book binder, relatively free spirit and the decades-long friend/lover of Philip. She disappears (possibly for good, possibly suicide) and leaves Philip her library of 351 books.

Philip is a twice-divorced math genius who runs for fun (he's worked out how many steps and breaths it takes to run the 3000) and who has downsized into a small apartment, little furniture and bookshelves to hold his legacy. His goal? To read all the books, not necessarily in order and not necessarily all the way through. One night he meets Lucia, with whom he starts a physical relationship - in part because she reminds him of Irma. Lucia points out that the books have not only been rebound by Irma, but that Irma has created content (a new story by Borges or paragraphs of Cervantes).

Added to this is his learning that his former stepson, Sam, has gone missing and that his two former wives and his stepchildren have had physical relationships with Irma. Philip goes to Spain looking for Sam and Lucia, hoping to also find Irma. Things get a little weird from there, with coincidences and memories colliding.

In some ways Irma and Philip's relationship like that of Hilde and Sophie in Sophie's World, or that of Griffen and Sabine. The math confused me (I'm not a math person) and that's when the book lost me; the books, the conversations about them and the bindings drew me in.

06 December 2011

Mooncranker's Gift; Barry Unsworth

Mooncranker's GiftMooncranker's Gift by Barry Unsworth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For some reason this book reminded me of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet - it's nothing overtly like it, but there was something there that tugged at my memory of those four books and said this was like them.

The main character is Farnaby, who met the titular character as a teen. At that point in Farnaby's life he was religious, reading the Bible and praying daily, but it was one of those turning-point summers: his parents are getting divorced, he discovers the mixed pleasures of "pleasure" and Mooncranker gives him a gift that so horrifies him that he turns from prayer. What's the gift? A figure of Jesus, on the cross, made of sausage and wrapped in cloth; it eventually rots and Farnaby discovers maggots and flies crawling over the dead meat.

For years this has haunted him, both the image and the question of why someone would give him such a "gift." While studying in Istanbul, his Uncle George reintroduces him to Mooncranker, by this time a pathetic drunk mourning the loss of Miranda (another remnant of that long ago summer). After hospitalizing Mooncranker, Farnaby agrees to go look for Miranda at a Turkish spa, a place that seems to be more about illicit sex than healing.

The characters at the spa are vaguely stereotypical, but we don't meet them clearly enough during the two days that Farnaby is there. He does meet up with Miranda and ultimately asks her about this "gift" - whether or not he's happy with the response, or her reasons for why it may have been given, are left open to our interpretation. I didn't get he sense that he'd come to peace with what happened either that summer or with Mooncranker in Istanbul.

Having said all that, I'd be interested in reading more from this author. Why? The style is a little old-fashioned, less plot than character driven and that makes a nice change of pace.

05 December 2011

Arcadia; Lauren Groff

ArcadiaArcadia by Lauren Groff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't quite sure how I felt about this one - at times it was really engrossing, and at times my mind wandered or I wondered what the author wanted me to get from that episode. Overall it was a good read, and certainly a good nostalgia read for those who want to know more about the hippie commune movement of the 70s. Having said that, it's not historical fiction (the timefrom moves from 1970s-2018!).

This is the life of Ridley "Bit" Scott, the first-born Arcadian. His parents, Abe and Hannah, joined Hardy's intrepid group somewhere out West and Bit was born (it appears prematurely) as they made their way East. Ultimately they end up on a 600+ acre property in Upstate New York, where the winters are harsh but the ground is good for growing and there's the possibility that the Arcadians can live in peace with the land. We meet Bit at/in Arcadia at the ages of 5/5 and 14/15, both pivotal times for the commune, then again at 35 and 50-ish, post-Arcadia.

The life of the Arcadians, the power of a charismatic leader, how communes can work well and then implode, and how people dedicated to a cause and belief can become disillusioned are all explored in the first two sections - that's the best part of the book. By the time Bit is an adult, married with child and working at a university, the book has lost a little of its power. It would have been more interesting to see Bit evolve in the World Outside Arcadia (although that is shown) that it was to hear him go on about Helle. His observations about digital fasts and technology today (during the 35y.o. segment) also could have been expanded into something more.

It's the last part, the future of 2018, that I think bothered me the most. It was almost as if the author wanted to show that the world Arcadia was founded to prevent was, in fact, inevitable. And even though Bit (and Abe and Hannah) have stayed in touch with a core group of Arcadians, we don't get a good sense of their lives 30+ years on (which would have been really interesting, particularly since some - like Dylan - have radically changed).

ARC provided by publisher.

04 December 2011

The Invisible Ones; Stef Penney

The Invisible OnesThe Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm giving this a 5 even though it was really a 4.5/4.75 - I really enjoyed this mystery!

Ray is a half-Gypsy (dad left that traveling life to become a postman) private detective and as such is considered acceptable to Leon Woods, who is searching for his long-lost daughter. Seven-ish years ago, Rose Woods married Ivo Janko - the Jankos being of the "old black blood" and from "somewhere in the Balkans". As is traditional, Rose became part of the Janko clan, and Leon didn't expect to have much contact with her... except no one seems to have heard of/from her in over six years. So he hires Ray to clear up this mystery.

As Ray digs into the Janko's lives, he runs into several sub-mysteries: why is there such division between Tene and his sister Lulu? What happened to JJ's father? What is this "blood" illness that Ivo's son, Christo, has? And why can't anyone give him a direct answer to the question of when Rose disappeared and where? Most important: how did he end up with ergot/henbane poisoning, semi-paralyzed and in hospital?

Interwoven with his story is that of JJ, the son of Sandra Smith nee Janko. JJ goes to school, interacts with non-Gypsy girls, and seems to want to settle down somewhat. He's a teen and starting to look for answers to some of his questions about his father - who he was, why he left, and why there are no photos or signs of him. He cares for Christo and Ivo, helping the family on their trip to Lourdes (Ivo was cured there years ago, and perhaps Christo will also be cured).

The two stories come together in somewhat surprising (and violent) ways, and its clear that neither Ray nor JJ will be the same. What I particularly liked was that not all of the mysteries are resolved, with several loose ends left untidily around for the reader to ponder. While I guess the major plot twist about 50 pages from the end, it was still ambiguous enough for me to think "maybe I'm wrong" until the very end!

Because this is a murder mystery, I'm hoping that Ms. Penney turns this into a series - in any even, her first book is on my To Buy list and I'm keeping an eye out for her next one.

ARC provided by publisher.

03 December 2011

Sympathy for the Devil; Virginia A. McConnell

Sympathy for the Devil: The Emmanuel Baptist Murders of Old San FranciscoSympathy for the Devil: The Emmanuel Baptist Murders of Old San Francisco by Virginia A. McConnell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

True crime, particularly when the crime happened a long time ago, is somehow a perfect read when you're feeling sick - this book fit the bill in much the same way that P.D. James' The Maul and the Pear Tree did a few years ago.

The murders of Blanche and Millie took place in April 1895, in San Francisco, so there was no way to process the crime scenes in a modern sense: no "Bones", no "CSI" and no BAU to profile the murderer. Instead there was a lot of circumstantial evidence, conflicting witness statements, and two newspapers to whip the public into a frenzy. Ms. McConnell does a great job of sorting through all this and of pointing out where modern court cases and murder investigations differ from what happened.

In the beginning of the book, however, she suggests that Theo Durrant was not the murderer, that there were other, equally plausible suspects; by the end of the book, however, she seems to have changed her mind. There are two others who might have done one (or both) murders, and it would have been interesting to explore that a little. Perhaps the lack of documents (due to the age of the crimes, the difference in what evidence was collected back then, and the 1906 earthquake destroying some of the records) prevented her from pursuing that.

01 December 2011

The Artful Dodger; Nick Bantock

The Artful Dodger: Images and ReflectionsThe Artful Dodger: Images and Reflections by Nick Bantock
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you don't know Bantock's art, this is a great way to learn... and if you do know his work, it's a wonderful celebration of what he's done. I had no idea he'd done cover art, or the pop-up books (and now I'm adding those to my To Be Bought list). His explanation of the thought and art process that went into the Griffin & Sabine books as well as his other work is just fascinating, and seeing some of the art again made me think about re-reading and re-viewing what I've read before.

A must buy/must read for the art lover in all of us.

30 November 2011

Living with Ghosts; Prince Michael of Greece

Living With Ghosts: Eleven Extraordinary Tales (Living with Ghosts)Living With Ghosts: Eleven Extraordinary Tales by Prince Michael of Greece
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have no idea where I got this book (a signed edition, no less), but seemed like the perfect read on a day when I was feeling flu-ey. And in part I was right: the descriptions of the various haunted castles, manors and palaces, along with some of their history was definitely worth the read.

However, the ghost part was disappointing. We're expected to believe that Prince Michael communed with these ghosts, somehow able to memorize (he has no note taking equipment with him) the stories he's told. Sometimes, but not always, there's a follow-up, wherein we learn that yes, there was this murder or that secret room. At least two of the ghosts lay claim to some incredible, esoteric knowledge - but they don't share it because they want to keep us (or the Prince) safe.

Not the shivvery experience I'd hoped for, but perhaps a starting point to learn more about these houses and their history.

Beneath a Meth Moon; Jacqueline Woodson

Beneath a Meth MoonBeneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The meth epidemic hasn't hit my neck of the woods, so it was interesting to read this book with that as its focus. At times it was a little difficult to follow as we travel through three time threads: Laurel's life in Pass Christian just before/after Katrina, her life as she moves to Gilead, and the present. Because it's only a two-year spread, there's not that much to differentiate the threads except context.

Laurel lived in Pass Christian with her parents, her brother Jesse Jr.; her grandmother, M'Lady, played a major role in her life. When the hurricane approaches, she, her father and brother go to her aunt's, but her mother and M'Lady stay behind (planning to move to the Walmart if things get bad). Of course, things do go bad, and the remaining family eventually moves to Gilead to start over. There, she meets Kaylee and joins the cheerleading team... where she meets T-Boom. T-Boom introduces Laurel to meth, and ultimately Laurel ends up begging on the streets for meth money.

Teens who live in areas where meth is a problem will recognize the characters, but for those who don't (or who avoid the drug scene) this might not appeal. The question of whether Laurel would have turned to meth had her mother and M'Lady not died or would she have gotten so involved anyway (assuming she'd met T-Boom or some other meth dealer in Pass Christian) is an interesting one and might lead to some good discussions.

Why a 3 and not a 4 star? I felt that Jesse Jr. was introduced to deliberately tug at our heartstrings, and that type of manipulation irritated me.

ARC provided by publisher.

29 November 2011

The Lola Quartet; Emily St. John Mandel

The Lola QuartetThe Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ignore the hype - this is more of a novella that explores the relationships between five friends and their past/present selves than it is a mystery or suspense novel.

The Lola Quartet (named after the movie, not the song) is a group of four high school musicians: Jake, Daniel, Gavin and Sasha. They attended a high school for performing arts in Sebastian FL, and Anna was both Sasha's half-sister and Gavin's girlfriend. Shortly before Gavin's graduation, Anna disappears - her homelife is abusive, but there are rumors about a pregnancy or something else. He sees her briefly just after graduation at the Quartet's final performance, and then she disappears.

Ten years later, he's a newspaper reporter in NYC and his life is falling apart; his invented quotes in his articles get him fired, but they're part of his losing control after his girlfriend leaves him and his sister calls to say she's seen a girl who could be Gavin's daughter. Moving back to Florida, he begins to investigate exactly what happened to Anna, recoonecting with Sasha, Daniel and Jame in ways that one mightn't expect.

The questions of culpability, responsibility, honesty and honor are explored, as are the dreams we have when we leave high school filled with possibility and the reality we run into as soon as a few years later. This isn't a particularly philosophical novella, but it does make one think about the what might-have-beens and the relationships we left behind (many of which we never thought about again).

ARC provided by publisher.

27 November 2011

The Darlings; Cristina Alger

The DarlingsThe Darlings by Cristina Alger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This really Bonfire of the Vanities 2.0: a Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme married to insider trading, bribery at the SEC, the lives of the incredibly rich and a Samuel Isreal-like figure. Even the name of the family at the heart of the book, Darling, reminds one of the tv series "Dirty Sexy Money" (there's another character whose first name is Tripp. sigh).

So, timely. And at times well-written but other times description and detail get in the way of the plot. It's also interesting to hear certain names, places and brands trip off the author's pen, making those she glides over more obvious. The characters are pretty detailed, with few exceptions most are complex in ways that make them feel like real people, not made-up characters (although at times all of them rotate through the "hmm... this person must be here in the role of [stereotype]").

Overall, though, this is one of those books that encapsulates an era and will rapidly read as dated. That's not necessarily a bad thing (see Wolfe's Bonfire as a good example).

>ARC provided by publishers.

The Doll; Daphne du Maurier

The Doll: The Lost Short StoriesThe Doll: The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So interesting to read the early short stories of Daphne du Maurier - you can sense the talent, but it's clearly not fully formed. Only a couple of the stories have the creep factor that her later works have ("East Wind" and "The Doll") while the rest are more character studies. Maybe it was her youth or lack of writing experience that made stories like "Picadilly" and "Mazie" feel slightly off.

As I said, you can clearly sense the talent here and it's interesting to see the development between these and Jamaica Inn, written a few years later. Perhaps if I didn't know the later novels I'd have enjoyed these stories more.

25 November 2011

The Betrayal of Trust; Susan Hill

The Betrayal of Trust (Simon Serrailler, #6)The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been enjoying the Simon Serrailler series since I discovered it a few years back in Canada. Luckily, Susan Hill's detective has found a home here in America as well. As I said in my review of Shadows in the Street, Simon is a lot like Adam Dalgliesh, only with more family. And like Kate Atkinson, Ms. Hill has a number of seemingly unrelated threads going through her mysteries.

The main mystery is the 15-year-old case of the missing Harriet Lowther (interestingly, the jacket cover calls her "Joanne"), whose skeleton was found after a major flood. Nearby another skeleton is found - only this time there's no cold case for a missing person. Then there's his disintegrating relationship with his triplet sister, Cat, upon whom his spring some disturbing family news. There's Lenny, dealing with her partner Olive's continued descent into at-times violent dementia... Jocelyn, recently diagnosed with MND and rapidly deteriorating physically, who needs to decide how her end-of-life care will unfold... and Rachel, with whom Simon falls in love but who is still married to her much older, Parkinson's-riddled husband.

Ultimately, of course, the mystery is solved and the threads tied-in (not up: there's always some room for ambiguity and doors left open for the next installment). While I know that Lafferton is an imaginary town, after reading this series I feel that I should be able to visit there. It's also nice that we spend time with the inner lives of most of these characters, not just the "hero" and criminals. If only I didn't have to wait another couple of years before the next book...

21 November 2011

3:15 Season Onet; Patrick Carman

3:15 Season One: Things That Go Bump in the Night3:15 Season One: Things That Go Bump in the Night by Patrick Carman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was such a difficult book to review because each of the short stories ends with a "go to the website / use the password" comment. So while each of the stories was the start of something creepy, the reading experience got interrupted as I put down the book, picked up my laptop and found out how each ended. And then had to remind myself that there was more to be read... go back to the book... etc.

The stories are creepy and I think those readers looking for something in the "short and shivery" category will enjoy them; whether or not they'll appreciate the breaking of the narrative flow is another question.

ARC provided by publisher.

17 November 2011

The Story About the Story; J.C. Hallman

The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great LiteratureThe Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature by J.C. Hallman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another one of those books that works well as an in-between book - something to read in-between reading other books, or when you have only a short time in which to read and don't want to get caught up in a full-length book.

This is a collection of short(ish) essays by writers on books, writers and genres and as a result it's a little choppy. Some essays were great, others less so. A few made me want to read (or re-read) the book or the author's genre, some I only read the first page or so and moved on.

12 November 2011

Born Wicked; Jessica Spotswood

Born Wicked (The Cahill Witch Chronicles, #1)Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In 1860, New England is its own nation (not Red Sox Nation, but still, a nation), with the western part of North America part of Indo-China and the south part of Spain. The borders to NE are closed, and for the past century the country has been run by the Brothers, a Puritan/Taliban mash-up. There is a Sisterhood, which is one of the two options for young women when they reach 17, the other is marriage.

NE was founded by the Sisters of Persephone as a safe-haven for witches, and the society is very integrated racially. However, the Brothers have banned witchcraft and actively seek out witches, banishing some to an asylum, others to the shipyards. Women are expected to be meek, deferential and, well, bubbleheaded. Cate and her sisters are witches, which means they have to be careful around everyone, including their father (who spends most of the book off stage, attending to business in New London; Mom's dead).

Cate is stuck at the intersection of three crossroads: marriage or the Sisterhood? marriage to whom? and what about her promise to take care of her sisters? Her decision to choose one path will, obviously, affect the others. There's a love triangle here, and while it doesn't seem as forced as many of the recent crop have been, it just added to the "a lot going on and nothing happening" problem. Because this is a trilogy, there's a lot of scene setting going on that occasionally gets in the way of real plot.

The witchcraft part is very similar to Harry Potter, sans wands. Of course this plays into the craze for paranormal; the idea that women can be powerful (and thus a threat to men and their leadership) is an interesting twist in a book for this age group. It reminded me a little of Mists of Avalon in that way.

It was interesting that the forward-thinking country is Dubai, with women rumored to wear trousers and what sound like crop tops. NE itself is vaguely Victorian-era in terms of clothes, accessories, furnishings, etc., but in terms of the way the people talk and act it's very modern. There were moments when something was going on and then a carriage pulled up and I had to remind myself that this was a pre-modern technology society.

I think the trilogy will be popular among those who still haven't gotten enough of the paranormal books, and it might also appeal to those who like romance.

ARC provided by publisher.

11 November 2011

Catherine the Great; Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a WomanCatherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Massie's research into the life of Catherine II is extensive (for example, he used three different translations of her Memoirs) and wide-ranging and the writing style is engaging enough to almost make one forget this is a nearly 600 page book (it's the weight that gives it away).

While I knew something about her life, there was much I hadn't and was fascinated to learn. I knew she was a German princess, but not that it was of some small, unimportant state. I knew she and her mother didn't get along, but not the extent of the difficulties. Etc. Intertwined with her story is that of those around her, so we meet people like Empress Elizabeth and Voltaire and Potemkin fully-fleshed out rather than as sketches.

Several rumors are debunked here, like the one about the Potemkin Village (Massie states that those that talked about them weren't on her trip down the Dnieper, and those that were on the trip never mentioned anything amiss - even those representatives of foreign governments who would certainly have done so had there been fakery). Nothing about horses, however, except that she didn't like to ride sidesaddle.

I really wanted this to be a solid 5, but... I just couldn't do it. The missing star is due to four factors: one, there were phrases that were used again and again to describe people (eg, virtually every time an Orlov is mentioned, we hear again that she owes her throne to them); two, there's an entirely unnecessary chapter devoted to the intricacies of the French Revolution (which is interesting in itself, but goes into detail not needed for a book about Catherine); three, there were pieces that I felt were missing, as when she is persuaded that Lutheranism and Russian Orthodoxy are "virtually the same", yet many readers may not understand the depth of the differences between the two; and four, while mentioning many times that Gregory Orlov was "the father of her son, Bobrinskoy" we never actually learn what happened to his child.

Having read his Nicholas and Alexandra, I now think I'll try to find Peter the Great!

07 November 2011

There is No Dog; Meg Rosoff

There Is No DogThere Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought this book was funny, but then I've got a definite irreverent streak. Others, on the other hand, might find the concept of a God who is really a petulant, sex-crazed boy just a bit wrong.

The life of God (first name, Bob) is pretty easy: sleep until noon, play Nintendo with Eck (his penguin-like furry, purring, long-nosed pet), have a wank and then back to sleep. All the real work of answering prayers, monitoring things and looking after earth falls to Mr. B, who came in second in the "who gets to create this planet" job search. One day a young woman, Lucy, asks God for love and, well, Bob fall in love with her.

The path of love is pretty stormy, and global weather goes a bit nuts - temperature swings of 30-50 degrees in one day, flooding that freezes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc. - because Bob's miserable without his One True Love. Mr. B is appalled by this and decides that 10,000 (or so) years is enough, he's resigning. And then there's Mona, Bob's mother, who gambles away Eck, even though Eck is Bob's pet. What's a God to do?

The humor is evident (did anyone think that platypus' were anything other than a joke?) but as I said, this is going to offend those that are not able to laugh about their faith.

ARC provided by publisher.

One Hundred Names for Love; Diane Ackerman

One Hundred Names for LoveOne Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was one of those "wow, I learned a lot" books - more than I hope I'll ever need to know about having a stroke or the resulting recovery (including levels of aphasia). What dropped the rating considerably is that the author's voice was too wordy, too in love with description and sometimes this clouded the narrative.

Paul's frustration and anguish as he recovers from his stroke are painful to read. As someone who loves words and reading, losing the ability to understand and communicate is akin to a living death. The delight he has in recovering some of his facility with language struck home with me, as did difficulty he has matching words to thoughts later (I'm prone to "thingy" as a catch-all when my brain and mouth don't coordinate).

I've always wondered how people remember exact conversations and emotions at a distance: did Ms. Ackerman keep a journal? Or is she relying on memory and others' impression of what happened and was said? Towards the end she says that she read the book to him and they reconstructed the events together, but I'm a little leery of the accuracy of her story.

The bibliography and helpful hints appendices, while scary, could really help others in the caregivers role, should that happen.

06 November 2011

The Sense of an Ending; Julian Barnes

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What responsibility does a suicide have to those left behind? Why would someone choose not to fulfill the terms of a will? How does memory play tricks on, and inform, our memory? Those are some of the questions that Barnes asks, and to some extent answers, in this book (it's more like a novella than a novel, only 150 pages).

Tony's not the swiftest, most introspective or intuitive of people - he's rather ordinary, to be honest. Ditto his friends Colin and Alex, but when Adrian joins their little group he's pushed to be just a little bit more. He goes to university, meets Veronica, meets her family, they break up, he continues on with his life to a career in arts management, a wife whom he'll divorce, a daughter he'll love but be slightly estranged from... and then he gets left 500 pounds and two documents by Veronica's mother. Years earlier, Veronica and Adrian had started dating (after the break-up with Tony) and then Adrian committed suicide.

Tony's left wondering why he was left the money and the documents; one is a letter from Veronica's mother and the other is Adrian's diary, still with Veronica, who isn't giving it to Tony as per her mother's will. His quest to retrieve his "legacy" leads him to delve into his past, to wonder about relationships and his ability to figure out what the truth about history really is.

Suffice it to say that I'm left thinking about my past and about the "damage" that occurred then, and how to deal with that now. Unintentionally, reading this has answered some of the questions I've been asking - and isn't that the best possible result from reading a book?

Pulse; Julian Barnes

PulsePulse by Julian Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barnes' short stories are little jewels, with insight into the life or situation that leaves you wanting slightly more than you're given but still feeling very fulfilled.

I really wish there were the 4.5 star option, because that's where I'd grade this collection. Why not the full 5 stars? It's the "At Phil & Joanne's" episodes, which made me think of a Woody Allen movie (think "Hannah and Her Sisters" type dialogue) and that irritated me. However, "The Limner", "Sleeping with John Updike" and "Carcassone" are worth re-reading. The notes say that "Marriage Lines" was written for Alan Howard (whom I saw years ago in "Good") and now I'm going to try to find a recording.

US readers will have to wait, or do as I did and order via Indigo.ca (or Amazon.co.uk).

03 November 2011

The Saints of Swallow; Suzzy Roche

The Saints of SwallowThe Saints of Swallow by Suzzy Roche
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has so much going on that it should have been longer - there's the music part, the recovery part, the faith part and the family part and all are done well, but I just wish we could have had more of each.

There's a band, Sliced Ham, that was an alternative/grunge/punk type band, with relatively obscure lyrics and a lead singer who wears ripped stockings and combat boots. That part of Mary Saint's life ends when her friend/lover/bassist Garbagio (aka Anthony Calabrese, from a small town near to hers) dies. Then there's her recovery, coming to terms with her past and her music and her life - and her faith. Both collide when she's asked to do a solo concert at her old high school. This isn't just Mary's story, though, it's also her mother Jean's, and how Jean's life in Swallow has unfolded since Mary left years before.

There are some interesting questions about faith raised here, and not nearly enough time spent on them (particularly at the end). What family is and means, and what fame is and means is also explored. Since the author is a member of The Roches, it's clear that she's writing from experience, albeit in a different genre than her folk music roots.

This will definitely appeal to those that question fitting in and how to survive their teens, let alone their early adulthood, with some sense of sanity intact. It may also appeal to alternative music lovers, although we're more in the group's aftermath than spending time with the group itself.

ARC provided by publisher.

Double; Jenny Valentine

DoubleDouble by Jenny Valentine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chap is nobody - no family, no real name, no home. One day, in exchange for two meals and a roof over his head, he goes to a shelter and there things radically change: he's the spitting image of Cassiel Roadnight, a boy missing for two years. Something compels Chap to agree that he is, in fact, Cass and so his adventure begins.

>Of course, he isn't and the differences in personality and size (although in two years, boys do grow!) raise a few suspicions (much like in the movies "Sommersby" and "Martin Guerre") but overall his family accepts him and is thrilled with his return. Interspersed with his new life as Cass is Chap's story of his previous life with Grandpa, a life that ended six years ago when Grandpa got into an accident and started Chap's life on the streets. Anything more would be spoilers, so I won't go into how this all plays out - suffice it to say that I did guess the twist but wasn't quite sure until the very end.

This was a Carnegie shortlist book and I can understand why: there's a good mystery, interesting plot and characters with no paranormal qualities, and nothing forced about the writing.

ARC provided by publisher.

02 November 2011

The Case of the Deadly Desperados; Caroline Lawrence

The Case of the Deadly Desperados (The Western Mysteries, #1)The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Caroline Lawrence has moved away from her Roman Mysteries to the Wild West, and it's a lot of fun.

P.K. "Pinky" Pinkerton is a half-Lakota foster child to the Joneses, and we open on their being scalped and killed by "Injuns", except Ma Evangeline realizes they're actually white men. Turns out that one of the men is Whitling Walt, so named because he "whittles" his victims, and they weren't after the Joneses they were after a Letter that PK's real mother gave him.

P.K. runs away, hoping to get to Chicago, where he can persuade his uncle (the famous Pinkerton detective) to hire him. However, he only makes it as far as Virginia City, a Nevada mining town filled with gamblers, Chinese "Celestials", miners and Soiled Doves. Because of his Thorn, P.K. is unable to tell whom to trust and ends up being shot at, tied up and finding ways to disguise himself before he can get to the Recorder's to have his Letter declared true.

The combination of P.K.'s Thorn (aka ASD) and the Wild West atmosphere make this a great Middle School boy read - they'll enjoy the history and detective work, as well as P.K.'s take on people and events.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Ruins of Gorlan; John Flanagan

The Ruins of Gorlan (Ranger's Apprentice, #1)The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've read others in this series, but never the first book - it's definitely worthwhile going back to starting properly (although the author does make the books/world accessible to latecomers).

I can see where Middle School boys love this: Will is small, not that skilled and has no family but his role in the future of his world is huge. Who wouldn't like that? His relationship with Halt and Horace develop in a way that I could see them wanting to emulate, in that Will gains Halt's respect and Horace's friendship in ways that are realistic. Of course, the adventure and fighting are very appealing.

Now I need to fill in the holes in my reading of this series!

Copy provided by publisher

The Way We Fall; Megan Crewe

The Way We FallThe Way We Fall by Megan Crewe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a dystopia, but a rather realistic look at what could happen if a virulent virus strikes - just think of the hysteria surrounding MRSA, SARS, the H1N1 virus, etc.. The unrealistic part is that this is set on an island just off Canada, and thus easy to quarantine.

>Kaelyn is a typical teen, except that she's living on a small island (one of the Summer People/Year-Rounders type of island). Her peers aren't quite sure what to make of her, as she's recently returned from several years in Toronto, but that's good because she can be a "new Kaelyn". Something has happened to her friendship with Leo and she starts an epistolary journal to try to mend that rift, but when the virus strikes it becomes a log of what's going on on the island.

It was interesting that the Canadian authorities' response to the problem is to quarantine the island, allowing no one on or off. Predictably there's a Lord of the Flies group of boys that start to take/steal the food and supplies, and just as predictably there's a group that tries to keep things running smoothly. Kaelyn's family is affected, in that her mother dies of the virus, her brother disappears to the mainland, her father is the doctor trying to help and she herself gets sick. While most of her reactions to what's going on seem real, I did expect a little more fear and anger, particularly at the government's decision to virtually abandon the island.

That this is the start to a series is problematic for me (I know, that's my Big Bugaboo), because without it this could be a great read for science and ethics classes.

ARC provided by publisher.

I'm Not Her; Janet Gurtler

I'm Not HerI'm Not Her by Janet Gurtler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tess has a big problem: she's a nobody compared to her Perfect Sister, Kristina. Because of this, her grades and love of art go virtually unnoticed by her mother, while her father is rather a nonentity in the home. Then Kristina learns she doesn't have a sports injury, she has a tumor, osteosarcoma - cancer. And the family falls apart.

Despite having read other books like this recently, I thought Tess' voice sounded authentic (the parents were, sadly, far more stereotypical). Kristina's actions/reactions to her cancer and treatments also sounded authentic, but more anger might have been even more realistic. I particularly liked the arc of Tess' relationships with Clark, Jeremy and Nick, which reminded me of so many of my and my friends relationships with boys when we were in high school.

Copy provided by publisher.

30 October 2011

The Filter Bubble; Eli Pariser

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From YouThe Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How ironic that I chose to read this on my Kindle - a product provided by just the type of corporation Pariser talks about in terms of privacy, filtering, recommending and being generally overly intrusive into our habits! The thing I regret most about buying this version is that there are people to whom I would love to lend the book but can't.

Pariser's position is that we, as a society, have ceded much in the way of privacy and choice to corporations. In some ways it's about the explosion of news sources and our ability to filter out the news we don't want to hear (How many people do you know that only get their news from NPR/New York Times/New Yorker or Fox News/Daily Post? Sadly, I know far too many who are that polarized). This doesn't lend itself to a well-informed, understanding, communicating citizenry.

The other filter comes from how easy it is to allow Google, Amazon, Netflix, etc. to learn from our choices (of searches, purchases, queries, whatever) and to tailor our next experience to meet those previous ones. My buying habits must give Amazon and Google fits, as I've used them as personal and professional resources! The fact that I, in New York, will get different results than friends in Georgia or Germany, is only one problem - friends searching on their laptops in my home will get different results than I do, even though we're separated by a mere few feet.

What actions we take to regulate these companies (who are, after all, not answerable to us, their free users but to their hoping-for-big-payout advertisers and investors) and how we make friends, family and students aware of how their choices affect their on-line experience is important. My gut tells me that the vast majority won't care, even among those that read this book.

In Too Deep; Amanda Grace

In Too DeepIn Too Deep by Amanda Grace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a book like Good Girl or Speak, although it does have some of those elements.

We're a few weeks before graduation, and Carter - the golden boy, the one every girl wants - is throwing a party; Sam has decided that it's her last, best chance to make Carter notice her and changes from her usual jeans/t-shirt to a thong, stilettos and a micro-mini. It does get his notice, but not in the way she wants... and things only get worse when someone misinterprets what happened between them. Sam, humiliated by Carter's response to her overture, just wants to forget it happened, particularly since things finally seem to be going well with Nick, the boy-next-door.

>When school starts on Monday and people are staring at her, then asking how she is, she thinks it's all about what really happened, and then she learns it's because they think he raped her. Now, at this point Sam could have done the decent thing and said "no, he didn't" but she's at first too shocked and then too scared to say anything. When she finally does admit that he didn't, she's with a group of former friends who are all being supportive, and they convince her that Carter has been a real jerk for a long time and that a couple of weeks not being Big Man On Campus would be good for him. Of course, this completely backfires on everyone.

Sam's dilemma was written realistically, and I could relate to her distress and confusion about how to handle everything. I particularly liked that she learned the very hard way that doing the easy thing can have lasting consequences. The reason this wasn't a 5-star review was that there were moments, when there was something just a bit off with her relationship with her father. Unlike the other relationships she has, this one read a bit too stereotypical and mostly for effect.

ARC provided by publisher.

Speak No Evil: Marilyn Kaye

Speak No Evil (Gifted, #6)Speak No Evil by Marilyn Kaye
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's always a little worrisome when a publisher has a huge stack of paperbacks of a late-series book, particularly since it was published over a year ago: has the series not been selling? In the case of the Gifted series, that might be what's going on (I don't actually know but I do suspect).

This series tells the story of a very unusual Gifted class at Meadowbrook Middle School. Each book is in many ways a stand-alone, with only a few references to previous books. This is Carter Street's story, a selectively mute boy with no discernible Gift.

Carter's been moved to a Home, under the care of Dr. Paley. Despite all Madame's instructions that what happens in Gifted class stays in Gifted class, Dr. Paley seems to know quite a bit about the class members. He also is convinced that he can cure Carter's mutism and memory loss. The methods do work, and Carter uncovers his history and his Gift. Several of his classmates also want to work with Dr. Paley, who claims he can cure them of their Gifts (contrary to Madame's wishes and methodology - she's working to help them understand and control the Gifts).

What bothered me is that this wants to be a HS book, but it's set in Middle School and that could be the problem. The covers skew older, but the inside is more like Lubar's Hidden Talents.

Copy provided by publisher.

Perfect Escape; Jennifer Brown

Perfect EscapePerfect Escape by Jennifer Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved Hate List and was a little disappointed by Bitter End but this is a return to form for Jennifer Brown.

Kendra's life has been overshadowed by her OCD brother Grayson's problem, and she's tried to be Little Miss Perfect to compensate. There's only one glitch, and she's aware that things are about to radically change for her: possibly expulsion, being kicked out of the National Honor Society and worse. It's not clear exactly what she's done, but it is clear that it's Something Bad. That this all coincides with Grayson's return home after some time away at a hospital doesn't help.

So Kendra decides that the best solution to all this is to get into her car (after having convinced Grayson to stop counting rocks at the nearby quarry) and drive to California, home to her former BFF Zoe. Zoe's parents didn't like the relationship Zoe and Grayson had, and abruptly moved her away - so there are lots of unresolved emotions on all sides. This road trip doesn't meet with Grayson's approval, but slowly he seems to warm to the idea and enjoy the adventure.

Throughout the course of the book I had to remind myself that Grayson was OCD, not ASD; he was always capable of normal interpersonal interactions except when his obsessions took over. Kendra spends time distracting him from his fears and obsessions and the normalcy of their brother/sister relationship is realistic. It was also interesting to see that the book ends on a semi-cliffhanger, in that we don't know how things will get resolved vis-a-vis her problems at school. I liked that sense of "this adventure's over, another one is going to begin but not here", because too many neatly tied loose-ends bothers me. So yay for that!

ARC provided by publisher.

Mercy Lily; Lisa Albert

Mercy LilyMercy Lily by Lisa Albert
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book, but it really felt as though the author was writing with a Message, rather than letting the whole Death with Dignity motif happen organically.

Lily is a relatively normal teen, albeit one with no friends. Why? Because when her father died and her mother's MS got worse, she pulled away from her friends and they her. So now Mom's getting worse and Lily has few people in whom she can confide. At the age of 16, she's been working (illegally) as a vet, following her mother's instructions on animal care - she's also giving her mother BVT (Bee Venom Therapy) for the MS but that seems to have stopped working.

How her mother wants to resolve things, and Lily's future, makes up the main plot, while Lily's feelings for the boy-next-door, Trent, are the subplot. The problem is that both plots, along with the renewal of her relationship with Shauna, are pretty obvious and there's no surprise anywhere. There was nothing new here, and that it's set in Oregon is purely to highlight the Death with Dignity issue.

ARC provided by publisher.

Life Eternal; Yvonne Woon

Life Eternal (Dead Beautiful, #2)Life Eternal by Yvonne Woon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any book that takes place (mostly) in Montreal is going to get 2-stars from me, and this earned a solid 1.5 more (which I'm bumping up to a 4) by 1. being the second in a series yet accessible to those who haven't read the first book and 2. by being a little more interesting than a mere Twilight-esque love triangle.

>Renée is recovering from her soul-swapping adventure with Dante and her parents' deaths when she starts having some strange dreams. They feel real, and to her shock and horror, one actually does become real... but it can't be because she was no where near the scene-of-the-death at the time. Then she learns that Gottfried Academy is going to be solely for the Undead, while all the Monitors there will now be at St. Clement, in Montreal. So there's no reunion for her and Eleanor (what with Eleanor being Undead, etc.). Somehow Renée ends up being the top Monitor in the school, much to her new enemy Clementine's anger. There's a hot Monitor guy, Noah, who comes close to making her forget Dante, and Anya, a Russian-Canadian friend who helps her figure out what's happening with the dreams.

No plot spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the love triangle wasn't as annoying as other recent ones have been, and despite the paranormal elements Renée feels like a real teen. The questions of who the Ninth Sister is and how the whole Monitor/Undead tension will play out is left unresolved - yes, there's a cliffhanger ending. There's a part of me that thinks the resolution to that cliffhanger may end up being obvious, and I really hope the author does something different. We'll see.

ARC provided by publisher

22 October 2011

Mysteries of the Middle Ages; Thomas Cahill

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science & Art from the Cults of Catholic EuropeMysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science & Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This look at the Middle Ages as a turning point in our history was interesting - I'd never really known much about Hildegard, Abelard or Giotto, much less thought of Ravenna as an important city before. There was also a very easy-to-understand discussion of Dante's Divine Comedy and the different religious splits during this time period.

What bothered me, though, was the attempts at humor. Cahill appears to be aiming for a teen audience and inserts comments designed to appeal to someone not necessarily reading this for fun but as part of a class assignment. It also was unnecessary to continually refer to his other books and the "Hinges of History" series.

16 October 2011

The Magician King; Lev Grossman

The Magician KingThe Magician King by Lev Grossman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grossman picks up the tale of Quentin and the others in Fillory - they're there, ruling quietly, when they go hunting. The hunting leads to the idea Quentin has of a quest (not that big a one, just a few days sail to get the back rent due from the Outer Island). As these things so often go, the quest becomes a Quest and Quentin ends up tackling more than he'd originally anticipated.

Accompanying Quentin is Julia, and I particularly liked how we got Julia's backstory (remember, she wasn't at Brakebills with the others). It's a very different trip to magic than Quentin's and by the end of the book I felt much closer to her than to the "Brakebills" magicians. I was also quite fond of sloth (the representative of the talking animals sent on the q/Quest).

Any reader familiar with the Narnia stories will see many similarities, but Harry Potter, Star Trek, Wind in the Willows and other YA-magical favorites are also referenced. At times I wondered if the similarities detracted from the story as a whole, where pure imagination could have done just as well. There's ample opportunity for another Fillory-esque book here, but a part of me hopes that we simply leave Quentin, Julia, Josh, Poppy and the others with their new lives.

15 October 2011

Snuff; Terry Pratchett

Snuff (Discworld, #39)Snuff by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I truly love me some Terry Pratchett - I've read virtually everything he's written, including the lesser-known Bromeliad trilogy, and if you can get your hands on Only You Can Save Mankind (from the Johnny Maxwell trilogy) do so immediately!

Anyway, Snuff continues the Ankh-Morpork Watch series, this time taking Commander Sam Vimes (and the Duke of Ankh, Sir Samuel Vimes and Blackboard Monitor Vimes) on vacation to the Shires, specifically to Ramkin Hall, Lady Sybil's ancestral home. Vimes is a fish-out-of-water here, or more accurately copper-off-the-streets, missing the noise and smell and general crime of the city. Of course things change, and he ends up with yet another title, King of the River. Along the way we meet goblins, a blacksmith and several other characters who one hopes become part of the Discworld family.

So why the four and not a five? Two reasons: the first is that I chuckled, not laughed, and the second (much more important) is that there's no DEATH. I miss DEATH. Doesn't every one?