30 April 2011

Prophecy; S. J. Parris

Prophecy (Giordano Bruno, #2)Prophecy by S. J. Parris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This could be seen as The Da Vinci Code meets Elizabethan Era mystery, with the lost book of Hermes Trismegistus vying with Papist plots against the Queen for pride of plot. The machinations of the French and Spanish Courts, the Guise family and English Catholics would have been enough to keep one mystery perking along, the addition of the occult felt cluttered.

That aside, the plot moves along briskly, although there are a few too many characters. The crossbow bolt ex machina is a nice touch, but again, it was one character/plot device too many.

ARC provided by publisher.

26 April 2011

This Life Is in Your Hands; Melissa Coleman

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Family, Sixty Acres, and a Family UndoneThis Life Is in Your Hands: One Family, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone by Melissa Coleman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As with any memoir, it's suspicious when conversations from an author's early years are remembered verbatim. Of course I'm sure that other people in Liss's life contributed memories to fill in the earlier memories.

In the 70s, the back-to-the-earth movement attracted Ms. Coleman's parents, Sue and Eliot, and they moved to Maine to homestead on 60 acres. The original intention was to live on the land and perhaps $2000/year; within a few years there were apprentices, a thriving food stand and rifts in Sue and Eliot's marriage. After the death of Liss's sister Heidi, Sue's depression and need for "away time" contribute to the break-up of the marriage (even though the end would come a few years later).

Placing each move forward in historical context (although there is one mistake: Charlie Manson never tried to assassinate President Ford, one of his disciples did), this story of both a marriage and a family intermingled with the desire to live a life what we now call "off the grid" has some resonance with today's economic situation. Pointing out decisions by Secretary of Agriculture Butz to promote "Big Agriculture" over more organic, smaller farms, this could have been a polemic against pesticides. Instead, there is more about the relationships and the influences on her parents.

ARC provided by publisher.

25 April 2011

Everest; David Borgenicht

Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure: Everest: You Decide How to Survive!Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure: Everest: You Decide How to Survive! by David Borgenicht
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The "Choose Your Own Adventure" genre lives: this time with better production values and graphics. Unfortunately, I'm not sure this works as well in book format any longer.

The formula stays the same - at different points in the book readers are asked which option they choose (eg, "If you unclip to go with Hans, turn to pg 59" or "If you stay on the fixed rope and skip the pic, turn to pg 137") with a possible 26 different "routes" though the book. Imagine that in eBook format, with animation instead of graphics, linking to the different options rather than having readers flip back and forth through the book.

Copy provided by publisher.

In the Garden of Beasts; Erik Larson

In the Garden of BeastsIn the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Larson's topic, exploring what life was like in Berlin during the first years of Hitler's regime, as seen through the eyes of the American Ambassador, William Dodd, and his family, doesn't exactly break new ground but it does highlight how the world was sure that Hitler was not a huge threat and would be reasonable.

Dodd doesn't exactly fit in with what the majority of foreign service members thought service meant: he was frugal, an academic, and more interested in pursuing the writing of his book on the Old South than in living the Ambassadorial lifestyle. His daughter, Martha, was sexually liberated and given to inopportune affairs. We learn little about his son, Bill, and wife Mattie, unfortunately. Interspersed with their observances are stories from other sources of how things were changing in subtle ways. Hitler's rise and Germany's movement back towards a militaristic society are discounted by many, and Larson often points out the moments when things could have been stopped, when the world could have stepped in, and how slowly the realization came that Hitler was unreasonable and unstoppable.

On a few occasions, Larson inserts an anecdote that doesn't quite have the import that he seems to think it does, and there are some duplicate descriptive passages. Other than that, this is an interesting look at an era about which we all too often think we've read or heard everything.

ARC provided by publisher.

23 April 2011

The Emerald Atlas; John Stephens

The Emerald Atlas (Books of Beginning)The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maybe it's me, and I'm getting to be too critical about things, but this book didn't do anything new for me: three "orphans", a prophecy, a magic book, dwarves and other creatures, miserable orphanages, the human/non-human worlds shifting and moving apart, and a house with mysterious passages (not to mention a Misselthwaite Manor-like family of mice in the pool table). That, plus the fact that this is the start of a trilogy?

That's not to say this was all bad - there were some good things. I liked the idea of the Atlas being a vehicle for time-travel (although the Professor's explanations of how the timeline did and didn't shift were confusing). Michael's pleasure at finding that dwarves were real and his knowledge of their customs was humorous. I can see younger readers who like series like the Inheritance Trilogy enjoying this because many of the elements will seem new.

ARC provided by publisher.

This Other Life; Ellen Meister

The Other LifeThe Other Life by Ellen Meister
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I almost didn't finish this one - I'd started it, then put it aside to plow through a ton of YA reads. Why pick it up again? Because I wanted to see if my earlier impressions were the same. Sadly, they were.

The premise is that Quinn was born just as her mother was trying to commit suicide and thus sort of has two lives, and she discovers a portal between the two in the basement of her home. In one she's married with a son, pregnant again and her mother succeeded in killing herself seven years earlier, in the other she stayed with her actor-boyfriend and her mother isn't dead. She spends time moving between the two, trying to figure out what she wants and which life is better. The philosophical questions that one should have about these choices don't really happen, Quinn just seems to move through her life and the only difficult decision is about her pregnancy.

This is a good beach read, but nothing more.

ARC provided by publisher.

This Beautiful Life; Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life: A NovelThis Beautiful Life: A Novel by Helen Schulman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A book about the aftereffects of sexting is certainly timely, but this is more for adults than a YA audience.

Lizzie and Richard Bergamot are both highly educated, but Lizzie has given up her professional life to raise their children as Richard climbs the academic life ladder. After several happy years in Ithaca, they move to New York, where Richard is the vice chancellor at a version of Columbia and their children, Jake and Coco, attend a version of Fieldston. One evening Jake goes to a party, makes out with a younger girl, rejects her and she sends him an erotic video - one forward click later everyone's life changes.

Schulman has decided to tell this story from several points of view, but the voices don't sound different from character to character. Given that we hear what's going on in Jake's mind, it was disappointing that he didn't seem to go through more introspection - I felt that we only got surface impressions, nothing deeper. The description is a little florid and at times I thought "less, not more".

ARC provided by publisher.

22 April 2011

The Wrong Mother; Sophie Hannah

The Wrong MotherThe Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not quite black, more like dark grey - but definitely psychological weirdness in the manner of Barbara Vine.

Imagine having a one-week no-strings affair with someone: you'd probably tell them all sorts of deep dark secrets, confessions you might never tell another soul. So what happens when you hear that man has now killed his wife and daughter but it's not the same man you met. Sally is naturally quite disturbed by this, not to mention that she's overworked and her babysitter can't take care of her daughter during an upcoming conference. At the same time she's investigating who she did actually meet, the police are investigating a possible family annihilation. Or two.

The narration switches from Sally's story to the police investigation, with the two colliding as Sally meets "Mark" again, and the police figure out who he really is. I have to admit, I was surprised by the revelation.

Definitely an author to remember, the next time I'm looking for a book to buy.

Born Under a Lucky Moon; Dana Precious

Born Under a Lucky MoonBorn Under a Lucky Moon by Dana Precious
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Born Under a Lucky Moon falls into the "wacky family" sub-genre of chick lit. At times it reads as though the author was throwing in events and personality traits just to highlight exactly how wacky the Thompson family is, and to impress on us how far from North Muskegon Jeannie has come. The romance doesn't ring quite true, and overall it's probably a good beach read for those who need to add something to their pile.

Copy provided by publisher.

20 April 2011

Tempest Rising; Tracy Deebs

Tempest RisingTempest Rising by Tracy Deebs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First vampires, then werewolves, then zombies and angels and now mermaids, with selkies. Tempest's mother left six years ago to return to the ocean, and Tempest has resented her ever since. Dad was an amazing surfer but now it's Tempe who hangs ten every morning. She's also got an on-again, off-again boyfriend (Mark) and two siblings she's taking care of. Oh, and she's dreading her 17th birthday as - apparently - that's when she'll have to choose between sea and shore.

Enter Kai, gorgeous and mysterious surfer dude to whom Tempest is drawn. Turns out he's a centuries-old selkie, and she's the prophesied savior (or destroyer, depending on how things go) of the ocean people - mermaids/mermen, selkies and others. There's an underwater battle, love scenes, reconciliations and break-ups, and The Big Decision.

With the exception of the surfing and the description of the underwater world, there's nothing that makes the plot stand out. Of course, there are those that just can't get their fill of paranormal...

ARC provided by publisher.

17 April 2011

The Woodcutter; Reginald Hill

The WoodcutterThe Woodcutter by Reginald Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Reginald Hill's mysteries - be they Dalziel/Pascoe or Joe Sixsmith. This is less mystery and more psychodrama a la Count of Monte Cristo, and just as good as the mysteries.

Wilfred "Wolf" Hadda (isn't that a great Scottish name?) is the son of a woodcutter who's married the daughter of the manor (ok, it's really a castle). There are a few mysteries in Wolf's life, such as what happened during his five year absence. Sounds a little like Heathcliff, doesn't he? And Imogene, the fair maiden in question, has her Cathy-esque moments, too. They marry, have a beautiful daughter named Virginia, and then it all falls apart when Wolf is accused first of paedophilia and then of financial fraud. Flash forward to him in prison, where he somehow decides that cooperating with his psychologist will get him out of jail early... and thus the revenge drama starts.

Wolf is often described as a very likeable man, one people like despite his background, his alleged crimes, etc.. And Hill has made him likeable, more so that virtually any other character in the book. Everyone else seems to have motives wrapped in plots and tied with deception - with two exceptions. Elf (aka Alva), his prison psychologist, and Sir Leon, Lord of the Castle, aren't as likeable, but they're reasonably honest in their motivations. The revenge Wolf exacts does, of course, go slightly awry, but that's to be expected.

Readers of Hill's works and those who prefer Dumas or Barbara Vine will enjoy meeting The Woodcutter.

16 April 2011

Falling for Hamlet; Michelle Ray

Falling for HamletFalling for Hamlet by Michelle Ray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reworkings (or reimaginings) of classics have always interested me, and Ophelia's version of Hamlet is a worthy member of the genre. Set in a modern day Denmark, the story alternates between an interview on an Oprah-esque show, Ophelia's memories and her interrogation by members of the DDI following the lacrosse game tragedy.

Hamlet's descent into madness is more like a descent into some form of bipolar disorder, with the Prince cycling through revenge, sorrow, clear-headedness and normal teen at a relatively rapid pace. Ophelia and Horatio try to keep up with him and to help, but it's unclear (as it is in the play) if he's even capable of being helped. The only part of the play obviously missing is the "alas, poor Yorrick" speech, although I'm not sure the "more things in heaven and earth" speech was there either.

This is being marketed to teens who may not have read or seen the play, but I don't think that will matter.

ARC provided by publisher.

13 April 2011

The Transformation of Things; Jillian Cantor

The Transformation of ThingsThe Transformation of Things by Jillian Cantor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jen's life is falling apart: she'd given up her city-based life when her husband became an elected judge and gained "friends", the chairmanship of a cancer benefit and a McMansion and all that goes along with suburban wealth. One day she learns her husband is being indicted for bribery and her new life unravels. To deal with the stress, her herbalist gives her a new herb that now gives her very deep, very intense dreams in which she becomes people in her life (her husband, her BFF, her sister and her next-door-neighbor), learning the truth about their lives.

Her reaction to her husband's indictment and loss of the life she's created are met with an interesting detachment - it's not quite realistic that someone would be that accepting of things. Jen never confronts Will, never really questions what's going on (Will accepts a plea and is disbarred), never quite reacts to what's happening. There's a twist at the end that explains it all, but it felt almost like a cop-out by the author.

ARC provided by publisher.

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08 April 2011

Please Look After Mom; Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After MomPlease Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can understand why this book has been such an international best seller - the emotional impact of the story keeps you reading and will stay with you after. Very possibly some of this effect is due to the use of the second person present tense (with one exception, which may or may not be due to a translation issue). Since "you" are the narrator, there's naturally a deeper response to the story.

This story is told by several different people within the family, responding to the news that Mom has disappeared. She's been not well for a while (we later learn that she's had incapacitating headaches, not to mention breast cancer that was not treated until too late) and has been a little forgetful. She's also believed to be not capable to do certain things, like navigate Seoul. When she and Father come for a visit, they get separated at the subway station - the last time anyone in the family sees her.

The mixture of "oh no! she's lost and how can we find her" and memories of their relationships with her adds to the power of this story. We hear from her husband, daughters and sons, and towards the end we hear from Mom herself (I think, it was a little unclear). The question of what happened to her is not answered, which is a very nice touch.

ARC provided by author.

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06 April 2011

A Song of Stone; Iain Banks

A Song of Stone: A NovelA Song of Stone: A Novel by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure that I got the Balkan tie-in, but it's certainly about some European country under some military distress. The era is uncertain, but there are roving (marauding?) bands of militia in the country, and Abel and Morgan decide to leave their castle for a safer area. Unfortunately they are stopped not terribly far from the castle by one such militia group, and returned to the castle as host/captives.

Abel is certainly Lord of the Manor, and takes housing these ruffians as an affront. At first, Loot (the leader) agrees that there will be no damage done to the house, that they will treat the contents with respect. Within a day or so, a shell strike damages the castle, leading to the Old Retainer, Albert, having a heart attack - the first casualty. Only a few days later, they capture the gun the shot the shells, and a raucous celebration (complete with unwilling refugee women) takes place. The contents of the house are destroyed, Loot and Morgan have an "intimate" moment and Abel, either by accident or by reason of distraughtness over the castle and Morgan, shoots Loot (and misses). You can imagine the ending.

At times this is an uncomfortable read, but Banks is such a good author that you don't want to put the book aside.

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Kissing Game; Aidan Chambers

The Kissing GameThe Kissing Game by Aidan Chambers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very uneven collection of short stories – only two really stood out for me (“The Kissing Game” and “The Scientific Approach”). The rest felt either unfinished or just left me flat. In some (“Day Out”, “The Tower” and “Sanctuary”) I felt the author was really reaching for some sort of twist or surprise, rather than making it organic. And the dialogs didn't work as short stories, but perhaps they would as read-alouds in a class.

ARC provided by publisher.

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05 April 2011

Divergent; Veronica Roth

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was definitely written to appeal to the Hunger Games/Scorch Trials crowd - the action is fast-paced, the characters are in competition, and the world is dystopic.

Here, we're in a future Chicago (no discussion of what happened to the rest of the US, and no curiosity on anyone's part about that). The rivers and Lake Michigan have dried up, the buildings are mostly abandoned and unkempt, but certain things remain, like the Sears Tower, the Hancock Building, Millennium Park, and the el. The city has been divided into quadrants, each inhabited by people who adhere to a certain philosophy: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Candor and Amity. Outside of school and a few other places, the factions don't mix; on your 16th birthday, you choose which faction you will stay with, a decision made in part based on aptitude testing.

Beatrice was born and raised in Abnegation, but when it's time to choose, she chooses Dauntless (although she's actually a Divergent, which is apparently A Very Bad Thing). While in Dauntless, she learns to be virtually impervious to pain, to shoot, to hurt others, and that being a small girl from Abnegation makes her a target so she needs to be tougher than everyone else. She does make friends, but she also makes enemies... and she catches the eye of Four, trainer of the transfer initiates.

One thing leads to another and it turns out that Erudite is creating an army to basically wipe out Abnegation (the leaders of Chicago). Between the shooting, kissing and cliffhanger ending, there's little surprising by the end.

What dropped this from a four star to a three star was that I really felt that the violence was turned up at the expense of virtually anything else, and the romance was tossed in to humanize Four and Beatrice rather than to really move the plot along. It's as if the author was trying to out Hunger Games Hunger Games.

ARC provided by publisher.

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03 April 2011

Where She Went; Gayle Forman

Where She Went (If I Stay, #2)Where She Went by Gayle Forman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn't think If I Stay needed a sequel, but this one is just so... right.

We pick up Adam's story three years after Mia made her "choice", and things are really different: he's a major rock star, having issues with the band and not loving the lifestyle as much as he might. Mia's not even close to being a part of his life (except, of course, she's the reason the band's such a success and there's a code of silence around even the mention of her name). Then, by accident (??) Adam sees she's playing a concert at Zankel Hall and attends... The rest is almost a literary version of "Before Sunrise", or perhaps more accurately "Before Sunset".

Even though I guessed where the book would end, it didn't matter. It was just wonderful and I can imagine my re-reading this book.

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The Borrower; Rebecca Makkai

The BorrowerThe Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh, where to start? I just couldn't buy into the premise no matter how much I really tried. When you have a book that essentially a two-hander, you need to like both characters - Lucy just irritated me too much for that to happen. Which is too bad because the book parodies and games are charming.

Lucy is the head children's librarian at a small public library in Missouri, reporting to an alcoholic director, living over a small theatre, and no real direction in life. One of the children that comes into her space is Ian, a voracious reader. Unfortunately, Ian's family is some flavor of evangelical and his mother comes down to the children's area demanding that he not be allowed to borrow books that didn't have "the breath of God" in them (the paranormal, for example, including classics like Tuck Everlasting). Ian rebels by hiding the books he's borrowing, and Lucy abets by checking them out under her own name.

Lucy and her friends Sophie and Rocky suspect that Ian is gay, and when Lucy learns that Ian is being sent to a sexual rehabilitation camp, she's eager to do something to help him escape what she now feels is a horrible, abusive home. One day her chance arrives: Ian's run away, much like Claudia and Jamie do, only he's hidden in the library instead of the Met. For reasons that elude Lucy (and the reader) she decides to "take him home", a trip that ends up in Vermont, near the Candaian border. She also lies about her whereabouts, who Ian is, and where she's going/what she's doing.

There's much here to delight ("If You Give a Librarian a Closet", for example), but Lucy's motivations bothered me, as did her demeanor. I'm not going to get into the argument over her even being a librarian (she doesn't have her MLS, nor is she in library school) or her feeling that the First Amendment trumps all (even the Second Amendment). It was more her certitude that she was saving Ian - who clearly wanted an adventure but seemed to not see that he needed "saving", per se - and her clumsy handling of how to save him, in addition to her eagerness to believe in the power of story to the extend that (I think) she buys into the "kidnapping" because it's just another story. I'm sure I'll be alone in this, which is fine.

ARC provided by publisher.

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