27 February 2011

The Friendship Doll; Kirby Larson

The Friendship DollThe Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An imagined story about real dolls, this has all the tropes we look for in stories about dolls: they want to be real, the children they really respond to are those who are really needy (emotionally, economically, etc.) and things never follow a smooth path.

Told in several installments, Miss Kanagawa's "life" intersects with several children - Bunny, who meets her just as the Friendship Dolls are arriving in America from Japan, Lois, viewing her during the start of the Great Depression, Willa Mae, from the hollers, and Lucy, an Okie relocated to Oregon with her father. Each child finds themselves somehow mysteriously influenced by Miss Kanagawa.

Unfortunately, the stories feel too pat, with the outcome of each relatively predictable. And of course a doll wanting to be real (and discovering her "heart") will be very familiar to readers. Still, this might spark a lot of interest in the Friendship Dolls, their mission and their fate.

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Jasper Jones; Craig Silvey

Jasper JonesJasper Jones by Craig Silvey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in Australia during the Vietnam War, this story of three relatively lost boys, and a lost girl, isn't quite like anything I've read before, although I've read (and seen) bits elsewhere.

Laura Wishart's body is found hanging from a tree - whodunnit? and why? Jasper Jones, a "half-caste" outcast knows he'll be blamed, so he asks Charlie Bucktin to help him both hide her body and figure out who did it. What's unclear is why Charlie, as he and Jasper are not friends.

Charlie is friends, however, with Jeffrey Lu, a Vietnamese boy who is a brilliant cricket player but never gets the chance to play because of his race. Charlie and Jeffrey have interesting conversations filled with hypothetical situations (would you rather wear the same underwear every day of your life or bite the head off a frog once a week?) that occasionally get boring. The superhero discussion, though, is worth reading and re-reading.

Charlie is also interested in Eliza, Laura's sister. It becomes clear that Eliza is interested right back... and that she knows something about Laura's vanishing.

Slowly, the mystery unravels, as does the town - the tension surrounding Laura's disappearance and the Vietnam War touch of tensions. Marriages implode, friendships are tested, and of course unexpected truths are revealed.

What gives me pause about this book is the constant teasing Charlie and Jeffrey about being a pansy or queer, etc. while real is simply contrary to anything we teach our students about being accepting and not using hurtful language.

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A Tale of Two Castles; Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two CastlesA Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this, but it's no Ella Enchanted. Lodie (sorry, Elodie) is from a poor family on the island of Lahnt - so poor that they don't have money for her to purchase an apprenticeship. They scrape together enough to buy her passage to Two Castles, the capital city. There, Elodie will try for a free apprenticeship, a 10-year stint, as a mansioner (what this society calls a traveling actor). During the journey, she meets Goodwife Celeste, who appears to take an interest in her well-being. On land, she meets Master Theil, a cat trainer (if only those really existed!) and Dess, who heals animals.

It turns out that free apprenticeships have been banned, so Lodie tries to get a 15-year one... to no avail. Somehow, however, she's been taken under the wing - literally - of Mastress Meenore, a dragon. IT offers her a place to stay and the role of assistant. One of the Mastresses clients is His Lordship, Count Jonty Um, an ogre, who is missing his faithful dog. Sent to help find the dog, Lodie finds her way around his castle; on her first night, she meets Princess Renn, the ogre's financee.

The rest of the story includes poisoning, faithful and faithless friends, shape-shifting, changing public opinion, and lots of toasted bread and cheese on skewers. Whodunnit isn't as important as why, and I was a little disappointed in the outcome of that plot. Still, fans of Ms. Levine will forgive that.

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Family; Micol Ostow

FamilyFamily by Micol Ostow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Novels in verse are a difficult sell to my students (and me), mostly because the narrative can sometimes be lost in the attempt to create the poetry. In Family, there's some of that, but in a way it works - Mel is "broken", and sometimes on drugs, so the swirl of images could be reflecting that.

If the reader isn't aware of the Manson Family, the murders or the backstory, this might be even more confusing. Mel is a runaway who meets Henry (the Manson stand-in), immediately recognizing Him as Someone without limits, with incredible power and infinite love. He takes her to a ranch where she meets His family - "dirty hippies" who scavange for food, share clothes and bodies and babies. The men eat before the women, and only Henry lives in relative comfort (as is His due).

Shelly is Mel's sistertwin, and one day she confides that she's pregnant (the father could be Henry, junior or any other of the men in the family). She and Mel keep the secret until one day when Shelly miscarries (although that part isn't quite clear; it could be an induced abortion). At this point, there's something going on and Henry has been dissed by the Man, helter skelter needs to rain down so that He can bring His message/music to the people.

The last part is the least coherent, as Mel is drugged during the murders. It's also unclear what happens at the very end, and I think that the reader is supposed to come to their own understanding. Again, it somewhat works but I'm not sure that all readers will get to the end: I suspect that only those who really love poetry will struggle through (between the flashbacks, drug-induced imagery, Mel's confused state and the subject matter, this is a difficult read).

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25 February 2011

Haunting Violet; Alyxandra Harvey

Haunting VioletHaunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since Harvey's Drake Chronicles is one of the better recent vampire series, I was interested to see how she did in another genre. This is still within the paranormal continuum, but it's historical fiction and Spiritualism, not modern vampires. And it's not bad.

Violet's mother is a Spiritualist, holding seances and "reuniting" the living and the dead. Of course it's all a hoax and the tricks she uses are described with some loathing by Violet (but if you've ever wondered, it's interesting to learn how the "show" happened). They, along with Colin (the 'houseboy') and Marjorie (the 'maid') are invited to Lord Jasper's estate for a ball and reading, which is an opportunity for Violet to meet a potential mate (of course, he and his family can't be too picky about her background) and for mother to find future patrons.

Things are going well until Violet realizes that she can see ghosts. Worse, the ghost that keeps popping up the most is the recently dead twin sister of Tabitha, who lives on the estate next door. Rowena drowned, we're told, but Violet learns that she was actually murdered. Of course, being one of those far-from-retiring girls, Violet decides to solve the mystery of who murdered Rowena.

The book combines the seance/spiritualism and mystery solving with relative ease. There's some romance, and of course Violet's mother isn't happy that Violet actually can see and communicate with the departed. I didn't always believe the dialog, as it seemed a little too modern (I base that on my readings of Dickins and other real Victorian writers). But that's a minor quibble. I'd even be interested to see this as a mystery series!

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22 February 2011

Midnight in Madrid; Noel Hynd

Midnight in Madrid (The Russian Trilogy, Book 2)Midnight in Madrid by Noel Hynd
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've read a number of spy-suspense novels, including Le Carre, and I was interested to see how the genre evolves in our post-Cold War era. Sadly, this wasn't really the best example: the writing wasn't tight enough, with too much exposition-as-filler and too much repetition (i.e., in a four sentence paragraph about music, the word "some" was used five times). And then there's the walk-on character whose name changed from Leila to Celia and back.

The plot revolves around an art theft that possibly will finance an terrorist plot, blended with some "continuing my mentor's journey" revenge. There's quite a bit on the difficulties of solving these thefts (a little too much), on small terrorist cells operating virtually on their own, the culture of Madrid (including the late dinners and even later evenings) and antiquities that include underground tunnels possibly used during the Civil War (which side is a little unclear, but it was probably both). As for the suspense, it's there, but the general mood is lessened because of the avalanche of background filler.

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18 February 2011

The Iron Queen; Julie Kagawa

The Iron Queen (Iron Fey, #3)The Iron Queen by Julie Kagawa
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not having read the first two books, I found it relatively easy to pick up the narrative threads in the third Iron Fey book. The problem was that those threads were all too familiar.

A Seelie and Unseelie Court, a Winter Prince, a main character named Ash - sound familiar? Of course Oberon, Titania, Mab and Puck/Robin Goodfellow predate all the paranormal romance books, so I'll give that a pass. And then there was DobbyRazor...

Reading this, I felt sorry for Meghan. Her stomach and hands were continually clenching, her heart seemed to pound or stop, and her eyes narrowed far too often. In other words, the poor girl never had a calm or what felt like a real moment throughout the book: everything was heightened and suspense-filled. It seems to me that if the action doesn't convey that in and of itself, using those words regarding characters reactions to the action should be sparing, as otherwise it just becomes one nervous tic on their parts. Not every conversation needs to be Very Important.

Overall impression is that this series is great for those who absolutely must have yet another paranormal romance, but for people looking for something new in that vein it's not necessary.

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16 February 2011

Seeds; Richard Horan

Seeds: One Man's Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton (P.S.)Seeds: One Man's Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton by Richard Horan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book, but the author's voice kept getting in the way. Rather than focus on the writers and their homes and surroundings, the focus is on him collecting seeds. At times, the voice is too self-satisfied when a more distant tone was more called for (the Walden Pond episode, for example).

Early on he says that "no trespassing" signs won't stop him, yet later they do; we also get quite a lot on how he responded to the work of Robert Frost, but his personal response to Krishnamurti is not there (we do get quite a bit about his response to Krishnamurti's house and the docent there).

I'm also hoping that his publisher has explored the legalities of his taking seeds from Mount Vernon after it was made clear to him that this was not permitted. And then there's the question of moving seeds from one state to another (if I can't bring firewood from my parent's house 200 miles away, how can he bring seeds - including invasive species - thousands of miles?).

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15 February 2011

Before I Go to Sleep; S.J. Watson

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Few books tempt me to stay up past my bedtime reading - this one did. Why? The pacing of the plot, mostly.

We start one morning, as Christine wakes up. She's in an unfamiliar room, an unfamiliar bed, and there's an unfamiliar man lying next to her. Worse, he's old. Worse still, he's married. She finds the bathroom and realizes she's old, too. And she has no memory of what came before.

This is how every morning starts: no memory of who or where she is, how she got there, or what is to come. Her husband, Ben, fills her in - there was a bad car accident, and she lost her memory then. It's been nearly 20 years.

After Ben leaves for work, she gets a phone call, from a Doctor. Ben doesn't know about their meetings, but they've been working on regaining her memory. She's written a journal and started to recover some memories. Here's the problem: Ben's been lying to her.

The questions of why, and what's happened to the intervening 20-odd years, as well as her son Adam's death and her BFF Claire are all eventually answered. While I suspected some of the answer, much of it was a surprise and I do like to be surprised when I read. If you didn't (or don't) like movies and books like "Momento", however, this isn't really the book for you.

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13 February 2011

The Sandalwood Tree; Elle Newmark

The Sandalwood Tree: A NovelThe Sandalwood Tree: A Novel by Elle Newmark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this, I kept thinking it could have been named Fried Green Chilis at the Hill Station Cafe because of the overwhelming similarities to Fannie Flagg's novel, but luckily it's also more than just that. Yes, there's an unconventional female couple and yes, there's a marriage in trouble, but the interweaving of those two stories with the Sepoy Rebellion and Partition elevate it beyond a simple Indian-flavored version.

The story of Adela and Felicity is the one I wished we'd heard more of, mostly because the world of Raj India is one that interests me (and the differences between that world and Victorian England could have been played up more; I'd never heard of the Fishing Fleet before!). Their lives both in England and India were supposedly so scandalous, yet to our modern eyes they appear normal. The marriage of Evie and Martin is also different for their time - interfaith marriages weren't common in the 1930s.

Martin's Fullbright comes at an interesting time in India's history, Partition. The violence doesn't come to Simla and Masoorla, but there are still religious tensions, not to mention caste tensions. The personal demons tormenting him since the War haven't left, nearly destroying his marriage to Evie. Of course, he goes native to some extent, but by the end, he's realized that "all they have are their stories" and he returns to Western culture and Evie, Billy and vows to try to move past them.

Predictable? To some extent yes. Also, some of the phrasing seems too modern for a book set in either 1860s or 1940s India. Yet as historical fiction goes, this is a good entree into Indian history.

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The Tender Mercies of Roses; Anna Michaels

The Tender Mercy of RosesThe Tender Mercy of Roses by Anna Michaels
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I shouldn't really mark this as "read" because it was a DNF. Mysteries are my preferred genre, like comfort food, and this one had such promise but the florid (is there a word for overly florid?) prose just did me in. Each paragraph had at least one analogy or purple passage in it - "Was it possible the tragedy collecting on her like green scum on dead water wasn't her fault?" is just one example.

If you like that kind of writing along with your mystery, go for it. I'll pass.

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Small Town Sinners; Melissa C. Walker

Small Town SinnersSmall Town Sinners by Melissa C. Walker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Very well written, and makes an important point, but completely predictable. Lacey's grown up within an evangelical church community in a small, Southern town. Her father is the children's pastor and her friends are all church members. At the start of her junior year, a mysterious boy, Ty, arrives at the school - he seems to know things about her and he's really cute; turns out, he's Tyson, who left after Kindergarden and thus remembers her from before.

Lacey's feelings are a little confused, and her confusion spreads to include her feelings about church and God. Ty is one of the chief instigators, but events in her life also conspire to start the process. One of her main goals this year is to be cast as Abortion Girl in the church's Hell House production - she loses out to Tessa, the older sister of her best friend Stacy Jo. Then Tessa gets pregnant, and Lacey has to take over. Lacey's parents start to suggest that perhaps this isn't the best friendship, and she questions both why they feel that way and why the church's response seems to be mostly in the area of casseroles, not emotional support.

That's only one example of how her parents lay down the law, expecting unquestioning obedience, but it runs counter what Lacey thinks might (or should) be the Christian response. Yet her relationship with her father is initially portrayed as one in which she is able to talk to him - why he morphs into an uncommunicative, my-way-only parent isn't quite clear. It also seemed as though there were too many moments and events that led to Lacey's questioning, and they weren't small things either. Why there was the need to include so many Big Thing is unclear - smaller things might have resonated more.

I also wonder what the audience for this. My guess is that those that might benefit - those needing support in their questioning, who need to know it's ok to ask and not blindly follow - will not readily find this book on their library or bookstore shelves. It will be good for anyone who has been there, as it will support their questioning, and it can also serve as a way for those in more liberal environments to start to understand what those like Lacey's upbringing was like.

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09 February 2011

The Returning; Christine Hinwood

The ReturningThe Returning by Christine Hinwood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It took nearly half the book for me to figure out what direction the author was taking: was it a book about class? about returning from war? about life in the vaguely Middle Ages? about love (both heterosexual and implied homosexual)? about culture clashes? That it took that long doesn't usually bode well for the ending. There were too many characters introduced, with chapters all from their different points of view - this added to the confusion. A couple of the characters at first appeared important, but then virtually disappeared later on.

Set in a mash-up of Japan and Scandinavia, The Returning takes place shortly after a war in which the Uplanders defeated the Downlanders. Cam returns to his village, the only one from there that does return - so of course there's that tension (why him? why only him? what happened to the others?). We meet his sister, Pin, along with his family, his soon-to-be-ex-fiancee, his boyhood friend and others. We also meet his new Lord, Ryuu, and his son Gyaar, who for some reason saved Cam's life and offered him a position within his household. See what I mean by confusing?

Ultimately the strands intertwine, but by then I was reading only to see if they would, not because I was really invested in the story.

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06 February 2011

The Death Catchers; Jennifer Ann Kogler

The Death CatchersThe Death Catchers by Jennifer Anne Kogler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Please please please let this not be the start of a series - it's so enjoyable just the way it is! Whoda thunk that using all those terms one learns in English class (trope, allegory, metaphor, aphorism, etc.) could be strung together to make for an interesting Arthurian story? Sometimes it's a slightly strained use of the term, and sometimes the chapter veers a little further from the description than it should, but more often the device succeeds than fails.

In short, on her 14th Hallowe'en, Lizzie discovers that she's a "Hand of Fate" with the ability to see - and possibly prevent - the deaths of those she cares about. Luckily for Lizzie, her grandmother is also a Hand and has much advice to pass along. Then there's also the question of Agatha, Morgan and Vivienne, three of the Seven Sisters of Avalon... and the Last Descendant of Arthur. Not to mention her BFF Jodi and her crush (ok, everyone's crush) Drake. The story unfolds as a letter written to Mrs. Tweedy, Lizzie's English teacher, explaining why Lizzie should be allowed to pass English. The terms are all part of Lizzie's defense, illustrating her adventures as she starts her career as a Hand (redubbed Death Catcher) and tries to save Drake from his Fate.

Confusing? It all makes sense by the end (and if the epilogue isn't intended to send up the ones at the end of Harry Potter and Mockingjay, I'll be surprised). Oh, and then there's Mom, a librarian after my own heart.

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Imaginary Girls: Nova Ren Suma

Imaginary GirlsImaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was tempted to give this a 3, but the fact that I know the town in which this book takes place quite well (it's Woodstock NY) and the author seriously changed some of the places (Olive, which does/did exist, is on the other side of the Ashokan Reservoir, not part of Woodstock), which really bothered me. Arbitrary? Definitely. But that's what all ratings are.

As for the story, Ruby's power over the town and the people in it seemed extreme. At first I thought that this was how Chloe saw her older sister: able to get what she wanted (like the lipstick that no one else was allowed to wear) and do what she wanted (for example, always being late to work). Then I started to wonder, but I think my first impression was correct. Chloe's hurt over the way Ruby turns to London in Chloe's absence, for example, or the way that others manage to talk about Ruby when she's not there point to it all being Chloe's vision. And as they get older, Chloe becomes more of her own person - with secrets (like Owen) and the ability to question Ruby's decisions.

There's supposed to be a creep factor here, with What Really Happened to London as the central element. Chloe's cell phone is, I suppose, the second Big Clue (although it's really not clear what happened with the phone). And, of course, the ending is open to interpretation. However, it wasn't really creepy in the way that I think the author wanted it to be, it was just sad.

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The Preacher; Camilla Lackberg

The Preacher (Patrik Hedstrom, #2)The Preacher by Camilla Läckberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not having read Steig Larsson's trilogy, I don't know if this will appeal to his readers but friends of mine have told me how violent those books are, and this one isn't. It's definitely a dark procedural, like those of Stephen Booth or Carol O'Connell - right up my alley!

The intertwining of the viewpoints, including that of one of the original murdered girls in 1979, might confuse some, but it adds to the tension, as the voice switches just as you start to get into that story. Slowly you learn what happened to split the Hult family apart, why Mellberg's personality seems to have changed, how Patrik and Erica's marriage is progressing, and how the members of the Tanumshede police department work (or don't quite work) together. And then there are the questions that need to be answered: is there a serial killer on the loose? How is this killer able to copy exactly the murders of two girls in 1979? Why now?

Unfortunately I've read too many mysteries and watched too many episodes of "Law & Order" (all varieties)/"Criminal Intent"/"Bones" and the like to not guess The Twist. As a matter of fact, I think it was a L&O:CI twist a few years ago. However, that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the mystery! And Ms. Lackberg's books are now on my To Buy list.

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04 February 2011

Flip; Martyn Bedford

FlipFlip by Martyn Bedford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The other "body switch" books I've read recently (Jump and Out of Sight, Out of Mind) have been Message books: the switchee has learned some Great Lesson about their life and are now somehow a changed person. Not so here.

Alex is late getting home, and when he wakes up the next morning, he's in another room... another body... another city... and it's six months later. He's suddenly a relatively popular (two girlfriends!), athletic, not-quite-the-smartest bulb, middle-class boy named Flip, a far-cry from the unpopular, asthmatic, clarinet and chess playing Londoner he was. Of course he's confused, and of course Flip's friends and family are equally confused.

He starts by calling "Mom", and is told by a work friend of hers that he's evil and should never call again. He does some research on the internet and learns that Alex is in a Persistive Vegetative State (aka a coma) and has been since - you guessed it - the night he was late getting home, when he was hit by a car. So of course he heads down to London to see his family and his body, and equally of course it ends badly.

More research, and he learns that there's a group of people on-line who have had similar psychic evacuations, where their soul has jumped into another body after their physical body has died. Problem is, Alex' body is still alive. So now his soul has to figure out a way to get back into his body and to give Flip's body his soul back.

Once you've bought the premise, the book becomes somewhat predictable. Alex/Flip's voice, confusion and actions are all very realistic, and the adults are appropriately sketchy (better than the Peanuts' disembodied mwahmwahmwah voice, but not fully-realized people). Rob/Chris is the weak link, even though he is pivotal to the plot.

Usually this sort of book is for girls, but this one will definitely appeal to boys.

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03 February 2011

Lost in Shangri-La; Mitchell Zuckoff

Lost in Shangri-la: The Epic True Story of a Plane Crash into the Stone AgeLost in Shangri-la: The Epic True Story of a Plane Crash into the Stone Age by Mitchell Zuckoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an amazing story - a plane filled with "sightseeing" servicemen and WACs crashes in what they think is a hidden valley (except it's actually one valley over), and only three people survive. One has a severe head injury and burned buttocks, one has burned feet, hands, face and legs, and the other is seemingly unharmed. They escape the crash site, hidden in the jungle, and make it to a clearing where they meet Stone Age tribesmen who don't kill them, and after a few days are found by a search plane.

Problem is, resume isn't that simple. The valley is one mile up, so helicopters won't work. It's jungle-filled, and landing a plane won't work. The survivors are injured, and the only way to hike out is 150-ish miles either through swampy jungle or through Japanese-soldier infested jungle. Again, won't work.

Based on the diaries of the survivors and memories of some of the older natives who met the strange, white people who fell from the sky, Lost in Shangri-La is an adventure story that will appeal to those that love Jon Krakauer's work. And when Bobby Brinson at HarperCollins recommends a book, read it.

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