30 June 2011

The Last Martin; Jonathan Friesen

The Last MartinThe Last Martin by Jonathan Friesen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Martin Boyle has a problem. Actually, he has two. The first he can do something about: his overly protective mother, who insists he wear a portable airbag on the school bus, who sprays antibacterial lotion on everything, and who has the well-deserved nickname "The Barn Owl". His other problem is that there's a family tradition/curse, wherein there can only be one Martin Boyle - when a new one is born, the old one dies. His aunt is pregnant with yet another Martin Boyle, limiting the current Martin's lifespan.

Martin's father is a historical reenactor, living in the 1800s in a fort a few hours away from their home. The first Martin, the cursed one, helped save the fort when it was first built, and the current Martin is convinced that somehow he can, with his father's help. Along the way he makes friends with Julia and Poole, learns to fun hurdles, stops his overly protective mother from continuing to send him to Dr. Death, and becomes a normal teenage boy.

Middle grade boys will really enjoy this book, particularly as they move from being a boy to being a teen.

ARC provided by publisher.

29 June 2011

Alison Wonderland; Helen Smith

Alison WonderlandAlison Wonderland by Helen Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With a title like "Alison Wonderland" and jacket copy that says that the title character works for Fitzgerald's Bureau of Investigation (FBI, get it?) I was really hoping for something quirky - sort of Jasper Fforde-esque. Not so much.

Alison is in her 20s, somewhat adrift (she has a casual sex partner she finds "convenient", her neighbor writes her poems) when she gets a request from another 20-something, Taron. Taron wants Alison's help finding an abandoned baby to give to her (Taron's) mother to be raised as a witch. Their search is intertwined with Alison's work assignment to get some information on a company genetically modifying vegetables and animals (there's a cute sounding shig - a sheep/pig cross).

The parts could have added up to something interesting, but that never really happens. The drugs Alison and Taron take, the psychic aspects to Clive, the shig, and Phoebe's appearance don't fit together as well as they might. This might be because this is a self-published book, but the conceit of the book is never quite realized.

ARC provided by publisher.

28 June 2011

The Sabbath World; Judith Shulevitz

The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of TimeThe Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book had been mentioned a while ago, and I'd flipped through it at a bookstore, but I hadn't thought of reading it until I learned that the author would be speaking at RUSA's annual Literary Tastes Breakfast. She was funnier in person than the book suggests.

The Sabbath World is a rather dry look at the history of the Sabbath and how we react to the idea today. Ranging from the post-exile Jews to today's (mostly lapsed) blue laws, and from Talmudic discussion to Sabbatarian thought, we learn how this "fenced off time" united a people and even won the approval of the Supreme Court. What's missing is how current faiths celebrate the day, or perhaps it's more accurate to say how current faiths recommend celebrating the day.

Copy provided by publisher.

27 June 2011

The Lantern; Deborah Lawrenson

The LanternThe Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was another book highly recommended by a friend (as in, "what ever you do, Get.This.ARC. at ALA"). And was she ever right! Usually I'm not the biggest fan of books with tons of description (my brain doesn't quite work that way, and I tend to get lost) but here it really worked.

This is two stories intertwined. The first is a Rebecca-esque tale of a younger (unnamed) woman with little family who meets an older man and falls in love. Of course there's no time spent exploring each other's pasts, it's full-on heady romance. They travel, and buy a rather run-down house (actually, a hamlet) in Provence. There, eerie things start to happen and Dom's reluctance to talk about his past (which is clearly torturing him) begins to prey on our heroine.

The second story is told by Benedicte Lincel, the only remaining member of the Lincel family (who'd owned the house for centuries before our lovers purchase it). Again, eerie things are happening: she's being haunted by the ghost, and memories, of her rather deranged brother Pierre and her blind sister Marthe. Marthe, though blind, becomes a master perfumiere - an amazing "nose" - and is is through her tutelage that Benedicte becomes aware of the scents and colors of their surroundings.

Of course the two narratives tie in (no spoilers on how or why) in a way that harkens back to the best in Gothic romance. This is more than Rebecca (or Jane Eyre), this is truly different, and not just because the landscape and the aromas play such an indelible part.

ARC provided by publisher.

26 June 2011

A Trick of the Light; Louise Penny

A Trick of the Light: A Chief Inspector Gamache NovelA Trick of the Light: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Inspector Gamache series just gets better and better!

In the past few books, the author has been doing more of the longer character arcs than in previous ones (sort of the way Elizabeth George has been doing with her Inspector Lynley/Barbara Havers series). Still, you can pick up any one of the books and not feel as though you *had* to read previous ones to understand what's going on.

We're still dealing with the aftermath of the factory raid, and Gamache's unfortunate arrest of Olivier, but this time it's Clara who is the focus of the mystery. Her art is finally gathering the reviews and attention it deserves, which somehow leads to a murder in her garden. The usual cast of characters appears, and I've said this before: they may be quirky but they're better than the out-and-out kooks in the Martha Grimes books!

Mixing the ideas of Alcoholics Anonymous (including the "amends" step) and art somehow works here. I'll end with just one quote (from Jean Guy) "But this little village produced bodies and gourmet meals in equal proportion."

ARC provided by publisher

20 June 2011

The Lost Cyclist; David Herlihy

The Lost Cyclist:  The epic tale of an American adventurer and his mysterious disappearanceThe Lost Cyclist: The epic tale of an American adventurer and his mysterious disappearance by David V. Herlihy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book had potential to be a 4 or even 5 star book, but the author made some unfortunate odd choices that lowered the final rating.

Set in the later 1800s, this is the story of the early days of cycling. Our hero, Lenz, starts on one of those odd-looking (to us) big wheels, slowly moving to the "safety" (what we think of as the normal bike). We learn a lot about those early bikes, and it's really quite impressive how the early riders raced and took long trips over not-well-paved roads. The development of biking and cycling clubs is also covered and readers can see how the strength and stamina of those riders surprised and impressed non-riders.

We then move to the "globe-girdling" rides - and this is where the book lost me. Rather than gloss over the previous girdling riders and concentrate on Lenz' adventures in America and Asia, the author alternates chapters of the Allen/Sachtelben ride and Lenz' ride. Why spend so much time on another circumnavigation when the focus of the book is supposed to be Frank Lenz? The decision to speed through Lenz' ride in India and Persia, and go rather quickly through Burma, is also strange.

After Lenz disappears, the book's focus sharpens. The battles between Sachtelben and the American consul, the Turkish officials and the locals over whodunnit are interesting to follow, but more could have been done about why the tensions between the Kurds/Turks and Armenians existed (there is a gloss of "religious tensions" between Muslims and Christians, but additional explanation would have been good). The description of the Armenian massacre will ensure that many Turkish readers will be upset (if they read it at all).

Another, more minor issue was the author's translating some of the place names and not others. Peking, for example, is never Beijing, but other cities in China are given both the name they were known by then and the name we currently use (the same for Persia/Iran).

17 June 2011

Secrets at Sea; Richard Peck

Secrets at SeaSecrets at Sea by Richard Peck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was such a cute book - a little like The Borrowers, but with definite overtones of the Miss Bianca books and Thornton Burgess.

We start in America, with a Very Old Family of mice who have adapted to, and adopted, humans. The current members of the family, the Cranstons, are named after the British Royal Family (except Lamont, of course, but he's a boy). Helena, the eldest, is trying to maintain some semblance of dignity and control over her younger siblings (Louisa, Beatrice and the aforementioned Lamont) when the news comes that the human, Olive, Must Be Given Her Chance - in other words, making her debut in London in hope of attracting a husband. This means travel... over water... something that doesn't do well with mice.

However, in an attempt to help Olive along, the mice-Cranstons stow aboard and are swept up in shipboard life. There's adventure, romance, incredible feasts and Lamont's new career working with one of the ship's mouse stewards. Of course, as with any good animal book, all ends very happily ever after. And young middle grade readers will love it.

ARC provided by publisher.

16 June 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making; Catherynne Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1)The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Girl Who... combines the best of fairy tales and The Phantom Tollbooth, starting a series that I think middle grade readers will truly enjoy. There's wit, adventure, and just enough "ooh, that reminds me of ___" to keep readers from feeling as though this is something they've already read (a problem I'm finding in many newer books).

September (that's The Girl's name) is, like Milo, bored. Instead of finding a game, she finds a Wind who whisks her off of the back of a Leopard to Fairyland. Of course, there's a Quest and Rules, and interesting characters for September to meet: a Wyverary, a Pooka, a Golem made of soap, and a Marid, among others. She travels from Omaha to Westerly, to Pandemonium, and from there to Autumn Provinces and the the Worsted Wood and on to the Perverse and Perilous Sea before she reaches the Lonely Gaol. Oh, and did I mention the magic Key?

Are there lessons learned? Of course. Her naivete leads her to eat witch's food, golem's food and other non-fairy creatures' food without realizing that it's all Fairy Food and thus she invokes the Persephone Clause. She chooses to save her friends, to give up her shadow and generally proves that she is a good person, despite being a Ravished.

September has gone through the looking glass and the wardrobe, into an Ozian world filled with friends and interesting challenges (and enemies).

ARC provided by publisher.

13 June 2011

The Apothecary; Maile Meloy

The ApothecaryThe Apothecary by Maile Meloy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can't tell if this will be the start of a series or not - the ending is wonderfully ambiguous (a good thing, I promise). This is the type of young-end YA book that blends adventure, magic and humor into a book that readers will enjoy and hope for more.

We start in LA, where Janie gets the feeling she's being followed. She is, but not because of anything she's done: her parents are outspoken dissenters about HUAC, forcing the family to leave the US for London. This part of the book glosses over the whole blacklist era, which may confuse those that know nothing about it. Once in London, the "real" book starts.

Janie is sent to a "traditional" school, with Latin and uniforms and posh girls, none of which Janie is prepared for. At the local Apothecary, she is given some pills for homesickness - and finds that his son, Benjamin, is crush-worthy. Benjamin (called "Figment" by her pun-loving parents) and Janie start to stalk/spy on the Russian father of a classmate, which leads them back to the shop just in time for strange men to invade and take Benjamin's father.

From there the book starts to explore various forms of magic (there's an avian exlir, tea that makes you tell the truth, an invisibility bath) and adventure (breaking out of jail, hiding out and stowing away on a boat heading to Nova Zembla). Harking back to the opening, the main thrust is the horrors of the nuclear race and ways in which to contain a bomb blast, yet it's all cloaked in this magic and the protection of the Apothecary's Pharmacopoeia. Because of this, I'm not sure readers will get what seems to be the underlying message about the Cold War. The bigger question is, does it matter?

ARC provided by publisher.

10 June 2011

Gentlemen of the Road; Michael Chabon

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of AdventureGentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure by Michael Chabon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chabon seems to be equally adept at any genre - historical adventure fiction included. I admit to not knowing much about the 900s, much less that time in the borders of Russia. Who knew that there was a Khazar empire? Well, now I know and I'm inspired to learn more.

The book itself is a little confusing at times, as you slowly learn more about the two gentlemen (one Frank from Regensburg and the other an Abyssinian - how did they meet up and join forces?!), their "mission" and lives. When they take on the guardianship/protectorship of Filaq, the son of the former bek of Atil, their nomadic style becomes more complicated and filled with deception and fighting. Ultimately they manage to right the wrongs done to Filaq and restore the kingdom to its rightful heir and path. Along the way we meet warriors, whores, merchants and an elephant.

One enchanting feature was the illustrations, with Zelikman looking like Puddleglum (and sounding like him, too).

07 June 2011

The Upright Piano Player: David Abbott

The Upright Piano PlayerThe Upright Piano Player by David Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story was a bit misleading: we open with a grandfather's mourning the death of his grandson (a death that was, in a tragic tangential way, his fault) in 2004. We then flash back to 1999, where we meet Henry at his retirement - not quite at a time of his choosing, but not quite unwelcome.

Over the next year we see Henry's quiet life become disrupted. An "upright" guy, one who doesn't want to share his personal life with the public, his marriage disintegrates because not only does his wife has an affair with a film star, she does it publicly. Post-marriage, post-retirement, his life revolves around breakfast at a brasserie near his home, a few errands, reading, etc. until he is head-butted on Millennium Eve. That one act seems to cause his life to unravel somewhat: the head-butt-er starts to stalk and harass him, his ex-wife reaches out when she is in the last stages of cancer, and he learns from his long-estranged son that he has a grandson.

Woven in and around this are brief glimpses into the other people in Henry's life. We meet his son, Tom; Colin, the head-butt-er and his girlfriend, Eileen; Maude, a former intern at his company and potential casual partner; Jack, his ex-wife's friend and Nessa, his ex-wife; and a few others. These sideways glances into the people in Henry's world are sometimes on point, and sometimes just a meander into another's life.

The pacing and precise word choice are appealing, but these occasional sidetracks, along with the lack of connection to the prologue, moved this from a five to a four.

Copy provided by publisher.

05 June 2011

Faithful; Davitt Sigerson

FaithfulFaithful by Davitt Sigerson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Sigh. I always feel that a DNF book is somehow a failure of mine - I should have been able to force myself to like this, I should have found the characters more sympathetic, etc.. Sadly, I got 50-ish pages in and just didn't care about Nick, Trish, their marriage, Trish's issues with faithfulness and love, their friends and former lovers or anything related to this book.\

Angel; James Patterson

Angel (Maximum Ride, #7)Angel by James Patterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hadn't read any of the Maximum Ride series, but having read this I'm hoping to find the time to go back and remedy that. One of the things I like is that the backstory/explication is done so lightly I just slipped into the story.

Here Max and Fang are separated, and Fang's forming his own flock (albeit one without anyone else that can fly). Max is recovering from their break-up when she (and the flock) learn that Gen 77 (the 77th generation of mutant beings) needs her and Dylan (her 'true love', genetically programmed to imprint on her) to lead them into... something. Then there's this group, the Doomsday Group, brainwashing non-mutants into believing in the One Light (and chanting the nifty motto "Save the planet! Kill the humans!").

Of course, by the end of the book, Fang and Max have managed to work out some peace... the Group is still operating... Angel (one of Max's flock) is missing... and the cliffs are hanging all over the place.

Legend; Marie Lu

Legend (Legend, #1)Legend by Marie Lu

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Part of me really wanted to give this a four-star review, but as much as I liked Day and June, the plot just seemed like such a mash-up of Divergent and Incarceron that I just couldn't. That said, I can see this being a huge hit with readers come November (when it's published).

This time we're in a dystopian/post-some type of apocalypse Los Angeles. Day is a rebel of sorts - not allied to the Patriots, just causing trouble all on his own. He's paired up with Tess, another loser/outcast, trying not to get caught and to keep watch on his family (who think he's dead). When they get infected with the recent plague, he desperately tries to get the cure vaccine to help them. June, on the other hand, is a pampered member of the elite, the only perfect score on the Trial. When her brother dies she's immediately graduated from her college training and made a part of the cadre hunting her brother's killer. Of course June and Day cross paths, and of course they have an effect on each other... to say more would be a huge spoiler. However, the usual tropes of this genre are there: government misleading the population about their history and what's "out there", manipulation of testing and lives, and star-crossed lovers.

ARC provided by publisher.

Carney's House Party/Winona's Pony Cart; Maud Hart Lovelace

Carney's House Party/Winona's Pony Cart: Deep Valley Books (P.S.)Carney's House Party/Winona's Pony Cart: Deep Valley Books by Maud Hart Lovelace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a bit weird to read - the Carney part takes place when the characters are all in college, while the Winona part takes place years earlier. In each, Betsy Root makes an appearance (in Winona, Tacy and Tib also appear), but these aren't part of the Betsy-Tacy canon.

Readers will enjoy this look at early-1900s Vassar and Minnesota - it's not "historical fiction" because the author lived through those times, and it reads as an unforced look back. The customs, costumes, traditions and different pace are all appealing at a 100-year remove. While reading about the house party (a long sleepover) and all the outings, parties and fun the Crowd has, I wondered about this modern generation, where cyberfriendships and computer time often take the place of group fun.

02 June 2011

Emily of Deep Valley; Maud Hart Lovelace

Emily of Deep Valley: A Deep Valley BookEmily of Deep Valley: A Deep Valley Book by Maud Hart Lovelace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved the Betsy-Tacey books when I was younger, and was thrilled to learn that there were more books by Maud Hart Lovelace. Emily doesn't disappoint: the old-fashioned tone of the book perfectly depicts the life of early 20th century Midwesterners.

Compared to today's girls, Emily will seem mild and rather passive; by the standards of 1912, she's quite a go-getter. Her decisions regarding getting ahead with her life rather than moping because she doesn't have the educational opportunities her Crowd does are rather modern for her day - and yes, she does mimic her heroine Jane Addams in some ways. The feelings she has for Don, and her pique over Jim's ignoring her, definitely resonate today, particularly as she grows over the course of 1912-13. It's also nice to have the "old" Crowd of Betsy-Tacey (and Tib!) make appearances.

If you haven't read the Betsy-Tacey books, do so; if you have, you must read this next!