30 September 2011

The Future of Us; Jay Asher

The Future of UsThe Future of Us by Jay Asher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The conceit here - looking at Facebook, not being happy with the future you see, and making changes now to affect then - is not that new (the addition of Facebook notwithstanding). And because the Big Grab was Facebook, I wasn't grabbed.

In 1997, Ellen and Josh were BFFs for years, but six months earlier he tried to kiss her so now things are awkward. Ellen's parents are divorced, and her father has done the "guilty parent" thing of giving her gifts to compensate for his new life by giving her a computer. Josh's parents give Ellen one of those formerly ubiquitous AOL CD-ROMs (the ones with free hours when you sign up), and when she logs in she finds a link in her "favorite sites" to something called Facebook.

Initially puzzled by what this site is, she (and Josh) quickly realize that this is somehow projecting their future, what's going on in 2012. They're married (she to someone they don't know, he to one the hottest girls in school), with children and careers. Ellen keeps making small changes and watches her Facebook future change - disgusted with her mother's attempt at tofu mac-and-cheese, she changes her adult self's comfort food from "mac-and-cheese" to "lasagna". You get the drift. Sadly, the story of Ellen and Josh's friendship in the 1997-present is not anything we haven't read before.

As someone who remembers 1997 clearly, I'm pretty sure there was more on tv than "Friends" and "Seinfeld" (there must have been, as I watched neither), and more music than Dave Matthews and Oasis. The references to things that were popular at that time will definitely help the targeted readers, but they just annoyed me.

ARC provided by publisher.

28 September 2011

The Memory Palace; Mira Bartok

The Memory PalaceThe Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went into this with some trepidation - I hadn't liked The Glass Castle as much as everyone told me I would, and here was another crazy family memoir. Perhaps it was Mira/Myra's story of trying to care for an obviously troubled mother, even after she'd moved, changed names and was using a post office box miles away.

The fact that the father left, and is never a real factor in the lives of this family, is interesting. Why weren't Myra and her sister more interested in finding him? There's one episode when he calls, asking Myra to choose to leave (at a time when she clearly couldn't just up and left immediately) and even that doesn't spark that much curiosity about the paternal side of the family.

Her accident, leaving her with brain trauma, was also of interest, as I have a friend who (nearly 20 years later) is still suffering from the same problems. Because that's only a side-story to the one she's telling, the author doesn't go into it as deeply. Perhaps next book?

ARC provided by publisher.

26 September 2011

Finding Evertt Ruess; David Roberts

Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness ExplorerFinding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer by David Roberts
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If, like me, you know nothing about Everett Ruess, here's a quick intro: Everett was 17 in 1931 when he decided to travel throughout the Southwest, he made three trips and disappeared in 1934, leaving behind several diaries, paintings, woodcuts, poems and a mystery that's lasted over 70 years.

The majority of his childhood was conventional, the exception being his family's keeping of, and reading to each other, personal diaries. Given that this was the early 1910s and 20s, the family moved as Ruess' father's job required. By the late 20s, Everett had decided that he was not cut out for college and was more interested in traveling alone. His trips to the Southwest were conducted on a shoestring budget, sometimes trading woodcuts or paintings for food. He relied on burros and the kindness of the Dine and Mormon farmers, and his parents ability to send money.

In many of the letter and diary fragments he comes across as a self-absorbed brat, not caring about his effect on the land (burning wood from hogans or taking Anasazi relics) or his parents' finances. The vision he had of the Southwest may have been unique and he may have been a budding artistic talent, but the overly portentous writing bored me. It was also difficult to continually read phrases that pre-shadowed his disappearance and the search.

Still, this is perfect for naturalists or adventure readers looking for a follow up to Jon Krakauer's works.

ARC provided by publisher.

Playground; 50 cent

PlaygroundPlayground by 50 Cent
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm pretty sure there was a ghostwriter involved, but the tone sounds like something an "internationally famous" rapper would write. And while I was expecting a fictionalized account of what "50"'s life was like it didn't appear to be that (although I admit I don't know much about his life). At times there was a slight moralizing tone, possibly because the author wanted to point out that there are other ways than his to get through childhood.

"Butterball" is a fat black kid who has been moved from the Bronx to Garden City by his mother. Because she transferred him to his new school in October, he stood out and found it difficult to make friends - except for one kid, Maurice, who was nice to him. We open with him in a psychologist's office, where he's been sentenced to go at least twice a week as a condition of not being expelled. What had he done? Beaten up his one friend, Maurice.

As the book unwinds, we slowly learn his motivation for the beating; we also see him start to grow and realize that he's got options other than being a bully. While most of the time this was realistically portrayed, there were times when you could feel the author's hand guiding the book (see "moralizing tone" above). I don't know how realistic the intended reader will find this, but it will probably go over well with middle grade boy readers.

ARC provided by publisher.

L.A. Mental; Neil McMahon

L.A. Mental: A ThrillerL.A. Mental: A Thriller by Neil McMahon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was trying to do too much: the noir overtones got in the way of the thriller aspect, which were overshadowed by the whole Parallax (a mix of quantum mechanics and Scientology) plot. At times the writing got clunky, with the desire to go noir colliding with the need to explain or move the plot forward.

Having said that, I was impressed that the author actually got the quantum mechanics part right! The idea that there are nanoparticles that you breathe in and go directly to your brain is a little off (they'll go everywhere in your system), and the idea of being able to control them from afar sounds interesting but far fetched.

Given the nature of noir-ish books, the characters were a little flat, but there again the author just misses, as he occasionally wants to give them some depth. I wish he'd made up his mind what type of book he was writing and stuck with that.

ARC provided by publisher.

25 September 2011

The Secret Daughter; Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Secret DaughterSecret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is one of those culture clash books: India vs. America, and rich India vs. poor India. Told from several different viewpoints, we get to know the characters somewhat more fully if we only had one viewpoint; the twenty-plus year span also gives the characters time to grow and change, which they do in believable ways (not always as easy as it sounds).

My biggest complaint is Asha's search for her birth parents. That she's supposedly intelligent yet somehow completely misses the "boys preferred" aspect to Indian culture (whether or not she was actually living there) surprised me. It's one of the things I was taught in my rather backwards high school Asian history course over 30 years ago. My guess is that the author used this as the device to drive her angst over who she was and where she fit in, but as an adoptee (who has known about her adoption virtually since she was born) it felt false. Far more believable would have been her wanting to explore her Indian side and getting to know her Indian family (which she does) and to leave the adoption part alone. Weaving Kavita and Jasu (and Vijay) into the story could have been done in some other way.

Copy provided by publisher.

24 September 2011

Before Ever After; Samantha Sotto

Before Ever AfterBefore Ever After by Samantha Sotto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into this expecting something far less than it was - what a wonderful surprise! This love story, intermixed with impressively personal historical fiction, is a perfect rainy fall read.

One of the problems with historical fiction is when seemingly normal, average people suddenly find themselves in the middle of Major Historical Events, interacting with Very Important People. With one exception (Adrien's story) that doesn't happen here; we get the sense of what these average lives were like without the addition of a familiar marker. I confess that I did spend some time looking up the places mentioned and would love to visit them, with or without Max as my tour guide.

The themes of love and loss, eternal life and family are touched upon beautifully, as lightly as the historical aspects are. It was truly difficult to realize that the ending was near, and that we weren't being treated to the infamous baked eggs and cheese recipe.

ARC provided by publisher.

23 September 2011

Alice Bliss; Laura Harrington

Alice BlissAlice Bliss by Laura Harrington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'll admit it - this brought a tear to my eye. Overall, I liked the book but did have a few quibbles: Ellie was too precocious (she's supposed to be in 2nd grade, not middle school), and if we get to hear Angie's voice then perhaps the character should have been fleshed out a little more.

Mostly, though, this is about Alice and her struggles to grow up as well as deal with her father's deployment to Iraq (he's in the reserves... this was never supposed to happen!). Because this is a small-ish sized town, you get the feeling that more people know what's going on than Alice lets on, although from her point-of-view she's pretty alone (excepting, of course, her family and Henry, her BFF/boy-next-door). Coping with her father's absence and trying to preserve the things he wanted done the way he wanted (the garden, for example) is difficult for her, and she takes refuge in running - a topic I wish had been explored more than the breads Mrs. Piantowski makes.

Matt's decision to join the NG resonated with me; I know someone who felt the same way ("...doing what's right, not letting someone else do what he should do: serving his country, set an example for his girls") and who, like Matt, was deployed to Iraq for a couple of years. While many of my friends may not understand his reason, I think many readers will.

Copy provided by publisher.

16 September 2011

The Rafters; A.C. Montgomery

The Rafters (Somnambulist Saga, #1)The Rafters by A.C. Montgomery
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Oh where to begin? This was a DNF - and I tried, I really tried to get into this book.

Why DNF? This is a self-published book, and the author really needed an editor. It wasn't just her delight in throwing in as many adjectives and as much description as she possibly could (to the detriment of actual plot), it was also her misuse of words. I strongly suspect that she went to an SAT Verbal prep book or a thesaurus and chose words that just missed the meaning she actually wanted to convey, and that rules of basic grammar were never covered in her schooling.

Here's an example: He tied a black cord necklace around his neck, amongst others, and finally made his exit to The Courtyard.

As for plot, well, perhaps there is one buried somewhere but it's difficult to tease out. The main characters are either always angry (shouting, grimacing, smashing things, glowing with rage, etc.) or completely clueless. The use of the word "somns" was - I thought - to separate the common folk from others, but then it turned out that was a synonym for "people" (if that's not true, the distinction is only clear in the author's mind).

ARC provided by publisher.

13 September 2011

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach; Brenda Woods

Saint Louis Armstrong BeachSaint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book about a boy named Saint Louis Armstrong Beach (Saint after his grandfather, Louis Armstrong after a friend of his grandfather) is mostly split into two time periods: before Katrina and during. There's a brief bit set after the storm, but that's more of an epilogue.

Before Katrina, Saint was trying to earn $2000 to buy a good clarinet by busking near Jackson Square. During, he tries to save his dog Shadow and ends up in an attic, from which he's rescued and sent to the Superdome (he then leaves and heads for the Jazz Shack, where his parents ultimately find him). The storm's power and horror don't play as big a role as his music and his pre-Katrina life, which may help readers understand why New Orleans was such a vital city and how devastating the storm really was.

ARC provided by publisher.

Islands End; Padma Venkatraman

Island's EndIsland's End by Padma Venkatraman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was really torn about this book. On the one hand, I enjoyed reading about this culture (representative of other cultures in the Andaman Island chain), on the other I felt that the author's purpose was too clearly evident, that Western ideas/culture were encroaching on these tribes and were Bad Bad Bad. Now, I'm not saying that I don't agree with the idea of letting these "untouched" peoples live their lives without modern day intrusions, but I thought the message could have been conveyed a little more subtly.

Because this was an ARC, I don't know if the final version will include a list or commentary about resources for those of us who know virtually nothing about the Anadamans and would like to learn more about them (and about these tribes).

ARC provided by publisher.

11 September 2011

Among the Missing; Morag Joss

Among the Missing: A NovelAmong the Missing: A Novel by Morag Joss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I probably would have rated this higher had I not felt cheated: the blurbage and Mystery Guild led me to believe this would be a dark mystery (which was what I was in the mood for) and instead I got a psych study of three people.

None of the characters was particularly interesting on their own, but they could have been had Joss delved a little deeper. The bridge collapse made me think Bridge of San Luis Rey and the Staplehurst wreck that starts off Drood, mostly because it ties the characters together as well as sets off the chain of events that leads to Silva's going just a little insane.

09 September 2011

Everybody Sees the Ants; A.S. King

Everybody Sees the AntsEverybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a great book for any boy who has been bullied and who feels as though his parents (and, ok, most others) don't quite understand him. Lucky's life has been filled with trying to avoid Nader, the school bully, and dealing with his chef father's near disappearance from his life. Complicating all this is the fact that his grandfather was declared MIA during Vietnam, something his father and paternal grandmother never quite got over.

Most readers will have seen the MIA/POW flags and stickers, but because the war ended so long ago (although I remember the marches and "War Is Not Healthy..." buttons, as well as the POW bracelets) they may not know what that means. However, that's not the main thrust of the book - the war, and his grandfather's MIA status serve as a vehicle for him to explore growing up and getting male advice.

So, what about the ants? They appear after the Big Incident, and their Greek Chorus-like appearance for the rest of the book is really quite funny. Example: Lucky is in church and he's just been semi-introduced to this perfect, gorgeous girl. The ants' comment? She's so out of your league that she's playing a completely different sport.

The problems of bullying and Lucky's family life are dealt with humorously, and I can see this appealing to both boys and girls, no matter what their situation is.

ARC provided by publisher.

06 September 2011

Drood; Dan Simmons

DroodDrood by Dan Simmons
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was one lonnng book, and the plot suffered because of it. Told by the author Wilkie Collins, this is supposed to be about Charles Dickens and the aftermath of the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash. Following the crash, this book posits that Dickens was haunted by a man/demon named Drood, and that Drood is the head of a major crime syndicate and leader of a very old Egyptian cult. Complicating all this is Collins' addiction to laudanum (and later pure opium and morphine): how much of what he's relating is real, how much is drug-induced, and how much is thanks to his being mesmerized by Dickens shortly after the crash (mesmerism/magnetism being a particular craze in England at that time).

What really lowered my opinion of the book was the focus on Collins and his doings - endless pages about his relationships with Martha and Caroline and Carrie, his writing of his books (more on how the Drood creature, mesmerism and opium influenced The Moonstone might have been nice, but the mechanics of writing were over discussed). Had the author cut those bits and concentrated on the Collins/Dickens relationship and Collins' obsession with his drugs and Drood, this would have been a tighter book. And then there was the backstory to Drood. According to Simmons, he was the half-breed son of an Englishman and an Indian woman. This Englishman was the "horribly murdered" John Forsythe, aka Lord Lucan; now, I've been fascinated by the 7th Lord Lucan's disappearance so I immediately went to learn more about this forbear only to learn that he's a figment of the author's imagination. Why he couldn't have made up some other name for Drood's father is beyond me and made me cranky.