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.