29 December 2012

Paulina; Lesley Howarth

PaulinaPaulina by Lesley Howarth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another horror book that just misses the mark. Maybe it's because I know the area this is set in, it just didn't feel quite right.

There are two Paulina's here, sort of. One is really an Amy, but renamed Paulina in honor of the other one... and her father's involvement with the first Paulina's life is a little sketchy. The other Paulina is the problem, delivering outdated papers, breaking things and generally being a malevolent presence in the house.

The level of haunting never rises to the level of horror one hopes, and there are some inconsistencies that niggled. Why the house swap was scheduled for the weeks it was, given Paulina's history, seemed engineered to create the situation. Having the second Paulina use the house the way she did also required a suspension of belief. And the ending? George and Annie's letter saying they were having no more house swaps was just too late for me to care.

Long Lankin; Lindsey Barraclough

Long LankinLong Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is so much love for this book, and while I can see why, it just didn't work for me on a number of levels.

Take the pacing. S.L.O.W. Seriously. Or the fact that the action switches somewhat arbitrarily between points-of-view (Cora talks about walking up a path, Roger finishes the segment - why? who knows? it doesn't matter who tells some of the story). And then there's the fact that this isn't a new story, it's one I've read many times before. Finally, it would have been better to have had Cora (with or without Roger) reading JS's papers, rather than having three different characters spill the beans about Long Lankin and his history with the Guerdon family. My guess is the love comes from the writing and the setting. The author has done a wonderful job of making the church, Bryers Guerdon, the people there and Guerdon Hall all seem very real. Long Lankin himself is pretty scary, even if I didn't understand the whole business about the lynchgate.

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me SomewhereI Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting collection of short stories. As with all collections, some are weaker than others, for example, "Clic-Clac" and "Junior" are lesser than "Courting Rituals of the Saint-Germain-des-Pres" and "Lead Story". The style is a little distant, and even those stories told in the first person leave room between reader and story.

28 December 2012

The Madman's Daughter; Megan Shepherd

The Madman's Daughter (The Madman's Daughter, #1)The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thanks to the completely unexpected twist at the end, this was rescued from being a one star - I just couldn't give it a three, though.

The pacing was so odd. It took forever for things to happen, and then there was a rush of stuff, then more waiting around. Why? The boat trip could have been a page or two, ditto the escape through the village. Time in the village, on the other hand, could have been a little longer. We rushed over meeting some characters, while others were far too much in evidence.

It was also disconcerting that the author felt the need to really hammer home the historical setting by continually mentioning Juliet's corset. I can't think of a single author from the 1800s who talked that much about corsets; they used other things to set the scene.

As for the twists, one was completely telegraphed, the other was barely hinted at. Perhaps mixing the two would have worked better for me. Also, while you don't have to have previously read The Island of Dr. Moreau or seen any of the movies, it does help. I was hoping that this would be a good alternate version of the Wells story (in the way that Wide Sargasso Sea looks at Jane Eyre) but, sadly, no...

ARC provided by publisher.

27 December 2012

Seraphina; Rachel Hartman

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much went right here that the niggles stood out - it'll be interesting to see if this does get the awards many people think it will.

What niggles? Take Seraphina: she's half-human, half-dragon (an abomination in her world) and has been raised to stay in the background and not draw attention to herself. We're told how quiet she is, how friendless (except for her uncle, who is a dragon), etc.. It just doesn't then follow that she very quickly becomes besties with Glisselda, the Second Heir, and cozy with Lucien, not to mention eating regularly with the musicians she works with. Literally overnight she's in with the highest ranking people in the city, including interacting regularly with Ambassadors and others in power.

Then there's the pacing. Sloooooow at the start, then action, then back to slow. This works far better in a suspense novel, when you might want the reader to pause a few moments, but not here.

Finally, I wanted more about her "garden". We're told that there are about 18 'grotesques' there, but we only really hear about a few. I get why we only meet three, but I didn't remember hearing about 18 - maybe 5-6 more at most. Clearly the others are coming in subsequent books, but at this point the device of the garden doesn't make sense. In some ways, this could have been two different books: one set in Goredd, one set in the garden.

Still, the world is an interesting one. The idea of dragons who can shape-shift into human form, experiencing all the emotions humans feel and then losing all that (even without excision) when they're in their real form is (to me) new. With luck, the sequels will explore different areas of the world, more like Kristen Cashore's books than true sequels.

26 December 2012

A Question of Identity; Susan Hill

A Question of IdentityA Question of Identity by Susan Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been a huge fan of the Simon Serrailler mystery series ever since I found a copy of The Various Haunts of Men in the Chapters bookstore in Montreal. They're a little like P.D. James, in terms of the depth of the writing and the remoteness of Serrailler, with a cast of characters (and their backstories) that would do Elizabeth George proud.

In terms of the mystery, this was a 4.5: a man is declared 'not guilty' of three murders of little old women (much to the town's shock) and is given a new identity by the police. Ten years later, in another town, similar murders start. To the reader it's clear that this is the same person, but who he now is becomes the question. What dropped this from a 5 was that the original murders took place in 2002 - while I can see the government wiping Keyes identity from the databases, even to scrubbing his fingerprints from HOLMES, I can't see a case this scandalous not having made front pages in Lafferton and the police there not immediately putting the two together. That seemed a little slipshod to me.

The title refers not just to the mystery, but to the internal dialog that former-Keyes has: who is he now?  After much drilling, he now has a new name, birthday, history and life, but is he the new person?  has Keyes been completely buried, or is he lurking underneath? Those are questions many people trying to transform themselves and their lives (perhaps not as completely as in this case) may ask.

The other .5 deduction was for too much of the non-mystery part. Cat, Judith, Rachel, Richard, Sam, et al., were featured far too much during this book, and none of those storylines were even close to resolved. While I don't mind some of that, in this book it felt like padding out a rather weak mystery.

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Gone Girl; Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Talk about unreliable narrators! On page 37 Nick tells us he's already lied to the police five times, leaving readers to wonder what the lies were and how many more will follow. Then we meet Amy, via her diary, and wonder if she's telling the truth. What did happen to her? Is Nick guilty or innocent? The suspense here is really skillfully built up, never quite letting the reader know what's going on by continually shifting from Nick to Amy and adding details that might contradict what we know. To be honest, I didn't like either Amy or Nick. Even Diary Amy, the one who struggles with the expectations of her psychologist-author parents and tries to be a good wife to Nick, was unappealing. Nick was either the most naive man on the planet or an incredibly unlucky one... or both. The only person I did like and root for was Detective Boney (probably not the author's intent). There were several times while I was reading that I thought I saw a flaw, a slight misstep, that could have led her to cracking the case - never happened, sadly. And all the hype about Gone Girl? Totally deserved.

Orleans; Sherri L. Smith

OrleansOrleans by Sherri L. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in the proximate future, Orleans tells the story of a dystopian former New Orleans post-many Category 4+ hurricanes. The spread of Delta Fever now means that the population has divided not along racial lines but along blood lines, with only the Ursuline Sisters crossing those lines to help the dying. Everyone knows their bloodtype and stays within their tribe ("tribe is life"), although here are some who try to make it on their own. The Delta area was at first quarantined, then separated from the US (now known by Delta residents as the Outer States of America) and no longer receives help from their former government.

Fen, an O-Positive, is suddenly without a tribe following a deadly raid by ABs; she's also suddently in the role of caretaker of her chieftain's newborn child and needs to get Baby Girl to safety. Intertwined with her story is that of Daniel, an epidemiologist looking to cure Delta Fever, who has come over the Wall into the Delta (illegally) to try to find the scientists left in Orleans who may have research on the virus that can help. Eventually they meet up and start working together, although Fen does not trust Daniel. She does, however, realize he's Baby Girl's best hope of getting to the Outer States and to a better life.

The writing is compelling, making Orleans' new state recognizable to those who know the current era New Orleans. Using Delta Fever as the reason for the dystopia will definitely appeal to those tired of some vague "time before" or nuclear disaster - it's also clear what the world beyond the Wall is like, rather than an imagined "other". And the ending? With luck it's deliberately ambiguous (like the ending to The Giver) and not prelude to a sequel. Pair this with Drowned Cities for a 1-2 punch.

ARC provided by publisher.

24 December 2012

Hokey Pokey; Jerry Spinelli

Hokey PokeyHokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Perhaps I'm just slow, but it took me a while to realize that Jack was a real boy - this could have been a version of Toy Story. He lives in Hokey Pokey, a land filled with interesting creations and activities, like Snuggler and Tantrums and the Hokey Pokey shaved ice man. He's famous in Hokey Pokey, the owner of "Scramjet", an amazing bike culled from the wild herd; with his two friends, LoJo and Dusty, he's one of the Three Amigos. Then one day he wakes up, "Scramjet" has been taken by a girl (YUCK!!), his tattoo is fading and something is... not quite right.

The deeper message of the book is that it's ok to grow up, ok to stop loving the things that once obsessed you, ok for your younger friends and enthusiasms to seem far away. There will come a day, or perhaps a few days, when that transition from "young" to "slightly older" will happen and this is all a natural part of life. Obviously, this is a book for a younger crowed than Stargirl, but it may serve to make fans of Spinelli continue to be fans as they age.

ARC provided by publisher.

Destiny, Rewritten; Kathryn Ftizmaurice

Destiny, RewrittenDestiny, Rewritten by Kathryn Fitzmaurice
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who am I? Am I what my parents want me to be, or am I who Iwant to be? That's the question most middle schoolers start asking and searching for the answer to. Emily has an especially difficult time thanks to her mother's deciding that 1. she would name her unborn daughter Emily Elizabeth (after the Belle of Amhearst) and 2. Emily would be a poet. All Emily's life that's been the expectation - one she's not sure she wants to live up to. What Emily really wants is to know who her father is, and perhaps to get a response from one of the many letters she's written to Danielle Steele.

The poetry theme is carried throughout the book, from the naming of Emily to an in-class conversation in haiku form, to Carrie Ann's obsession with turning everything into a poem. That part is interesting and could lead to some conversations and classroom activities. How Emily goes about tracking down her lost Dickinson book will feel a little odd to students, as physically visiting the stores is her MO rather than calling (which would make more sense, but less adventuresome). I'm also not sure about a middle schooler reading Danielle Steele - Emily's mother may not have a problem with that, but most parents will.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Painted Girls; Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls: A NovelThe Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction set in 19th-century Paris, focusing on ballet? Probably going to go over well in this season of the Les Mis movie and many, many Nutcracker performances.

Most ballet fans know the Degas ballerina statue - this is a fictionalized version of Marie's life, as a poor (very poor) teen in Paris, as a ballet student, a model and more. She lives with her absinthe addicted mother (father is dead) and two sisters; Antoinette has been let go from the Opera ballet but manages to get Marie and Charlotte into classes. They are among the least well-dressed in the class, with clothing bought at pawn shops, but they are talented and hard-working. Soon Marie is in a higher class and has caught the eye of Degas, who asks her to model.

Meanwhile, Antoinette finds work as an actress in a production of a Zola play - a scandalous play, at that - and is being wooed by a cast member. Her infatuation with Emile leads her into a life of taverns, sex and friendship with a cocette and other somewhat unsavory types. She tries to take care of her sisters, but ultimately her attachment to Emile creates a major problem for everyone.

Like Marie and Antoinette, Emile is a real person, the subject of a scandalous murder trial (or two); the intertwining of his story with that of the sisters is the fiction part.

This is well-written, with many historical details about the seedier side of life in the late 1800s. Interspersed with two stories (that of Marie and Antoinette) are real newsclippings - the ones reviewing La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans are particularly interesting, as is Marie's reaction to them.

ARC provided by publisher.

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23 December 2012

Period 8; Chris Crutcher

Period 8Period 8 by Chris Crutcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The suspense part of the book gets a little overshadowed by the over-writing, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.  There's a very (very!) slow build, so you have to stick with it before getting to the payoff.

Period 8 is more a concept - the really cool teacher hosts what seems like an encounter group in his classroom during lunch.  "Logs" is one of those beloved guys, the teacher everyone confides in.  He also is training with Paulie, having aspired to swimming the channel in his youth; Paulie, know as "Bomb", is an avid swimmer, and seems to be a generally good guy with the exception of his one night with Mary.  Hannah, Paulie's girlfriend, is obviously upset by the news and they break up.  Then Mary disappears, and the suspense starts.

The what and who of all this is only revealed during the last third of the book, and the very end of the book leads me to suspect "sequel".  Until then, however, this seems like a rather normal town, with averagely messed up teens.  The relationship with Logs did bother me some, because in this post-Penn State era, would any school have tolerated students visiting a teacher at night? privately training with a student?  That just feels a little wrong.

ARC provided by publisher.

For Kings and Planets; Ethan Canin

For Kings and PlanetsFor Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There was something a little unsettling about this book - the writing was sometimes a little too lush? ornate? when sparer writing would have been more effective.

Canin has specialized in the man-from-nothing-is-good, man-from-privilege-is-amoral/bad/corrupt genre, and this is no different. Orno (or no?) comes from the midwest to Columbia Universtity, not the best of students but one who can study and apply himself. Meeting Marshall proves both his undoing and his salvation: he's introduced to New York City, taught about art, meets the Emerson family and spends time with them at Woods Hole while at the same time not paying attention to his studies, letting his grades drop, drinking and falling in love. Orno is rather passive, in fact, just going with things. Marshall, on the other hand, has an eidedic memory and mostly spends time spinning fantastic tales about his life (particularly his years in Turkey with his mother).

There's no satisfying ending here - the story just seems to peter out.

Navigating Early; Clare Vanderpool

Navigating EarlyNavigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sweet tale; a mix of My Side of the Mountain and every fish-out-of-water story you've read.  Jack (last name Bauer, but my guess is the target age group won't know about '24') has recently lost his mother and his naval captain father moves him from Kansas to a Maine boarding school close to the Portsmouth base.  The only friend Jack seems to make is an odd child, Early, who sometimes attends classes, lives in a basement workshop and seems to have epilepsy.  Oh, and Early has created a story about the life of Pi (not the tiger, the number).

Early tells Jack the story of Pi throughout the book, using it as both a guide to their Big Adventure and to Early's search for his brother Fisher (known in the school as the best athelete ever, Fish).  The adventure takes them up the Kennebec River and to encounters with pirates, a hermetic Norseman and solves the question of the missing Martin.  By the end of their trek, they're friends and the story of Pi has unravelled.

The setting of Maine is nicely contrasted to Kansas, with the ocean and mountains being compared to the fields of wheat and flat landscape that Jack has grown up with.  Using World War II as a backdrop provides the excuse for the adventure - today's schools would simply not be as lax about accounting for students, nor would Early be allowed to live the way he does. Even the use of crew, a sport that is increasing in popularity, will appeal to readers.

ARC provided publisher.

20 December 2012

Ship Sooner; Mary Sullivan

Ship Sooner: A NovelShip Sooner by Mary Sullivan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another book that could do a great deal more with a great deal less. Ship, who has exceptional hearing (she can hear a whisper from far away) lives with her mother and sister Helen - Dad has long since left. Her only friend is Brian, the boy next door, who has an unseen mother and a father who is a little... different. Their story, how they relate to each other, how Brian's 'meeting' with Helen affects their relationship, ditto Brian's sudden disappearance, would have been enough. Add in her yearning for, and questions about, her father and you've got a nice story.

Instead we have Ship's finding a baby in the woods and rescuing it by running away to find her father. HUH? That felt totally unnecessary. It added an element that really jarred with the rest of the book. And the episodes with Rabbit and the white dog? Why?

The Backward Glance; Ronald W. Bresland

The Backward Glance: Cs Lewis And IrelandThe Backward Glance: CS Lewis And Ireland by Ronald W. Bresland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting approach to CS Lewis, one that ignores his better known works in favor of Boxen and poetry. Why? Because those were (perhaps) the most informed by his Irishness. We tend to forget that Lewis was born and lived in Belfast, that Arthur Greaves stayed there (and was visited by Lewis), and that Mrs. Moore was Irish.

It is a bit odd to read about Lewis and have the Inklings and Tolkein as almost passing references. His conversion to Catholicism is also almost in passing, what matters more is his re-conversion to Christianity ("Ulster Protestantism" is continually mentioned). The focus here are the Irish people with whom Lewis surrounded himself, his meetings with Yeats, his politics vis-a-vis Ireland, etc.. As I said, a bit of an odd take, but one that is largely neglected by other biographers.

18 December 2012

The Citadel; A.J. Cronin

The CitadelThe Citadel by A.J. Cronin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You know you're reading an old book when you read about "gay meals" (among other outdated phrases). According to the cover, this was adapted by Masterpiece Theatre and I can see why: it's very much their sort of story, almost epical in scope.

Andrew is a poor Scotsman, newly graduated from medical school. He finds a position as an assistant in the mining valleys of Wales - of course, the system is unfair, but he's a great doctor and makes friends within the community. Then he's pushed out, and moves to another mining community where, now newly married, he continues his iconoclastic ways. Again he's pushed out and finally moves to London, where he becomes enamoured with Money and Position and Good Clients. Essentially, he's become everything he derided earlier in his career; his wife, however, still wants the simple life ("one bedroom and a kitchen" would be ok with her). Because there are no surprises here, by the end of the book he's returned to those good values, planning a new practice with two men who are also Good Doctors.

You have to get beyond the plot's conventions to appreciate this. The way the medical profession changes in the 1900s, the life of the miners versus that of the rich owners and townspeople, are far more interesting than Andrew's journey.

Floating; Nicole-Bailey-Williams

Floating: A NovelFloating: A Novel by Nicole Bailey-Williams
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Sadly, a DNF - this was sort of a mess, with short chapters, some in verse, moving back and forth between characters. While I wasn't expecting lush prose, chapters of more than a paragraph, more character development, more narrative thread would have been nice.

Dancing with the Witchdoctor; Kelly James

Dancing with the Witchdoctor: One Woman's Stories of Mystery and Adventure in AfricaDancing with the Witchdoctor: One Woman's Stories of Mystery and Adventure in Africa by Kelly James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Any memoir that includes verbatim conversations held during a severe concussed state is a little suspect - and this one has an entire chapter with that type of conversation. Ms. James' memoir is certainly action-packed, filled with colorful characters and events. Are they entirely believable? I'm not sure (I'm not doubting that these things happened, or these people exist, or that she was involved, but memoirs aren't always reliable). That was one reason this wasn't a five-star.

The other was that for me, more on Africa would have been nice. Particularly during the Kenya/Turkana Land episode, the sequence of events got blurred (Kenyatta was in jail? or removed? or ??). While I recognize that that wasn't her purpose, for the vast majority of readers with no background for these countries, it would have been nice. Maybe a brief paragraph before or after each "episode".

I could see boys liking this, even though it's not a new story (published in 2001).

17 December 2012

Seduction; M.J. Rose

Seduction: A Novel of SuspenseSeduction: A Novel of Suspense by M.J. Rose
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No where in the blurbage is it mentioned that this is a continuation of the story from The Book of Lost Fragrances, so let that be your guide. I liked this one slightly more (it was about 2.5 stars, rounded up) because there was less going on than in the previous book but still...

The author has a horrible tendency of showing and telling everything. There's little left to the imagination, the descriptions are excessive (paragraphs on food, scent, what places look like) and if that had been cut - along with most of one of the past life regressions/memories (I don't mean 'one session' I mean 'the entire regression') - this would have been a tighter read. Also, I really don't like Malachai. Didn't like him in the first book, like him even less here. The way this book ended, my guess is there's another book coming and he'll be back.

Jac has also lost credibility for me. I get her interest in the myths, in Jungian archetypes, etc., but her supposed rationale (trying to bring sense and order to all this stuff) is at odds with the way she behaves around anything Druidic, scented, Jungian and all the other stuff we get fed.

Had this just stayed with Victor Hugo and the present day, cut about 1/3 of the descriptions and made Jac a stronger heroine this could have been an easy 4 star.

ARC provided by publisher.

16 December 2012

Dark Tide; Elizabeth Haynes

Dark TideDark Tide by Elizabeth Haynes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This may be suffering from "second novel syndrome", or perhaps by comparison to Into the Darkest Corner, but this didn't get the love that Ms. Haynes previous book did.

Perhaps it's because the suspense isn't ratcheted up as much as it could have been, or that the flashbacks (also prominent in the first book) weren't as necessary as the author thought they were, or something... it just wasn't as good a read.

Genvieve's London backstory is semi-seedy; she's in corporate sales, but to make money to live her dream (buying a houseboat and renovating it) she starts pole dancing at a gentleman's club. The money is very good, yet there's the whole "the owner is involved in shady things" subplot, so after seven months she decides to quit. It's made easier by Dylan (an enforcer for the owner) giving her 50,000 pounds to take care of a package for him. Fast forward a year(ish) and she's renovating the houseboat, enjoying life and actually throwing a boatwarming party when her only friend from the club is murdered - right there, at the marina. Suspense, etc. ensues.

Except... not really. There wasn't the suspense that I'd expected. Would Gen end up with Dylan or Jim? Did it really matter? That says a lot, that I didn't care who she'd end up with. Or who was behind the attacks. Or even what was in the package Dylan gave her.

Here's hoping the third book returns to the form of the first!

ARC provided by publisher.

15 December 2012

If You Find Me; Emily Murdoch

If You Find MeIf You Find Me by Emily Murdoch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two sisters, raised (if that's the right term) in the woods, away from society, suddenly find themselves in a "regular" house, with a father, step-mother and step-sister. Can't be easy, right? Add to that selective mutism, a dark secret and a sense of being abandoned by their meth-addicted mother and you've got an interesting book.

The sense of dislocation that Carey feels, her bewilderment at the changes and whether she even deserves this sudden good luck were all very realistically written. Because we're only getting her story, it's less clear how the others are coping; Nessa's opening up to Melissa makes sense because when you're young, desperate for affection, you can more easily become comfortable with people who are warm and welcoming. The other children (Delly, Pixie, Ryan, etc.) also feel real. Less so are the adults.

Perhaps because this was an e-ARC, the flashbacks to life with Mama were sometimes confusing - if the finished book has typography or something that sets those off, it will be helpful to readers. I did like that this ends on a somewhat ambiguous note: what will happen now that the Big Secret is out? what did happen to Mama? Not every book needs to answer every question.

ARC provided by publisher.

13 December 2012

Grave Mercy; R. L. LaFevers

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1)Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is so much love for this book - and I do understand that love - but there was also the dreaded padding to contend with.  I wanted more in the convent itself, getting to know about the training and the poisons, as well as Sybella(!!) and less of the embroidery at the feet of the duchess.

Basing this on an episode of Brittany v France's long struggle (I did check; the duchess, the "French whore" and all those are actual historical figures) and rooting it in the Old Gods (checked that, too, and while there may have been pagan worship in Brittany, Mortain is not the name of one of the gods/saints) was an interesting choice.  Again, I wanted more about the Old Gods, less about the machinations of court.  Every time the tension ratcheted up, there were long passages that killed it.  Padding.  Blergh.  Example? The excursion into the forest, when Ismae and Duval go to meet with the possible husband for Anne could have been one page, rather than the several it was (I get that they had to have the Duval's head in Ismae's lap scene, but really?  we'd already gotten several of those).

When I started this I hoped for a Mists of Avalon type book, but again (and I can't stress this enough - it cost the book a star) the balance of the action skewed to the historical intrigue rather than the Old Gods/assassins.

The Ballerinas; Parmenia Migel

The Ballerinas, from the Court of Louis XIV to PavlovaThe Ballerinas, from the Court of Louis XIV to Pavlova by Parmenia Migel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sadly, this was too gossipy, too little about the ballet itself.  And the "... to Pavlova"?  Well, yes, there is a mention of her but it's a sentence buried at the very end.  Overall, not really worth it - unless, of course, you're interested in the love lives and backbiting at the Paris Opera (where the ballerinas all shone).  After some long chapters about the lives about the various Mlles, where they were from and how they ascended the heights in Paris, whether they toured and which rivalries they participated in, sometimes - sometimes! - there was something about their contribution to moving dance forward.  While it's clear that Paris was the center of the ballet world for a very long time, so many of the dancers profiled toured (London, St. Petersburg, Naples, etc.) that more about what was going on in those cities would have been helpful.  It isn't until the final chapter, which quickly marches us through a century (perhaps) of Russian dance, that we really get a picture of what was going on in any other city.

11 December 2012

House of Meetings; Martin Amis

House of MeetingsHouse of Meetings by Martin Amis
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I did try! But the writing and the character just didn't match, which made it difficult to believe in the world that Amis was trying to create.

What I mean is, when your protagonist is a Russian emigree, a former prisoner in Stalin's gulags, you don't expect writing that throws a classical education in your face. Amis does that here, and it just doesn't work. The horrors of the gulag, the mystery of what happened in the House of Meetings and how that affects the future are all interesting, but it didn't matter. The book sounds as though it's set in England, with Oxbridge speakers, despite the setting.

Out of the Easy; Ruta Sepetys

Out of The EasyOut of The Easy by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was, to me, a much better book that Between Shades of Grey (I know I'll be in the minority here). I enjoyed meeting Jo/Josie/Josephine and spending some time in her world - New Orleans in the 1950s. It's a seedy world she inhabits, with a mother who is (let's be honest) a whore and being taken care of by the madam and her various employers. She's also part of the slightly literary world, working for a bookstore and living above it; the bookstore is owned by a writer.

Josie has aspirations - not big ones, admittedly - to leave New Orleans and be something other than her mother's daughter. Then one day she meets two people who change her life: Frank Hearne, who sees something in her that is somewhat noble, and Charlotte Lockwood, a Smith College student who assumes that Josephine is of her class and will easily get in to Smith. Suddenly, that's Josie's goal, to go to Smith. Standing between her and her first day on campus are her mother, the question of who murdered Frank Hearne, actually getting admitted to Smith and finding the money for tuition and board. Nothing comes easy, of course.

It's the ending that cost this the fifth star: a little too predictable. Satisfying, but predictable.

ARC provided by publisher.

About Average; Andrew Clements

About AverageAbout Average by Andrew Clements
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another book that misses by trying to do too much. Jordan, Plain and Average, and her journey toward realizing she's perhaps plain but not completely average, would have been enough. The tornado? Too much.

There are so many children in middle school who think they're average (I was one of them): not particularly smart, not particularly talented, not particularly popular. Jordan is a solid B/C student who works hard, she loves to sing and play her violin but isn't great at them; thinking about it, she's only really good at babysitting and gardening, ok at a bunch of things and really bad at others. The problem, of course, is that others see many more things that she's good at - they're just not things that Jordan thinks about or cares about. And then there's the bully, Marlea.

The bully situation is one of the best passages in the book, with Jordan opining that sometimes the anti-bullying program works (when there's physical intimidation) and sometimes doesn't (when it's more verbal in nature). That's a passage that more teachers and administrators need to read! How Jordan actually handles things is interesting, and had the author played that out more, not bringing the tornado into things, this would have been a solid 5-star book.

Summer at Tiffany; Marjorie Hart

Summer at Tiffany LPSummer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don't think "Breakfast at Tiffany", think Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. This is a slight memoir about the author's most memorable summer, one where she and a college friend moved to New York, somehow became the first women to work on the salesfloor at Tiffany (as pages), met soldiers (this is 1944) and generally enjoyed life despite pinching pennies.

I say "slight" because nothing much happens. No great Life Lessons are learned, although there is a Big Decision to be made. There's a little celebrity sighting (Judy Garland, Nat 'King' Cole, Marlene Deitrich, to name a few) but no real rubbing of shoulders. When she writes about being in Times Square when Japan surrenders, it's completely part of the experience, not added in to set mood or place. And her trying to be sophisticated, ordering odd drinks and rum raisin ice cream with strawberry sauce? Told matter-of-factly, without a knowing adult wink at how ridiculous this Iowan was.

"Slight" doesn't mean bad, by the way. My quibbles are more about the verbatim reportage of conversations at a remove of 50 years. The letters included were great, but why not letters from home to NYC? Or were they lost?

09 December 2012

A Blink of the Screen; Terry Pratchett

A Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter FictionA Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter Fiction by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After the semi-disappointing Dodger, words cannot express my happiness at this short story collection!

Starting when Sir Terry is 13, we get a chronological collection that shows his talent expanding and growing. Some stories were written for specific collections ("Incubust" is a great example) while others were clearly the germ of other ideas ("Rincemangle"). And then there are the Discworld short stories... Granted, the playing cards don't really qualify as a short story (and that was probably the slightest piece in the collection, imvho), but who cares?

And DEATH is there! Not just on Discworld!! DEATH!!!!!

A Tangle of Knots; Lisa Graff

A Tangle of KnotsA Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The world is divided between those with Talents and those who are Fair (or without Talent), but not all Talents are equal. Some are simple, like knot tying or spitting, while others are more complicated, like baking cakes. In Poughkeepsie New York, we meet a group of (mostly) Talented people, including Cady, the cake baker. Cady is an orphan and lives in a relatively unpopulated Orphanage (Miss Molloy's Talent is matching children to parents), yet for some reason Cady is 'unmatchable'. Still, there are those cakes...

There are also mysteries surrounding who V is (V being a woman who is without words, for some reason), how the Owner manages to take Talents, whether Zane will learn to be less of a problem child, and whether Will will ever have his adventure. The questions of Talents and what people will do to find theirs as well as keep theirs are also examined. The way in which this is done is a little confusing, as we get several points-of-view and seemingly unrelated storylines (it takes at least halfway through the book before they begin to come together). Still, readers will enjoy this adventure/mystery despite the initial confusion.

And those cakes! Two cakes mentioned in the book that aren't given recipes (the cinnamon one is the one I most wanted to read about), but the recipes included do look very, very good. Don't read this on an empty stomach.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Dinner; Herman Koch

The DinnerThe Dinner by Herman Koch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Apparently, The Dinner is quite a sensation in Europe and it's easy to see why.  Unlike This Beautiful Life, this left me thinking about what it means to be a parent and how far I would go to protect my family.

Paul is our window into this story: he was a teacher, currently "on remove" while he recovers from what he insists is a temporary burnout and what the doctors would call an 'illness' or 'syndrome', and he is the younger brother of Serge Lohman, potentially the next prime minister of the Netherlands.  Paul and Claire have a son, Michel, who has changed in some ways but then, he's a teen and teens do change.  Serge and his wife Babette have two sons, Nick and their adopted son Beau (from Burkina Faso), both close to Michel's age.

Ostensibly set during one evening's dinner at a very chichi restaurant (the type you need to make reservations at months in advance, but Serge - being Serge - only calls 'day of' and gets a table) but replete with flashbacks to summer vacations, visits to the doctor and hospital, and other important days, the relationships between the four unravels.  Why?  Because of the actions of their three sons - an attack on a homeless woman that is caught on security camera (the boys are unidentifiable) and broadcast on national television.

Knowing that your child is responsible for a reprehensible act, how would you react?  What would you do to protect that child, to protect your family?  How responsible would you feel about their actions - is it a genetic flaw, a fault in childrearing, is there something you could have done?  Some of these questions are dealt with in the book, others not so much.  To say more would be definite spoiler territory, but it was at times surprising what choices Paul and Claire make.

This isn't quite a 5-star, but it's definitely more than 4... probably 4.5.  I predict much conversation about this book when it's finally released here.

ARC provided by publisher

A Thousand Pardons; Jonathan Dee

A Thousand PardonsA Thousand Pardons by Jonathan  Dee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was interesting yet vaguely unsatisfying at the end.  Things seemed to happen a little too randomly and easily for both Helen and Ben.

Ben's infatuation with a legal summer intern leads to a sex scandal that costs him his job and his family.  His subsequent time in rehab and jail don't really seem to change him, excepting of course the loss of job and family.  The effect of his actions on his wife and daughter are mostly that Helen has to go to work (she becomes a crisis manager for a very small PR agency, then for a much larger one) and they move to New York, away from their upstate small(ish) town where everyone knows them and what happened.

Helen's approach to the crisis management piece is what made this interesting: does admitting you failed, accepting some blame and apologizing really work for a corporation or famous person?  Looking at the number of well-known/famous people who have "made mistakes" with infidelity (Gen. Patraeus, Gov. Spitzer, Rep. Weiner... the list goes on) who have also apologized, that does seem to be the strategy.  But a company?  You rarely see that.

The vaguely unsatisfying part is Ben's lack of real change, the flat affect that Helen presents throughout the book, and Sara's predictable early teen angst.  Having said that, I'm not sure what this type of story could have done to be really satisfying or different from other stories of this kind.

ARC provided by publisher.

07 December 2012

Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff; Paul Robert Weston

Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of SpiffPrince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff by Robert Paul Weston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The plot is almost beside the point here - it's the words, the typography and the idea that matter.

Ostensibly this is the story of Prince Puggly (who is found by the people who run Spud after the previous King runs off) and his, um, eclectic wardrobe combinations, and the story of Francesca, the relatively normal (albeit pajama clad) princess in the sartorially snobby Kingdom of Spiff.  Their lives in each kingdom and their relationship are relatively predictable but... read this out loud.  Look at the way the words look on the page (I can't even begin to mimic them here).  So.Much.Fun.  This will be a great read-aloud and read-along.

The missing star is because this was an ARC, and I'm hoping there's color in the illustrations!

ARC provided by publisher.

The Brides of Rollrock Island; Margo Lanagan

The Brides of Rollrock IslandThe Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Usually selkie stories do nothing for me, but this one? I loved the writing and the twist on the tale. In another year, this could have been my top YA fiction read, but there is Code Name Verity to contend with...

This is told through varying voices, none of them the so-called sea-mum's. We hear from Misskaella, the 'ugly' child in her family, the throwback to a past that may (or may not) have included some contact with the seals who surround Rollrock Island. As a small child she creates unrest among the seal population and learns to protect herself, and them, by crossing fabric over her front and back. Later, she learns to separate the human from the seal - at first the bull, then the cows. And then a local asks that she get him a wife.

And that's all that's needed to turn Rollrock into an outsider community: the women all come from the sea, and the only children on the island are boys. No one off island knows what happens to the girl children (if there are any) and all the non-sea women living on the island moved away. Because this is a new(ish) book, I won't talk about the ending except to say that it was very satisfying and slightly unexpected.

As I said, the writing really sets the place and the mindset of these people. I could imagine myself on Rollrock, which appears to be somewhere off Ireland (given the number of redheaded characters). And if a selkie story can keep my interest, that's saying quite a lot!

06 December 2012

The Different Girl; Gordon Dahlquist

The Different GirlThe Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's not clear at the beginning if this is a dysopian book, a religious book, a survivalist book, or even if it's set in the future, present or past - there's just clearly something a little wrong, a little different about the lives of Veronika, Caroline, Isobel and Eleanor. They live on a remote island with Robbert and Irene, they don't have school as we think of it, and they're orphans. That's all they know, and all we know. In some ways they're like Madeline, living lives in parallel.

Then one day, May appears. Veronkia finds her, having decided to do things a little different from what Irene wants (in itself something new); May was washed up on the beach along with a small bag of photos and other things. She's nothing like the four other girls, and this difference marks the beginning of life on the island.

I'm not going to go into this more, except to say that I think this book can prompt some interesting discussions with students. The biggest discussion will be about the ending, which is very abrupt: is this like the controversial ending to 'The Sopranos' or will there be a sequel (or more)?

ARC provided by publisher.

05 December 2012

The Gates of Ivory; Margaret Drabble

The Gates of IvoryThe Gates of Ivory by Margaret Drabble
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The varied voices in The Gates of Ivory aren't all that different in tone, probably because they're filtered through some unknown storyteller - not quite the omniscient author, definitely someone known to all the parties who is listening to them tell the tale of Stephen Cox' disappearance in Cambodia and its affect on friends and colleagues. There are the women, Liz, Hattie, Esther and Alix, who are involved with him to varying degrees and whose relationships with each other aren't always friendly. There are the men, Charles and Konstantin mostly, who are almost ancillary to the women (although Konstantin does play a very important part in all this). And there's Stephen, whose story is told via his journal/diary and notebooks and flashbacks. Luckily, whose story this is is made clear when each switch is made.

The difference between upper-middle-class London and Cambodia/Thailand/Vietnam in the 1980s is explored lightly; at times, it reads a little like "oh, look at those colonials. they'll never get it right" while at others we're in the aftermath of killing fields. Moving from that back to the comfortable world of London isn't as jarring as one might think, at least not in this book. The bigger question for me was whether or not I cared about any of these characters or experiences. And the answer was, no, not really. I was interested enough to continue reading, not enough to race through the book (hence the 3 star rating).

Like her sister A.S. Byatt, Drabble writes gorgeous sentences and paragraphs: her words feel good to read. And that's probably why I continued to read a book I wasn't really hooked on!

The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand; Gregory Galloway

The 39 Deaths of Adam StrandThe 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Gregory Galloway
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted to love this book, but it just missed. Adam is very Milo-esque: bored, doesn't see the point of things, everything is a circle, etc. Unlike Milo, however, no tollbooth and car appear to take him off on an adventure that includes giants, the doldrums, princesses, numbers and words.

No, Adam's curse(?) is that he simply doesn't die. And he's tried - drowning, falling from great height, shooting himself, setting himself on fire (and these aren't spoilers! we're told this within the first few pages of the book). Nothing works. He 'dies' for a few hours or days, then wakes up, no scars or broken bones or anything to show for it.

So what's the book about? It's an exploration of Adam's disaffected life, an attempt to give him a reason to want to live. Adam lives in a world where 85% of his classmates will not go to college but will work in factories, stock shelves, etc., a world that many teen readers will identify as being a member of. While there are cell phones and computer games, his summer is spent hanging out with his friends getting drunk, just idly biking around and trying to find some excitement. His many suicide attempts are even considered boring by the town!

What would have made this better? From a gore-lovers standpoint, more on the deaths: what exactly happens? It's very lightly covered in the book, with each death described as "I fell towards the water... my eyes opened..." I can see why this was done, but part of me wanted to know about the process. When he shoots himself, apparently there's gore - how does his body regenerate to the point it was at before the shooting? Part of me envisioned one of those scifi aliens, with parts slowly crawling/oozing towards each other before blending back into the human form. Granted, this is told from Adam's point-of-view and he isn't aware of it but... couldn't someone tell him?

The other missing I won't go into because of the spoiler issue. Let's just leave it that the ending wasn't as satisfying as it could have been. Having said that, I'm an adult who reads dark mysteries (Carol O'Connell, for example). A teen - particularly a teen boy in the Midwest - may find this a much better read than I did.

In case you're wondering, there is an author's note at the end that talks about suicide and suicide prevention; it does come across as just a little bit too little, too late in the book.

ARC provided by publisher.

02 December 2012

The Obsidian Mirror; Catherine Fisher

The Obsidian MirrorThe Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fisher is usually really good at juggling multiple stories (think Incarceron) but this book misses by just enough, in part because it feels that there's one too many stories going on. Perhaps losing the Shee (and Gabriel)? or Janus (and the Replicants)? or Piers' being a genii? or... or... See my point?

Oberon Venn's obsession with the Obsidian Mirror is driven by his obsession with going back in time to when his wife was killed in a car accident and somehow preventing it (isn't that against one of those sci-fi "rules"? don't change the past???). David Wilde's disappearance into the mirror as part of the experimenting has led to David's son, Jake, being a surly, angry, revenge-driven teen (think "Hamlet", which is referenced in the opening scenes). After Jake is kicked out of his elite Swiss boarding school and returned to Venn's incredibly decrepit, weird house - and the quest to find David, save Leah and solve the mystery of the mirror commences.

Of course there are competing interests here, from the past, present and future - and the Shee (recognizable to others as fae). It would have been great to get a real tour of the Abbey, like the one we get through Misselthwaite Manor because it just sounds so strange: often freezing, snow/frost covered and by turns habitable and decrepit. The Wood outside the Abbey is equally mysterious and I suspect will play a larger role in the next two books (did I mention this is the first of a trilogy?), but how that will get woven in with the mirror and what else is going on is difficult to tell.

The three stars are because of the "biting off a little more than the reader can comfortably chew" feeling; I had to keep going back to figure out which character and what possible timeline and how it all links together. I almost gave it four starts, but the seven cats aren't featured enough.

ARC provided by publisher.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore; Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This wasn't the perfect read, but it came close: I was "forced" to stay up late to finish because I just didn't want to put it down.

The idea that there is a group, five hundred years old, determined to solve the mystery of Aldus Manutius' codex vitae is interesting (almost as interesting as the idea of a codex vitae itself); I was thrilled that he actually existed (this is one of those books that if you're a reader like me, you'll want to check some of the people, artifacts and events to see what's imagination and what isn't). The solving of the first(?) puzzle, revealing the Founder's face, supposedly leads to more puzzles(?) but we're never told what that could be.

It's never quite clear what differentiates the novice from the unbound, or whether Clay makes the transition from clerk to novice to unbound, but ultimately it doesn't matter. The mystery surrounding the Festina Lente Corporation and the Unbroken Spine (such great names!) is somewhat explained, but by the end of the book there's still enough of a question about what they are and why they'd continue to survive given the events of the book.

I also really enjoyed the secondary characters: Oliver Grone (which just has to be a Melvin Peake reference), Mat and his Matopolis, Neel, Ivan, Rosemary Lupin and the others are just quirky enough to keep you smiling, but never so quirky that you start rolling your eyes. That's the mark of a good writer, knowing how much is just too much. Kat's character was the weakest of them all, but given that she's a Googler and this book has a mild anti-Google theme running through it it makes sense that you aren't really rooting for her (much less her and Clay). And, of course, it was quite pleasing that it was Clay, using old-fashioned footwork and listening to a set of audiotapes who solves the Great Mystery where Google, with all its computing power (and I do mean ALL: every computer they have worldwide is diverted to the puzzle) fails. Hee hee hee.

My biggest disappointment is that I borrowed this from the library; now I have to actually buy a copy because I can see this being a definite re-read!

30 November 2012

Standing in Another Man's Grave; Ian Rankin

Standing in Another Man's Grave (Inspector Rebus, #18)Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title is a mondegreen - Rebus has misheard Jackie Leven singing "Standing in Another Man's Rain". So what has Rebus been up to since we last saw him? He's been working for SCRU, Lothian and Borders version of the Cold Case Squad (if you watch "New Tricks" on PBS, this is them... only without the camaraderie or the close rate. or the nice DCI leading the unit.) There's the possibility the unit will be closed because there's Crown office that does the same work, but the mandatory retirement age from the police has been lifted, so those currently retired can reapply. Rebus, of course, is interested because who is Rebus if he's not working?

Enter Nina Hazlitt, mother of Sally, who disappeared on Hogamanay 1999. Yes, it's now 2012. No, there's been nothing done on the case since. But several years ago, a very nice DI working for SCRU, Gregor Magrath, listened to her and she's checking in on the case. Not only that, she's got a theory that there's a serial killer out there because there are two other girls who went missing along the same road Sally was one - and now there's a third, "live" case, Annette McKie. Surely there's a connection? And that's all Rebus needs to start investigating the old cases and insert himself into the new one.

The new one is being investigated by a unit led by DCI James Page (insert your favorite Led Zep joke here - Rebus often does), seconded by Siobhan Clarke. Siobhan has started to really make her way in the force, partly because she's under Page's wing and partly because she's no longer under Rebus'. She does have a slight soft spot for her old mentor, however, and lets him in on the case... do I really need to go on?

So, where's the tie-in to Malcom Fox and The Complaints? Fox has amassed quiet the file on Rebus, determined to undermine his reentry to Lothian and Borders; he even stoops to some surveillance (phyisical and phone taps) to prove that Rebus and Ger Cafferty were frenemies (why else would Cafferty have avoided jail so often? and why else would Rebus have saved Cafferty's life in ICU?) not enemies. This thread is mostly off-stage, with the occasional appearance - or warning to Siobhan that she should Stay Far Away from Rebus. By the end, however, Fox has been convinced that his crusade is personal, not professional (based on their history when Fox was in uniform decades earlier).

That's the big disappointment for me: I would have loved more interaction between Fox and Rebus. It's clear which child is Rankin's favorite, to the detriment of the book. My hope is that the next book (will Rebus rejoin the force? it's left unclear at the end) will show them together more, even if Fox is dogging Rebus' footsteps.

28 November 2012

Inside Scientology; Janet Reitman

Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive ReligionInside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can see why RUSA recommended this: it's exhaustively researched (loved - LOVED - the notes for each chapter; why more NF can't be like this I don't know!) and relatively balanced. So why only 3 stars? Because I'd hoped for something more on Scientology itself (what happens in auditing? how do you move up the Bridge? what did LRH create "theologically"? etc.) and this was more like reading a book about Catholicism and getting 90% on the Papacy and inner workings of the Curia and only 10% on what Catholics believe and how they practice. In other words, what would life for me, a 'regular' (in other words, non-Sea Org) member of the COS be like? What happens during Sunday worship (which is alluded to, but never fleshed out)? And also there was some missing: what happened to LRH's children and wives? why was DM's wife removed from Int (there must be gossip about that!)? and why no glossary? The acronyms and Scientology-speak got to be a little overwhelming, and rather than flipping around in the book being able to just go to one place for all of them would have been really helpful.

As for the content, it was interesting to hear from people who still believe, who are trying to be "good" Scientologists outside the money-hungry church structure (what that means, exactly, is part of the "missing"). Obviously this is an organization with a ton of misconceptions and bad press - the author does a great job of trying to sort through it to be unbiased. She doesn't quite succeed because access to current members appears to have been limited. Having said that, in a few of her notes she mentions that she was actually at Int and that she has met with a few officials.

So not the comprehensive book I'd hoped for, but a very interesting read all the same.

25 November 2012

The Pause Principle; Kevin Cashman

The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead ForwardThe Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward by Kevin Cashman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really should have looked more closely at this before reading - as a Quaker, I was interested to see how "pause" (or silence) could affect how we interact with the world, colleagues, etc.. Instead, this was far too much about management style (virtually every few pages had a citation from a How To Manage Better book) and far too little about the actual pause itself. The author tells a story about heading to India to tour and meet the Dalai Lama and getting sick, giving him the "pause" he needed to start this book and I thought "well, what about those of us who can't quite do that?" Very little on technique or implementation, far too much on management-speak.

When Organizing Isn't Enough; Julie Morgenstern

When Organizing Isn't Enough: SHED Your Stuff; Change Your LifeWhen Organizing Isn't Enough: SHED Your Stuff; Change Your Life by Julie Morgenstern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read some of the other reviews and they're right: there is a little too much time spent on the "real people example" here. None of them fit me and my situation, not even by mixing-and-matching.

Having said that, the practical stuff worked for me. The idea here isn't a didactic How You Organize Your Stuff, it's ideas on how to SEPARATE, HEAVE, EMBRACE and DRIVE your stuff. And not just your physical clutter stuff (like those old tax receipts, the thimble "collection" you picked up when traveling, etc.) but also your schedule and emotional stuff. By the end of the book (and process) you'll have thought about the things that are holding you back or, at the very least, keeping yourself from moving forward.

There was a lot of skimming, but the general ideas have stuck with me and I can see going through the process every few years.

24 November 2012

Steampunk Poe; Edgar Allan Poe

Steampunk PoeSteampunk Poe by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poe's works don't always do it for me - some I love, some I'm "meh" about and still others I hate so very much because I was forced to study them in detail in school. This volume includes all three, and some of the poems.

When I first saw the title, I thought someone had mashed up Poe with the steampunk genre, much as people have mashed up Austen with zombies. Very happy I was wrong, because steampunk is one of those genres that I just don't get (I do know many people love it, even to the point of dressing in steampunk fashion kind of like Ren Faire devotees). The steampunk part here is the illustrations and they definitely work! My biggest complaint was that there were too few... I kept thinking, what about a graphic novel steampunk-illustred Poe?

Copy provided by publisher.

Being Dead; Jim Crace

Being DeadBeing Dead by Jim Crace
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given the age of the book, I wondered if Christopher Nolan got the idea for the structure of "Momento" from Crace. We start with two dead bodies, Joseph and Celice, and what the last few moments of their lives were like (Celice's last half-minute, Joseph's last half-hour) following their murder by "persons unknown". From there we keep flashing backwards through their final day, their lives together and forwards to the decomposition of their bodies and the police discovery, as well as their daughter's arrival. That might sound confusing, but it's not: it's clear which timeline we're in and what's going on.

The writing is a little florrid, but it's also precise. What I mean is, there is detail that could have been excised but it's not detail for detail's sake. This is not a mystery, no detective looking for whodunnit or police investigation into the murder. Rather, it's an exploration of who Joseph and Celice were from their meeting through their deaths, and after.

The Ghost Writer; Philip Roth

The Ghost WriterThe Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two words: not impressed. The first third(ish), with Nate Zuckermann worshipping at the table of Lonoff, wasn't bad. Reading about how he (Nate) felt about this icon, how he'd met him and getting his reactions to this time up-close-and-personal was all good. A bit wordy, perhaps, but good. The sections about Amy Bellette, on the other hand, bored me and my attention drifted.

The title is a little misleading, in that readers may assume this is about a ghost writer (one who is writing a book that will get credited to another author) when it's really about a writer who is... becoming a ghost? whose essence is ghostlike, ineffable? The tension about being a Jew, writing about Jews, and how that might be perceived by non-Jews (is it treason to air dirty family laundry? how would Nate's story have been received had he simply changed the religion of the characters?) is, I think, still somewhat relevant.

20 November 2012

Being Henry David; Cal Armistead

Being Henry DavidBeing Henry David by Cal Armistead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted this book to be better - the exploration of amnesia and concussion would have been so good for teens to read. Instead, there's a little too much focus on the Thoreau elements.

"Hank" wakes up in Penn Station, his head hurting (and bleeding) and with no memory of who he is and how he got there. Choosing the name "Henry David" from the copy of Walden he seems to have with him, he needs to survive while figuring out what happened. He meets Jack and Nessa, has a bad adventure with them and escapes to Concord MA, home of Walden Pond. While in Concord he meets people, regains his memory and has to decide what his future will be.

It's that part that totally lost me: bad enough that we don't get as much as we could about the aftereffects of his concussion and the resulting amnesia, but that the ending is "everything works out right" with no clue as to how that happened? Usually I rail about Book Bloat, but in this case a few more pages would have been helpful. Overall, the book is gentle when it could be a tad harsher.

ARC provided by publisher.

18 November 2012

This I Believe; Jay Allison (editor)

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and WomenThis I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women by Jay Allison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you listen to NPR you've probably heard at least one "This I Believe" spot - these are transcripts from new ones, some transcripts from old ones and some brand new. What people believe is a wide-ranging topic: some believe in family, some in going to funerals, some in love, some in education, etc. It's all very positive, of course, but not in that gooey way.

Are all of the pieces inspirational? No. As with any group of essays, some spoke to me more than others. Because these pieces are so short, it was easy to just skip over the ones that didn't catch my emotional attention and move on to the next. I did try to ignore who wrote the piece until after, as it does semi-color your attitude if you know who is writing.

The Impossible Dead; Ian Rankin

The Impossible DeadThe Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of Rankin's Complaints books, not a Rebus mystery (but the next one will be both!!). Fox is very different from Rebus: teatotal, for one, and by necessity by-the-rules (after all, he is The Complaints). Can't wait to see the two interact.

Because this is The Complaints, the mystery starts as something rather boring: did three colleagues in Kirkcaldy cover up Paul Carter's misbehavior? Of course, Fox and his team are unwelcome and find it rough going. But then things start to happen that take him away from the main question... Paul's uncle Alan dies (murder? suicide?), and Alan's been investigating a decades old death of a Scottish Nationalist orator (and possible paymaster to other separatist groups). One of the victims of Paul's misbehavior tries to commit suicide. Is there a connection? Of course there is.

Fox's questioning if whether being in The Complaints is really doing police investigation seems to drive his digging into the greater mysteries; it will be interesting to see if future Complaints books show him moving more and more back into "real" policing (or if the Complaints series disappears into a Fox series). Of course, Rankin writes as much about the people and the place as much as about the mystery. Having been to Edinburgh and done some sightseeing outside, when I read his prose I'm taken back there - unlike, for example, when I read an Elizabeth George or Martha Grimes mystery, which don't give quite as good a sense of place.

16 November 2012

The Marriage Plot; Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage PlotThe Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first section, set at Brown, is wonderful (particularly if you know English majors, or have recently seen Theresa Rebek's play, Seminar). It so clearly captures the academic experience and pretentions of that time in our lives. Madeleine's love life, her depression over breaking up with Leonard and her lack of clarity on what her future holds was so much like what my friends went through it was almost as though the author had gone to school with us.

Having said that, the other sections aren't quite as strong. Leonard's bipolar episodes certainly mimicked what I know of the disease, while Mitchell's quest for meaning (and a way to forget Madeleine) reminded me of some people I knew but... they just weren't as well written as that first section. The plotting felt predictable, almost as though there was some checklist that needed to be gotten through: manic episode? check. homosexual experience? check. enlightenment deferred? check. etc.