26 May 2012

The Lighthouse Road; Peter Geye

The Lighthouse Road: A NovelThe Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Without the constant juggling of the timeline this book would have been a better read.  Moving from Odd's birth through his life in flashforwards and flashbacks meant the narrative thread was often confused - what age was he?  where was he living?  what was going on?  The prose also was erratic, ranging from beautifully sparse to nearly Melville-esque detail (as when Odd bought tools to finish his keel).  Again, that's jarring for a reader.

Sadly, as much as I would have enjoyed reading about the Norwegian settlements in the Midwest during the 1890s-1930s, those two problems led to a DNF.

ARC provided by publisher.

24 May 2012

Widow's Might; Sandra Brannan

Widow's MightWidow's Might by Sandra Brannan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven't read the first two Liv Bergen books, but that doesn't seem to matter all that much in terms of getting into the series.  As far as I can tell, the action in the first two takes place a mere month - or less - before this book, with the immediate predecessor covering a mere few days earlier.  That did make it a little difficult getting started, as you have to figure out what exactly is happening and who is who (cold starts that assume you've read the previous book aren't my favorite; this one is better than most).

This smallish town in the Black Hills of South Dakota is really overrun with killers, it seems.  Here we meet the Crooked Man, a serial killer with a ten-year history of one murder per year.  Liv's sister, Elizabeth, interrupts his latest attempt, and Liv's involvement with the FBI over the past couple of cases (and Agent Pierce's desire that she join them, issuing an invitation to interview for a position and undergo training at Quantico) means that she's in the thick of this one.  The FBI team includes Bly (who is mostly working the Sturgis Rally), Linwood (laconic and good-looking) and Jenna Tate (gorgeous, flirtatious and intimidating), all interacting with Liv as though she's already a junior member of the team. Her knowledge of the people, places and history of the Black Hills is helpful to their investigation, as is her connection with Beulah, the mantrailing dog she will soon (they hope) be working with full-time for the FBI.

Without giving away too many spoilers, the Crooked Man killer is involved, somehow, with Nature's Way, an environmental group that wants to prevent development of the old homesteads, preserving the land for animals and the future.  There's a wonderful scene at a hearing on limiting easements, rather than leaving them as a perpetual fact - the differing sides of the argument are treated fairly.  There's also a close tie to Custer, he of the Last Stand and the lesser known 1847 Expedition in the Black Hills.

The milieu and the characters are interesting, as is the Crooked Man.  What made this a 3 was that the FBI team did crack the code behind the killings and their motivation, yet there's still a very long scene between him and Liv with her trying to stave off his attack on her by asking "why" and him going into several pages of justification and gloating.  Sigh.  It was repetitive, given the FBI's work, and I always hate that scene.  I found it also difficult to believe Liv's insecurity and hesitance, particularly given her assistance with the previous cases.

ARC provided by publisher.

23 May 2012

The Bird Saviors; William J. Cobb

The Bird SaviorsThe Bird Saviors by William J. Cobb
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Another DNF: I kept trying to like this, trying to understand how the threads would tie together, trying to care about the characters.  And at first I did, but by halfway through, I realized that I never would.

This was promoted as having dystopian overtones, but all I saw was a fever and a dustbowl-like climate.  The addition of the FLDS seemed a bit gratuitous, as Lord God would have been just as effective had be preached for any other denomination (and his preaching?  didn't really play a role in the portion of the book I read).  It didn't make a lot of sense that Juliet would come back to care for Lila, and the Becca/wedding ring episode was forced.

In thinking about it, this was really a few shorter stories (or novellas) that were interlinked.  Presenting them that way might have been more effective, rather than forcing additional links to create one novel.

ARC provided by publisher.

18 May 2012

The Children of Hurin; J.R.R. Tolkien

The Children of HurinThe Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Back in the 70s I devoured The Hobbit and Lord of the Ring; I've also read The Silmarillion and a couple of other books about Middle Earth, so when this was released I had to buy it.  I'm glad I did, but it's not as readable as the first two.

It took quite a bit of time to get into the story because of the genealogy and wars and virtually no plot (almost like starting the Bible with the "begats") but after a while the story settles down into something more readable.  Turin is the son of Hurin and is somewhat cursed.  He's proud and quick to anger, neither of which help him.  He's exiled/fostered in Doriath, leaves to join some outlaws, kills friends and foes, becomes a renowned warrior, changes names to hide his heritage and his past deeds, and finally slays the dragon.  He also marries his sister (neither knows who the other are, as she was born after his leaving home and both have taken different names), which doesn't end well.

If you're a really Middle Earth fan, read this book.  But if you're looking for a read akin to Tolkien's better known (and filmed) books, give it a pass.

Niceville; Carsten Stroud

NicevilleNiceville by Carsten Stroud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book that includes this passage in the first few pages is a winner: "At 1513:55, Rainey Teague is right there.  At 1513:56, the kid is gone".

Sadly, that opening and the tension surrounding the disappearance of Rainey disappear in the next few chapters. There are five main strands here: Rainey's reappearance and subsequent catatonic state, the bank robbery in Gracie followed by the killing of four policemen and two reporters, the mischievous malice of Tony Brock, several disappearances of older members of the town's founding families, and a mysterious Frisbee sought by the Chinese.  Ultimately the strands intertwine, with the resolution to each story somehow tied into the weirdness/evil at Crater Sink.  There are several moments of "wait - that's not what I thought would happen" (always a good thing) but also several moments of "just get on with it, I've read this before".

Niceville is trying to be a Southern Gothic version of Stephen King's Maine but gets bogged down in florid, overly adjectived description.  Had that been toned down, this story of a city with an evil undercurrent (179 unexplained disappearances since 1928, an anomaly given the size of the population) would have been far creepier.

ARC provided by publisher.

16 May 2012

Code Name Verity; Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh wow.  This book was just... wow.  And so difficult to review without giving away a ton of spoilers!

First of all, even though this is about two young women (I'm guessing in their very late teens/early twenties), I think boys will like it.  Second, despite being about the Resistance and the British War Effort, it's not really about that - it's about friendship and truth and loyalty.  And flying airplanes.

Just when you think you understand who is writing or what's going on, there's a twist.  More than one.  There were times when I thought "that can't possibly be what's happening" but, well, it was.  The story of Maddie and Queenie's friendship, told under some duress, just feels so real - the kind of friendship that really does happen, when people who might not otherwise meet have an opportunity to and it just "clicks".  There's a lot of meandering in this story, but when you realize that it's very much like the name-checked Scheherazade, writing to extend a life, the digressions and minutiae make more sense.

The other thing I liked about this was the the terror (of being tortured, of being caught) is very much there, but it's not explicit.  Things are mentioned, but not graphically depicted: the author shows, not tells.  That slight difference makes the terror so much more, because our minds have to fill in what's going on.

ARC provided by publisher.

Mark Twain: Man in White; Michael Sheldon

Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final YearsMark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is about the last few years of Twain's life (the author consistently uses "Mark Twain", even when others might have called him "Samuel Clemmens" - for example, the New York Times).  He's coming out of his grieving for his daughter Susy and making his presence known as "The Man in White", setting up the persona we'll remember after he's gone.  Wit intact, finances restored, Twain is thinking about posterity and leaving his estate intact for his remaining daughters.

His concerns about copyright are interesting (he believed in perpetual copyright, which would have prevented The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead from being written), but his family wouldn't have benefited for very long, as none of his heirs lived past the mid-1960s.  As a business man he was a failure, allowing himself to be manipulated by his employees and investing in flawed companies and ideas.  This isn't the image of the Twain we think we know, is it?

As biographies go, this one is well written, allowing the personality of the biographee to come through while pointing out the flaws (Twain could be a bit petty).  If you want to know about Twain, however, this might not be the book for you as it only covers 1906-1910.

15 May 2012

Religion for Atheists; Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having a Kindle is dangerous: I saw the author on After Words and immediately bought the book.

The premise is that there are things that religion (mostly Christianity, but others are discussed) does really well, particularly instilling a sense of ethics, morality, caring and community, that secular institutions would do well to emulate.  The difference in education, for example, as the university model has taken over, shows less emphasis on ethics or morals and more emphasis on literature as part of a school.  Another example?  Why are there no secular versions of the Stations of the Cross, like a Stations of Aging or Stations of Grief?  Towards the end he mentions Comte's Religion of Humanity.  It would have been interesting had this idea been given more credence.

13 May 2012

Turn Right at Machu Picchu; Mark Adams

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a TimeTurn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't an in-depth scholarly study of Machu Picchu, it's a combination of the story of Hiram Bingham III, who 101 years ago "discovered" the site, and the story of Mark Adams, who hires porters and a guide to retrace Bingham's steps.  The trek through the wilds of the Peruvian Andes would have been better served with more photos, and better maps, but what's there is simply stunning.

Adams doesn't pretend to understand that why of the Incan villages, cities and Trail.  Instead, he lets Bingham and others suggest reasons (we have little to no real history except what the Spaniards wrote), and comments on what the sites look like now.  The guides he hires include one man, Juvenal, whose family has lived near/farmed in this area for generations - Juvenal seems to walk the distances the group hikes as frequently as people in American walk around their local shopping mall.

The sense of humor here adds to the sense that this isn't just a travelogue, it's an exploration of sorts.  His research into Bingham, his insights into the Incan landscape and history, and his commentary on his own hiking help draw readers in in a way that almost makes you want to follow in his footsteps.  Luckily, he provides a bibliography that can allow armchair hikers another way to "see" this incredible site.

12 May 2012

The Crooked House; Agatha Christie

Crooked HouseCrooked House by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another quiet mystery - there are two poisonings, and one attempted head-bashing, but mostly this is the story of a man, in love with a woman, trying to help figure out who is killing members of her family.  Charles' father is Head of Scotland Yard and gives Charles permission (his blessing?) to go to Three Gables and help the police determine who had poisoned Sophia's grandfather.  Virtually every one in the house is under some suspicion, and a few of the candidates appear too good to be true.  The actual poisoner is pretty obvious, if only because Charles' father gives him an explicit description (which, of course, Charles ignores).

This isn't a Poirot or a Marple, so Ms. Christie can allow herself a little freedom from the confines of those worlds.  Her best (IMVHO) is And Then There Were None, and this mystery doesn't come close in terms of suspense and puzzle.

11 May 2012

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell; Chris Colfer

The Land of Stories: The Wishing SpellThe Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alex and Connor's father has recently died - Mom is struggling to pay the bills, they've had to move from their house to a rental, and things aren't looking good.  Alex is the star pupil in their class, Connor the polar opposite.  On their birthday, their grandmother arrives with their (and their father's) favorite story book... only this isn't just a book, it's a Magical Passage to the Land of Stories.

Once in the book, the twins meet Rapunzel, Snow White, the Princes Charming, Sleeping Beauty, mermaids, the Big Bad Wolf Gang, trolls and other creatures we've met through the stories of the Brothers Grimm, Anderson, etc..  Their adventures in the Land trying to put together the pieces of the Wishing Spell that will (they hope) take them home take them all over the Land and into some interesting situations.  What's missing is a sense of humor and whimsy, which would have lessened the sometimes "this is so clever of me!" tone of the writing.

The pacing was also sometimes off, with the start of the book very slow (and may not draw readers in) with other parts moving far too quickly.  Middle grade readers may not notice that as much as they'll miss the humor.

ARC provided by publisher.

08 May 2012

Messy; Heather Cocks

MessyMessy by Heather Cocks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes a cute book leads to a "meh" sequel - not this time.  Rather than continuing to focus on Molly and Brooke, we spend time with Max and Brooke (I ended up liking Brooke, which was pretty good writing on the author's part!).  Max was, for me, one of the more interesting parts of Spoiled, and her snark is still going strong here.

The plot is pretty mild, with a love triangle? love tangle? something like that in the the middle.  Brick is as clueless as he was in the first book, mangling his words like nobody's business.  And Molly?  Barely a presence, which was a little disappointing.

So why only 4 stars?  The "previously, in Spoiled" section didn't flow that well, and the fact that Max and Brooke were nearly joined at the hip with no one (not Arugula, not Brie, not anyone except those "in the know") noticing didn't work for me.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser; Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser: A NovelThe Secrets of Mary Bowserl by Lois Leveen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting look at slavery and raised some issues that I think many readers won't have thought about before.  Example?  How realistic was Uncle Tom's Cabin (or any slave narrative)?  That Lewis was allowed to "live out" may surprise readers, as might the difference in how slaves were treated in Richmond (it's not the plantation slave experience we assume all had).  With luck, this will give readers a broader understanding of slavery, particularly at the time of the Civil War.  Reading about Lincoln's reasons for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was also interesting, and may be information that most readers don't have.  It's unfortunate that there isn't more of a bibliography for those looking to learn more about these aspects of our history.

Because Mary got an education, the writing is occasionally a bit over the top - it's as though using big words will convey the depth of her learning.  The other problem I had was the introduction of the Orthodox/Hicksite split in Quakerism without much explanation (it felt as though the author included it only to show that not all Quakers were warm and welcoming, rather than coming organically from the plot).

ARC provided by publisher.

02 May 2012

A Midsummer's Nightmare; Kody Keplinger

A Midsummer's NightmareA Midsummer's Nightmare by Kody Keplinger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was such a predictable read, with every problem neatly resolved by the end.

Whitley's anchorman father, with whom she spends every summer since her parent's divorce, has suddenly moved, become engaged to Sylvia, a woman Whitley hasn't met and is suddenly playing "dad" to Sylvia's two children.  Her son, Nate, is Whitley's graduation party one-night-stand and her daughter, Bailey, for some reason wants to be Whitley's friend.  Of course Whitley is going to act out, getting drunk and hooking up with as many people as possible.  Still doesn't grab Dad's attention.  Her stepmother-to-be tries to be nice, but Whitley wants nothing to do with it.  It isn't until there's a Facebook page dedicated to seeing what (or who) "that slut" will do next, and Dad still doesn't comment that she realizes she's not going to win here - Dad's moved on.  Of course, by the end, it's all good.

The introduction of cyber-bullying felt a little like kitchen-sinking, particularly after Whitley dismisses it as "stupid rumors" and Sylvia persists in talking about it as cyber-bullying (and threatening legal action).  It was supposed to come across as caring, but instead it comes across as blurring the line of what real bullying is (Whitley is upset, but more by her father's non-reaction than the actual comments).

ARC provided by publisher.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece; Annabel Pitcher

My Sister Lives On The MantelpieceMy Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jamie's sister, Rose, was killed by a terrorist bomb when he was five. Since then his family has essentially fallen apart.  His mother met another man at grief counseling and has left the family to be with him, while his father is so grief-struck that he can't hold a job and has become an alcoholic.  After Mom leaves, Dad gets a job offer in the Lake District and moves Jamie and Jasmine (Rose's surviving twin) away from London, the bad memories and - most important - the Muslims.

You do feel sorry for Jamie: he doesn't remember his sister well enough to really mourn her loss, instead resenting the focus on her (her urn gets pieces of birthday cake, Christmas presents, etc.) while his parents neglect him.  Jasmine acts out, dying her hair pink on her (their) 15th birthday and severing the visual tie to Rose.  That no one has actually noticed the distress the children are in is problematic.

When the only person in Jamie's class who will be nice to him is Sunya, a young Muslim girl, he knows that problems will arise at home.  He is also the focus of some intense bullying by Daniel, the class goody-goody.  While his teacher is spectacularly ignorant, it's odd that no one at the school is aware of Daniel's behavior issues before now.  It's great that Jamie finally snaps and the consequences are relatively minor.

The biggest problems for me were the school's complete unawareness of the situation at home: what happened to his records from his previous school?  Surely they would have a mention of Rose's death, right? And wouldn't a C of E school that is so religious have a uniform?  It also rang false that there are mentions of piles of bills in the front carpet, yet no creditors call and no utilities are cut off... and neither Jamie nor Jas are paying the bills in their father's stead.  Even less believable was Mom's disappearance with no word - via phone or postcard.
ARC provided by publisher.

01 May 2012

Simone de Beauvoir; Deirdre Bair

Simone de Beauvoir: A BiographySimone de Beauvoir: A Biography by Deirdre Bair
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was really more of a 2.5 than a 3, but I'm feeling a bit generous.

I'd been interested in reading this because I've read a number of her works, all while I was much younger, in college (and she was alive).  Learning more about the woman who'd informed some of my philosophy and women's studies classes was interesting - the problem is, Simone de Beauvoir just seems like a not nice person.  Her life, at least the way it's presented here, was a series of squabbles and justifications for her thoughts and work.  In a way, this is bold because there's no sense of hagiography but 600+ pages of an unlikable person...
The writing also was slightly problematic.  Most of the time this is straight chronology, but then there's a weird jag in the timeline that lends itself to repetition.l  Events were occasionally covered more than once, with a different emphasis (for example, the end of her affair with Algren or relationship with Sylvie le Bon).  I was also surprised to see several obvious typos (for example, "writng" and "att hat").