31 July 2012

Sutton; J.R. Moehringer

SuttonSutton by J.R. Moehringer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting blend of historical fiction, fiction and what I call faction (fiction based on non-fiction). The true is that on Christmas Day, 1969, after his release from Attica, Willie Sutton spent the day with a newspaper reporter and photographer, taking them on a tour of his life. Based on that day, the author has written a supposal: what was Sutton thinking when he revisited sites (many of them long gone by 1969)?

Moehringer has posited a Sutton who was beat up by his brothers, who turned to crime because he was in love with Bess Endren (daughter of a rich shipyard owner), and who was bound by one main rule: don't rat out your friends. One of those friends? Dutch Schultz. As the three men tour Vinegar Hill, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Coney Island, Staten Island, Yankee Stadium and other places in New York City, Sutton's tale is interrupted by reminiscences of the past and his obsession with Bess. His reading habits and gentleness with others is highlighted (for example, while working at Farm Colony Hospital, he anonymously left money for burials on the corpses of those who would otherwise end up in Potters Field).

In doing a little research it's unclear how much of the book is true (one source has Sutton born in Greenpoint, while this book says Vinegar Hill) but ultimately it doesn't matter. This plausible history is an enjoyable read, reminding us of a world gone by (I chuckled with I read Sutton's reaction to the "remodeled" Yankee Stadium - whatever would he think of today's entirely new model?)

ARC provided by publisher.

Telegraph Avenue; Michael Chabon

Telegraph AvenueTelegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like Julian Barnes, Michael Chabon tends not to stick with one genre.  Here he's deep into the world of used vinyl records and blaxploitation films.

There are a number of characters we're following: Archy, the son of Luther, co-owner of Brokeland Records, married to Gwen and about to be a father; Nat, co-owner of Brokeland, married to Aviva and father to Julius; Gwen, Archy's wife, midwifery partner with Aviva and heavily pregnant; Aviva, mother to Julius, wife to Nat and Gwen's midwifery partner; Julius, aka Julie, gay son of Nat and Aviva, very into cinema; Titus, just arrived in Oakland and the 14-year-old son of Archy (who knew of his existence but was never a father to him); and Luther, Archy's father and former star of the Strutter films, classics of the blaxploitation era.  Their intertwined lives start to pull apart thanks to Gwen's pregnancy hormones, Luther's attempt to blackmail the local Councilman over a very old misdeed, and to former Oakland football player George Goode (aka G Bad) and his plans to build a Dogpile Thang (a megastore) near Brokeland Records.

The language is a little raw at times, as are the emotions.  Like High Fidelity there's a lot about music, with rare tracks mentioned in the same paragraph as Peabo Bryson.  Archy's feelings about his father are echoed by Titus' feelings about him, never completely resolved.  The ending is a little ambiguous but hopeful, something that felt a little odd for such a sprawling novel.

ARC provided by publisher.

27 July 2012

The Mirrored World; Debra Dean

The Mirrored WorldThe Mirrored World by Debra Dean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Prior to reading this, I knew nothing about St. Xenia (she's not a "character" in Massie's Catherine the Great), so this was my introduction to her.

As historical fiction goes, this is well done. There are enough elements to set the time and place, while the political scene is touched on lightly, with references to the King of Sweden and other foreign rulers to reinforce the timing. Because this was an ARC, I don't know if there will be more information included about the succession - it got confusing as to who ruled when (we start with Empress Anna and end with Catherine, having gone through Elizabeth and - briefly Emperor Peter II).

At first we're in the sweep of the court life, with Xenia and Daria (her cousin, through whose eyes we see the events) attending balls in order to attract husbands. Xenia marries a singer, her "nightingale", and has problems conceiving. She eventually does give birth but within a few months the daughter dies, throwing Xenia into a depression. This depression only worsens when her husband dies in a freak accident, hitting his head on some steps. She emerges from her semi-catatonic state to start playing the role of "holy fool", giving everything - even, literally, the clothes off her back - to the poor of St. Petersburg, and developing a reputation for healing and prophecy.

The role of "holy fool" in Russian Orthodox life is not going to be that easy for those unfamiliar with the religion to understand. Likewise the role of serfs in the daily life of upper class Russians. Little Russia is mentioned, but I didn't know it was Ukraine until I looked it up. And then there's Gaspari, clearly a castrati but not named as such (he's called a musico, which may not have the same meaning to readers). Again, these things may be covered in additional material in the final book.

What will stay with me is the overwhelming sense of loss that Xenia feels, and how that loss turns to a holy madness.

ARC provided by publisher.

26 July 2012

The Orchardist; Amanda Coplin

The OrchardistThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a beautiful book - disturbing, yes, but quietly beautiful in the same way that Haruf's Plainsong or Robinson's Home and Gilead are.

Set in Washington State before it was a state, in what is now the area around Wenatchee, this story of Talmadge (orphaned at 13, fully alone by 17) and his orchard is a little haunting. He creates a beautiful space out of wilderness, selling apricots, walnuts, apples and other fruit in town but otherwise not part of the community, valuing his solitude and privacy above all (the only person in town he's friendly with is the doctor, Caroline Middey). The collision between his life and that of Jane and Della, two pregnant sisters on the run from their abusive, sadistic "owner" changes all three lives.

Della is the least balanced of the three mentally, and her sister's death just after the death of her own children (she was going to have twins) doesn't help. She abandons the house, staying outdoors and only cursorily taking care of Angeline, her niece, Jane's daughter. Slowly she abandons the orchards and the valley, taking off in search of something and leaving Talmadge, by then in his 50s, to care for a toddler. Growing up in the orchard, in all that solitude and away from children her own age, Angeline is actually a pretty well-balanced person (she does ultimately go to school, but this is in the late 1800s, so not for long) and enjoys Talmadge's company; he's at first a little flustered but settles into a laconic pattern of living with this semi-grandchild. In many ways, he's like Matthew Cuthbert (sans Marilla, obviously). The three lives intersect years later, with Talmadge and Della in jail despite public sympathy for their cause. Della dies there, but Talmadge comes home to the orchard for a year before dying himself.

The prose varies from sparse to more descriptive, steeping readers in this world. I felt jarred every time a modern noise interrupted my reading, surprised I wasn't back over 100 years ago in this orchard.

ARC provided by publisher.

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The Blackhouse; Peter May

The Blackhouse (Lewis Trilogy, #1)The Blackhouse by Peter  May
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the Scots can match the Scandinavians for dour, dark landscapes!

Fin (short for Fionnlagh, or Finlay in English)is a native of the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebridies).  Orphaned early, he was raised by an aunt and tutored by one of the school teachers, ultimately giving him the opportunity to get off the island to attend the University of Glasgow - where he flunked out and joined the police force.  A month before the story starts, he was investigating a murder in Edinburgh when a hit-and-run accident injures his wife and kills his son.

A similar murder on Lewis affords him the opportunity to return for the first time in 18 years.  Supposedly, his "native son" instincts and connections will help, although the police commander on Lewis not only doesn't want him there, he actively dislikes him.  Turns out the murdered is one of the biggest bullies of Fin's schooldays, with many, many people on Lewis who are now suspects.  Fin's return, meeting up with his former bff Artair, his former girlfriend (and now Artair's wife) Marsaili, Donald, Conor and others is uncomfortable - all those memories, all that time spend off island, have led to a real distance from the people he once was close with.

As for the murderer, let's just say the sins of the father are visited on the son in more ways that one, and across more generations than one.  It's a bit harrowing, and the end result isn't the most satisfying result but... this is a trilogy.  Can't wait to see what happens next.  And with luck, the place setting that made this a slow starter will give way to faster, deeper pacing.

ARC provided by publisher.

24 July 2012

The Diviners; Libba Bray

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I vacillated between 4 and 5, because this really is a 4.5. Obviously I decided to "round up"!

The Diviners is set in 1920s/flapper era New York, with an occult twist. Evie, a teen from Ohio who has fully embraced the flapper mindset and vocab, has a hidden gift: if she touches something belonging to someone, she gets a vision of that person's past and secrets. This party trick goes awry and she's exiled to New York City and the care of her uncle. This uncle runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (aka "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies"), which is about to lose its space thanks to lack of payment of bills (including taxes). He's also helping the police with a very bizarre murder that has occult overtones - there's a pentagram, strange sigils and a scrap of paper that sounds vaguely like the Book of Revelations but with a twist.

Evie and her friend Mable (the daughter of socialist agitators) become friends with Theta, a Ziegfield girl, and Henry, Theta's "brother by a different mother". Together they go to parties and a speakeasy in Harlem, getting into trouble when there's a raid. As penance, Evie tries her best to help solve the series of increasingly weird murders that are clearly leading up to something... Armageddon? the rise of the Beast?

There's also Memphis, a black poet/numbers runner, taking care of his younger brother Isaiah, who has some ability to see images and the future (Memphis used to be a healer, until he failed to heal his mother); Sam, a pickpocket with the ability to not be seen when he chooses to be 'invisible'; Jericho, an polio survivor and Uncle Will's ward/assistant; and Margaret Walker, who tutors Isaiah in 'rithmatic and card reading, who has some tie to Uncle Will. All of these lives intersect during the solving of the murders, and it's clear that they'll continue to do so in the next two books.

And so we come to the "why not a solid 5" question. It's a trilogy. Now, to the author's credit, the ending here is a teaser, not a cliffhanger, but still - a trilogy. Sigh. And this was nearly 600 pages! In part I suspect that's due to the incredible, overwhelming amount of research that Libba Bray did and the details of the world she's recreating. (At a time when we have a Mormon running for President, it's interesting that she puts the founding of the religion squarely in the context of the Second Great Awakening in the "burned-over district".) I am a little concerned that she's named one of those religions Brethren: with the exception of one group in the 1970s, the Brethren groups are Anabaptists and not at all as described here. Now, this is a work of fiction, so she's allowed to take liberties but - and this is important - will readers who don't know anything about the "real" Brethren confuse the two? I read an ARC, so perhaps this will be changed by publication time but I doubt it. Finally, there's a cat who comes to harm. Sniff. Don't do that to me.

ARC provided by publisher.

22 July 2012

The Zillionaire Vampire Cowboy's Secret Werewolf Babies; Juniper Bell

The Zillionaire Vampire Cowboy's Secret Werewolf BabiesThe Zillionaire Vampire Cowboy's Secret Werewolf Babies by Juniper Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was $.99 on Amazon, and a big thanks to Aravis for recommending it!

It's not deep reading, obviously. I mean, any zillionaire (that's more than a billionaire, right?) vampire allergic to blood isn't going to be one of your more serious heroes. Particularly not if he's thinking about getting a theme song, like "We Will Rock You" (his name is Rock Fangsworthy, of the Double Fang Ranch). There's the girlfriend, Chastity, a human with Triple D cups (sort of... blame the plastic surgeon), his former fling, Buffi Van Pelt, who has reappeared in his life along with two cute puppies two-year-old sons werewolf babies, and Billy Bob Bobson, just trying to make his way in the family vampire staking business.

I don't think there's a cliche or bad pun they don't hit - if this were supposed to be a serious book, it'd have been annoying but as this is clearly satire (and a far better job at it than Nightshade!) it's just one long (well, 118 pages long) giggle fest. Hence the 5 start rating!

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The Templeton Twins Have an Idea; Jeremy Holmes

The Templeton Twins Have an IdeaThe Templeton Twins Have an Idea by Jeremy  Holmes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Because I got this ARC on my Kindle, it was very (extremely!) difficult to read: odd artifacts in the text, some text grey while other bits were black, the drawings/artwork didn't render well, etc..  Still, based on the writing alone, I can say that this is in the vein of Lemony Snickett or Trenton Lee Stewart, with the snarky Narrator telling a tale of adventure and intelligent kids outsmarting the adults and will probably appeal to those middle grade readers who haven't gotten tired of that genre.

The Templeton Twins live with their professor father, an inventor.  Their mother has recently died and the family is reeling.  Their first idea is to convince their father that they should have a dog (they do convince him); shortly after, thanks to walking the dog and getting outside the house, their father moves the family to a new university (Tick Tock Tech).  There, he's accused of stealing an idea for a personal helicopter and the accuser, a former student, insists that he get not only credit, but all the royalties, etc. for this.  There's a kidnapping, a gunshot, a daring escape...

In addition to the snark factor, there's help figuring out cryptic crosswords and some very unfortunate acronyms.  The illustrations will probably enhance this but I couldn't really tell based on what I saw.

ARC provided by publisher.

21 July 2012

Scandal Wears Satin; Loretta Chase

Scandal Wears Satin (The Dressmakers, #2)Scandal Wears Satin by Loretta Chase
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's been a long time since I've read a historical romance, and it'll probably be a while before I read another. This is actually a good example of the genre and it that's your thing, you'll enjoy this.

This is the second in a series, and at first it takes a little to figure out who is what. Simply put, there are three English-but-raised-in-Paris dressmaker sisters, one of whom has just scandalized the Town by marrying the Duke of Clevedon (orphan, incredibly rich). Clevedon was very publicly denounced by Lady Clara, his supposed bethrothed - hence the hasty and poorly-thought-out marriage (which, it happens, is a marriage for - gasp! - love). The newly minted Duchess is still involved with Maison Noirot rather than retiring and taking her place in Society. Clevedon was sort-of raised by the Marquess Warford, father of Lady Clara and Lord Longmore. Longmore was Clevedon's best friend and is rather taken with Sophia (called Sophy), another of the Noirot sisters.

One night, at a ball, Lady Clara is put in a Compromising Position by Lord Adderly, a gambler so broke he has one week before he'll be run out of town. After Lady Warford declares the wedding will take place in a few weeks, Clara runs away; Longmore and Sophy race to find her. Then the three of them hatch a plan to rescue Clara from her impending nuptials. And, of course, along with way Longmore realizes he's in love with Sophy.

The author has given us three sisters who have three different talents (one is a designer, one is the business woman, and one is the brains) and three different hair colors (blonde, brunette and, yes, redhead). The Noirot's are descended from a Very Scandalous English Family, and they are the only remaining members after everyone was killed in cholera-ridden Paris. Longmore is, like Pooh, a bear of very little brain. Sophy is quick-witted, devious and charming in both English, French-accented broken English and French. There's a street urchin who can be 1. useful and 2. trained. These facts are iterated and reiterated so many times I almost started counting. And, sadly, at times the author... reverts to... and overuse of... elipses.

What moved this from a 2 to a 3 was the use of phrases like "His breathing quickened, and that instantly got his breeding organs excited." How can you not enjoy that?

ARC provided by publisher.

20 July 2012

Crackpot Palace; Jeffrey Ford

Crackpot Palace: StoriesCrackpot Palace: Stories by Jeffrey Ford
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This series of short stories that have (mostly) appeared elsewhere all have some element of odd twist (think "Twilight Zone" or Bradbury's Illustrated Man). The problem for me was that they felt forced, as though the author was given a task - say, a vampire tale (as in "Sit the Dead") - and wrote to fit that task rather than writing a story that just happened to have some twist. By twist, I mean something a little off: a sermon with heavier overtones, a trip to a magic show that goes awry, etc.. After a while, it was difficult to care about how the story would end or be changed from the norm for that genre; the author's notes at the end of each selection were very interesting, illuminating his thought process (see, his defense of "Dr. Lash Remembers" as being steampunk).

ARC provided by publisher.

19 July 2012

Origin; Jessica Khoury

OriginOrigin by Jessica Khoury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This books supposedly asks the questions about what makes us human, what our purpose is, and how far should people go to find perfection - sort of like Revived, Skinned or The Adoration of Jenna Fox do. In this case, a top secret lab in some jungle has used a flower, elysia, and some unknown catalyst to create an Immortal: Pia. Told from Pia's point-of-view, we meet the members of the Immortis team (all her "uncles" and "aunts", with the exception of one she calls Mother) and learn about her life with Little Cam.

New Cam's labs are involved with more than just the Immortis project, but everyone there has sworn to not talk about their lives pre-Little Cam, discuss literature or history (let alone have a map!), so Pia's been raised in a science-oriented bubble with no one her age around. For her 17th birthday she demands a party (something she's overheard a member of Little Cam talking about), and receives an illegal map of the world as a birthday present. She also learns that she's somewhere deep in the Amazon, and by escaping through a hole in the electrified fence, she meets a native tribe and starts to question the project, her life and its purpose. Some of her friends inside Little Cam support her, others are so invested in the Immortis project that they'd rather die than give the project up.

Having also read State of Wonder, the theme of Amazon miracle plants with life-altering properties felt a bit tired (although the target audience for Origin probably won't have read the Patchett book). The bigger problem was that I didn't really empathize with Pia, and the Immortis project felt very much like a German eugenics program.

ARC provided by publisher.

17 July 2012

Entice; Jessica Shirvington

Entice (The Violet Eden Chapters, # 2)Entice by Jessica Shirvington
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I could swear I've read this before: angels, some fallen and some sent, doing battle. Humans who don't know that they have other powers mixed in with the angels and "regular" humans. A child with a dead mother who doesn't know her true heritage. Yawn.

100 pages in and I just didn't care about the Grigori, their mission, the love triangle (if that's what it was - it felt more complicated than a mere triangle!). DNF, obviously.

ARC provided by publisher.

Those We Love Most; Lee Woodruff

Those We Love MostThose We Love Most by Lee Woodruff
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

About a quarter of the way though, I realized this was going to be a DNF. Why? This book felt a little as though the author was trying to work something out for herself, and there was a little bit of "kitchen sinking" (where the problems the four main characters are having are neither surprising nor terribly interesting, but put there because someone has to be having this sort of problem to make the plot go forward).

The loss of a child does cause major disruption in a family and in the interfamily relationships, and had the individuals been slightly less predictable it might have been a better book.

ARC provided by publisher.

16 July 2012

Summer and Bird; Katherine Catmull

Summer and BirdSummer and Bird by Katherine Catmull
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I read this, I wasn't sure what to think: in part, this is magical realism for young adults, in part it's some sort of fable, and in part it's something I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Summer and Bird are the daughters of a couple who live in a little stone cottage near a forest. One night, the parents disappear and the girls go off in search of them. The search takes them into the forest where they get separated... alone, Summer meets Ben, who keeps her warm, tells her stories, and gives her three gifts; Bird follows the birds, whose language she understands, to the place called Down. By the end, Summer and Bird have learned who they are as they learn who their parents are.

The setting of the forest, Down and the swan palace are all at odds with the initial comment that there was a cell phone in the house - this feels as though it should have been set in some past rather than the present (although, to be fair, the parts at home, in the modern day, aren't really a part of the main narrative. perhaps that's why I felt it so jarring?). While I enjoyed the book, a part of me wondered how much the target audience would, or if this was going to be one of those books that adults love and young adults ignore.

ARC provided by publisher.

In a Glass Grimmly; Adam Gidwitz

In a Glass GrimmlyIn a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

New twists on fairy/folk tales?  Yes, please.  A snarky narrator? Yes, yes, please.  So yes, I was quite happy with this sequel/follow-up to A Tale Dark and Grimm.

The stories here are about Jack, Jill and Frog and their adventures looking for the Seeing Glass.  Of course there are morals and Lessons, not to mention salamanders. Younger readers not familiar with stories like The Goblin Market won't find that a problem, while older readers will enjoy this take/twist on the story.  They'll also enjoy the thread of Jack and Jill running through this: Jack is not only the guy behind the beanstalk adventure, he's also the giant killer, the guy who "broke his crown", etc..  And Jill?  She's also his cousin, and the real victim of the invisible suit (see also "Emperor's New Clothes").

Here's hoping for yet another book!

ARC provided by publisher.

13 July 2012

The Great Escape; Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The Great Escape (Wynette, Texas, #7)The Great Escape by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Completely predictable, but a perfect beach "chick lit" read!

Lucy runs away literally seconds before heading up the aisle to marry the perfect, wonderful Ted (whom no one in his hometown thinks she's worthy of marrying). Hiding in an alley nearby she meets Panda, a crude biker... and before she can really think about it, they're off. A week in a cabin on a Louisiana lake only serves to clarify two things: she's not ready to go home, and she's deeply intrigued by Panda. He drops her off at the Memphis airport, she rents a car to follow him to a Michigan island. Turns out he was really a bodyguard hired by Lucy's parents (Mom is a former POTUS). Also on the island is Bree, running from a failed marriage and the "inheritor" of both a honey stand and Toby, the son of her former BFF. Big Mike, an island native who ruined Bree's teen love affair, is still on the island. Then Panda arrives with Temple, a TV trainer/host/"inspiration" on a "Biggest Loser"-esque show who has gained weight and needs to get back in shape before the next season.

As I said, it's completely predictable: all the questions and problems are resolved by the end, and love abounds. That's not to say this isn't a great beach read or a fun, light book to pass the time. That this is the seventh book in the series makes absolutely no difference, another plus.

ARC provided by publisher.

10 July 2012

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns; Margaret Dilloway

The Care and Handling of Roses with ThornsThe Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Galilee (known as Gal) Garner is a 38-year-old biology teacher who breeds roses as a hobby. She's a loner, with her only friend being the art teacher at her private school. And she's on dialysis a few times a week, thanks to not only having had her kidneys die when she was a child but having rejected two donated kidneys; her doctor has her on the transplant list, but there are some blood flow problems to contend with first. The parents at her school are not happy with her, because in addition to teaching AP Biology, she's one of the hardest grader in the school - frequently failing more than half her students when they don't meet expectations on her tests. Gal is one of those curmudgeons, blunt to the point of rudeness, never allowing for ambiguity or softness in her transactions. One day her niece, Riley, appears. Becky, Riley's mother and Gal's older sister, has suddenly been transferred to Hong Kong and sent Riley to stay with Gal.

This is a book that asks the rather cliched questions: will Gal soften? will Riley settle in and enjoy living with Gal? will Becky and Gal reconcile? will Gal get a new kidney? etc. With only one exception, those questions are all answered in the way one would assume. If the author had been a little bolder with her choices, this would have been a more enjoyable book.

There's a lot in here about how to breed roses, which was interesting. The discussions of how to breed them, care for them and what the different types in some ways mirror Gal's year pre- and post-Riley's arrival, and the somewhat cutthroat nature of the rose shows was a little surprising.

A minor quibble: AP exams are in May, not June (though that might be one of the the things that changes between now and official publication).

ARC provided by publisher.

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08 July 2012

Too Big to Know; David Weinberger

Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the RoomToo Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room by David Weinberger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was less a new book and more a book-length response to Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", and, as with New and Quiet, this book could easily have been half the length. The author talks at length about how research used to be done, how research used to be reported, how newspapers used to be the "record", etc. and how now, in the Internet age, thanks to the ease of crowdsourcing and self-publishing, those traditional "experts with official imprimatur" are now losing ground to the general public and nontraditional experts.

The theses are interesting, but several of the chapters went on far too long. For example, "Too Much Science" could have been halved and would have been far more effective. More on how we can create new 'metadata' that identifies experts, more on how the wisdom of the crowd can be used to increase our knowledge, and how we can better filter out the noise would have been very helpful. Leaving the world of science and looking more at reporting (for example, using 'nonexperts' to prove or disprove stories) would also have been interesting.

The Raven Boys; Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys (Raven Cycle, #1)The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I so wanted to give this a 5, but after reflecting, it's really a 4... maybe a 4.5.

Set in Henrietta, Virginia, a relatively poor area with one prep school that attracts the sons of the very rich, very powerful, this story of friendship is threaded with mysticism and psychic energy. There are four boys, Gansey (incredibly rich, polite and the leader), Ronan (incredibly rich, angry and recently lost his father and his home), Adam (incredibly driven, smart and from the local trailer park) and Noah (a smudgy cipher), all bound up in Gansey's search for ley lines and Owen Glendower. Then there's Blue, a local girl who lives with her mother, her mother's friends, a few female relatives, all of whom are in some way psychic (except Blue, who merely amplifies their abilities) and who hates - really hates - the Algionby Academy boys.

In some ways this is like The Secret History, with the intensity of the relationships between the boys and their insular world living off campus in a former factory. The addition of the ley lines, the Glendower search, the appearance of Calebwater and Blue's family are interesting additions.

The problem is twofold: the pacing, which speeds up towards the end but could have benefited with less time spent on Gansey's, Adam's and Ronan's home lives, and the cursory attention ley lines, etc.. get. There is some explanation, but more might have been nice. And why was this not a stand alone? The questions of what happened towards the end, what's going on with Ronan and whether Blue's predicted fatal kiss will come true could be left unanswered.

ARC provided by publisher.

07 July 2012

The Dark Unwinding; Sharon Cameron

The Dark UnwindingThe Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A young woman, dependent on her aunt for housing and food, is sent off to the wilds of England to declare an uncle (guilty of wasting the family fortune) incompetent. Of course he lives in one of those bizarre houses, filled with odd rooms and dark passages, not to mention angry, silent servants. Katherine is not at all prepared for what she finds: a very childlike uncle with a mind filled with math and engines and designs, employing nearly 900 people to run an estate that creates... it's not quite clear what, but porcelain is among the products. (apparently this is based somewhat on Welbeck Abbey)

Katherine soon realizes that her job is not going to be that easy and grants a 30 day respite before returning to London and her aunt, and the declaration of her uncle's incompetency. Uncle Tully takes to Katherine, calling her "Simon's child" (her father was one of his brothers), allowing her to help wind his clocks and inventions, showing her the workroom and even going on a day's outing. She also starts to become friends with Lane, her uncle's dogsbody, Lucy, her "ladies maid", Ben, a soon-to-be-teacher, and Davy, a mute boy rescued (like virtually everyone on the estate) from the London workhouses. It's not just the oddness of the estate that intrigues her - though rollerskating in the underground ballroom is a highlight - it's also her occasional nighttime nightmarish episodes. She isn't drinking, but for some reason she has these bizarre out-of-body, out-of-mind experiences at night.

The 30 days pass, and Katherine needs to make a decision. However, there's someone on the estate who has decided what that decision should be and will do almost anything to ensure it goes the way they want. It's at this point that the book takes an even more Gothic turn, changing from a vaguely humorous exploration of this strange world towards a more horror novel.

That the majority of the characters are late teens-early twenties is probably why this is being sold as a YA book; however, the Victorian Era setting means that they behave in a far more adult manner than today's teens. I could see this appealing far more to older students rather than the 12-16 crowd.

ARC provided by publisher.

06 July 2012

Adaptation; Malinda Lo

AdaptationAdaptation by Malinda Lo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two average high school juniors travel from San Francisco to Phoenix for a debate championship. Their return home is delayed by an incredibly odd occurrence: two threefour planes crash around the country thanks to "bird strikes". Actually, according to conspiracy site bin42, there were many more crashes and the government is covering this all up. On the drive home, there's a car crash and the teens wake up a month later in a mysterious government medical facility in Nevada... on their return home, things aren't quite normal.

The teens, David and Reese, team up with Julian to explore (and explain) what's going on - what's being covered up, and why people are bugging Reese's home. And then there's Amber, who literally skateboards into Reese and into her heart. Who Amber is, exactly, seems to be a mystery, fueled by the fact that she seems to know the doctor who treated Reese after the accident.

I knew this was going to be a little different when within the first few pages The Left Hand of Darkness was namechecked and setting a conspiracy book in San Francisco is perfect, as it hearkens to Little Brother. My problem with it was I kept thinking how much better this book would be if the leads were switched, with David as the main character and Reese as the secondary. Why? Because there are so many of these books now with strong female leads, and a strong male would make this a better sale to boy readers.

ARC provided by publisher.

Carnival of Souls; Melissa Marr

Carnival of SoulsCarnival of Souls by Melissa Marr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a little like Daughter of Smoke and Bone in tone: a girl raised away from her family, given training and a set of rules to live by, and moving every so often. Here in the human world, Mallory and her adopted(?) father, Adam, a witch, train with guns and other fighting methods as he teaches her to hate and fear the daimon world. Back in the daimon world, Aya fights in battles to the death in order to gain entry into the ruling circle (she's already reneged on her engagement to Belias). And then there's Kaleb, a "cur" who's also part of the fight competition but who travels to the human world and befriends Mallory.

Whose allegiance is to whom? What secrets do Adam, Aya and Kaleb conceal? Can witch and daimon live together in peace, and should they? Of course none of these (and other) questions is going to be answered in this book, there's at least one more on the way.

The daimon world and caste structure was a little difficult to understand, and readers will need to persevere to get a full grasp of that world; the human world is a little easier, as it seems to be very similar to ours with the addition of witches (it's a little unclear how accepted witches are by the humans, but it's also not important... yet). The fighting rings and Carnival of Souls are the most realized locations, and where we spend the most time. The various vows and allegiances are also a little complicated to follow, but I'm sure that will be clarified in the next book.

ARC provided by publisher.

Betrayal; Gregg Olsen

BetrayalBetrayal by Gregg Olsen
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A DNF - while the plot was interesting, the writing was getting to me and I gave up after the "banana bread loaf-sized muffin top" jiggling in the "skinny jeans [that] only work if you're actually skinny".  The author needs to cut back the adjectives and extraneous descriptive phrases by about 2/3 and beef up the rest of the plot.

Which, as I said, did look interesting: a British exchange student, Olivia, is violently murdered at a Hallowe'en party.  The hostess, Bree, is rich, self-involved and overly indulged; and the homestay hostess, Beth, and Olivia had an argument before the party.  Or possibly this death had something to do with the death (in a previous book) of Katelyn.

Thanks to the writing style, I'll never know.  Perhaps those less bothered by it will enjoy this.

ARC provided by publisher.

05 July 2012

The Encyclopedia of Me; Karen Rivers

The Encyclopedia of MeThe Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Take away the format (an encyclopedia with entries from Aa to Zoo) and you're left with a rather average story about a girl, Isobel (known as Tink). She's 13, her BFF is named Freddie Blue, her father is Afro-Caribbean and her mother is a white redhead, and she has two older twin brothers, one with autism and one without. Tink goes through the usual crises of the early teen years of watching her BFF change, finding other friends (or not), getting a boyfriend (or not), etc. much as any other 13-year-old does in most other books.

It's the encyclopedic format that's supposed to make this different and, well, it doesn't. Some of the entries are amusing, but those have clearly been put there to fill out the book. It's not quite padding, because they're deliberately included by Tink. There are other, much longer entries that propel the plot (for example, the entry on "Boarding" or the one on "Mega Mall"). Perhaps if the author had stuck with a non-linear plot, this might have worked, but as the plot is linear while the encyclopedia isn't... it feels odd and forced.

ARC provided by publisher.

04 July 2012

3 Below; Patrick Carman

Floors #2: 3 Below3 Below by Patrick Carman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This falls into that "mysterious and weird things happen to kids" genre: the previous book sets up this one, where Leo is now the owner of the Whippet Hotel, an odder-than-normal hotel in New York.  Odder than normal means that there are floors that don't appear where one would assume they do, the ducks on the roof have their own elevator, there's a double helix elevator, a puzzle room and many other wonders.

In this book, Leo and his best friend/new stepbrother Remi are asked by the former owner, Merganzer, to obtain a few items for him, including money to pay back taxes.  Their search is complicated by the fact that the now-banned Ms. Sparks is colluding with Mr. Yancey to purchase the hotel and tear it down in favor of a Trump-like monstrosity.  Along the way they meet Ingrid and Dr. Flart, drink Flart's Flizz and eat Zoooob, and encounter Loopa (a very tiny monkey), giant ants, a domino puzzle... and many other things.

This will definitely appeal to Mr. Carman's fans, particularly those middle grade boys who like Roald Dahl and think the Carman books are approaching Dahl's genius.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Last Dragonslayer; Jasper Fforde

The Last DragonslayerThe Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'd thought this was going to have the humor of the Thursday Next or Nursery Crimes series, but it's a more serious book than any of those.

Set in the Ununited Kindgoms, specifically the Kingdom of Hereford, we meet Jennifer Strange, a foundling indentured to the Kazam Mystical Arts Management agency; she's actually the only non-magical person there and nominally in charge since the Great Zambini's disappearance.  Magic is on the wane in the UK, yet for some reason the Kazam employees are experiencing a surge in power.

The surge might be connected to Big Magic and to Remarkable Kevin Zipp's prediction that the last dragon will be killed on Sunday.  Jennifer is training the next indentured servant, Tiger Prawns, when she learns she's the Last Dragonslayer - and that the prediction will lead to war between Hereford and Brecon, an incredible land grab in the soon-to-be-erstwhile Dragonland, and possibly the end of magic anywhere.

There's a lot of potential here for humor: the Quarkbeast, the magicians who inhabit Zambini Towers (the Mysterious X, for example, or the self-cleaning floor 11), the whole dragon mythology.  Sadly, for some reason, Fforde doesn't take full advantage of the opportunities he's given himself.

If I were buying his books for middle grade readers, I'd stick with the Nursery Crimes and avoid this.

ARC provided by publisher.

02 July 2012

Horten's Incredible Illusions; Lissa Evans

Horten's Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery & Another Very Strange AdventureHorten's Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery & Another Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that will definitely suffer if you haven't read the first book, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms. Continuing the story, Stuart Horten (10, but looks younger) and April (also 10) start to look at the incredible magical tricks that Stuart's uncle, Tiny Tiny Tony Horton, left: somewhere in there is his will, indicating who should inherit the tricks.

Using a combination of luck, observation and puzzle-solving, the two explore the various tricks, figuring out how they work and and going on some incredible adventures (again). Adding to their stress is Rowena Allsopp, the Midland's marvelous reporter and Miss Edie Carr, an old, amazingly Rich (with a capital R) woman who wants to buy the tricks because her grandmother wanted her to - never mind that her grandmother died before the tricks were even invented.

This is one for the Benedict Society crowd, with the added bonus of vocabulary building (it's funnier than that sounds). >ARC provided by publisher.

01 July 2012

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend; Matthew Green

Memoirs of an Imaginary FriendMemoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Green
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Budo is the imaginary friend of Max, a third grader on the ASD continuum.  He's older than any other imaginary friend he's met and he has a pretty good understanding of what his role is and his limitations are: he's there to keep Max company, no one human (except Max) can see him, and he can go through walls and doors.  Since Max imagined him as a very human looking friend and as being a little older that Max is, his voice is more than of a fifth grader, even when he doesn't understand concepts like finding rocks in mines or visits to old, unused prisons.

Budo is also savvier than Max with a better understanding of human reactions/interactions and when Max starts doing something with Mrs. Patterson (whom Budo doesn't like or trust), Budo starts to worry.  Then Mrs. Peterson takes Max, and Budo is his only chance.

The conceit is an interesting one, with vague tinges of Pinocchio and The Velveteen Rabbit. What sets this apart is the concept of "death", or the disappearance of imaginary friends - once their human doesn't need them or believe in them any more, they vanish.  Budo's own existence is in question, given Max's age.

That makes the book difficult to sell: it's not quite an adult book, the idea of imaginary friends may turn off young adults, and a little too old for middle grade readers.  For those readers who find this, they'll enjoy it.

ARC provided by publisher.

Every Day; David Levithan

Every DayEvery Day by David Levithan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Such an interesting concept: a disembodied being who spends each day in a different body: male/female, fat/thin, studious/athletic, ecstatic/depressed, in love/hating the world, gay/straight/transgendered/bi, rich/poor and many other aspects of normal human experience need to be "accessed" before A can start the day in the human host. Unlike other "possession" stories, there's no indication of why A's life is this way, what A actually is and when (if) A can ever be like the rest of us. In other stories, there are lessons learned and insights gained, but not here - A just moves from body to body to body, each day different, trying not to leave too much of an impact on the other person's life.

Then one day A is in Justin's body and meets Justin's girlfriend, Rhiannon. Suddenly, A is breaking all the self-imposed rules: rather than Justin's sullenness, he's nice to Rhiannon, skipping out to go to the beach for the afternoon. Then A decides to stay in contact with Rhiannon... then confesses who/what he/she is. How can they have a real relationship when one day A is a hot girl and the next an obese boy and the next a jock? A also leaves an impression of his/her presence on Nathan, which opens a whole other set of problems.

In a less-skilled author's hands this could be a mess, but as it is this story leaves the reader aching for both Rhiannon and A and their relationship, and angry about what happens with Nathan. By the end, there are no tidy ends, only some loose ones, which is so refreshing.

ARC provided by publisher.