31 August 2012

Girl With a Pearl Earring; Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl EarringGirl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this - it's been on Mt. Bookpile since the mid-90s!

This is a relatively quick read, less art history (I'd hoped for more about the Vermeer paintings) than historical fiction about Griet, the Vermeer maid painted in the Girl With... painting. The author supposes how she, a Protestant, feels working for a Catholic family, what her relationships with the other maid and the Vermeer family are, and how she feels about the painting. Griet is modest, uncomfortable by the way Vermeer, Pietr (the butcher's boy) and one of Vermeer's clients look at her. She's also wary of letting anyone see her hair, supposedly a wavy auburn that makes her look like a girl who hangs out in alleys (not that she and Pietr don't do some of that on their own). These traits lead to the unusual hairdressing; the pearl precipitates her leaving the Vermeer household for marriage and life on the butcher's stall.

More about the process of the painting would have made this a 5-star, but the backstory about life during that time was very interesting.

27 August 2012

Flight Behavior; Barbara Kingsolver

Flight BehaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author has a real point to make here: global warming is bad, logging is bad, they're killing the monarch butterfly population and Attention Must Be Paid. That message is interwoven with the story of Dellarobia Turnbow, a poor farmer's wife who used to have dreams of college and something better.

Dellarobia married Cub at 17, pregnant with his child. She miscarried, and rather than leave Cub and continue with her plans for college she stays, eventually having Preston and Cordelia. One day, thinking she was so fed up that she was ready to have an affair with a much younger man, she walks up the hill from their farm and - it's a miracle. The valley at the top of the hill is alive with "flame". This sight turns her around, convinced that she should keep on the path she's already on.

We learn that this "field of flame" is really an aberration: millions(?) of monarch butterflies, who usually winter in Mexico, have descended on this valley in Tennessee. Soon it's national news, and then Dr. Ovid Byron moves in to an RV parked near their barn. Ovid (and his graduate students, post-docs and volunteers) study monarchs, occasionally pontificating on the horrors of global warming and the loss of the monarch. It's at those moments that the book lost me.

Dellarobia's journey was interesting, the monarchs a little less so. When characters start to serve as mouthpieces or deliver great scads of polemic, I tend to tune out. That's not to say that there isn't something to worry about, that I'm a denier of climate change, just that it felt as though Ovid could have been edited down a little more. The scene with him and the tv reporter? Totally unnecessary.

The ending also felt off: when did Dellarobia and Cub come to the decisions they did? What about her new insights into Hester and Bear? It was rushed, and had less Big Message been packed in perhaps we could have had a better ending.

ARC provided by publisher.

25 August 2012

Walking on Glass; Iain Banks

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love Iain Banks but am not so fond of Iain M. Banks, and this book felt as though the latter was influencing the former. As with The Song of Stone, this was an iffy book for me.

There are three intertwined stories here, although we don't learn how they mingle until the last part. First, there's Graham, in love with Sara (who is escaping her marriage, is also involved with Strokes - a biker - and keeps Graham at semi-arms-length). Second, there's Steven, an ASD (before that term existed) hoarder with paranoid delusions; he's just quit his job, rather than be fired, so as to not give "them" any more power in his life, but this will complicate his getting benefits. Third, there's Quiss, imprisoned in a strange castle and forced to play games with Ajaya (another prisoner in the Therapeutic Wars) - together they must answer the question "what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?".

The stories only come together at the very end, and the pacing of that doesn't quite match the first part of the book. Apparently, the author himself wasn't happy with the ending, which made me feel better!

22 August 2012

The Stockholm Octavo; Karen Engelmann

The Stockholm Octavo: A NovelThe Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books set in Sweden seem to be dark mysteries with some seriously twisted people at the heart of them. This isn't that - this is historical fiction, set in the 1790s, during the time of revolution (American and French), war (with Russia, Prussia and others) and great upheaval. King Gustav is supposedly one of those enlightened monarchs, one who stages his own coup that gave power to the people, much to the dismay (and displeasure) of the nobles. Those dismayed include his brother, Duke Karl, who leads the Patriots.

Our hero, Emil, is a Customs and Excise Secretary who is a bit of a card sharp, and unmarried. His supervisor disapproves of both, and gives Emil an ultimatum: marry or find another job. In a little distress, he talks to Sophia Sparrow, a Frenchwoman who runs a private gaming room and a sideline as a Seer. Mme. Sparrow is a cartomancer, using cards to divine the future. And here we get to the Stockholm Octavo. The Octavo is a divination method much like Tarot cards mixed with Jungian archetypes, with the cards standing in for various people (a Trickster, a Magpie, etc.). Once you have found your eight, the events you're trying to influence will happen. Emil, fixated on his need to find a wife, consistently misidentifies the people in his Octavo, only finding his eighth at the very last moment. Somehow his Octavo is intertwined with that of Mme. Sparrow's and combined they become the Stockholm Octavo, fortelling the future of King Gustav's reign and possibly those of the French monarchs.

There's also a lot of fan information - the Cassiopeia fan plays a major role, as do fan makers, fan collectors and the proper use of a fan. I only wish there'd been more on that, perhaps with an afterword with illustrations showing what some of the positions mean. The language of fans, like that of flowers, is one of those lost languages we should strive to bring back.

This intermingling of history and the fiction of the Octavo makes for a very interesting book (there's a part of me that would like to have someone do my Octavo!). And what I knew about Swedish history was, well, limited is putting it nicely.

ARC provided by publisher.

21 August 2012

Endangered; Eliot Schrefer

EndangeredEndangered by Eliot Schrefer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is, I'm sure, going to be a minority review; already there seems to be much love for this book.

Here's why it didn't work for me: it felt like a non-fiction book about Congo and saving the bonobos that the author realized wouldn't sell, so he dressed it up as fiction. It's too filled with facts and too deliberately tugging on our heartstrings for me to get into the fiction. Yes, Congo is a dysfunctional country (the capital has only two paved roads, we learn), and yes, the bonobo are our closest "relative" (we share 98% of our DNA with them). Had the book cited its sources, students could use it in a report or research paper.

As I said, I recognize that many people will overlook the writing and the true non-fiction nature of the book in favor of the sentimental, oh-we-have-to-do-somethingness of the message.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Fire Chronicle; John Stephens

The Fire Chronicle (The Books of Beginning, #2)The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wasn't overly thrilled with The Emerald Atlas and even less so with this middle-of-the-trilogy book; the influences of Rowling, Tolkein, Lewis and others was just so overt and the new blend didn't work for me.

Example? A Big Bad who is supposed to be dead, but somehow still lives in an incorporeal form (and is looking to find a "new" body). Example? A world of magic and a world of 'normal' that exist side-by-side but with the normals not realizing (at least, they don't after the Great Separation).

Now that they have the Atlas, the Wibberly's are back at the Baltimore orphanage they hate; events conspire to separate them, sending Kate to turn-of-the-century New York and Michael and Emma first to Italy, then to Tierra del Fuego and on to Antarctica and a hidden valley. The Fire Chronicle is the second of the Books they're looking for, more properly known as the Book of Life - and they're looking for the final book, the Book of Death.

I won't be on the quest with them.

ARC provided by publisher.

20 August 2012

Dodger; Terry Pratchett

DodgerDodger by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Usually a Pratchett gets a 5, but this one... there was something missing. Maybe it was the lack of humor? or that the Dickensian view of London was a little convenient? Or that I didn't really care about what happened to Miss Simplicity? Whatever the reason, it was a 4, not a 5.

Dodger (clearly the influence for Oliver's Artful friend) lives in the rookeries in Seven Dials, London. He's a tosher, a friend to all, and the "lodger" of Solomon Cohen, a Jewish jeweler/watchmaker (among other things). One day he rescues a young woman being beaten by some thugs, and his life changes. Charlie (Dickens) makes a hero out of him, reporting this rescue and starting him on a career that will intersect with Benjamin Disraeli and the Queen. Oh, and he's responsible for the take-down of Sweeney Todd. The questions of whether he'll get the girl, whether he can truly overcome his tosher/orphan background are mostly irrelevant because the outcome is obvious. The only obvious outcome that didn't happen is we never learn Dodger's background (I was waiting for some Lord or minor noble to emerge as the father).

More about the Lady would have been nice. More about Solomon's background would have been nice. The biggest surprise for me was that Dodger was 17, as throughout most of the book I was guessing 14(ish). Still, this look at early Victorian era London is well done and is an interesting, less wordy companion to Dickens' works.

ARC provided by publisher.

15 August 2012

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone; Kat Rosenfield

Amelia Anne is Dead and GoneAmelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those book that is gathering a lot of love and I felt rather "meh" about. Why? In part it's the slightly florrid writing ("Stan's gesturing hand passed over the woman - the life wring out in bruises beneath her eyes, soaking and blooming and drying the dirt, as he waved his palm over her breasts and the curve of her hip and her delicate, motionless face."). Whew! It felt like very other sentence was like that, which is a little tiring.

The other problem I had was with Becca. She's supposed to have Big Plans, wanting desperately to get away from the town and its gossips and lack of, well, anything. The finding of the body and how that affects her is supposed to be freighted with meaning, but I didn't really get that. Even her relationship with James felt muted. The parallels between Becca and Amelia Anne are (per the jacket copy) strong, but again, I read them as muted. Was I supposed to worry that Becca, too, would end up dead? Or that she was trapped in this small, backwards town? It wasn't clear.

The mystery of who the dead girl is, who killed her and who knew what could have been far sharper, particularly if the writing had been toned down. Becca's emotions (hinted at, but often ignored for pages) could also have been more prominent.

Copy provided by publisher.

12 August 2012

Live By Night; Dennis Lehane

Live by NightLive by Night by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this, but something kept me from loving it. Maybe it was that there seemed to be no clear purpose to Joe's life? Or maybe it was something else? Whatever, it was a good solid 3, but didn't quite make it to a 4.

Ultimately this is a story of fathers and sons, and of friendship and loyalty. The father/son pairings here (and one father/daughter) are so messed up it's sad: Joseph and his father, for example, don't like each other and Dad even helps the police find Joe and beat him nearly senseless. So clearly it's friendship and loyalty that are more critical to survival and happiness than familial relationships, right? Except how do you know when your friends are faithful?

Joe has to deal with that on all sides: his friend Dion, for example, might be true, or he might have been the guy who sold out Joe, Dino and Paulo during the botched Pittsburgh bank robbery. Is Maso really looking out for Joe (in part because of Joe's father, in part because later Joe's organization makes a ton of money running rum from Florida), or will he give in to pressure to "leave something" for his son, Digger, an idiot not worthy of the honor? Are the women he meets, Emma and Graciela, really on his side?

That's the more interesting stuff - the parts about Prohibition and speakeasies and the Mob ("this thing we're in") are less so. Perhaps it's because they're a little glossed over, described but left a little pale on the page in favor of the relationships. Even more important is Joe's insistence that he's not a killer, not a gangster, he's an outlaw, and how those mental gymnastics work.

ARC provided by publisher.

11 August 2012

Necromancing the Stone; Lish McBride

Necromancing the StoneNecromancing the Stone by Lish McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd loved the first book (Hold Me Closer, Necromancer) and had hoped that it wasn't part of a series... I take that back now. This is a worthy sequel and that there will be more books? I'm ok with that.

Set only a few weeks after the previous books events, Sam is trying to come to terms with being a necromancer, having killed Douglas and helped turn his BFF Ramon into a were-bear, and a host of other problems. Like the gnomes who keep pulling pranks. Or the hedges who grab him as he passes. Or James, Douglas' servant, a pukis who can change between cat, dragon and human forms, who really doesn't like the fact that he's part of Sam's inheritance. Then Brannoc, the leader of the were pack and Brid's father, is murdered and Sam's problems really start.

Once again, it's the humor here that rescues this from the morass of the paranormal books that are coming out now. Every chapter title is a song lyric, which doesn't help because of the revolving earworms readers will experience. No, that's not a real complaint. And any book that ends with the hero getting a panda tattoo? And a zombie panda tattoo? Bring it on!

ARC provided by publisher.

10 August 2012

Son; Lois Lowry

Son (The Giver, #4)Son by Lois Lowry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I so badly wanted to love this book but... It started with a handicap, in my mind, because I really loved the ambiguity at the end of The Giver: did Jonas and Gabriel make it? or did they die?. It was a great conversation to have with students and now, well, we know what happened. We also now know what happens to Kira (Gathering Blue) and Matty (Messenger). Sigh. Of course, the author wrote this because she was curious, not because she was giving in to Reichenbach Falls-like pressure to bring back the characters. Still... sigh.

Claire is a few years older than Jonas and her career was Birthmother; due to some problem at her first birth, she is reassigned to Fish Hatchery. She's dissatisfied and actively seeks information about her son, and this dissatisfaction also leads her to escape from the village. In the next section, she is rescued from the ocean by villagers in a very different situation: they're on a peninsula, separated from the rest of the world by a virtually impassible mountain cliff. Claire's memory of prior events is gone, although she knows letters (children in this village are not schooled) and that where she was from is nothing like where she is now. Slowly she heals, her memory returns and she plots an escape with the help from Lame Elias, the only person who has ever climbed the cliff. She succeeds, making a very bad trade in exchange for finding her son. Ultimately she ends up in a third village, again very different from the first two, where the stories of the previous books are resolved.

The training scenes in Village Two go on a little long, I thought. More about how this place differs from the first (or third) would have been far better. The same goes for Claire's scaling the cliff. Beyond that, it was interesting to revisit the world of The Giver, in part because it was so different from other worlds I'd read about at the time (now, of course, Matched and so many other dystopias have been inspired by Lowry's work).

ARC provided by publisher.

09 August 2012

Consent of the Networked; Rebecca MacKinnon

Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet FreedomConsent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom by Rebecca MacKinnon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's not surprising that some of this book is already dated, or that additional examples of how we, the networked, are giving over consent to the ISPs and companies. It's also not surprising that Ms. MacKinnon, a reporter formerly based in China, would go into much detail about how the Chinese regime controls the network and access. The result, however, is a book that is starting to feel a little dated (nothing about Google's new "one policy/one login serves all" policy or about Salman Rushdie's Facebook fight to be known by that name as opposed to his "real" name) and where the reader may wonder about how countries other than those in the Middle East, America or China are dealing with some of these issues. A more concrete plan or suggestions on how we can help form and affect policy would also have been helpful.

Once you get past those problems, however, this is a good snapshot of how our desire to be networked and to communicate with friends, colleagues and strangers via all the social media tools (and old-fashioned tools like e-mail) has been affected by our government's censorship and the corporate leadership at places like Cisco, Google, Yahoo and Facebook. I did wonder how (if) Facebook will change as Mark Zuckerberg ages and has children, or if anyone has pressured him to be in a room with some of the people who are most at risk thanks to the "use your real name" transparency push.

This is the sort of book that should be excerpted as required reading for high school students, to help them start to think about the implications of how and where they're interacting with others on-line. It also works as a way to show teacher and professors why these tools are such powerful primary sources when dealing with current events, in addition to being a cautionary tale about power elites and their control of the masses.

The Other Normals; Ned Vizzini

The Other Normals The Other Normals by Ned Vizzini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was such a great book for the slightly geeky boy who is into RPGs (and possibly a fan of "The Big Bang Theory"). Perry's experience playing Creatures & Caverns by himself makes him a sadder character than the usual hero, but his actions in the World of the Other Normals will make them cheer.

It's his incredible geekiness and lack of social skills that makes him endearing. The scene at the dance? Priceless, and one that will resonate with just the boys who should read this book. Ditto his rant about being a Late Bloomer (and the Discovery of the Hair). He's so out of place in our world that you know that something will have to change. The changes he undergoes are obviously not normal (how many readers will end up in another version of the universe?) so aren't really inspirational except that they may give those gamers hope for the future.

My biggest complaint was that the C&C game wasn't well-explained, and the Other Normals' world didn't seem to match the game. Had that happened, it would have tipped the book into a 5-star.

ARC provided by publisher.

Magisterium; Jeff Hirsch

 Magisterium Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This version of a post-apocalyptic world wasn't really anything different from what I've read before. Think Gaiman's Stardust, or any other book about a society with a government that has separated the "real" (or "known") world from Out There. Here, the Colloquium (which has advanced science and space travel) keeps the population inside the Rift - outside is a wasteland created when a bomb of some sort went off over a hundred years earlier. Glenn's life is about getting into the space service and taking her rescue cat, Hopkins, with her to 813, a distant star. Mom left 10 years earlier and since then Dad, a promising inventor, has become increasingly obsessed with some mysterious invention he's working on at home.

Glenn's friend Kevin is convinced that on the other side of the Rift is something interesting, but it isn't until the mysterious invention is revealed (it's a bracelet that will take the Colloquium's technology through the Rift into the Magisterium) that Glenn - who has reported the bracelet to Kevin's father, who told the Authority, who arrest Dad and try to take Glenn and Kevin - tries to escape to this unknown realm. Of course there is something there, something that has evolved differently than those on the other side of the Rift.

And equally of course, Glenn plays a major role in the battle between the two. There are many readers for whom this genre hasn't burned out, so they'll enjoy this book. For me, this wasn't as good as The Eleventh Plague and has a strong whiff of "trilogy" to it.

ARC provided by publisher.

Pinned; Sharon G. Flake

PinnedPinned by Sharon G. Flake
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This reads a little like an urban lit version of Pride and Prejudice, but Adonis is even less likeable than Darcy!

Told in alternating chapters, Autumn is a barely literate, barely numerate wrestler who is an amazing chef and is in love with Adonis. Adonis was born without legs and raised to be self-sufficient, he's also one of the top students in the class and the Assistant Coach for the wrestling team. Their story could have been a wonderful story about two teens from completely different worlds and backgrounds and how they come together (as in what I think is the source material) but Adonis is just horrible.

It's not just the Darcian "better than thou" attitude, it's Adonis' internal monologue that was simply unlikeable. Why Autumn, who seems to be a genuinely nice person with a serious problem, would continue to like him is beyond me - even Lizzie gave up on Darcy, including after he declared his love "against his better nature and reason".

ARC provided by publisher.

06 August 2012

Stealing Air; Trent Reedy

Stealing AirStealing Air by Trent Reedy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading this I thought of many of Gary B. Schmidt's books, which I have a difficult time selling to MG readers but are loved by adults. The themes of bullying and owning your geekiness are not presented in a way that will really appeal to the target readers, although the skateboarding and the experimental airplane might (the rocket bicycle? definitely cool!).

Brian's move from Seattle to Iowa isn't starting well - his skateboarding skills are impressive, but he's run afoul of Frankie, the class bully. Rescued by Max, a Star Trek loving inventor, he tries to figure out how to fit in; Alex, his grandfather's handboy makes up the third in their Eagle's Nest lab. Alex is one of those fickle friends, hanging with the cool kids and ignoring Brian during school but being one of the "gang" after school and on weekends. That isn't as touched on as it could have been. Frankie's reasons for being "mean" are also touched on, but his comeuppance doesn't seem as though it would stop his bullying.

If there's been less on the theme of bullies and just more on the airplane and skateboarding this would have been a far better book.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Savage Fortress; Sarwat Chadda

The Savage FortressThe Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had such hopes for this, because it deals with Indian mythology and archaeology. Sadly (and this might just be because I read an ARC, and this will be corrected in the final version) there are no "If you want to know more..." pointers.

Ash and Lucky are on vacation in India, staying with their Uncle Vikram and Aunt Anita. Vik is an expert on ancient Indian languages and as a result the entire group is invited to the Savage Fortress, a former palace in Varanasi. There Ash sees something that's a little odd... perhaps terrifying... but Lord Savage's offering Vik two million pounds for a translation seems to smooth things over. Of course, that's just the start to a tale of reincarnation, ancient gods and wars, Indian history and adventure.

Ash's learning martial arts to fight helps him at the orphanage; having a demon/rakshasa girl/cobra named Parvati helps him as he tries to rescue his sister and fight Lord Savage and the rest of the baddies. As I said, having a way to learn more about Kali, Vishnu, rakshasas and other aspects of Indian culture and mythology would make all that so much more accessible to readers who know little about this. There are other cultural references, like parkour or being a "red shirt" that might not resonate with middle grade readers and need more explanation.

ARC provided by publisher.

Cold Light; Jenn Ashworth

Cold Light: A NovelCold Light by Jenn Ashworth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This could have been such a good book, but the author appeared to pull a few punches with the plot.

On the 10th anniversary of Chloe's suicide (in a Romeo/Juliet pact with her "unsuitable" boyfriend, Carl) the town is dedicating a "Wendy house" in her honor - only the ceremony is interrupted by the discovery of a body right where the structure is supposed to go. Whose body? Lola is sure she knows that it's the body of Dennis Wilson, a man with Down's Syndrome who went missing a few months before Chloe's death.

The story of the friendship between Chloe (a mean girl at heart), Lola and Emma is one that would have benefited from more detail. What we get most is Lola feeling that Emma is worming her way in between Chloe and Lola, but the only reason we have for Lola wanting to be Chloe's friend is that Chloe stopped Lola's being teased/bullied in school. Emma is even more a cipher, with nothing really to suggest why she might have been invited into their circle. With the addition of Carl it becomes even less clear why Lola would want to be part of any of this. Granted, not everything is clear at 14 but still, this was just a bit of a mess.

We're told everything in two timelines, one "back then" and one now, watching the dedication/finding of the body on tv. It becomes clear that there are secrets that Lola (now Laura) and Emma are still keeping, so there's an unreliable narrator for readers to figure out. It's also very unclear why Terry, the pink-shirted tv reporter, retires (if he does) or why he's not getting any accurate information about this new body or what happened with Chloe. And that no one raised questions about Chloe/Carl, particularly after her hospitalization and in light of the age difference? Just doesn't make sense.

ARC provided by publisher.

Skinny, Donna Cooner

SkinnySkinny by Donna Cooner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This could have been a really good book for girls who are overweight - instead it's too obvious, too facile. As someone who has struggled with weight all her life (ranging from "stocky" to "obese") I was hoping that this would really speak to my teen self. It didn't even whisper.

First, it's a rare person for whom the weight is the only issue. There are deep psychological concerns behind the gain (and it's touched on here - the death of Ever's mother and her weight issues) that need to be dealt with; here, once the surgery happens and weight loss begins, suddenly those issues vanish? Not likely.

Second, I have a cousin who had the exact surgery Ever has. Pre-surgery was filled with so many tests, physical and psychological, that it was virtually a full-time job for her (my cousin). Post-surgery there were daily check-ins with a nurse, personal training with a qualified trainer and bi-weekly group support sessions. And seeing a psychologist? Required both pre- and post-surgery. Ever apparently skates through the process with none of that, which is either a really bad medical plan, or unrealistic writing/sheer ignorance on the author's part.

Third, the characters surrounding Ever are so slightly drawn compared to Ever. The love triangle between Rat, Ever and Jackson is obvious, as is Ever's obliviousness to Brielle's actually being nice and possibly a friend. For all Ever's issues, that she is all too ready to believe that Whitney is suddenly a BFF rings false. This is where Skinny's voice should have been heard loud and clear, but nope.

The author's note about having been through the gastric bypass surgery was interesting, but her portrayal of Ever's journey is just unbelievable.

ARC provided by publisher.

05 August 2012

Burning Blue; Paul Griffin

Burning BlueBurning Blue by Paul Griffin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was surprised how much I liked this - it could have veered into the very strange, or the completely beyond belief, but stayed close enough to what I thought the reality of the situation was to be a good read. What I mean is, I could believe that Nicole was honestly a nice person, that she wasn't going to be completely ruined (psychologically) by having had acid thrown in her face. And that was the biggest hurdle of the book.

The hacking that Jay does to track the "squirter", the relationship he has with his father (clearly very, very troubled), his seeming expertise at wrestling and his fear of being in public thanks to his seizures were a little piled on; take out any one of those and he would have been a better character. The way girls seemed to want to be with him wasn't completely off-base, but that Nicole's mother becomes such a fan so quickly seems a little weird.

The excerpts from Nicole's diary and therapy sessions could have delved a little deeper into what she was going through, but at heart this is a cybermystery/romance that I think teens will enjoy more because of the lack of supernatural elements than anything else.

ARC provided by publisher.

04 August 2012

Iron Hearted Violet; Kelly Barnhill

 Iron Hearted Violet Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't quite a fractured fairy tale, but there are so many familiar elements that it could almost be one.

Violet is (most emphatically) not a beautiful princess, with frizzy unmanageable hair, splotchy skin and eyes that don't match in size and color, but none of that seems to matter. She has one friend, Demetrius, and lives in the castle with her parents. One day, while exploring, she and Demetrius find a hidden room, with a dusty book and a very odd, very disturbing painting.

In her world there are twelve gods, but somehow she hears about a thirteenth - although everyone denies that one exists. There used to be dragons, but they've all died or disappeared - although there seems to be one, and her father (and Demetrius) set out to capture it. While they're gone, she starts exploring again and rediscovers this room. Turns out there is a thirteenth god and he's a little cranky (and mad... and dangerous).

The idea of the not-at-all beautiful princess, dragons and so forth are interesting twists on the usual themes. Where the book lost me was at the ending, which seemed to be faster paced than the rest of the book yet filed with more action than the earlier parts. The ending owes a lot to C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, which really does require a slower pace to understand.

ARC provided by publisher.

03 August 2012

Cash Out; Greg Bardsley

Cash Out: A NovelCash Out by Greg Bardsley
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I should just never read the blurbage on books, because this was supposed to be a "sidesplitting romp" and, well, after 100-ish pages, I was waiting for even a mild chuckle.

Obviously I didn't read far enough to find out why two apparently unrelated groups were going after Dan (or possibly it's only about his soon-to-vest stock options that will make him a millionaire - single million, by the way, not serious IT venture money).  Nor did I really care why, or whether or not he and his wife would make their relationship work.  The couples counselor?  Godawful and if that was the author's idea of satire it simply doesn't work.

ARC provided by publisher.

Kiss & Make Up; Katie D. Anderson

Kiss & Make UpKiss & Make Up by Katie D. Anderson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Perhaps other readers will enjoy this story of Emerson and her ability to read things (like thoughts and memories) when she kisses people - a trait that apparently she shares with her mother and aunt. Her mother was probably more adept, which drove her to suicide. Her aunt, Arch, can't read much but is gifted with being a major seller of Stellar Cosmetics (an Avon/Mary Kay mash-up). Hence the title.

We read about Emerson's struggles in school, her finding it easy to "study" by kissing boys expert in different subjects, and her affinity for make-up. It's at that point I gave up. This didn't read like a new book or idea, just an excuse to give a girl some interesting ability and then put it in a rather ordinary plot.

ARC provided by publisher.

Ask the Passengers; A.S. King

Ask the PassengersAsk the Passengers by A.S. King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As in Everybody Sees the Ants, A.S. King has created a lead character who doesn't quite fit in and who has a very strong internal voice. Astrid was born in New York City but by age 10 she and her family have moved to Small Town Pennsylvania because it's where her mother's family came from (and is somehow a healthier environment than NYC). Of course, like every small town, Unity Valley is filled with gossip, hate mongering and small minds.

Astrid's father has lost a succession of back-office jobs and smokes pot to escape, her mother is a work-from-home art director who dresses as though she's going to the NYC headquarters every day, and her sister has embraced sports. Astrid finds her escape by lying out in the backyard, looking at the sky at the overhead planes and sending her love to the passengers. She has two friends in school, both of whom are gay but are a couple (to cover for each other, of course) and perhaps a girlfriend at her weekend catering job.

Much of the book deals with acceptance of self, of sexuality, of ideas (Astrid is in the humanities class, struggling to understand Xeno and making friends with "Frank" Socrates). When Astrid and friends are part of an underage drinking raid at a gay club, everyone - family, friends and schoolmates - reacts in predictable ways, with all the gossip and fear and incomprehension that go hand-in-hand with small town life.

What saves this book is what saves Ants: Astrid's inner voices (usually, the voices of the gossip mongers, but sometimes those of others), her conversations with Frank, and what happens after she releases her love to the passengers flying in the air above her. It would have been helpful to have more on Xeno's theory of motion and the Socratic method, but that's a minor quibble.

ARC provided by the publisher.

02 August 2012

The Midwife of Hope River; Patricia Harman

The Midwife of Hope RiverThe Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Initially, I thought this might be like Christy (anyone else remember reading that?) but from a midwife's point-of-view. And in some ways, it was. But the author has crammed in a few things that made this just a little too difficult to give a 4 or 5 star to.

Patience was born Elizabeth, daughter of Illinois parents and apparently product of a good home. Then her parents die, and she's made a ward of the state. One day she runs away from the orphanage to join a show as a chorus girl... she meets a boy, gets pregnant, he dies and a little later she miscarries. New career: wet nurse. She runs away from her employers after the husband attempts to rape her and ends up in Pittsburgh. New career: assistant to a midwife. Then she meets and falls in love with a union agitator, accidentally kills him, and she (and the midwife) run away to the hills of West Virginia, where she keeps the profession but changes her name.

Now, any of that would have been enough back story for Patience/Elizabeth. But all together? It felt like it was a little too much. When she wept, was she crying for her lost life? her lost child? her finacee? her husband? killing her husband? It got a little tiring.

Her life as a midwife during the Depression was far more interesting. The people she meets, the different births and circumstances, ranging from wealthy to poor, calm to agitated, Old Order Amish to A.M.E., etc. are all part and parcel of life in that part of the world. She travels by bike, burro, horse and car; gets paid in food, coal, cash and promises; and ultimately takes over the entire birthing practice for the county, after the doctor leaves for Charlottesville and the black midwife, Mrs. Potts, dies.

The question of race is also discussed. Patience is race-neutral at a time when the KKK is resurrecting. Jim Crow laws exist, but she's largely unaware of them until her assistant, Bitsy, points them out (Bitsy is black). What got confusing, and felt a little anachronistic, was the flipping from "black" to "Negro" and back again.

ARC provided by publisher.