30 October 2012

Keeping Safe the Stars; Sheila O'Connor

Keeping Safe the StarsKeeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O'Connor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So frustrating to read a book that has great potential, but just loses it. Pride, Nightingale and Baby (aka Kathleen, Elsie and Baxter) are orphans who have never known a normal home: first they lived on a commune, Serenity, with their parents, then they were 'in care' and for the past two years they've lived with Old Finn, their grandfather, on his farm, Eden. They've never gone to regular school, and their idiosyncrasies have been indulged by parents and grandfather. Then Old Finn gets sick - very sick - and their world starts to collapse.

So far, so good. Their struggle to keep anyone from finding out that they're home alone and to make ends meet was interesting. The problem comes from two points, the tension the author injects regarding keeping their secret from Thor, the doctor and Nash, and the Nixon resignation. With the former, there are moments when you just know that Thor has figured it out, or when you're sure that the doctor will call protective services to come ASAP, but that tension is handled so oddly that it never reaches the level of "I hope the kids make it!" Nash's appearance is a little scarier, but again it's muted in some ways by the attachment of Baby and Sage, his daughter. The Nixon resignation just felt wrong. I'm not sure why the author felt that this was so important that at times the action needed to stop to bring it in, unless she was really trying stress the "lies get you in trouble" theme (but today's students won't respond to Nixon the way my generation did).

ARC provided by publisher.

25 October 2012

The Information Diet; Clay Johnson

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious ConsumptionThe Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As with most of these types of books, the ideas are fairly obvious and hammered home. In this case, the heavy-handedness is mitigated by his comparison of an information diet to a food diet - the analogy works well and can help convince people that perhaps living within an echochamber with far too many voices saying the same thing is not a good thing (for them or society). My biggest quibble is that a print version will not be as helpful as a e-version because of all the links provided.

Into A Paris Quartier; Diane Johnson

Into A Paris Quartier: Reine Margot's Chapel and Other Haunts of St.-GermainInto A Paris Quartier: Reine Margot's Chapel and Other Haunts of St.-Germain by Diane Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is less about the Chapel and St.-Germain as it is one woman's thoughts (and some research) about her 'hood. As I was visiting Paris, I wanted to see what her insights were and possibly trace her footsteps around the quartier but the walking is - as happens when you live someplace - scattered and meandering. That's not to say this isn't interesting, but it's not quite what I wanted and I wonder if it would have been published had the author not already had a following thanks to her novels.

Leonardo and the Last Supper; Ross King

Leonardo and the Last SupperLeonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read a couple of fiction books about the Last Supper, it was interesting to read a non-fiction study. King does a great job of discussing Leonardo - his passions, his background, his style, etc. - but leaves some of the Last Supper out. What I mean is, there's information I would have liked to know (particularly about the actual painting, as Leonardo used oil rather than tempura) that wasn't included. Instead readers will get long digressions into the political situation in what we now call Italy and some about the religious issues of the time.

There is lots of trivia, and not a few unanswered questions (for example, why did the painting have a spot 15' in the air as its perfect perspective point?) that will fascinate readers. By the end, you'll know less about the painting and more about Leonardo. Which isn't all bad.

ARC provided by publisher.

Among the Islands; Tim Flannery

Among the Islands: Adventures in the PacificAmong the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific by >Tim Flannery
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This really should have been a 5-star, but the writing was so odd and at times confusing that it quickly dropped from that level.

Flannery has, over the past two-three decades, studied mammals in many of the Pacific islands.  By "mammals" he means rats and bats, some quite large and some quite small.  That part is really fascinating, particularly when the different species are described (who knew that bats could have orange fur?).  The problem comes when the descriptions are truncated, assuming that readers know what a wallaby looks like, among other species.

The travels and adventures part is also oddly truncated, with several trips elided; the timeline isn't always clear and sometimes there needs to be more clarity about who and when.  It also doesn't help that this needs a firm editorial hand, cleaning up some of the convoluted sentences and pronouns.  Here's an example - we all know that landmasses move, and that there are different reasons for them moving (plates shifting, volcanic action, etc.).  But despite a long explanation about how species evolution can either lead to dwarfs or giants, there's nothing about timelines and when he then talks about islands that used to be joined "recently"...

This could, based on the writing, have been a 2 but the mammal hunting and adventures kept it from dropping that low.

ARC provided by publisher.

14 October 2012

Rules of Civility; Amor Towles

Rules of CivilityRules of Civility by Amor Towles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book, but I just couldn't.  Mostly that was because Katey Kontent (emphasis on TENT) just didn't click with me as a heroine - she seemed too passive, too remote, too... something.  This look at at New York in the 1930s, filled with jazz bars and slightly pre-war sensibilities is so well realized that not having a memorable central character was jarring.

Katey and Evey are roommates in one of those female boardinghouses, spending what little money they have in divey places hoping for someone to buy them a drink.  Then they meet Tinker Grey, a member of the upper classes, and everything changes.  This is supposed to be "how Katey spends 1938 moving into that milieu" but for much of the time she's not there, she's still slaving away at her job and pinching pennies.  Her meeting with Val, her eventual husband, doesn't even resonate.

There was definitely something that kept me reading, but Katey wasn't it.

Copy provided by publisher.

12 October 2012

Alif the Unseen; G. Willow Wilson

Alif the UnseenAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was such an interesting mix of Cory Doctorow-eqsue hacker culture and Middle East religion/tensions/mythology. Alif is a greyhat hacker in an unnamed Emirite, making money by providing secure access for a range of activists (Islamists, secularists, traditionalists, etc.) - he's not motivated by an ideology other than everyone's voice deserves to be heard. He's in love with a woman, Intisar, from a higher class, but she's been engaged to another, someone high in the government and of a much higher status than Alif (who is half-Arab, half-Anglo-Indian).

It's when he tries to prevent her from finding him online that things go very wrong: his heuristic program, Tin Sari, suddenly grows to a success rate that shouldn't be possible. This draws the attention of The Hand, the State's IT expert, and that's when the fun begins. Alif's asked his "girl-next-door" Dani to deliver a goodbye present to Intisar, who in return sends him a book, The Thousand and One Days. Between Tin Sari and this book, Alif and now Dani are wanted not just by the Hand but also by various creatures in the unseen world of the Jinn.

I really enjoyed this mix, although at times it could get confusing (particularly the riot at the very end). The discussions of what the role of the unseen - these supposedly mythological creatures who do, it turns out, exist - is in a religion like Islam, how the Qu'ran in translation is not the Qu'ran (something any reader needs to think about when reading any work in translation!), and the role of greyhats/hackers in revolution and security were fascinating.

ARC provided by publisher.

11 October 2012

The Vanishing Act; Mette Jakobsen

The Vanishing ActThe Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Minou lives on a very remote island with her father, Priest, Boxman and Boxman's dog, No-Name. Her mother disappeared about a year ago, after a circus event, but Minou is convinced that her mother will return - soon. The island was originally settled by Theodora, who built a church and two houses, and is remote enough that they only get a delivery boat once a week. Minou's father says that logic and reason and philosophy are the only true things in life and goes on a daily Philosopher's Walk; his brother is convinced that the family is descended from Descartes, but there's no proof.

This book is by turns whimsical and a little strange, as when a dead boy washes up on their beach in winter. Papa's decision to keep the body in their house, in a room open to the elements so his body stays frozen, leads to Minou's rethinking what happened just before her mother (and Turtle's) disappearance as well as what life is truly like on the island. The whimsy comes from elements like the Priest's fondness for pretzels, or the stories about Theodora.

It's unfortunate that there was less whimsy when it would have helped lighten the story - without it, I'm not sure that YA readers will enjoy the book.

ARC provided by publisher.

07 October 2012

White Truffles in Winter; N.M. Kelby

White Truffles in WinterWhite Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At times, this reminded me of The Unprejudiced Palate and The Pedant in the Kitchen with the descriptions of the various foods and recipes and discussions how food should be appreciated. That's not a bad thing - I wish there'd been more of that! The historical fiction part was also interesting, but uneven.

Set in the final year(s) of Auguste Escoffier's life and filled with flashbacks, we get a mishmash of fact and fiction. For example, his career trajectory was well known, but his relationship with his wife wasn't. The relationship with Sarah Bernhardt gets the most flashbacks, his cooking career far fewer. There's a cook hired to help his wife (who has stayed in Monte Carlo while Escoffier lived in London and Paris) named Sabine, who apparently looks very much like the actress - she's sullen, rude, doesn't want to cook and yet somehow learns. Too much happens off stage here, and there are times when I just wanted more: more about the food, more about his life post-Ritz (there are lots of hints about him losing and gaining fortunes, but nothing really concrete), more about his wife, etc.

Copy provided by publisher.

05 October 2012

The Madonnas of Leningrad; Debra Dean

The Madonnas of LeningradThe Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

More historical fiction about Russia, set partly during the siege of Leningrad. In that timeline, Marina is a docent at the Hermitage; during the war, she is part of the group that packed up and saved the artworks from the approaching Nazis and their bombs. In the modern timeline, she's got Alzheimer's, slowly living more and more in her past and not always recognizing her children or their children.

While the story of the time during the siege was no different from that of any other population starving (except most groups didn't have the opportunity to eat soup made from the glue that holds artworks to their frames), the setting is exceptional. Marina, along with an even older docent, Anya, take on the task of memorizing where each painting was on the walls and being able to describe it so clearly that visitors can see what's no longer there. This skill is demonstrated throughout the book and it made me want to dig through my art history books, just to see if I could find an image of the real thing. Even without that, I got a sense of how special the museum was.

Copy provided by publisher.

01 October 2012

Black Water Rising; Attica Locke

Black Water RisingBlack Water Rising by Attica Locke
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can see why this book got shortlisted on the Orange, and why people are so excited about Ms. Locke's new book but... the constant digressions into Jay's past (with SNCC and SDS and his legal troubles and namedropping Stokely) lost me. It was also annoying how many times the power and importance of the Cole brothers are to Houston, and given the mystery of who was killed on Bernie's birthday and who the girl Jay rescued that night was I would have been completely shocked had the Coles not been involved.

As historical fiction goes it was well done, and readers get a real sense of what life in Houston was like in the early 1980s. The changes in race relations, even within the black community, were well handled; the flashbacks to Jay's past were also interesting but did little to move the plot forward (there is a payoff at the end, but by then I'd stopped paying attention to those bits).

Copy provided by publisher.