28 February 2012

Paris in Love; Eloisa James

Paris In Love: A MemoirParis In Love: A Memoir by Eloisa James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You've recovered from breast cancer and you feel that your life in the New Jersey 'burbs isn't quite what you want it to be - what do you do? If you're Eloisa James, you fulfill a dream of moving to Paris for a year. Luckily, she and her husband are both college professors and able to take concurrent sabbatical years. Unluckily, her two children are forced to come along, leaving their friends and their Quakeresque school to meet new people and attend an Italian-language school with a curriculum that doesn't match what they're used to.

Of course Luca and Anna survive this move, but Eloisa's series of short vignettes and memories of their year shows what a struggle is is. She also details the various shopping and eating experiences, museums visited, homeless men befriended and the adventures of Milo, their incredibly obese chihuahua (who lives with her Italian mother-in-law). Her husband Alessandro's adventures with his language exchange (Italian conversation in exchange for French) and on the board of the children's school also come into play.

Having been uprooted and brought to a foreign country when I was too young to seriously protest thanks to my father's sabbatical year, I understood what the children must have gone through. Sadly, that year sounds less fun than this one (on the other hand, it was Geneva in the 1970s vs Paris in the 2010s, which might have also contributed to the difference).

The tone is light and humorous; if you want to go to Paris, you'd do well to take note of the museums and restaurants mentioned.

ARC provided by publisher.

27 February 2012

Purity; Jackson Pearce

PurityPurity by Jackson Pearce
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So glad that Ms. Pearce has left the world of fairy-tales-with-werewolves! This modern-day story has nothing of the supernatural about it.

Our heroine, Shelby Crewe (yes, as in A Little Princess Crewe) made her dying mother three Promises, and like Ella in Ella Enchanted she's figured out how to get around them, mostly by not telling her father what she's doing (so she won't have to break Promise One, Listen To Your Father). Dad's made a career out of volunteering and one day she comes home to learn that he's on the planning committee for one of those Princess Balls (read: father-daughter dance, purity vows, etc.). Her mother had been to one when she was Shelby's age, back in the puffy-meringue hair and fashion days of the 80s. I would have winced more if they'd been set in the disco-inspired/Gunne Sax 70s, but then, we each have our own horrible fashion memories.

With the help of her two BFFs, Jonas, whom she's known since kindergarten, and Ruby, whom she met in middle school, she tries to figure out a way around the purity part of the vows. She's already had a drink, isn't interested in drugs, but there's that pesky "virgin-until-marriage" clause... what's a girl gonna do?

What I liked about this was that Shelby actually does think about the implications of the vow, her Promises and any actions she might take. There are a couple of Big Realizations that don't feel forced even if they are predictable, and teen readers might find themselves thinking about some of what Shelby discovers and how those discoveries might fit into their lives.

Oh, and the Princess Ball cake? Priceless.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Boiling Season; Christopher Hebert

The Boiling Season: A NovelThe Boiling Season: A Novel by Christopher Hebert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alexandre is one of those people to whom things happen. A black born on an unnamed Caribbean island, he escapes from the poverty of his hometown slum to the hillsides, first as a footman and then as the driver to an important Senator. One of his duties is to accompany the Senator to lunch, where Alexandre waits in the lobby of the Hotel Erdrich; M. Guinee, the hotel's assistant manager, befriends Alexandre and takes him on a trip to visit the long-deserted Habitation Louvois (one of the island's former plantations). Soon Alexandre is leaving his work with the Senator behind and taking on the responsibilities of the estate's caretaker. Rebuilt with Mme. Freeman's money, Habitation Louvois becomes a resort, complete with private villas, a casino and rich whites from other countries.

Because this is a Caribbean island, there's political turmoil, with one president seizing military control, being assassinated and replaced by another dictator; gangs of disaffected youths become armies, challenging the political order. Throughout all this, Alexandre remains completely above and oblivious to these changes except as they affect the Habitation. Finally, the situation becomes so dire that Mme. Freeman lets every one go (except Alexandre, who will remain as caretaker) and ultimately one of the armies moves in, destroying all that Alexandre, the workmen and Mme. Freeman have built. In the end, however, Alexandre and the estate remain, ready to rebuild.

The passivity of Alexandre is in sharp contrast to the rise of his best friend, Paul, and to the situation around him. He's naive, focused solely on the work he's doing and not particularly interested in anything more (the paparazzi incident is telling). As a result, we see the violence and changes through his eyes, as inconveniences (no coffee) and destruction rather than as motivated by genuine social concerns or forces. On the occasions when there is a jolt to recognize that there is more than the estate and its running, he is quick to return to his rather ignorant state, making the story of what's going on seem blurred and muted.

ARC provided by publisher.

25 February 2012

Chopsticks; Jessica Anthony

ChopsticksChopsticks by Jessica Anthony
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, this is a novel told in pictures and few words. The images range from tv screenshots to photos of items packed for a trip to postcards to drawings, each moving the story along. There's also a website and an app for those who want to experience the book digitally (a completely different reading experience than the print version).

The story is pretty simple: girl piano prodigy meets artistic immigrant boy, falls in love, loses her mind and... there's a spoiler I'll avoid. Ostensibly this is a quick read, but the detail on the pages (and the additional content in the app or online) make this well worth spending time on. It reminded me of the Griffen & Sabine books, in that there's so much more going on than a cursory glance can take in. The production is simply gorgeous.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog; Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every now and then my mother will ask if I've read this book or that, usually in connection with her monthly book group. This book she not only asked about, she mailed me her copy on loan - which meant that for some reason, it really resonated with her and she wanted me to read it now.

While I'm not sure what grabbed her, I can understand her eagerness to have me read it. Our two main characters were charming additions to my life and I've picked up a Japanese director to check out on Netflix. The first, a middle-aged widow serving as concierge to a building of seven households is, at first glance, typical of her class: eating cassoulet, shuffling in slippers, slightly cranky when asked to do something, watching endless hours of television, taking care of her cat. But look under the surface and see that the tv is on in another room, not the one she spends most of her time in... her cat is named after Tolstoy... she reads books on philosophy and watches 1950s Japanese films by Yasujiro Ozu. A semi-traitor to her profession, she's an autodidact who mentally sneers at the building's occupants as being engrossed in the petty and predictable, unaware of the finer things in life.

Our second main character is only twelve, but she's one of those precocious, pretentious twelves who are so above us mere mortals in intelligence, appreciation of the beautiful, philosophical thinking and sensitivity. Sadly, Paloma lives in a family of consumerism, loud music and banal discussion; her escape is via her Journal of the Movement of the World/Journal of Profound Thoughts. And she's planning to commit suicide by (I think) smoke inhalation after she sets fire to her family's apartment. Into their world comes Kakuru Ozu, a distant relative of Yasujiro's, a man of elegance, taste and perception: he befriends both, giving both a reason to live outside their narrow, hidden lives.

The title comes from Paloma's observations about Mme. Michel, that she is like a hedgehog, with her prickly spines hiding an elegant, graceful interior life.

Highly recommended! Why a four, not a five? This is a book in translation, and occasionally there were phrases or words (the cat eats Whiskas) that felt a bit jarringly out of place. Call me picky, but I would have preferred less colloquial phrasing or French brand names.

23 February 2012

172 Hours on the Moon; Johan Harstad

172 Hours on the Moon172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What an interesting horror story - and one with very little chance of a sequel (I hope!).

NASA, for various reasons, has decided to go back to the moon but they need an excuse and a way to gin up public interest. The excuse is a search for a mineral that would give America the edge in nanotechnology, the public interest angle is that three teens (between the ages of 14-18, of a certain height, in good physical and psychological health) will be chosen as passengers. In reality they're gong back to activate DARLAH 2, a Top Secret lunar base set up in the 1970s.

Mia only wants to play in her punk band, possibly cut an album and go on tour before moving to an artists loft with her band mates; her parents, rather that recognizing that she's nearly an adult treat her the same as they treat her 6-year-old brother and cannot believe she isn't eager to be one of the teens, so they enter her into the contest. Midori is a disaffected Japanese teen who only fits in when she's at Harajuku, spending all her money on items for her outlandish costumes; entering the contest is a way for her to escape and gain fame to spur her move to New York. Antoine has just been dumped by his girlfriend, stalking her by using the telescopes on the Eiffel Tower to peer into her bedroom; the contest is the perfect way for him to change his life (and possibly get her back).

The three join the NASA trained astronauts on the trip, which goes very, very wrong indeed. There's a reason why the moon trips stopped, but the people who were involved were sworn to silence or - like Oleg Himmelfarb - suffering from Alzheimers. Or dead. Mr. Himmelfarb, sitting in his nursing home, has flashes of memories but can't do anything about them.

There are some logic issues with this book (for example, wouldn't NASA have tested the three, or had a cadre of teens from which to ultimately choose, like some reality show?) but the subtle horror will render them unimportant. This is horror like that in Let Me In, with a higher psychological component than most American writers allow for.

ARC provided by publisher.

22 February 2012

I Hunt Killers; Barry Lyga

I Hunt KillersI Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's an episode of Criminal Minds where a teen asks Reid if he (the teen) could be a psychopath, and there's Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer - both seem to have informed this book. That's not a bad thing, by the way. The difference here is that Jazz (Jasper) is the son of the worst serial killer in history, Billy Dent, and has been "trained" (aka brainwashed) by his father in how to be an even better killer than Billy ever was. That's quite an ambition for a father to have for a son, isn't it?

Problem is, while Jazz emphatically doesn't want to follow in Dad's footsteps his training has been so engrained that he thinks like a serial killer. And then a woman is killed in Lobo's Nod, and Jazz knows that this is the work of a serial killer even if the police don't believe him. Spoilers aren't needed because you can see where this is heading.

What saves this is the way in which Jazz fights his training and tries to be just another normal kid: having a girlfriend, acting in the school play, etc.. His best friend is a hemophiliac, which leads to some interesting moments. And that girlfriend, Connie, is one of those sassy, not putting up with anything girls.

Unlike Wells' hero John, Jazz looks to be headed for BAU (or CSI) territory. It'll be interesting to see if this becomes a series, and how that'll turn out.

ARC provided by publisher.

Immortal Bird; Doron Weber

Immortal Bird: A Family MemoirImmortal Bird: A Family Memoir by Doron Weber
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I just couldn't finish this: what I'd hoped would be about this family's incredible loss has turned into being more about this father's anger (and eidetic memory for anything and everything about his son). This isn't to diminish the pain of losing one's son, or the life he led (and might have led had he lived) but, well, the son didn't come through as the hero of this as much as the father does. Here's an example: there's about four pages of a conversation, remembered verbatim, the author has with the doctor who did Damon's Fonton surgery, which is equal to the number of pages spent describing Damon's bar mitzvah. And another: the discussion of where the heart transplant should take place is more detailed than Damon's directing the school play.

When I was a pre-teen/early teen, I read books like Sunshine and Death Be Not Proud and The Bird's Christmas Carol and The Other Side of the Mountain (and watched all the tv movies), as did many of my friends. So that's the level of pathos I expected in Immortal Bird, just as I expected that the book (or the part of it I got through) to be filled with Damon's life. And while Damon seems to have been a very nice, talented teenage boy he wasn't that different from other equally nice, talented teenage boys I've known - heart problems excepted, of course.

ARC provided by publisher.

21 February 2012

The Song of Achilles; Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's always interesting (to me, anyway) to read alternative versions of stories - think Wide Sargasso Sea or Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. This is a version of The Illiad, told from the perspective of Patroclus, the beloved friend of Achilles.

Exiled from his home, stripped of his name, ugly and awkward, Patroclus joins the Phthia household of King Peleus, father to Achilles, the Aristos Achaion ("Best of all Greeks"). Patroclus becomes Achilles friend, much to the disapproval of Thetis, Achilles' sea nymph mother; together they train, play and when Achilles is sent to Chiron for training, Patroclus follows.

Then - surprise, surprise - Paris steals Helen from Meneleus, taking her to Troy. Meneleus' brother Agamemnon gathers the Greeks (most of whose kings/princes swore to protect and defend Helen's choice of husband), in 1,168 ships ("one thousand ships" sounds better to the bards, according to Patroclus) and sets sail. War ensues. Achilles lives up to his billing as the greatest Greek warrior while Patroclus makes himself useful as a healer. And (is this a spoiler?) after ten years, Achilles and Agamemnon fall out, Achilles refuses to fight, Patroclus impersonates Achilles and is killed, Achilles kills Hector in revenge, Paris kills Achilles...

Getting the viewpoint of Achilles' best friend (and lover) means we see the war from an outsider's perspective. Patroclus loves Achilles, but can see the overwhelming pride and hubris and fears for the future. He knows that his role in history is going to be minor, and after death is prevented from joining Achilles in the underworld because no one will carve his name on his tomb. The author has made the choice to not use anachronistic language, which lends the story a certain tone that honors the source material.

ARC provided by publisher.

19 February 2012

What to Look for in Winter; Candia McWilliam

What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in BlindnessWhat to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was interested to read this for two reasons: first, because of all my senses, losing my sight would be (I think) the worst and second, because she lost her sight thanks to a blethorspasm, which my paternal grandmother suffered from for the last years of her life (she was in the clinical trials for Botox, which started out as a medical tool before becoming the means for Real Housewives and starlets to look as stupid and wooden as they act). What a surprise to learn that her blindness forms a very minor part of this memoir.

Ms. McWilliam has definitely "swallowed a dictionary" - reading this without one next to you is only for the very well read, the highly vocabularied or the brave. Words like churlishly, impastoed, fusty and occludes litter the text (those were chosen at random by opening the book on four pages and looking). She is also a premiere name dropper - one can see why people kept telling her to write her memoir. She's friends with writers like Julian Barnes and Christopher Hitchens, celebrities like Tamasin Day-Lewis, almost family to the Baron of Strancona and Mont Royal, once married to the Earl of Portsmouth.

The first two thirds of this memoir have little in the way of self-reflection as she takes readers from her Edinburgh childhood through her blindness. The last third has more reflection and more about the blindness (the Botox doesn't work and she had a radical, new operation to try to cure the problem) but there's little about how she copes with this disability.

Rambling, moving back and forth in time, these snippets are chatty and engaging. This memoir is a non-linear one, which may annoy or confuse readers.

ARC provided by publisher.

17 February 2012

So Pretty it Hurts; Kate White

So Pretty It Hurts (Bailey Weggins Mystery #6)So Pretty It Hurts by Kate White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The last Kate White mystery I read, Hush, suffered from some of the same problems this one does: over exposition of plot and extraneous details that aren't really needed. There's also an obligatory "villain confesses all" scene. And the writing style? A little too breezy.

Having said that, the question of Who Killed Devon Barr was well handled, with the answer coming as a bit of a surprise (never a bad thing and it's what upped this from a 2 star rating). The characters were all stereotypes, with the exception of our intrepid heroine-true crime writer-detective Bailey. The research that went into the use of ipacec (and really, now that I think of it, who even buys that these days?) and Lasix as "tools" for anorexia was impressive, and I did wonder about how that might affect anyone on the brink of a relapse.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Spinoza Problem; Irvin D. Yalom

The Spinoza Problem: A NovelThe Spinoza Problem: A Novel by Irvin D. Yalom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's been years since I've read any Spinoza, but that wasn't a problem here - Yalom's historical faction includes long passages where Spinoza himself explains his rational process. Told in alternating chapters, we meet Spinoza at the time of his excommunication (cherem) from the Sephardic community in Amesterdam and a young Alfred Rosenberg, ultimately Hitler's publisher and the man who stole Jewish (and other) artworks for the Reich.

So, what is the Spinoza problem? Spinoza was a Jew of Portugese descent, a member of the "corrupt, inferior, poisonous" race - how could he possibly have influenced Goethe? The author posits that Rosenberg, convinced of the superiority of the Aryan race and the need to cleanse Europe of the Jewish plague, is obsessed with finding those Aryans Spinoza stole his ideas from.

At times this is a difficult book to read, particularly the parts where Rosenberg is going on about his racial superiority ideas (if one didn't know about the rise of the Reich and the Final Solution, it would seem implausible that these ideas could actually take over a political system). The same could be said for the reactions of the Amsterdam Jews to outside ideas and influences (pronouncing a cherem on someone who used an Ashkenazic butcher rather than a Sephardic one?). The philosophical ideas are far easier to digest, as Spinoza (or his 1920s interpreter, Dr. Pfister) walks Franco/Rosenberg (and, by extension, us) through them.

ARC provided by publisher.

16 February 2012

The Book of Jonas; Stephen Dau

The Book of JonasThe Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very powerful, interesting book about the intersection of two lives: Jonas (formerly Younis) and Christopher. Jonas is a teen in what I'm guessing is Afghanistan (the country is never identified) whose village is destroyed by the Americans, of whom Christopher is one. Thanks to a full bladder, Jonas is not in his home when it is hit by a missile (or bomb, again that's unclear) and he escapes to a cave a few miles away - he's injured and weak from loss of blood. Christopher follows him to the cave and both lie to the other about where they're from; Christopher sews up Jonas' arm and helps heal him.

Jonas is eventually rescued, taken to an Army base hospital, nursed back to health and given the opportunity to go to America - Pittsburgh. There, he is taken in by a family, goes through his last couple of years of high school and enrolls in the University of Pittsburgh. Because of his accent and looks he is bullied at his new school, but one day he reacts and is then sent to a counselor to help him deal with his anger issues. Paul, the counselor, tries to get Jonas to open up about what happened back home and how he got rescued.

After a few years, Paul introduces Jonas to Rose, Christopher's mother, who is searching for answers to her son's disappearance. The meeting leads to buried memories resurfacing... and anything more would be too spoliery. The focus on the process Rose goes through as she finds other families in the same situation, becoming part of a national movement seeking the truth about their loved one's deaths is what drags the last third of the book down - less of that would have been more.

The book doesn't assign blame or praise for various actions, letting those speak for themselves: during a time of war, who can say what they would (or could) do? The choices we make then affect us later, no matter how justified (or unjustified), but again, the author shows, not tells.

ARC provided by the publisher.

Hide Me Among the Graves; Tim Powers

Hide Me Among the Graves: A NovelHide Me Among the Graves: A Novel by Tim Powers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one took a while to get into and figure out what was going on and which version of the vampire/ghost mythology was being put forward.

Turns out that John Polidori, friend to Byron and a doctor, became a vampire when he committed "suicide" and he's infected his brother-in-law, Gabriele Rossetti; Rossetti's children, including Dante Gabriel and Christina, take on the role of fighting these risen ghosts. Garlic, metal, silver bullets, staying in an enclosed area and using birds to capture the soul/ghost of the recently departed are all part of this world. The Rossettis are joined by a vet and a former prostitute who seek to save their daughter from Polidori's clutches.

There's tons of Victorian London-era atmosphere, famous name dropping (Trewlany, Swinburne and the aforementioned Rossettis) and action - but it takes time to sort out how the "Hail Mary" business works and how this threat can be neutralized. At times the atmosphere and the extraneous stuff threatens to overpower the plot.

ARC provided by publisher.

15 February 2012

The Voyagers of the Titanic; Richard Davenport Hines

Voyagers of the TitanicVoyagers of the Titanic by Richard Davenport-Hines
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic approaching, it's not surprising that we're seeing more books about the boat, the rescue and the survivors. This addition to the collection is an encyclopedic, exhaustively detailed look at the people involved, from the riveters who created the boat to the owners who owned it, from the crew to the passengers.

Every page is chock-filled with facts and figures, which ultimately lead to the people not fully being fleshed out. However, for those that need more information (how many tons of coal? how fast the boat did the boat? what did people in steerage eat? and even where the iceberg was probably calved) this is definitely the book.

The Good Father; Noah Hawley

The Good Father: A NovelThe Good Father: A Novel by Noah Hawley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The blurbage suggested that this was going to be like We Need to Talk About Kevin or Nineteen Minutes: how does a family cope when a child has done the unthinkable? And to some extent the plot does live up to that premise. Dr. Paul Allen's life is turned upside down when his son Daniel kills Senator Seagram, the leading Democratic presidential candidate. Of course Paul wants to believe that there's no way that Daniel could have done this - there must be a conspiracy, or his son was brainwashed, or there were others involved that his son's covering for. Right?

So part of the book is about Paul's search for "the truth", tracking down leads and compiling boxes and boxes of "evidence". Because he's a rheumatologist he's used to assessing symptoms and creating a diagnosis/care plan based on that evidence - this leads to passages where he talks about former patients and their symptoms (think House, right down to the sarcoidosis mention).

Then there's the part of the book that is told from Daniel's point of view. He'd dropped out of Vassar and rather aimlessly traveled across country, staying a few weeks here and a few months there, ultimately ending up in Los Angeles, at UCLA, with a gun shooting at the Senator. His reasons, such as they are, do come to light but the clearer picture is that there is no real reason (cue Boomtown Rats).

The reason for the two stars is that there's a lot of coverage of other famous killings. Chapters, albeit small ones, on Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Whitman and John Hinkley which dragged down the plot and didn't add to our understanding of the Why in this case.

ARC provided by publisher.

14 February 2012

Believing the Lie; Elizabeth George

Believing the LieBelieving the Lie by Elizabeth George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes I think Ms. George has written herself into a corner: so many main characters, and a need to at least mention them - if not give them a short chapter - has led to "page creep". It would have been ok if the whole Havers subplot had been deleted, ditto Nkata's presence. I know that part of this stems from some misbegotten belief that bigger books are better, or perhaps editors are just afraid to say "cut this by 1/3 before we publish".

Anyway, Lynley has been asked to (on the extreme quiet) investigate the death of Ian Crasswell, nephew of Bernard Fairclough, the head of Fairclough Industries. Since he's supposed to be a visitor to Cumbria, not a DI, he asks Deborah and Simon St. James for their help. The three poke around, with Deborah leaping to conclusions that have horrific results. Turns out, Ian's death was an unfortunate accident but Lynley's presence has brought out many deep, dark family secrets... this is one family that will take a great deal of time to heal.

Because he's unofficially there he can't tell his guv, Isabella Ardrey, and this puts a strain on their relationship (she starts drinking, making unreasonable phone calls, etc.). It also affects Havers' relationship with Ardrey because Havers is in the loop.

The exploration of those family secrets is done well, and the Big Secret (one that, by the end, only Havers, Simon and Lynley know) was a little obvious to me but still interestingly revealed. The Havers Beautification Project could have been deleted, as could most of the Zeb Benjamin (a reporter from a News of the World-like publication) passages. It was also surprising to see it end on an obvious cliffhanger, as though readers might not be interested in reading the next episode.

12 February 2012

All That I Am; Anna Funder

All That I Am: A NovelAll That I Am: A Novel by Anna Funder
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are three timelines in this book, which made it a little confusing to track who was where when. In one timeline, Ruth is living in modern day Australia at the end of a long life, but her memories of what happened in the 1920s-30s in Germany and London are starting to overtake her daily life. In another timeline, Ermst Toller is in 1939 New York, reflecting on the past decade or so in Germany and London. And finally you have what happened in Germany and London in the 20s-30s in Germany and London.

Ruth leaves her wealthy family to live in Berlin and hang out with her older cousin Dora; she meets journalist/satirist Hans and they fall in love and marry. Dora is a free, liberated woman agitating for things like abortion rights, and part of her freedom is to engage in "meaningless" love affairs, including one with Ernst Toller, a WWI hero, a Jew and a renowned playwright and poet. As members of the Independent Socialist Workers Party they are trying to reconcile the Communists and the Socialists to oppose the rise of the Nazis and much of the Berlin memories recount the rise of Hitler and his party: the thuggery, the arrests, the Reichstag fire and Hitler's power grab. They all manage to escape - without papers - to London, where they keep up their attempts to warn the world about what is going on in Germany. Dora is murdered by Nazis, poisoned in her bedroom in what appears to be a suicide; Hans becomes a Nazi informant, ultimately escaping to South America (Ruth thinks); Ernst's despair leads to his suicide in New York after having updated/annotated his memoir I Am A German; and Ruth manages to survive Hans' betrayal, the Nazis, internment in Singapore to make a life for herself before dying a natural death. Sadly, none of this added to my knowledge or understanding of the events leading up to the Nazi takeover, nor did it illuminate the lives of those Germans trying to prevent Hitler's rise.

Adding to the timeline confusion is the blend of fact and fiction. I don't mean just events, but with the exception of Ruth, the main characters are all real (there's a nice bibliography at the back for those interested in learning the real story of these people). So rather than fiction, this is more faction, important to keep in mind.

Copy provided by publisher.

11 February 2012

The Crown; Nancy Bilyeau

The CrownThe Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The comparisons to books like The Eight, Labyrinth, Codex, etc. are all apt except that this has no modern day component. Instead, we're completely in the world of Henry Tudor, mostly during the time of Queen Jane but with some scenes taking place during the time of Queen Katherine of Aragon and Queen Anne.

Joanna Stafford's family is semi-royal, and her mother is a Spanish woman "in exile" serving her Queen. When the Queen is on her deathbed she suggests Joanna profess her faith at Dartford Priory as a Dominican nun - of course this is during a time when Henry has already broken with the Roman church and is destroying the monestaries, abbeys and priories of the Catholic nuns and monks. But Joanna isn't the meek postulate everyone expects and she leaves Dartford to stand by her cousin, who is about to be burned for treason. Of course this leads to Joanna being taken prisoner in the Tower, and then coerced into hunting for a relic supposedly hidden at the Priory during the reign of Edward III.

This historical bits are really quite fascinating, even those parts that are familiar to people who know something about the Tudor court. It would have been nice to have had a clearer view into the daily life of the Priory (and Malmesbury Abbey) but that's just me. The relic, its role in the establishment of the royal line, etc. were all, well, less interesting to me.

Copy provided by the publisher.

Quiet; Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Between the reviews and the tweets coming from the conversation about this book at ALA Midwinter, I thought this would be an interesting read. It was, particularly the beginning when the author talks about our shift from a Culture of Character to one of Personality and the rise of the extroverted ideal. Her look at Harvard Business School's model and the world of Tony Robbins and the Saddleback Church were also interesting, but I did wonder why she didn't look at other business schools (ones that aren't as aggressively driven towards "extroversion = success") and smaller churches - the comparison could have illustrated her points a little more successfully.

The last part of the book lost me, when the book turns into a semi self-help manual. It was great to have her explaining how introverts can negotiate time alone/apart, or how to navigate social experiences but the converse was missing: how can extroverts learn to relate better to introverts? For example, there are examples of how to help introverted students do better/feel better in school, but none of how to help introverted teachers relate to extroverted students.

One of the bigger take-aways for me was the ways in which our schools are stressing collaboration and social learning, possibly at the expense of creativity and certainly to the detriment of the more introverted students. Something to ponder as we move forward with so-called 21st century skills/learning.

10 February 2012

The Innocent; Taylor Stevens

The Innocent: A Vanessa Michael Munroe NovelThe Innocent: A Vanessa Michael Munroe Novel by Taylor Stevens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The blurbage mentions Lisbeth Salander as similar to Vanessa (or Michael) Monroe, but don't let that influence your reading this book.

Monroe is one of those multilingual, multi-deadly-force types, a one-woman killing/vengeance/rescue team. She's recovering from her previous assignment and starting to break up with her current lover when an old friend asks for her help. Seems that Logan was raised in a religious cult and is trying to get Hannah, his daughter, out to safety. It's not necessary to go into any more details about the surveillance, plotting and violence that ensues.

What was interesting was the depiction of this cult, The Chosen. It's multinational in both membership and compounds (called Havens), with members moving from one Haven to another rather fluidly; the Havens themselves aren't a fixed place but move as needed. The questions of who joins a group like this and what it's like on the inside are always interesting, as well as exploring what happens to those who leave and those who stay. At one point the concept of the members being brainwashed is raised: why would you need punishments in a brainwashed society? All of which was, to me, worth the read and elevated a predictable plot.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Bedlam Detective; Stephen Gallagher

The Bedlam Detective: A NovelThe Bedlam Detective: A Novel by Stephen Gallagher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The subtitle is a bit confusing: this is a novel as much as it is a mystery (and this goes back to the question I've been asking for the past year or so - why are we using "a novel" as a subtitle? is there the risk we can't tell fact from fiction?).

There are two intertwined questions here, the first being "who killed the two little girls, and how is this related to the assaults on Grace and Evangeline years ago?" and "is Sir Owain insane?". Our hero is, of course, concerned that perhaps the answers to one lead to the other. Sebastian Becker works for the Crown in the role of Visitor in Lunacy, helping determine whether someone is capable of handling his (or her) affairs or needs to be put in "Bethlam" (aka "St. Mary Bethlehem Hospital" or Bedlam). His previous training, however, was as a Pinkerton detective, and he uses this to help Steven Reed figure out what's happening in Arnmouth.

The two questions do appear to be related, and Sebastian's investigation leads to some interesting characters, including the aforementioned Evangeline, now a suffragette working in the Inns of Court. The two, along with Sebastian's son Robert (whom I thought had Down's Syndrome, given the name of his doctors, but it's more ASD-like) try to determine the truth of the ill-fated Amazon trip that Sir Owain led, and whether he is now mad as a result.

The ending is a little rushed yet nonetheless satisfying. The questions are answered and were not telegraphed way in advance - always nice in a mystery. The descriptions of the Amazon, medicine 100 years ago and the suffrage movement make add to the atmosphere in an organic way (in other words, they don't feel tacked on to the mystery to give it a setting).

ARC provided by publisher.

09 February 2012

Accidents of Providence; Stacia M. Brown

Accidents of ProvidenceAccidents of Providence by Stacia M. Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn't really a mystery, it's more of a thought-piece about a infant-killing in 1649 London. At that time, if an illegitimate child was stillborn the mother was safe, but if the child died (or was murdered) after being born, the mother was sentenced to death. Rachel is one such unwed mother who has - apparently - killed her newborn daughter and buried the body at night. That much is known, but the why is not known, nor is it ever established that the child was born alive.

Throughout the book we're introduced to the Levellers, the Particular Baptists, Friends, Huguenots and Cromwell's reign; that alone kept me interested. By blending historical figures like William Walwyn into the story we get a clear view of what life was like for the lower classes at that time. I'm not quite sure how Rachel and her brother Robert were martyrs, but as the author did her dissertation on this I'll take her word for it.

ARC provided by publisher.

08 February 2012

Restoration; Olaf Olafsson

RestorationRestoration by Olaf Olafsson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Like Far From Here, this is told in a combination of first and third person; the first person episodes are either a diary entry or conversation between Alice and her husband Claudio, who disappeared shortly after their son died. Set in Tuscany during the waning days of World War II, the title has several meanings - the restoration of the villa and farms at San Martino, the restoration work Kristin does on paintings, the restoration of peace, and possibly the restoration of Alice's life to something closer to normal.

The pacing is rather slow, with the tension coming from the war and from Alice's relationship with her husband, their friend Pritchett and her lover. Kristin's life in Iceland and Italy also plays into this as her employer/lover, Marshall, is selling art to the Germans, including a "Caravaggio" she "repaired". Overall there's little surprise here, and I didn't feel as though this was really an Italian novel but rather set there by happenstance. The parts about painting restoration and techniques were interesting, and had there been more of that or more of Alice's relationship with her husband and dead son, I would have found the book more compelling.

Copy provided by publisher.

07 February 2012

Far From Here; Nicole Baart

Far From HereFar From Here by Nicole Baart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book looks at marriage: how we make mistakes that can haunt us later, how people change, and how long people will wait before moving on.

Etsell and Danica met in their teens, married when Dani was 19 and seemingly the happiest couple around. There have been several ups and downs, like when Dani bought the building that would house her beauty salon and more recently when Ell decided to go to Alaska to fly a bush pilot route to help out a friend. It's on this trip that Ell goes missing, bringing Dani's world to sudden halt.

The problems the couple experience are not unexpected in a relationship that starts at such a young age; what surprised me was how quickly Dani moved on. Her grief, frustration, shock and numbness seemed to wear off relatively quickly (less than a year) which made me question how deep the relationship was. I also didn't understand why the author chose to alternate first person and third person chapters - it didn't add to the story.

Copy provided by publisher.

06 February 2012

The Fallback Plan; Leigh Stein

The Fallback PlanThe Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Esther is a recent college graduate with no real plan except to get some sort of disease that entitles her not to work but to receive benefits. Obviously that's not the easiest thing to achieve, so she's currently drifting. Then one day her mother arranges for her to take a babysitting job: May is four, her mother Amy needs someone to watch May while she goes back to her art, and there was another daughter who died a few months earlier. As the days pass, Esther becomes very attached to May and builds a relationship with Amy while also falling for Nate, Amy's husband.

This isn't terribly plot-driven, and Esther is one of those aimless depressives, but (probably due to the author's age) her voice will be familiar to any recent graduates also trying to figure out "what's next".

ARC provided by publisher.

The Age of Miracles; Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One can only guess that this is being marketed as an adult book because the publisher hopes it will become a cross-over hit - I hope that's the case. That this is about a girl in middle school may turn adults off, however.

We're in the proximate future when - no one explains why - the earth's rotation starts to slow. First a few minutes, then hours; ultimately a day could be as long as 41 hours, with nights equally long. What this does to Julia's friends and family is a little predictable: the hoarding, the "end is coming" fears, the questioning of those who were always a little different but who now choose to live in 'real' not 'clock' time. The book also talks about what happens to nature when these changes take place, like birds being affected by the increased gravity and plants by the changes in light and dark.

Unlike the dystopian or post-apocalyptic books, this presents a real world that could exist. There are many discussion possibilities here, chiefly how can we adapt to this world? Can we? Should we?

ARC provided by publisher.

05 February 2012

The Red Book; Deborah Copaken Kogan

The Red BookThe Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was one of those books that I had high hopes for, but sadly, those hopes weren't met. This story of four roommates from Harvard '89 was just so cliched - I think the only "type" left out was the out-and-jock/cheerleader. There were no surprises, even at the Big Revelation moments and each storyline played out exactly as I expected. Books like The Group or movies like "The Big Chill" do this genre much better service.

Having said that, there was a part of me that wondered if someone looking at my friends from high school (where I've attended every reunion, as opposed to my college, to which I have no allegiance or affiliation) wouldn't find us equally cliched. The infamous Harvard Red Book, which was also part of the Radcliffe alumnae experience, wasn't something I saw, despite my mother being Radcliffe '59; apparently college allegiance isn't something that runs in my family.

ARC provided by publisher.

04 February 2012

The Leopard; Jo Nesbo

The Leopard: A Harry Hole NovelThe Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second Nesbo mystery I've read and it's definite that more will be bought and read!

Harry Hole is living in Hong Kong, recovering from the Snowman killings and that Rakel and Oleg are gone to an "unnamed location". Then Kaja arrives, sent from Oslo to bring Harry back because there's another serial killer around and Harry's the only one that can find him. Of course Harry doesn't want to come back, but Kaja pulls out the big gun: Harry's father is dying.

The hunt for this new killer is interspersed with Harry's visiting Olav in the hospital and the interdepartmental jockeying between Crime Squad and Kripos. The murders seem to be centered around one night at a ski cabin, with the guests being killed one by one in rather gruesome ways (the Leopold apple is actually fictional, btw). There are several twists and betrayals, some of which I didn't see coming. Harry's reaction to all of this, and to meeting with the Snowman, shows what a broken - yet driven - person he is.

The biggest problem was at the end, where there's one of those "here's my history and why I'm so evil and how I'm so evil" soliloquys from the killer. Ugh. We'd gotten much of that in drips and drabs throughout the book and what we hadn't learned could have been left to our imagination. Why this was put in is - pardon the pun - a mystery.

Copy provided by publisher.

03 February 2012

Zombie; J. R. Angelella

ZombieZombie by J.R. Angelella
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book isn't about zombies in the sense that one might assume: the characters are a bit like zombies, and Jeremy is a huge fan of the zombie movie genre, but there are no reborn, flesh-eating monsters here.

Jeremy's father is a Vietman-era Marine-turned-real estate agent, who disappears every night and doesn't really pay attention to his son. Mom is a pill-popping Catholic who has moved in with another man. Older brother Jackson is a sexoholic who prefers nudity and not working. And Jeremy is starting his freshman year at a Christian Brothers school, Byron Hall, a school filled with bullies and semi-sanctioned violence against new kids. He hopes his adherence to the Zombie Survival Code will get him through, but of course that doesn't work. Things spiral out of control regarding his father and those nighttime jaunts, and Jeremy does his best correct what appear to be great wrongs.

All of that might have led to a great book, but the language seemed to be a little too rough - I know that more conservative schools won't put this on their shelves. It was a little difficult for me to read, which should say something.

ARC provided by publisher.

02 February 2012

The False Prince; Jennifer Nielsen

The False Prince (The Ascendance Trilogy #1)The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sigh. This was fun to read, particularly the parts when Sage is defying Connor and yet making alliances with Imogene and Mott and yet it was so predictable.

Sage is one of three orphans bought by Lord Connor; Connor's idea is that since the royal family is all dead (the King, Queen and Heir recently murdered, Prince Jaron died four years previously in a pirate attack on his ship), he can gain power and stabilize the kingdom by producing "Prince Jaron". Sage, Tobias and Redon will have two weeks to prove that they are the most prince-worthy (it's pretty clear that the losers will be killed so as not to give away the plot).

Can anyone else guess what happens? Yeah, thought so. Still, the writing is engaging and younger readers will probably not be as familiar with this story, so will not mind.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Fault in Our Stars; John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm going with a 5 even though I had some problems with the ending.

If Hazel's take on life, life with cancer and how cancer is a byproduct of dying doesn't bring you to tears and laughter, well, there's something wrong with you. At times she's preternaturally wise, but most of the time she's one of those intelligent, loves words teenagers who has spent three years living with "really sucky lungs" and battling for most of her breaths. Why didn't she just give up? Because despite her parents urging her to do so, she overheard her mother saying "I won't be a mom anymore" and (I think) just couldn't let go.

And it's lucky she didn't, because then she wouldn't have met Augustus, her apparent soul mate. Together they play rather violent video games, watch "V for Vendetta", go on picnics and fall in love. They even share Augustus' Wish (it's really Hazel's) and go to Amsterdam to meet the author of Hazel's favorite book. And here's where the book failed me: Peter Van Houten was supposed to hold the answers to Hazel's questions about An Imperial Affliction but turns out to be a mean alcoholic. Too cliche for me.

Ditto when Van Houten comes to Indianapolis, and at the very end, when his former assistant Lidewij goes to his home to see if she can find Augustus' writing. That the book didn't actually end the way I thought it might was a wonderful relief (I like being surprised). The writing and the humor make what could be an otherwise maudlin book a wonderfully upbeat read.