30 December 2013

My Life in Middlemarch; Rebecca Mead

My Life in MiddlemarchMy Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do the people who write the book descriptions actually read the book before writing, or do they go by a proposal? Here's why: this book's description ("A New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youth--Middlemarch-- and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories.") doesn't match the contents.

Don't get me wrong, this is an engaging book that gives readers great insight into Middlemarch and George Eliot, but... the shaping of Rebecca Mead's life? her passionate attachment? That's only about 10% of the book. Another 10% is her reading documents, looking at artifacts and visiting Eliot-related places. The bulk of the book is a biography of Eliot and consideration of the themes and threads of Middlemarch, perfect for people encountering the book for the first time or re-reading it in a book group. It's just not the book I thought I'd be reading, the book the description promised. Hence the lower rating - had I gone in knowing that this was going to be less about Mead's reaction to the book, how reading/rereading at different ages brought out new insights and how (perhaps) others have reacted to it and more about who may have been the inspirations for the characters, it would have gotten a much higher rating.

ARC provided by publisher.

ETA: The British title, The Road to Middlemarch, makes so much more sense!

29 December 2013

All I Need; Susane Colasanti

All I NeedAll I Need by Susane Colasanti
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Hmmm... there's a huge fan base for Ms. Colasanti so my "meh" won't affect anyone. But really, this is just an average love story filled with missed opportunities. There wasn't anything here that grabbed me about either Skye or Seth that made me want to read more.

Copy provided by publisher.

How to Love; Katie Cotugno

How to LoveHow to Love by Katie Cotugno
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

16 and pregnant, and the father's gone? Plus a devoutly Catholic father? The life that Reena imagined has just crumbled around her. Two years later she's in a local college, living at home and dating her BFF's brother when Sawyer returns. Of course he wants in on Reena's life, just as he did before. Can she trust him? Has he changed? And could he be a good father to Hannah? Few surprises, sadly, but the romance may keep teens reading.

Copy provided by publisher.

Season of the Witch; Mariah Fredericks

Season of the WitchSeason of the Witch by Mariah Fredericks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can just see this inciting some protests: you can, in fact, hex and curse people and here are a few incantations and tricks. Well... ok. But it's also possible to read this as a series of coincidences and the power of mental suggestion.

Having one main character named Cassandra, particularly one who has an interest in withcraft and can mentally link with people, is a bit over the top. Did she kill her autistic younger brother, or was it a seizure that she wasn't there to help with? That's one question that Ella, her cousin (if you want, add "Cinder" before that, because she's a little neglected by her family when they're not picking on her eating) is asking. But Ella is, at heart, a very good person, unlike BFF Toni, branded school slut by the Queen Mean Girl. There's a little of "Heathers" here in the way they go after Toni and Toni's desire for revenge.

One of the blurbs talks about how true-to-NYC-prep-school-life this is. I'm not so sure about that. There's a lot in that world that's not depicted here, witchcraft aside.

Copy provided by publisher.

Seeing Red; Kathryn Erskine

Seeing RedSeeing Red by Kathryn Erskine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction set in the South, dealing with racism? Only the author's writing made me keep going, because I've read this before. Many times.

Copy provided by publisher.

Chasing Shadows; Swati Avasthi

Chasing ShadowsChasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The mix of graphic novel and text really worked for me (the cover carries out the same split between traditional and modern storytelling). As stories go, this one has few surprises but the characters are just a little different and that moved this from a three to a four star. That the story was ordinary and contained too many Weird Uses of capital Letters was a Problem for me, preventing this from being a five.

Three freerunning (which I think is another word for parkour) friends are on their way home from a session when twins Corey and Holly are shot, while Savriti just sits in her car stunned. Holly survives but her grief leads to some interesting places, namely a shadowland inhabited by Kortha, a snake-man creature who collects souls. Is she really dealing with Corey's death, or is she going mad, or both? Kortha is somewhat based on Hindu myths, which Sav has shared with Holly over the years both as story and in graphic novel form (hence the blend of forms throughout the text); he is, however, a complete creation of Holly's.

Copy provided by publisher.

Gorgeous; Paul Rudnick

GorgeousGorgeous by Paul Rudnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun fantasy/Cinderella read: a girl from the sticks, Becky, newly orphaned, goes to New York and becomes the most gorgeous woman in the world (literally overnight). Suddenly she's starring in a blockbuster with The Hottest Star Ever and being romanced by the heir to the British throne. Of course this new life Rebecca is enjoying can't last... and the ending to it is one of those made-for-tabloid endings. But like all good Cinderella stories, there's a happy ending.

Copy provided by publisher.

Grandmaster; David Klass

GrandmasterGrandmaster by David Klass
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chess as the backdrop to a father/son reconciliation and Lessons Learned - nothing that special about the plot, but using chess was an interesting choice. If you remember the story of Bobby Fisher and his breakdown, the stress he felt as a grandmaster, this will make even more sense. With more students studying chess, a story like this is pretty timely as a reminder that any competition (even one as geeky as chess) can be overamped by both children and parents.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Big Splash; Jack Ferraiolo

The Big SplashThe Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure that the intended audience will get all of the humor here, because who really knows Spillane-talk in middle school? You can forgive the hyperbole because there's no pretense that this is a real school, a real situation - it's just supposed to be a fun mystery. And the author does deliver on that! One quibble: algebra for 6th graders?

Copy provided by publisher.

Remember Dippy; Shirley Reva Vernick

Remember DippyRemember Dippy by Shirley Reva Vernick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Remember Dippy" is a name. And that's the first problem I had with this book: the name just seems so forced, as if the author wanted to start us off with a message. "Mem" Dippy, the person is autistic, mildly so, and of course taking care of him for the summer will totally change how Jonathan views things. Excuse me if I don't remember much more of this rather ordinary, already read tale.

Copy provided by publisher.

The Inventor's Secret; Andrea Cremer

The Inventor's SecretThe Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Really not a huge fan of the whole steampunk genre, but I do like Cremer's work. This is one of those revisionist history books, a world in which the British won the Revolutionary War and have instituted a system of indentured servitude to keep the continued insurrection under control. No surprises, that's not working well. Charlotte's life for the past few years has been one of hiding with a number of other under-18s in a cave (a series of caves, actually) north of New York City, raiding and trying to sabotage the British. Then she has to go to the City, pretending to be a debutant from the Caribbean. There's a love interest, of sorts, and of course there are misunderstandings about real intentions and motivations.

One of the problems for me was that Cremer doesn't build her world quite as well as she did in the Nightshade series - more explanation would have been really helpful. And the Charlotte/Jack/Coe triangle just didn't gel for me to continue the series, but if steampunk is your thing, go for it.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Dominion Key; Joshua Dread; Lee Bacon

Joshua Dread: The Dominion KeyThe Dominion Key by Lee Bacon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven't read the previous books, but this seems to be a series you can start any where and quickly catch up. This is almost like "The Incredibles", but some people do know about the secret identity of the parents (Joshua's parents are the Dread Duo; and some are on to the identities of the kids - and they're after them. So to be safe, the kids (Joshua, his superhero friends Sophie and Miranda, plus "normal" guy Milton) are sent to a remote island/school where they can learn more about their powers and, you know, be safe. Uh huh.

ARC provided by publisher.

Plague in the Mirror; Deborah Noyes

Plague in the MirrorPlague in the Mirror by Deborah Noyes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've read this story before: time-travel, two lives and loves, and a mysterious painting in the present day. Sigh. This wasn't a DNF but it was pretty close. What saved it? The setting (Florence) and some of the background information on artists during the plague era.

Copy provided by publisher.

Saints of the Shadow Bible; Ian Rankin

Saints of the Shadow BibleSaints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After a ton of YA, I treated myself to the newest Rebus for Christmas Eve reading - I knew exactly what I'd get and how enjoyable it'd be. I wasn't wrong at all. The latest installment in the Rebus saga doesn't disappoint, although there are those who miss the younger Rebus, the one not always on the right side of the line between his work and people like Ger Caffery.

As one suspected at the end of Standing in Another Man's Grave, Rebus does make it back onto the force at a lesser rank (DS, not DI) and he's ok with that. Of course there's some minor case that comes up... only Rebus suspects it's not minor, and of course he's right. DI Siobhan Clarke takes charge but luckily she knows enough to give Rebus some room. He also butts heads with DCI Page (much less of a presence here) but - and if you didn't see this coming, well... - his closest working relationship here is the Malcolm Fox, of the soon-to-be-closed Complaints. My guess? They'll be a defined team after this; Fox does grow on you, and it seems he's growing on Rebus.

The seedy underside of Edinburgh is less of a presence here, although we do go into a few of the divier bars and meet a number of shady characters. That's probably going to be the biggest complaint. Perhaps it's because Rebus is getting ever older, or perhaps it's because the city (like New York) is cleaning up? One character here actually says something about Rebus being an "old school" copper and how that's both good and bad. Just like Rebus.

Playing with Fire; Bruce Hale

Playing with Fire (SCHOOL FOR S.P.I.E.S. Book#1)Playing with Fire by Bruce Hale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Great read for those who love the Mysterious Benedict Society books - an orphan, shunted from foster home to foster home, finds himself in a school that is a little unusual. Unusual how? The classes don't seem to be about maths and history but about lock picking and marital arts. Field trips are to warehouses with a goal to get in, steal something and get out. And then there are coded messages saying that Max's father is, in fact, alive...

Copy provided by publisher.

All The Truth That's In Me; Julie Berry

All the Truth That's In MeAll the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writing style is what made this such a good read: Judith's constant focus on Lucas, speaking to him (in her mind) as she narrates the events pre-her disappearance, her disappearance and re-entrey into Roswell Station's life, and the post-attack affect on everyone is all second person. It really works.

The story itself is rather simple, with life in a colonial-era village filled with religious fervor and structured society being disrupted by the disappearance of two girls, only one of whom comes back alive (but mutilated). Who kidnapped Judith? And why? She's shunned by her town and family, even more so after the settler's are attacked and she convinces the one person she knows can help to do just that. Then there are accusations of witchcraft, hidden truths coming out, etc.. Nothing really new there, but again, it's Judith's voice and the use of the second person that make this special.

Copy provided by publisher.

23 December 2013

Article 5; Kristen Simmons

Article 5 (Article 5, #1)Article 5 by Kristen Simmons
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Another DNF after 100 pages of "please, show me something new"

And therein lies the problem: if you're an avid reader of YA fiction, you've read books like Article 5 before. Books with a fundamentalist crackdown following some war or uprising, with society now struggling under unfair rules and self-righteous leaders. What's needed is somethimore more, something new to make readers care.

Copy provided by publisher.

Antigoddess; Kendare Blake

Antigoddess (Goddess War, #1)Antigoddess by Kendare Blake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A step beyond the Percy Jackson-type books, these are the real Greek gods and goddesses at war (along with some reincarnated humans). For readers who don't know the Homeric epics, or the twisted allegiances and bloodlines on Olympus, there's enough explanation but not too much.

The idea that the gods are dying - killing each other, to be accurate - and not immortal is an interesting one. The problem is that the why isn't really clear. Hera's anger and desire to rid the world of Apollo, Athena, Hermes and more is never explained (or hinted at) which possibly means that it will be covered in the next book. I hate that, to be honest. Cliffhangers are one thing (will they get to Achilles? who will he side with? what happened to Zeus?) but not giving out important information just feels too manipulative.

Copy provided by publisher.

Infinityglass; Myra McEntire

Infinityglass (Hourglass, #3)Infinityglass by Myra McEntire
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Barely finished this - more like skimmed the last half. Maybe if I'd read the first two "Hourglass" books? Maybe if I cared about the idea that there are rips in time, and that there's an Infinityglass that's human? Or that the plot didn't feel as though I'd read something similar several times already? The plus was the New Orleans setting and glimpses of history.

Copy provided by the publisher.

All You Never Wanted; Adele Griffin

All You Never WantedAll You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF.

Two narrators, one in the first person and one not. Neither of whom appealed to me: Thea because she's annoying, Alex because she was so blank. Once I learned what Alex' problem was, there seemed no reason to continue.

Copy provided by publisher.

The Hypnotists; Gordon Korman

The Hypnotists (The Hypnotists, #1)The Hypnotists by Gordon Korman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was such a fun read: the idea that there's a group of hypnotists running around "bending" people to doing things like run for office or give you free food will definitely appeal to middle grade readers. They'll also enjoy Jax's skepticism over why he's so special, because for most people told they're the Next Great Thing there's a tiny inner voice wondering why.

The ending is a little rushed, possibly because we're setting up the next book. What will Dr. Mako and the Sentia Institute get up to next? Who will Jax team up with now? And how did Tommy get hypnotised - it can't have been the eyes, could it?

Copy provided by publisher.

Girlchild; Tupelo Hassman

GirlchildGirlchild by Tupelo Hassman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not the easiest read for several reasons: first, the subject matter (which - semi-spoiler alert - includes sexual molestation and incest) and second, the writing style.

The subject matter was difficult because it highlights a version of America that we don't always want to admit exists, or (given that this is written sometime in the past) existed. There are people like this out there - I went to public school with the upstate New York version of some of them. It's still easy for entire families to slip through the cracks, to not be caught (or want to be caught) by the so-called safety net. Teens getting pregnant and not having abortions? It still happens. Ditto teens keeping those children and starting families way too early.

As for the writing style, it was difficult in an elliptical fashion, as sometimes we were in the present, other times in the past. It would have worked better had the writing matured as Rory matured. The redacted pages were powerful, more powerful than any explicit language could have been, and a good choice.

Copy provided by publisher.

How I Live Now; Meg Rosoff

How I Live NowHow I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I guess this trend of setting the post-war dystopia in the proximate future is the next thing? At least here we're in England most of the time, with a bucolic setting that rapidly becomes war torn. Viewers of "Downton Abbey" will remember how the house was commandeered and turned into a hospital; here it's just housing for soldiers.

What kept me reading was that this was less about the dystopia (which it really isn't, in the Oppressive Government sense) or about the reasons for the war, but the way in which the girls survive. It wasn't quite the starvation rations that Europeans had during either of the World Wars, but it definitely was similar to what the British experienced. Beyond that, however, the characters didn't really grab me nor did their plight.

Copy provided by publisher.

Dead End in Norvelt; Jack Gantos

Dead End in NorveltDead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A factional autobiography (one that blends fact and fiction, based on the author's life) set in Norvelt, Gantos' childhood hometown. I love Norvelt, even when it's populated by characters a little too kooky to be believed, like the Rumbaughs. That's a slight problem here, where Jack seems to be the only normal one here - of course, that could be his perception of things, and who are we to argue?

There's a lot of history thrown into the book, in the form of "talks" with Miss Volker about the town and its residents and in the Today in History column in the newspaper. Readers who haven't really encountered Eleanor Roosevelt before may be confused by the importance she has in the town, and there's nothing here to help explain it. There may also be some questions about who the Hell's Angels are (since they've faded somewhat from our consciousness). As for the mystery of the deaths and fires, let's just say I would have loved the book more had that been a larger focus than Jack's being grounded for the summer had been.

Copy provided by publisher.

Doll Bones; Holly Black

Doll BonesDoll Bones by Holly Black
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Perfect read for a grey, dreary day... even better if you actually have the type of doll mentioned here somewhere in the house. I can see this definitely pleasing middle grade readers looking for horror that doesn't contain tons of gore or paranormal.

There's a lot going on here: growing up, growing away from the games that you used to play (even if that is forced by your father), what friendship is and if that can morph into something else and how far you go for friendship. Plus haunting. I even forgave the librarian, who straddled the line between so cool (that pink hair!) and so responsible (calling parents). The ending was a little rushed, given the slow nature of their trip from home to Ohio and the cemetery.

Copy provided by publisher.

Fangirl; Rainbow Rowell

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book for which there is Much Love (Rowell's on a roll, it seems). And it's all understandable: realistic characters, situations that may not apply to the reader but probably apply to someone they know, etc. Adding to the mix here is the sibling who isn't as popular as the other, one who's more comfortable in a fictional world (my sister is much younger than I, but that would be us if were were twins!).

My quibble here is the Harry Potter-esque fanfic. Why? I get that there's a lot of fanfic about HP, just as there is for the Twilight series. I also get that there's a huge GLBTQ fanfic subculture. It's the blatant rip-off of HP that bothers me - it felt lazy. Why not create something very, very different? It's great that Cather's writing was so similar to the "original" and that her version of the eighth book is so popular but again, make it something different.

I also didn't buy the professor's argument against fanfic. Wide Sargasso Sea, anyone?

Copy provided by publisher.

Eleanor & Park; Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can see why this is getting so much love but... well, I just have to be slightly contrary, don't I?

Here's the thing: why was this set in 1986? Ok, I get it, Eleanor is too poor to have a phone and there's no Amber Alert and all that. But why 1986? There's nothing special about that year and it could just as easily have been set in the 1970s, or early 1990s, or even 1985. Or 1987. Was it the music and comics? I just didn't get why that year. And then there were the two voices, which seemed very similar and yet shouldn't have. It's very difficult to write in two voices, I get that, but it didn't even feel as though there was an effort made.

So that's the "bad". The good was the way in which Eleanor and Park fall in love, the tentative "are we friends? can we sit together on the bus? is this ok?" start through Park's misery when she leaves. It also felt very, very real that she cut him off after - not wanting any contact with her past, even the incredibly good parts.

Copy provided by publisher.

The Darkest Path; Jeff Jirsch

The Darkest PathThe Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Passable dystopian fiction about a post-civil war US (not the Civil War, a Civil War) that splits the country between a religious South led by a man convinced he's the Righteous Leader and a North that, well, is the North. Which was one of my bigger problems with it: why is it the South is always the seat of religious fanaticism? Wouldn't it bave been more daring to flip it, to make the North the place (as it was back, say, during the Great Awakening and the days of the Burned Over District)?

Callum's attachment to his brother, to the idea that the only thing that matters is getting out, getting back to "home" is admirable. His brother, on the other hand, isn't quite so attached... any more. That conflict is what kept me from DNF'ing the book, not the constant battles and back-and-forth of which side was in charge of what territory or the love story.

Copy provided by publisher.

Battle Magic; Tamora Pierce

Battle Magic (Circle Reforged, #3)Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even if you haven't read the previous books (Will of the Empress and "The Circle of Magic" and "The Circle Reformed" series) you can relatively easily get into this world, but honestly, you really do want to go and read all the "previouslies". Trust me. As always, Pierce deftly creates not just a world but one that works with few (if any) things that seem out of place. And the characters grow, even when they're off-stage you get the sense that they're not just waiting for their next entrance.

So why only four stars? One was disappointment: the moving stone statues/figures sound so fascinating and are so little explored (the tiger excepted). The other was slight annoyance that the world and this war seem to be a fantasy version of Tibet v. China (look at the names... the claim that Gyongxe is so close to the gods because it's so high in the air... the mountains... need I go on?). It just felt a little like cheating in terms of sneaking in a (possibly unintended) political agenda. And finally, the constant change of viewpoints, with Rosethorn disappearing for a while with no explanation of what happened while she was delivering the sacred Treasure (perhaps that will come in another book? I so wanted to know!)

Beyond that, though, this is strong fantasy and the paranormal additions are not vampires or werewolves but true magic. Sorely missed in this current YA environment!

09 December 2013

Somebody Up There Hates You; Hollis Seamon

Somebody Up There Hates YouSomebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can hear the outrage now: how dare someone cover similar territory to The Fault In Our Stars and make it all about sex? Well... that's not the only problem here. It's not that John Green wrote a book that garnered so much love, it's that this one is trying to walk the line between "boy in hospital dying/wanting to be normal" and "normal boy dying in hospital" and just doesn't quite make it.

The premise is completely understandable: when you're 17, in and out of hospitals for your entire teenage life, there are things you miss, and when the opportunity presents itself to be normal, why not grab it? Richie does just that, packing quite a lot into his time in hospice with a "Cabbage Night", an escape to a bar on Hallowe'en, and, yes, sex with two different girls (depending on how you define sex). I could even buy his not caring about, or being aware of, the effect of his actions on the nurses and others. But Sylvie's father? I just didn't believe him. And Richie's family was just a little too kooky for belief.

ARC provided by publisher.

Ostrich; Matt Greene

OstrichOstrich by Matt Greene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this, sort of. There were moments that were funny (giggle-out-loud funny) and moments that were a little poignant, but the ending just killed it for me. I read and reread the last 50-ish pages and still wasn't clear what happened or why (or how).

I've seen comparisons to Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime but I think a better comparison would be to Jack Tumor, with a healthy dose of "boy going through puberty" thrown in. There's a game of spin-the-bottle that reminded me of what the guys in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret must have been thinking, for example, and a lot about friends and penises (and their girth) and other boy obsessions. The writing at times is raw and will probably be deemed "inappropriate" but given some of the other problems, I don't see this gathering a great following any way.

Example? Because this is from Alex's point-of-view, the parents are necessarily flat characters. That's what made the ending so confusing, as Alex disappears pretty much without authorial explanation. That confusion felt unnecessary.

ARC provided by publisher.

04 December 2013

The 100; Kass Morgan

The 100 (The Hundred, #1)The 100 by Kass Morgan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Another DNF for the year, this time because the book was too derivative and had too many points-of-view. I think I counted six main characters, about whom we learn too little to really care about any one because half of each chapter was taken up with backstory. It really reads as though this was never intended to be a book, that it was a novelization of a tv series. Oh, wait...

ARC provided by publisher.

02 December 2013

The Infinite Moment of Us; Lauren Myracle

The Infinite Moment of UsThe Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A little more mature than earlier Myracle books like TTFN and Peace, Love and Baby Ducks, more like a Sarah Dessen or Stephanie Perkins but with sex (and sexting!).

Told over the space of one summer, this is the story of Wren and Charlie and their falling in love. We open during their last week of high school, where they know each other by sight but not more than that - but there is a connection. Through some coincidences and the help of friends, they end up together and slowly falling in love even as they know that their time together is limited before they head off to college (or Guatemala).

The starts and stops of the relationship felt real, and Myracle has a real ear for the language real teens use. It was also nice that Wren's life seemed perfect from the outside and yet was stifling, reminding readers that not every unhappy teen has to have severe trauma to live through and that sometimes, it's caring parents that are the problem. Charlie was a little more problematic in that Dev's disability felt slightly unnecessary. The secondary characters, who should have been more fleshed out given their roles, were flat; suddenly, Tessa, Wren's BFF, and Tessa's boyfriend are giving sex advice and watching out for the two of them? Didn't feel at all natural. The ending was very rushed, with one of those "surprise!" moments that was very forced.

Still, for teens looking for something somewhat older than YA (not quite sure if this fits the New Adult label, or what NA really is) and who love the previously mentioned Dessen and Perkins...

Copy provided by publisher.

BZRK; Michael Grant

BZRKBZRK by Michael Grant
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

My usual DNF limit is 15% (on the Kindle) or 100 pages, but I gave this one nearly 200 pages before just giving up: it was too frenetic, too much a series of plot pieces with not enough character stuff tying it all together. The problem was that in between the plot pieces there was some interesting character stuff that kept me going, hoping for more, hoping for a hook that made me appreciate the nano and the micro and the meat (and why - WHY??? - wasn't there a better explanation of it all early on? sooo confusing!)

Copy provided by publisher.

01 December 2013

Unhinged; A.G. Howard

Unhinged (Splintered, #2)Unhinged by A.G. Howard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, as well as Alice at 80 and other Alice-related books (like Brom). So a new series with an Alice-slant? Yes, please.

Starting with Book 2 was probably not a great strategy, but it did give me a chance to test my "does this work as a stand-alone" theory. And the answer is... not really. You do need to have read the previous book to get about 50% of the background; as it was, I pieced together the "previously" parts but may have gotten things wrong and probably didn't enjoy this as much as I might have otherwise.

As a vision of Wonderland goes, this was pretty interesting. Morpheus was a bit creepy, which was what was intended - my adult reader side was creeped out even more than I think the author intended because he, seemingly eternal, is going after a teen. And do we really need the love triangle between Jeb and Morpheus? With Mom as, well, I'm not sure how she exactly fits in except that Morpheus did want her (even creepier!).

The other reason for the loss of a star was the overwrought writing when talking about Alyssa. It was obvious she was stressed, or scared, or angry, or whatever the emotion was. Less telling and more showing would have been great, ditto fewer adjectives.

ARC provided by publisher.

Sick; Tom Leveen

SickSick by Tom Leveen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to the ALAN Big Box o'Books I got a copy of a book in a genre I wouldn't ordinarily have read: the zombie branch of the paranormal. The author even admitted that the hook was "Breakfast Club meets The Walking Dead" and well, I don't know the latter so I can't fully comment but the Breakfast Club? Not quite. There was that "people who wouldn't usually work together finding a way to cooperate" thing, but since it came during a real crisis it didn't have that Breakfast Club getting to know Others vibe.

The crisis is some sort of incredibly contagious virus that spreads quickly and via the sharing of bodily fluids (blood, mostly, via biting). Brian and Chad are the outcasts, not fitting in with really any group; Chad has a megacrush on Brian's sister Kenzie and Brian's broken-up with Laura (who suffers severe panic attacks), Kenzie's friend. Because they skip school - and the school assembly - they miss the outbreak and lockdown that kicks off the main action. Oh, and their school? A near prison with high fencing all around. There's no need to go further in describing the chaos that ensues, is there?

I don't know much about zombies, but I'm pretty sure they don't sparkle, and that they're supposed to be dead. So perhaps this isn't really about zombies? The disease/virus is pretty awful and the carnage is possibly a little too graphic for some readers. It also felt like Kenzie's having been ill before was an unnecessary addition; Laura's panic attacks did work but could have had more effect on things. Still, the strong male characters will appeal to readers.

ARC provided by publisher.

Curtsies & Conspiracies; Gail Carriger

Curtsies & Conspiracies (Finishing School, #2)Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gallagher Girls meets steampunk with a hint of paranormal? Interesting... and surprisingly better than I expected. Of course, not having read the first book means that there was backstory and set-up that I didn't quite understand, like the tethering and the relationships between the Picklemen and the vampires and all.

As with Gallagher Girls, we have a strong heroine taking matters into her own hands. There are plots and intrigues, not to mention sneaking around the dirigible that Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality calls home. At her 6-month exams, Sophronia is awarded the highest marks ever given, leading to a rift between her and her classmates, forcing Our Heroine to become even more self-reliant (ok, and to rely even more on the kindness of the sooties and Vieve). For some reason, the school is floating over to London and taking on passengers from the "boys school", Bunson's - something unheard of before now. The reasons are, of course, sussed out and adventures are had by the end of the book, which also leaves us with a nice, untidy, read-the-next-volume ending.

I'm giving this four stars because it's really 3.5 but I was feeling a bit generous. Why the loss? The point-of-view varies, not always in ways that make sense (perhaps a little more editing would help). And then there's the clear set-up for the love triangle: are you going to be Team Soap or Team Mersey? Bah.

Copy provided by publisher.

21 November 2013

The Ice Cream Kid; Todd Clark

The Ice Cream Kid: Brain Freeze!The Ice Cream Kid: Brain Freeze! by Todd Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perfect read for the younger middle grade (or upper elementary) crowd: an average kid discovers that by eating ice cream, his super powers emerge. Even better, he's from a family of super heroes (grandpa is one, but it's skipped a generation). Irwin's biggest problem is that his sidekick is a sarcastic pidgeon, Bert - not exactly the image he wants. But there's trouble in town and only the Ice Cream Kid, with a steady supply of drumsticks, ice cream sandwiches and fudgesicles, can stop Sweaty Cracker.

Copy provided by publisher.

20 November 2013

The Sea Garden; Deborah Lawrenson

The Sea GardenThe Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved The Lantern and was so excited to read The Sea Garden, which is, in more ways than one, a follow-up. Rather than one story, the author has provided three novellas, with the second and third set in and around World War II. That there is an intersection for all three becomes apparently towards the end; at times that intersection feels a tad forced. My other reason for giving this a four rather than the five I wanted so much to give the book was that the third section at times read a little too much like parts of Code Name, Verity (there's even a Hugh Verity named!).

It was very nice re-meeting Marthe, the blind perfumiere that we meet during The Lantern, getting more of her backstory. Unlike that book, this doesn't have the Rebecca-esque overtones in the modern day story although there are a few moments of odd. And the section set in Porquerolles? Add that to my list of Islands I Want To Visit.

ARC provided by publisher.

Sammy Feral's Diaries of Weird; Eleanor Hawken

Sammy Feral's Diaries of WeirdSammy Feral's Diaries of Weird by Eleanor Hawken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book should definitely appeal to those boys who loved Goosebumps and Wimpy Kid: the humor and the horror are mixed relatively equally.

Sammy Feral (how well named!) is the son of a zookeeper, living a relatively normal life when one day his family is bitten by Caliban, their dog. Caliban wasn't just a dog, he was a werewolf and with those bites, Sammy's life goes from normal to Very Weird Indeed. Worse, he can't really share the weirdness with Max, his best friend, which puts a real strain on the relationship. Will he be able to cure his family? Can he save the Zoo? Read and find out.

ARC provided by publisher.

13 November 2013

No One Else Can Have You; Kathleen Hale

No One Else Can Have YouNo One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For some reason, regionalisms don't translate well in print - "you betcha" being one example. There's no need for them to be sprinkled quite so heavily into the dialog. And a father nearly incapable of calling his daughter by her real name, instead using strange nicknames (Pickle being the most normal of them, others include Pimple and Chocolate Butt)? We're just reaching for the odd here.

The plot itself is interesting, billed as "Twin Peaks meets Fargo" (hence all the "you betchas") and centering on a rather horrific death in a small Wisconsin town. Of course there's no shortage of oddball characters and events, although some did strain credulity. Kippy, our heroine, is grieving the loss of her best friend and trying to investigate whodunnit but runs into problems and really, no one takes her seriously. Except the killer, unveiled in a twist that doesn't quite work. To be more accurate, the it's the capture of the killer that isn't credible but by this point in the book, if you've read that far it probably won't bother you.

Mixing humor and mystery is difficult enough, but making it appeal to YA audiences? Even more difficult.

ARC provided by publisher.

11 November 2013

Coincidence; J.W. Ironmonger

CoincidenceCoincidence by J W Ironmonger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Very uneven writing in what could have been a really outstanding book.

Azalea's life seems ruled by coincidence, and yet... are they? Can the seemingly ordained be explained? That's the position taken by Thomas, whose academic career is founded on disproving the existence of coincidences by mathematics. Several examples from "real life" are used, like how many times you flip a coin and get heads, long digressions into the Big Bang and billiard ball theories, and then there's Azalea's life.

Azalea's life is told in a series of flashbacks, and from her apparent abandonment by her mother to her finding possible fathers to the deaths of her adoptive parents coincidence has ruled things. This leads her to believe that there will be another event that will occur, one that Thomas realizes he cannot live with (even as he disproves or deflates her interpretation of the earlier events). The strongest parts of the book are when we're hearing about her life before they meet and their relationship; the weakest are when the narrator interrupts. The tone of the latter is not as strong as the force of the narrative, perhaps because it's in that "we know... we see..." mode. Pacing is another weakness, with the ending feeling a little rushed.

As for the coincidences? Too many of them are resolved "off stage" without Azalea's awareness. At times the author seems to be trying to prove determinism, while at others it's a definite argument for randomness/free will. This would have been a better book had the author chosen one side.

ARC provided by publisher.

Africa is My Home: Monica Edinger

Africa Is My Home: A Child of the AmistadAfrica Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I know the author. So of course there was interest in the book, which also stemmed from the same thing that intrigued the author: there were children on Amistad? We open in Africa, in what's now Sierra Leone, with a girl who has been pawned by her father (interesting parallel to Gen. Alex Dumas' life) and then sold into slavery when the traders made a better offer to the pawn owner. Not speaking Spanish, not understanding what was going on, Magulu is transported to Cuba and then sold to another owner, but the mutiny takes her life in another direction - to New Haven, to a Supreme Court case and to a life that includes time at Oberlin and two returns to her homeland.

Because there's a real paucity of documentation for her life before Amistad and after her return to Africa it makes sense that this is not non-fiction but an attempt at a supposal about her life. The bibliography at the end is geared more towards adult researchers, which was a little disappointing - but perhaps there are no good books about this for the target readers to learn more.

06 November 2013

One Hundred Names; Cecelia Ahern

One Hundred NamesOne Hundred Names by Cecelia Ahern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Predictable, but not in an eye-rollingly bad way. This is more of a comfort read, predictable in the same way that an AGA-saga is predictable (or, in some ways, a murder mystery is, with the whodunnit solved at the end). Set in modern day Dublin, this is the story of Katherine (er, make that Kitty), a television "journalist" who destroys a man's life with a story that she was fed, but didn't do enough diligence on to learn that it was not just false, but very false. Disgraced, she retreats to her mentor and creator of Entourage magazine - conveniently dying and equally conveniently leaving behind the story she always wanted to write (but didn't), thus setting in motion Kitty's journey. Why did Constance choose these 100 people? What links them? And can those reasons be discerned by the publication deadline for the memorial tribute to the magazine's founder?

At times the people we meet seem like stock characters, chosen to fill a specific need rather than coming organically from real life. That's why there are only three stars: without spoiling the book, if the message is what I suspect it is, we could have changed the people Kitty's investigating slightly and had a better book. Still, as written, and with the message being more important than the characterizations, it's not a bad read.

My big takeaway? There's magic inside everyone, and everyone's story is worthy of being told. And if that's not the overall message don't tell me.

ARC provided by publisher.

04 November 2013

The Disappeared; Kristina Ohlsoon

The Disappeared: A NovelThe Disappeared by Kristina Ohlsson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd never heard of Ms. Ohlsson, but she's apparently one of the wave of great Scandinavian mystery writers currently crashing on our bookshelves. Because this is the third in this series, there were a few things at the start - backstory on the detectives - that I found a little confusing. We don't get a "previously..." section which was ok, mostly because the interrelationships and personal lives doesn't need to be front-and-center until later and by then you'll have sorted it all out.

As far as the mystery goes, this isn't one of those "only in Scandinavia" stories, or one filled with a huge sense of place. Instead it's more of a psychological story that could be set anywhere. Note: that's not a negative, just a comment for those expecting Arctic darkness or quaint Scandinavian villages or whatever it is that defines this genre. Instead we get a few past events that truly come back to haunt the present, set in motion by a young woman working on her thesis. This thesis starts out being about a children's book author who was accused of writing two horrifically pornographic/S&M books that verge on the "snuff" genre and then convicted of murdering her ex-husband (really merely the father of her son, but nevermind) and possibly murdering her son. For over 30 years she hasn't spoken, yet somehow Rebecca Trolle stumbles on to something...

It was definitely a good thing that I read this on the day we turned the clocks back an hour because I just couldn't sleep until I'd finished! There were a few moments I thought, "no, really?" but only a few, and guessing one of the big twists earlier than the reveal didn't spoil anything for me. My only quibbles were with the interruption of the plot by transcripts of an interrogation of two of the detectives after then fact: the interruptions seem to be leading to Book Four in the series, and a couple of times there's the comment "witness looks blank" or some such, phrasing that makes no sense if this is a transcript of an audiotape.

ARC provided by publisher.

03 November 2013

The Kept; James Scott

The KeptThe Kept by James Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quieter than your usual mystery, yet still fairly blood-soaked, The Kept was a rather unusual read for me. Set in the late 1800s we have train travel but little other technology, but at first, before I realized the timeframe, I thought it might have been set in Amish country. The winter cold adds to the bleak atmosphere and the sense of impending... something. Not quite doom, but something.

Elspeth is a midwife who spends months away from her family, who live on a remote farm in what I think is upstate New York. She's a sinner in some unnamed way, expecting some sort of punishment for these unspecified crimes. However she does not expect to return home to a family brutally murdered - nor does she expect to be shot. Luckily(?) the shooter is her 12-year-old son Caleb, who then tends to her in addition to preparing a funeral pyre for his siblings that gets out of hand, thus burning down the family home; he struggles to move himself and Elspeth to the barn where slowly they both heal enough to go after the men who murdered everyone.

Caleb never seems to wonder about why the men came, while Elspeth seems to assume that it's retribution for whatever it is she did earlier. They end up in a town, apparently Caleb's birthplace, and settle in to find the killers... you'll have to read to learn What Happens Next.

As I said, there's a lot of blood (not all of it murder-related) and a lot of atmosphere. Family is central to the book, including the questions of what family is and what it means. With just a few pacing tweaks this could have been a five star; as is, it's a solid 4.5.

Ketchup Clouds; Annabel Pitcher

Ketchup CloudsKetchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The ambiguous title really has nothing to do with the book itself, an epistolary novel set in the UK with "Zoe" writing to Stuart, a killer on death row in America, about her role killing a guy. So of course my first thought was "unreliable narrator." Is it a spoiler to say that's not the case?

What we get is the past year and a half (or so) of "Zoe's" life, the two boys she falls in love with (luckily, not portrayed as your typical love triangle) and what happens next. Did she kill "Max"? What about the upheavals her family encounters: will they survive intact? How will this affect her future? Each letter starts in the present, with a description of (among other things), his crime, the weather and a spider and then moves to the past and the story that she feels compelled to spill to someone, even if it's someone who can't ever respond (not because he's on death row in another country but because she's using a fake name and address).

And that's why this was only three stars. The letters are interesting but ultimately readers will wonder why. It doesn't really seem that there's any catharsis reached, and the Big Name Reveal at the end doesn't quite make sense if there isn't. But perhaps that goes with my expecting there to be a different type of narration and others won't feel the same.

ARC provided by publisher.

31 October 2013

Captives; Jill Williamson

Captives (The Safe Lands #1)Captives by Jill Williamson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know Zondervan publishes a lot of religious books, or perhaps "books with a certain slant" is a better way of phrasing that. So I was a little apprehensive starting this dystopian book that takes place in the west (what we formerly called Colorado). There are outlier communities held together by faith and hard work, and the Safe Lands where the population is addicted to stims and PVs and technology - we move between them for a while until, thanks to misfit Omar, the Safe Landers capture many of the members of his village and forcibly bring them to the Safe Lands.

The problem is the thin plague, which vaguely sounds like AIDS and has rendered the population not quite sterile, but not able to procreate either. The reason for the capture is that there is a need for non-infected people to help with this problem, either as donors (males) or surrogates (females). And that's where the Christian message comes in: people having sex without marriage, surrogacy, etc. are all part of the Safe Lands lives and are ethically, morally wrong (as the villager see it). While the message isn't overly heavy, it's not subtle either.

Had the world building been a little better, this might have been a better read, but because there's a Message here it probably was less important than bringing that Message to the forefront.

The September Society; Charles Finch

The September Society (Charles Lenox Mysteries, #2)The September Society by Charles Finch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ok, I think I'm done with this series. Our Detective, Charles Lenox, is not as engaging as the author seems to think he is and all that faffing about wondering what he will do with Lady Jane Grey, his childhood friend/possible future wife? So unnecessary. The mystery itself relies on one too many coincidences and convulutions to wrap itself up neatly, which I suspect came about because of all the romantic dithering. Speaking of romance, the secondary couple, the Doctor McConnell and his wife, are going through difficult times - but was mentioning it quite so frequently meant to show or tell?

The author excels at the travel writing part, describing Oxford and its pubs and colleges in great detail. Sadly, that didn't really advance the plot any; less "this pub served students since the 1500s" and more whodunnit would have been appreciated. Ditto the overexplanation of things that illustrate the class differentials in Victorian society. Trust me, we've got that part down.

26 October 2013

The Winter People; Jennifer McMahon

The Winter PeopleThe Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The perfect read as a lead up to the Hallowe'en season, with chills coming from a long-ago murder, a missing mother and a woman's search for why her recently deceased husband lied about where he was going rather than from obvious paranormal devices.  The "flashback device" is the 1908 diary of Sara, a wife and mother who ends up flayed by her husband, who then kills himself - but did Sara learn from her childhood caregiver, Auntie, how to raise the dead?  The final pages of her diary should have the answer... but where are those pages?

There are tinges of other scary novels (early Stephen King, I'm looking at you) but the mix is enough to keep me up past my bedtime to finish.

ARC provided by publisher.