31 January 2013

Loki's Wolves; K.L. Armstrong

Loki's Wolves (The Blackwell Pages, #1)Loki's Wolves by K.L. Armstrong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The moment I read The Lightning Thief I had several students in mind as ones who would love that book - I had the same reaction here. Plus, Viking mythology. Far too few students know about Odin and Loki, Freya, Thor, et al., because Greek and Roman mythology is what's taught in schools (and whatever happened to the books I read when I was younger, beautifully illustrated mythologies from all over the world? Today you have D'Aulaire and Hamilton, with nothing in between!).

Matthew Thorsen (get it? THOR's son) is the son of a police chief. Fen Brekke (Fen as in FENris) is one of those "lost" kids, passed from family member to family member. The two don't get along. Turns out they're both keys to the upcoming Ragnarök, this time with kids descended from the gods, not the gods themselves. So off they trot, looking for the other descendents, and on the way find Norns, Valkyrie, Odin, Baldir, Frey, Freya and more (or, if not them exactly, their modern day descendants).

As with the Percy Jackson series, this is a great blend of the mythology and modern day stuff. There's definitely a need for a little more explication of what and who, because few readers in the target group will know the names and adventures (that's why this should really be four and a half stars).

ARC provided by publisher.

29 January 2013

Scorch; Gina Damico

Scorch (Croak, #2)Scorch by Gina Damico
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you love "Dead Like Me" you'll probably enjoy this series - it mixes the Reaper idea (here called Grims) with the Vladimir Tod humor vibe, and adds a little something. Problem is there's not enough of everything to work.

My feeling about series are that books should lead from one to another, but that they should also be able to stand alone; not having read Book One, I came to the Grimsphere with no expectations and a lot of questions. The first chapter or so was mostly showing What Came Before, with a little Moving Forward: who Lex is, what happened to Cordy, why Lex is persona non grata in Croak, and setting the relationships between Lex, Mort, Driggs, Pandora, Norwood, Sophia and everyone. There's some discussion of why Lex's Damning talent could be transferred, and how dangerous Zara is and then Bam! We're into the action with Zara infiltrating Croak and killing Grims, not just people.

There's an escape to DeMyse, Crashing across country, glass sythes and traitors and lots of excitement, all leading to an unsatisfying ending. Clearly we're supposed to feel that this is a cliffhanger that will keep us on tenterhooks until Book 3 comes out, but it was a little too rushed. More time with the Book 2 plot and perhaps developing Grotton more would have led to that "can't wait" feeling, but as it was? Maybe. Maybe not.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Reluctant Assassin; Eoin Colfer

The Reluctant Assassin (W.A.R.P., #1)The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Colfer is one of the more inventive writers, and this new series is no different: in lieu of the evil genius Artemis Fowl, we have Riley (a London street urchin), Agent Chevie Savano (FBI... sort of) and evil genius Albert Garrick. Riley and Garrick hail from Victorian era London, Chevie from current-day California. There's time travel, Fagin-esque gangs, interesting uses of illusions and, well, the type of violence we're accustomed to from Eoin Colfer.

The problem for me here was pacing. There were patches with description that dragged down the action, some of the action was rushed, and the last part is obviously slowing down to lead to the next book; none of these were problematic in the Fowl series. In tone, the characters are similar to his previous hero, etc., but are different enough that you don't always feel that you're reading Artemis Fowl: London Calling. Still, I suspect that won't matter to Colfer's fans.

ARC provided by publisher.

26 January 2013

The Wrap-Up List; Steven Arnston

The Wrap-Up ListThe Wrap-Up List by Steven Arntson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

DEATH is my favorite character in all of Discworld, and the Deaths imagined here by Arnston are pretty great! In this proximate future version of America (well, the world, really) people die, but some "depart" following letters received from a Death. Gabrielle is one such person - Hercule sends her a letter suggesting a week from Wednesday as her departure date. The established protocol is to write a wrap-up list, similar to a bucket list but with a definite time frame in mind. The Death will respond with hints as to how to accomplish said items; if you can find the Death's Secret Weakness, you might get a Pardon and continue with your life.

With only a week to live, Gabrielle has to find the Secret Witness, complete her wrap-up list, say goodbye to her friends and family, and prepare to depart. It's a lot, but the way in which she approaches it is interesting and will definitely resonate with teens. Her Death, Hercule, is less an amorphous thing than another character in the story, capable of emotion. If nothing else, it may make readers think about what they would want on their wrap-up list.

ARC provided by publisher.

Dead is a Killer Tune; Marlene Perez

Dead Is a Killer Tune (Dead Is, #7)Dead Is a Killer Tune by Marlene Perez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's always unclear to me why a late series book would be ARCd in large quantities, and in this care I've never heard of the series (not sure what the series is called, except all the books start "Dead is..."). Anyway, I'm glad I got this because It Is Cute.

The premise apparently is that there's a town in California, Nightshade, and Jessica is a virago (a woman warrior) who protects the inhabitants from [vampires/zombies/werewolves/paranormal thingy]. Kind of like Buffy, but not quite as secret (although she does have a trainer and a favorite librarian). There's no Scooby Gang either, but there are cute boys and about seven sisters for her to contend with. This book deals with a Battle of the Bands situation, some wishing powder and the myth of the Pied Piper. Now I need to read books 1-6!

ARC provided by publisher.

25 January 2013

Telling the Bees; Peggy Hesketh

Telling the BeesTelling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Such an odd mixture of murder mystery, quiet ruminations on a personal history and arcana on beekeeping. The problem is that the last part overwhelms the first two, detracting from what could at times be a Marilynne Robinson-esque book.

The mystery is essentially obscured by the author; Claire and Hilda, aka "The Bee Ladies" are found by Albert, their neighbor, bound, gagged and asphyxiated in their home. While close at one time, there was a falling out and haven't spoken in over 15 years. The detective in charge of the inquiry asks Albert for his help, but this taciturn man spends more time talking about the bees than about his neighbors. There are trips down memory lane, recounting the history of the neighbor's relationship, that could be promising and yet, because of all the bee talk are too obscured. The big twist over who the killer was is telegraphed if readers can separate story from bees.

In her forward, the author mentions becoming interesting in the topic of bees when she "borrows" a book from her local library (she never returns the book) and Telling the Bees is clearly an excuse to share that interest. Less would have been more.

ARC provided by publisher.

Murder at the Lanterne Rouge; Cara Black

Murder at the Lanterne Rouge (Aimee Leduc Investigations, #12)Murder at the Lanterne Rouge by Cara Black
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I seem to be reading this series in reverse... it's an interesting way to discover a character and their backstory.

As with Murder Below Montparnasse this is set in an area of Paris I know but Black brings out odd corners and history that I didn't know; I'm starting to keep notes so on my next trip I can go to this church... that bistro. There's a little bit of Templar madness here, but it doesn't rise to Dan Brownian levels (yay!). The socially relevant parts revolve around Chinese snakeheads and forced labor, but again the messages isn't hammered home.

I'm still annoyed by the name dropping of designers, thought. It doesn't really add to the plot to know that there's a Fendi jacket, or vintage Chanel. Really. And it's a little strange that this is set in the 1990s, for no apparent reason. Aimee and Rene's business is technology - computer security, with some hacking involved - so why not bring the series into the modern day? Perhaps I'll learn the why when I get to Book One.

The Woman Upstairs; Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Probably not the best book to read on the cusp of a Major Birthday - Nora is going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, dissatisfied with her life (more about the "what might have beens" than the "what is") when the Shahid family enters her life.

Nora (clearly named after Ibsen's heroine) is a very popular third grade teacher in Cambridge and Reza Shahid is a transfer student from Paris (of Palestinian/Lebanese and Italian descent). After a schoolyard bullying incident, his mother Sirena (no, that name's not laden with meaning) comes into Nora's life. She's an installation artist, semi-famous in Paris, and Nora had once had hopes of being an artist so the two of them rent and share a studio. Soon Nora is under Sirena's spell, obsessing about seeing her and racing from work to the studio to spend time together. Girl crush? Latent lesbian orientation emerging? And then there's Skandar, the visiting Harvard lecturer husband whose one year appointment brought them to the US and Nora's life.

"The woman upstairs" is Nora's term for the unmarried, quiet, somewhat forgotten woman that she fears she is. Her desire to become part of the Shahid's life, to turn into the type of artist/intellectual that she once hoped to be, is the driving motivation here. Of course her perception of her importance to the Shahids is skewed, and as always happens in these cases, ends with a deep sense of betrayal.

As I said, not the best book to read on the cusp of a Major Birthday. And this might not appeal to younger adults (those in their 20s/30s), but I can see older women (40s+) finding points of recognition here.

ARC provided by publisher.

23 January 2013

The Little Book; Selden Edwards

The Little BookThe Little Book by Selden Edwards
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Time travel books can be so tricky: how is the travel approached? why is the person traveling? does it make sense? In this case, the answer is that the author managed those things well and that, coupled with writing about an interesting era and believable characters led to a five star review.

Fin de siècle Vienna, filled with Secessionist thinkers and artists, Freud and the start of the anti-Semetic movement that will lead to Hitler is one of those times and places you wish you could visit (ok, a time and place I wish I could visit!) and it has lovingly been brought to life by "the Haze", a beloved teacher at St. Gregory's school near Boston. At least two generations of boys have heard many of his thoughts and quotations from the writers, philosophers and authors he knew as a young man; generations that included Frank Standish Burden Jr and III.

Wheeler (aka III) was an unconventional child, an autodidact who was an amazing baseball pitcher and good enough musician to play both Woodstock and Altamont. He has written a book that collates the Haze's writings and sayings, and suddenly he finds himself in Vienna, 80 years earlier. One of the people he meets there is Dilly (aka Jr) - they also meet Weezie (who will become Dilly's mother), the Haze, and Burden Senior. Because this is historical fiction, Mark Twain, Klimt, Freud and Churchill make appearances.

The writing brings both timelines alive in a way I hadn't expected. One or two characters seemed so real I was surprised when they turned out to be products of the author's imagination! The reason behind the time travel (an escape from the pain of death) actually made sense; the results of their actions also made sense, something that doesn't always follow.

View all my reviews

22 January 2013

The Ice Princess; Camilla Läckberg

The Ice Princess (Patrik Hedström, #1)The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was interesting seeing the start of the Falck/Hedstrom relationship (well, not the exact start - that happened in childhood) and their first case. The Ice Princess is Alex Wijkner nee Carlson, found in a frozen tub of blood and a apparent suicide. Years before she was BFFs with Erica but for some reason started to pull away and then she and her family suddenly moved; she's returned to Fjallbacka and her family home on weekends and, well....

Of course it's not suicide and of course it's connected with whatever drove her family away from Fjallbacka 25 years earlier (one twist I figured out early on, the others not as quickly). There's more going on than just the murder inquiry, too: there's the relationship between Erica and Patrik and the question of Anna's marriage to Lucas. At times there are a few too many points of view to follow, perhaps in an attempt to create more confusion as to who is involved and why.

There's also the problem of translation. For some reason, we hear a lot about food (pastries being a favorite topic, but creme fraiche is mentioned a few more times than seemed necessary) and about the furnishings in each home. Whether that was included originally to pace the novel may not have worked as well when it was translated from Swedish to English.

19 January 2013

Dead Scared; S.J. Bolton

Dead Scared (Lacey Flint, #2)Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Almost as good as the first (Now You See Me) and just as dark. Equally good is the fact that there's very little "if you didn't read the last book you won't understand this but..." - perfect sequel work!

This time we're in Cambridge, and Lacey's undercover as a potentially fragile student prone to depression. Why? Because there have been other suicide attempts there and the head of clinical services is concerned. Turns out that there have been five or more suicides per academic year for the past few years, statistically anomalous, and the methods have been strangely violent for women (who tend to use non-violent methods of killing themselves).

So far, so good. I like the dark atmosphere, love the setting. The twists - who's behind it, who's really trustworthy - are interesting and again, I didn't catch them all.

The one star loss is for two reasons. The first: Lacey and Mark's relationship doesn't feel as real as it did in the previous book. There's banter that doesn't work, let alone sound like two people who might have a professional relationship in addition to the personal one. The second: one of Lacey's "charms" is that she frequently goes awol in order to follow her hunches, and if the Met didn't want her to do that, why send her to Cambridge? Why not give her all the information she needs before goes and then let her do her thing? I know, I know, it's because without that there's little tension between Lacey and Mark professionally. But really? Sigh.

Six months (ish) before the third. Looking forward.

View all my reviews

Stonemouth; Iain Banks

Stonemouth: A NovelStonemouth by Iain Banks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As always, the problem with loving a living writer's work is the wait between books - Stonemouth was worth it!

Set in a smallish port town in Scotland, the action shifts between modern day and Stewart's youth (if one can count scenes at age 20 as "youth"). As a boy he was part of a group of boys, getting into a bit of trouble that includes the really tragic death of one of them in a paintball match. As a young man he was friends with one of the town's two Big Men, Joe (godson to the other), taking hill walks with him and visiting the home - and, of course, in love with Ellie, eldest daughter in the clan. Ellie and Stewart get engaged, and then a week before the wedding he has a quickie with another girl (the daughter of Ellie's father's rival, no less) that is caught on camera... Life in danger, he flees for London and a new life. Five years later he's back for Joe's funeral on a few day's dispensation from the new "Mr. M" (Joe specifically asked for Stewart's presence).

As with almost all Banks' non-SF books, the characters are people you might actually know (Song of Stone is one exception) doing things that average, ordinary people do. The writing is gorgeous, one of the things I love most about his work. Even though he uses name brands (a Ford Ka, BlackBerry, etc.) it won't feel dated in a few years and, unlike some books I've read recently, it's done sparingly enough to set the place and tone and not feel like product placement.

Sadly, now I have to wait for the next book...

View all my reviews

18 January 2013

Now You See Me; S.J. Bolton

Now You See Me (Lacey Flint, #1)Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A second new-to-me mystery series! I'd read an earlier Bolton (Sacrifice) and wasn't that impressed but this was much better.

Better how? The writing is tauter, and the Big Twist really was one. There are times when readers will think "oh, I know what Lacey's hiding" but, well... not really. That's always a good thing, when you're fooled until the end.

As for the plot, there seems to be a real rash of Ripper-itis going around. Within the past few months there was the BBC show Whitechapel, with a Ripper thread, and Ripper Street is premiering tomorrow, and there are many mysteries (in print and on tv) that use him as a motif. In this case, there's DC Lacey Flint, trying to convince a victim to report a sex crime squad when a woman literally dies before her eyes, holding her hand, in a deserted car park. At once under suspicion and part of the investigation, Lacey tries to help the MIT solve the murder without giving away too many of her own secrets (or fall for the handsome-yet-snarly DI Joesbury).

Luckily there's more going on than just a copycat (another reason for the high rating) and the characters are nicely rounded. In some ways, making this Lacey's story is akin to the Lynley novels with Barbara Havers as narrator - or a Morse with Lewis as the lead storyteller. It's an interesting take, because the decisive actions that the underlings take can always be called into question by the superior officer.

While I can easily get the second in this series, I have to wait until June for the third. Sigh.

Copy provided publisher.

Heroes of Olympus; Philip Freeman

Heroes of OlympusHeroes of Olympus by Philip Freeman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The perfect book to bridge the gap between D'Aulaire and Hamilton, sadly without great color illustrations (which would have made it a much better book, I think). The stories will be nothing new to anyone who has gone through the mythology unit in grammar school but there's greater detail than that age group gets. There's also a good glossary of Who's Who, and an ok family tree (which could/should have been expanded).

My hope is that someone will do a similar project for Norse and Indian gods. Those stories are far less known by students these days, and with many schools pushing multicultural curriculum units those would really be a wonderful addition. Much better than the current A-Z Encyclopedias of [fill in the culture/country] Myths.

Copy provided by publisher.

16 January 2013

Murder Below Montparnasse; Cara Black

Murder Below MontparnasseMurder Below Montparnasse by Cara Black
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A mystery series set in Paris? Yes, please.

Our Heroine, Aimee Leduc, is semi-involved with the police - her grandfather, father and godfather all were members of the force (although Dad seems to have been drummed out ignominiously) but she is supposedly a computer security person. And yet she gets involved with solving crimes, with a closet filled with disguises and a wallet with many different IDs (names, phones, occupations, etc.). In terms of darkness, this is more like Penny's Gamache series than a Rebus or Dalgliesh, and no where near the amateur sleuth cozies of Rita Mae Brown, Dorothy Cannell, etc.. That's all good.

The setting, Paris, is really brought to life for readers; even though I've spent time there and knew some of the areas, there were streets and histories that eluded me and made me want to get out my maps and travel guides to learn more. Again, that's good.

The main mystery is who is killing for the "new" Modigliani, a portrait of Lenin that has been forgotten in a storage unit for 70 years. There are Russians, Serbs, political activists and art thieves running through this story, not all of whom are working together. Aimee's role is to find the painting, but before she does there are at least two murders and several assaults. There's a side story about Rene, her partner, and his misadventures in Silicon Valley, but that doesn't seem to really have an effect here and could easily have been left out.

While this was so close to being a five star, what cost it were two things: clunky exposition and too much product placement. By "clunky exposition" I mean the many, many times when Aimee was supposed to be some place and the writing is something like "'Meet me at Les Invalides' - the former military hospital and where Napoleon is buried". It felt a little like the author was trying to cram in as much Parisian background as possible, when less would have done fine. The product placement comes from Aimee's closet. It doesn't really make a difference to the plot if she's wearing vintage YSL or Chanel or Sonia Rykiel, but we're told time and again who the designer is.

Still, this is an author and series I didn't know before... and as soon as possible, I'll be reading the previous books! Luckily, it doesn't seem imperative that you read them in order.

ARC provided by publisher.

15 January 2013

At Weddings and Wakes; Alice McDermott

At Weddings and WakesAt Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maybe it was when I read this, or maybe I'm not as appreciative of these "sweeping family sagas" as I once was, but this was really a "meh" for me. It also took a lot of time for me to get into the story as I teased out the relationships between Momma and the aunts and the children and everyone else. The pacing,by nature slow, wasn't as much a problem as the time shifts were. As with who was who, when was when was occasionally a problem for me.

It's too bad, because previously I'd loved books that writers like Belva Plain wrote - I'd hoped this would be a mix of Plain and Maeve Binchy but, well, no.

13 January 2013

When Love Comes to Town; Tom Lennon

When Love Comes to TownWhen Love Comes to Town by Tom Lennon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a book written 20 years ago, this has held up pretty well: the AIDS scare won't necessarily resonate with today's teens, but the difficulty of coming out and exploring your first honest relationships will. As the introduction says, things have changed in some ways but not for every person, in every family, in every town.

It was interesting that the author chose to make Riley a rugby star - in many ways they play a rougher game than American football, so this is clearly a boy who is not effeminate and enjoys manly sports. Despite that, he's insecure about who he is and worries that he comes across as gay to his friends and family. The problems of coming out, family and friends reactions, meeting a gay support community, etc. will seem familiar to most regular readers of LGBTQ fiction, which accounts for my 3-star review (although had I read this when it first came out it would have seemed new and fresh).

ARC provided by publisher.

Help Thanks Wow; Anne Lamott

Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential PrayersHelp Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not quite the book I'd expected - much more rambling, self-referential writing than about the three prayers. What I mean is, it would have been great if we'd gotten more about how to say or use them in our daily lives; there are a ton of stream-of-consciousness examples but if you're not used to praying there's no guidance on how to start.

So many of my friends are non-believers or non-prayers (not quite the same thing), and had this book said "just start by ---" or done less relating of the prayers to the author's life and slightly more to "here are good times to say 'thanks' and here are some ways in which to do it that don't feel awkward", let alone "you know when you say 'help' in this situation? it's a form of prayer and ---". There is some of that, but it's mixed in with stories about her aging pets, family, church, alcoholism, etc. that those readers will give up before getting to those kernels.

12 January 2013

The Holy or the Broken; Alan Light

The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" by Alan Light
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Microhistories are a big thing - Salt, Cod, the Basque, etc. So it's no surprise that someone would do a song, and this is an interesting choice of song. Cohen's version vs Buckley's, and all the others (Cage, Bono, lang and too many others to list), which lyrics and verses are sung (Cohen may have written 80, I think we only know a tenth of that number), why suddenly it's The Song are all questions that the author tackles.

A few years ago I heard it sung by a graduating 8th grade class, introduced as "Jeff Buckley's song" - being the pedant I am, I corrected the speaker (not at the moment!), who was shocked to learn that it was actually from Leonard Cohen. That's also addressed here: that people while don't know the provenance, they do know at least one version. This is one of those songs that is open to multiple interpretations, in part because of Cohen's allowing others to add and subtract verses (as well as change the occasional word).

If you don't have a favorite interpretation, there are QR codes in the back that will take you to various versions. On the other hand, by the end of that exercize you may be as sick of the song as many people are (there's a semi-serious petition to call a moratorium on use of the song in movies and tv).

11 January 2013

Reconstructing Amelia; Kimberly McCreight

Reconstructing AmeliaReconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite a couple of niggles and one peeve, this is getting five stars. In part, that's due to the difference in the voices, something many authors get wrong when writing from different points-of-view, and in part it's because this felt plausible.

Amelia is the only child of single mother Kate, and is one of those smart, funny, intellectual students schools love. She's best friends with Sylvia (the two of them are e+ssentially their own clique) and becoming very close to Ben, her textbuddy. One day she is tapped for a secret all-girls club at her relatively elite - yet progressive - independent school, physically modeled on Park Slope's Berkley Carroll School. Being part of the Magpies isn't something that Amelia really wants, but there are reasons to join... and, of course, that ultimately has tragic consequences when she ends up suspended from school and, moments later, dead on the sidewalk after falling from the school's roof.

Kate is naturally in shock, completely shaken after her daughter's death. Then she gets a test suggesting that Amelia didn't jump, which is all Kate needs to start trying to find out what was going on in her daughter's life in the months prior to her death. Was she pushed? Was this an accident?

The two stories, Amelia's last few months and Kate's search for the truth, are nicely intertwined and (as mentioned earlier) told in different voices. The use of texting, Facebook and e-mail to help tell Amelia's story reflects how teens today interact and didn't feel like a gimmick.

So, the niggles. First off, the setting. It wasn't really necessary to name the bars, coffee shops, pizza joints and streets in Park Slope to set the scene. Unless you know that area, the name Ozzies won't mean anything. Ditto Tea Lounge. And who cares how many streets it takes to get from Garfield to Second? Readers probaby won't be whipping out their maps to check! To me it felt a little like reading one of Stephen King's novels where he lists the entire contents of a kitchen cabinet, or as though the stores paid the author for product placement. Next niggle, it was a little predictable, with only one real twist. But that's me, and other readers may be surprised by who done it, why and the other reveals.

The peeve? The "Gracefully" blog. Too Gossip Girl. When I talk to my students, it's more likely that there'll be a private FB page than a tell all blog. This was written before the Big Reveal in GG, but who was behind Gracefully? Not credible and rather distasteful.

ARC provided by publisher.

10 January 2013

A Cold and Lonely Place; Sara J. Henry

A Cold and Lonely Place: A NovelA Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is this a mystery? Sort of - our heroine, Troy, is a reporter who happens to be there when a body is found frozen in the ice. Her investigation is more about Tobin's life than about his death, with the "whodunnit" part very much in the background (there is a question as to whether anyone dunnit anyway). That's possibly why this is so annoyingly subtitled "a novel", rather than "a mystery" or "an investigation" or something. It is part of a series, however, and the first book is referenced throughout.

That's part of what cost this the fifth star: the heavyhandedness of the references to the previous book. Troy's supposed to be from a family where she didn't count, estranged from everyone except one brother. She has a problem forming relationships and friendships, yet in the first book she does start to do so - and continues here. There was also a determined effort to set this into the Saranac Lake/Lake Placid area (how many references did we need to Carhart pants? winter sports? transient inhabitants? "Adirondackers"?) which felt forced. Having said that, if you don't know the area (and I do, down to the "diner off exit 22 on the Northway") it probably doesn't feel unnecessary.

As for the mystery/investigation, it was rather typical in terms of Big Family Secrets Revealed and Local Feelings to be dealt with. While there were no surprises, the way in which the author approached Troy's exploration of Tobin's life was well plotted. Troy's relationship with Jessamyn and Win evolve naturally, and one hopes they will continue to grow as the series continues.

Finally, I'm not sure why an American would rely so heavily on a Canadian for advice in terms of police matters... but perhaps that'll be clearer in future books?

ARC provided by publisher.

Light-Walking-Nelly's Version; Eva Figes

Light/Walking/Nelly's VersionLight/Walking/Nelly's Version by Eva Figes
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Not quite sure how to classify this: it's either my first DNF of 2013, or my first two DNFs (this is three books in one, hence the question). I finished "Nelly's Version" but was very unimpressed... couldn't get through the other two.

The problem was that the writing overwhelmed the idea, as Figes overwrote what could have been sparer. Nelly - if that's her name - is either old and forgetful, running away from something, involved in something nasty or, well, there are a number of possibilities. That was interesting. But there's a little too much going with the writing, deliberately distracting from figuring out what the story is. The same held true for the next two pieces, where it took too long for me to get into the plot and care.

08 January 2013

Z; Theresa Anne Fowler

Z: A Novel of Zelda FitzgeraldZ: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Theresa Anne Fowler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read Milford's biography of Zelda, this novelization of her life held few surprises. That's not a bad thing, by the way, it's merely an observation. Because this is a novel, with some supposition (Z's relationship with Hemingway, for example, or her feelings about Scott's alcoholic intake even in the early days) there are liberties that can be taken that a "real" biographer cannot take.

The writing style is interesting. At first it's light and bubbly, with a hint of steel... later, it becomes a little more confused but still steely. That seems to mimic Zelda's life, as her mental problems (what ever they were; the doctor's diagnoses then are not necessarily what we would diagnose now, and treatments have certainly changed in the intervening years!) increase. If this weren't based in fact it would seem like incredible (and incredulous) name dropping, however we know that the Fitzgeralds really did socialize with everyone who was anyone in Paris and France during the Jazz Age. Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" wasn't completely off the mark!

It was a little disappointing (to me, other readers will probably not notice or care) that the fact that she knew former slaves wasn't explored. The throwaway comment about emancipation meaning that you just had to pay the people for doing the job they did before was breathtaking.

ARC provided by publisher.

07 January 2013

The History of Love; Nicole Krauss

The History of LoveThe History of Love by Nicole Krauss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another overly hyped book that left me feeling "meh". Maybe it was because the two voices (Alma and Leo) sounded so much alike. Yes, Alma "spoke" in lists, and part of her story was also Bird's voice, but the way in which both (all three?) used language was too similar. As someone who has lived in/near NYC for the past 30 years, I was also confused as to how any resident of Brooklyn - as Ms. Krauss is - could say that to get from Manhattan to Long Island you need to go through Yonkers!

As for plot, it was ok. We're told that "The History of Love" was a huge influence, but we don't sense that. There's nothing that Alma tells us that convinces me that her mother really did love the book (yes, Alma's named after the lead character, but so what? that's not proof, that's perhaps coincidenc. proof would have been Mom re-reading the book annually, or something similar).

Leo's relationship with Bruno/Zvi was really quite sweet, and his fear of dying on a day when he hadn't been seen brought a lump to my throat. Ditto his little note, should he die. That elevated this from a 2 to a 3-star.

06 January 2013

The Gutenberg Elegies; Sven Birkerts

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic CultureThe Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Culture by Sven Birkerts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is almost 20 years old, and despite some clearly dated passages (the clunkiness of the computers... no smartphones or e-readers), the thinking is still pretty prescient. For example, Birkerts talks about multitasking - today we take that for granted (as I type this, I'm also watching the evening news). Is this a good thing? He posits not: we miss that inner voice, the opportunity to hear and think without mediation of some sort.

One question that kept popping to mind was the question of who the readers are. Not of this book, but in general. He opens with an example of a class in short stories he taught that didn't work because the students lacked the ability to focus on anything "dense" (my word, not his), anything that required thought and slow exploration. That's probably true today, but even 30 years ago it wasn't easy to get into Henry James. Ditto 50... 70 years ago. People may have owned James' books, but did they read them (much like people bought Hawking's A Brief History of Time, but it's unlikely many read, much less fully understood it). So is there really something to mourn here?

It's definitely an issue that needs to be revisited every so often: what is the affect of all this interactivity? is it really 'good', or is it somehow changing society in ways we don't like/need/will regret? His comments about literature, and how historical fiction enables modern writers to give their characters more of an inner life also resonated, as I'm seeing more and more YA and MG fiction written in the 80s, where we didn't have cell phones or computers. A growing trend? or will authors come to grips with how to write about today's youth in a way that won't sound as dated as 80s contemporary fiction does now?

The Gifts of the Jews; Thomas Cahill

The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and FeelsThe Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Hmmmm... my second Cahill and still not impressed. Actually, I was even less impressed with this than I was with Mysteries of the Middle Ages! Why? Because it really didn't live up to the title. There was little here that actually talks about how the Jews "changed the way everyone thinks and feels". Instead, we get chapters on the events that led Avrahm to Canaan, the tribes, the Egyptian exile, the exodus, etc.. - don't get me wrong, that's interesting but the scholarship was sometimes sloppy and exactly how does the story of David change how people thought or felt? Very unclear on that one.

05 January 2013

The Finest Education Money Can Buy; Richard L. Gaines

The Finest Education Money Can BuyThe Finest Education Money Can Buy by Richard L. Gaines
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a product of an "elite" education, and having worked in several "elite" schools, I was interested to read this. Despite this having been written in 1972, some of what Gaines talks about is still very relevant: how we engage students, what expectations we have of them (in terms of responsibility, academic achievement, etc.) and what teacher/student/administrative relations are and could be. It's really sad, in fact, that so little has changed.

One of the problems (forget the dating issue) is that this centers on Lawrenceville and Newton South, with an occasional mention of Choate, St. Mark's, Moses Brown and a few other schools. It would have been interesting had we heard about schools in less affluent areas, or a wider range of schools (ie, not the St. Grottlesex schools but perhaps Chadwick or Lakewood in the West). It also begs the reader to accept that Gaines is one of the more enlightened, even when he says he falls into the unenlightened category. This was clearly a very personal book, and sometimes it suffers from that.

The Paradox of Choice; Barry Schwartz

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is LessThe Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This type of book is overly general by necessity, ditto victim to much repetition. However here there are some interesting kernels to take with you once you've read it.

We open with the example of shopping for jeans - the author wears his until they fall apart, so hasn't gone in a long while. Suddenly there's a plethora of choices: fit, cut, color, weight, etc. What used to be an easy task has become filled with too many options to sort out. Having just been through this myself, this truly resonated with me! It's nearly impossible to find the jeans of my youth, and one place actually wanted me to go through some exotic measuring program so I could find the exact fit (which only gave size and still left me with too many options).

How we approach this overabundance of selection is what interests the author. Are we maximizers? sufficers? how can we make the experience of shopping better, without suffering buyers remorse or paralysis in the face of too many choices.

What We Saw At Night; Jacquelyn Mitchard

What We Saw At NightWhat We Saw At Night by Jacquelyn Mitchard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had such high hopes for this book - Mitchard is a great writer.  Possibly the problem stems from the inclusion of XP (xeroderma pigmentosum) as the driving force for the story, as that required much exposition (and often repetition of that exposition; I got it that these kids couldn't go out in the sun after the first two mentions, but there were more to come).  And, sadly, this is the start of a series (in my ARC there was a selection from the sequel, but the ending of this could have stood on its own!).

What We Saw At Night is the second book YA book I've read that features parkour (the first being Hacking Timbucktu), which I'm not sure American teens are aware of.  The author does a good job of describing it so maybe people will go to YouTube to see what this artform(?)/activity(?) is about.  Intertwining this with the question of what Allie saw, whether or not there was a murder, and who "blondie" is made the story more interesting.  The suspense factor was a little tame, but that could be a matter of taste.

ARC provided by publisher.

04 January 2013

The History of Us; Leah Stewart

The History of Us: A NovelThe History of Us by Leah Stewart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's a lot of discussion about "New Adult" books right now, and this is (I think) squarely in that genre but... I just didn't really care about the characters enough.

We open with 28-year-old Eloise, newly hired at Harvard, flush with the success of her first book and - wham! - her life changes when her sister and brother-in-law die, leaving her as guardian to their three children. That's the prologue, with the rest of the book taking place today. The three children have grown up... mostly. Claire is supposed to head to NYC to become a professional ballet dancer, Josh has given up his career as a musician in a moderately successful band, and Theo is working on her dissertation. Eloise sees this as an opportunity to finally sell the family house and move on with her life; the others are happy to stay at home, not really growing.

Is this the key to New Adult? Vaguely dissatisfied 20somethings who don't want to face the responsibilities adults face? Slightly more upscale and higher educated slackers? If so, no thanks. Maybe in another book, with people I cared about, but this wasn't that book.

ARC provided by publisher.