27 August 2013

Never Come Back; David J. Bell

Never Come BackNever Come Back by David J. Bell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This mystery had me until the very end - it was one twist too many for my tastes. Elizabeth's mother is killed (strangled) and the investigation at first focuses on Ronnie, her Down Syndrome brother. Is he capable of killing? And if so, would he understand the implications of his actions? The police are not particularly helpful or communicative to Elizabeth, which seems a bit odd given the concerns about Ronnie's condition - and why didn't she immediately get a lawyer to take care of him? Then there's Uncle Paul, who from the start has secrets we know he's not sharing. Another Elizabeth appears, someone not known to the first Elizabeth and yet somehow knows her mother well enough to get one third of the estate.

There are twists and turns up through almost literally the last page. I don't mind last minute revelations but the sheer number of them concerned me. It almost felt as though the author had two stories he wanted to tell and didn't know how best to tell them, or that he didn't know how to plot out one really good mystery because there was something else he also wanted to tell us.

ARC provided by publisher.

Songs of Willow Frost; Jamie Ford

Songs of Willow FrostSongs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Such an interesting topic, and one that most readers won't be familiar with: the Chinese in the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s and 30s. For me the problem was that there are too many threads here and this would have been stronger had we focused on one, not all three.

First thread: William Eng is an orphan, living in an orphanage with many other children, some of whom are not true orphans but were abandoned by mothers unable to feed them or care for them during the Depression. One day, in the movies, he sees the woman he knows is his mother and is determined to find her. Second thread: Willow Frost's story as a Chinese movie star and the pre-story of her life as a singer promoting a music store and relationship with "Uncle Leo", the things that led her to abandon her son. Third thread: blind Charlotte, living in the same orphanage as William, the challenges she faces daily and how she became an orphan. Of course all three threads intertwine, especially when William and Charlotte escape the orphanage to find Willow, on tour in Seattle.

The writing is strong, but at times William's voice was not that of a 12-year-old, it seemed much older. None of the stories surprised me, not because I was familiar with the experiences of the Chinese at that time but because they seemed a but stereotypical and almost from casting central in terms of events.

ARC provided by publisher.

25 August 2013

Letters from Skye; Jessica Brockmole

Letters from SkyeLetters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh look: another epistolary novel. And one set during World War I... and World War II. And there are family secrets!

The only reason this got a three star review was because I was feeling generous - it's really a 2.5 and I rounded up. The secrets were not era-dependent, so the setting didn't really work for me. The writing was good and ill-served by the conceit of several sets of letters, and the author occasionally felt compelled to tell rather that knowing that the letters would show.

ARC provided by publisher.

It Happens in the Dark; Carol O'Connell

It Happens in the Dark (Kathleen Mallory, #11)It Happens in the Dark by Carol O'Connell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maybe I need to go back and re-read some of the earlier Mallory novels, because I just don't remember that those books continually hammered home Mallory's more "interesting" tendencies or that she's lacking in empathy, that the squad looks out for her, etc.. It got in the way of the story at times and if you haven't read one before, you'll be very annoyed. I get why this stuff needs to be explained, but once per book is fine. Ditto Charles' eidetic memory or technophobia. Once, then move on.

As for the mystery itself, it was an interesting look backstage and the process of putting on a play, changing the direction/director, etc.. It was never clear to me why anyone paid attention to the ghostwriter's changes, and the copyright issues were a little muddy but that was ok. Bugsy's character was absolutely fascinating; Alma's much less so. Having the new play mimic the plot of the old Nebraska mass killing added an interesting element, but here again there were times when things were rushed.

Only three stars? Had we spent more time on the mystery and less on Mallory's quirks, this would have been a solid four or even a five.

20 August 2013

Dead and Buried; Stephen Booth

Dead and BuriedDead and Buried by Stephen Booth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Better than the last two books regarding the Cooper/Fry interactions, but this definitely had a whiff of Elizabeth George's With No One as Witness about the ending.

The moors are on fire (never a good thing) and of course there are things uncovered where they burn. Additionally, there's a man's body found in a pub that closed recently - his last phone call referred to Dante's ninth circle of Hell. There are two investigations, one into the recently uncovered effects of two people who disappeared two and a half years previously (led by Cooper) and the other into the recent body (led by Fry, on secondment from the Major Crimes Unit). The two investigations are necessarily intertwined, with bad results.

I'm still very unsure where Booth is going with the Cooper/Fry (and now Villers) relationship, let alone why he's led it into such a dark, estranged place. At times it feels as though he doesn't really like Fry, and in this book it occasionally felt that he doesn't really like Cooper, either. Which is really quite odd, when you think about it.

19 August 2013

The Devil's Edge; Stephen Booth

The Devil's EdgeThe Devil's Edge by Stephen Booth
My rating: 78666">4 of 5 stars

A slight return to form, but I'm starting to suspect that the author doesn't know what to do with the Cooper/Fry relationship. Ben is busy investigating the break-in/death of a homeowner in a very upscale village, Diane has been seconded to some interagency task force (as though that's going to go well).

The village of Riddings is quite confusing, with lots of large, walled/hedged off miniestates. As always holds true in these types of villages, each home houses many secrets and it's up to Fry to figure out which are relevant. And there's a nosy "neighborhood watch" guy who we all know knows more than he's saying *and* will come to no good end. I wished that there had been some twist to that part of the story but, well, no. A map would definitely have helped, as knowing which property abuts which and who could possibly have seen what are critical to the plot.

Cooper's promotion seems to be working well, and the author is nudging Gavin Murphy out the door while bringing in Carol Villers - is he also moving to more of a Cooper/Villers partnership and easing Diane Fry out?

Lost River; Stephen Booth

Lost River (Ben Cooper & Diane Fry, #10)Lost River by Stephen Booth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Usually I love the Cooper/Fry series but for some reason, this book didn't do it for me. As per usual, the two don't interact much but there's a definite underlying need for each other (not in *that* way, professionally).

Cooper is investigating the drowning death of a young girl, one he tried to save by diving in to the water. He senses, based on virtually nothing, that there's something more to the death. Along the way he uncovers several ugly secrets and possibly ruins a life or two (something he doesn't seem to feel anything about). Fry, in the mean time, is in Birmingham in the role of "Injured Party" as her rape case has been reopened. Again, more ugly secrets are uncovered and at least one life lost.

Cooper does lend a hand to Fry, but not the other way around. Diane seems to be even more angry about Ben, even less part of the police force. Perhaps that's why this was a lesser work for me - their interaction is as important as the mystery.

16 August 2013

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands; Natasha Solomons

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands: A NovelThe Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not sure the cover art does the book any favors - this is a book mostly about a woman rebelling against her traditional community in favor of art. Juliet is one of those people who sees things: blues are really blue, ugly stands out, and if you show her a bare wall she can tell you what art you should put there. One of the defining moments of her life came when she was young and an artist painted her portrait in exchange for her father repairing his glasses.

She's also in an impossible situation: her husband disappeared (taking that portrait with him). For most of us, we could get a divorce based on desertion. Juliet, however, lives in an orthodox Jewish community and she can't get a religious divorce, so she's a "living widow" with certain restrictions on her life. This is London in the 1950s and 60s, and Juliet's rebellion (leaving her father's glasses factory to found an art gallery, consorting with men without a chaperone) may seem tame but in her world? Huge.

The problem for me was that the book mutes both the art aspect and the rebellion aspect, instead settling for a muddy middle ground that looks at Juliet's life from 1958 through 2006. We get to know her family (parents and children), her artists, her search for her husband (or, more accurately, the portrait he took) and other parts of her life but it's not as vivid as it could have been.

ARC provided by publisher.

12 August 2013

Foreign Gods, Inc; Okey Ndibe

Foreign Gods, Inc.Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That phrase "if it weren't for bad luck, he'd have no luck at all" certainly applies to Ike! He comes to America, gets a good education, but can't get a job because he doesn't have a work visa - and then when he gets his green card, his accent is too thick. His marriage is a nightmare, and he's barely making ends meet driving a taxicab (of course, gambling in Atlantic City doesn't help). Then he gets a great idea: he'll go home to Nigeria, steal the statue of Ngene (his village's war god), and sell it to Foreign Gods, an art gallery in NYC. Three guesses how that goes.

Ike's life and the people in it were so clearly drawn it sometimes felt as though they were people I'd met. And even though I knew it wasn't going to go well (or as well as Ike wanted it to go), I still rooted for him and his plans, and felt bad for him as they went forward. I also really liked that the Igbo words were not always translated, context gave me their meaning which meant far fewer instances of clumsy sentences.

ARC provided by publisher.

11 August 2013

Sense & Sensibility; Joanna Trollope

Sense & SensibilitySense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not the AGA-saga I'm used to reading from Trollope. No, this is Austen, totes updated! Which means there's no need to recap the plot, because really, if you haven't read the original or seen one of the movies (I recommend the 1995 Ang Lee version)... I'm still trying to decide if I like the idea of Marianne desperately texting Wills, or Margaret checking Twitter. One thing that did occur to me was the last name of Sir John's family: Middleton. When Austen wrote the original that name wasn't quite as freighted as it is now, and given the way the characters are obsessed with position, at times I expected Pippa's name to be dropped!

ARC provided by publisher.

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy; Elizabeth Kiem

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, SpyDancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Interesting idea, but poorly conceived and very confusing.

Major problems: teens today have no real idea about the Cold War and what that was like, much less how it was behind the Iron Curtain. Kiem doesn't do a great job showing us how regulated the society was, how everyone spied on each other, and how easy it was for people to disappear. Even the funeral scenes don't really convey how the Soviet population (as well as the rest of the world) studied very carefully where people were placed and what was said to get a sense of who was, and who was not, in power. Luckily for me(?) I do remember all that so I know how much isn't included.

Another problem is when Marina and her father get to Brighton Beach - the spy stuff just doesn't make sense. What secrets are being shopped to whom? How did they get to her father? It's not surprising the Marina doesn't know, but that we're given no idea except suddenly we're in an episode of Spy v. Spy. The blurbage comparing this to LeCarre? Not even close. At least there you got a real idea as to what was at stake, who was doing what and why.

And then there are the minor niggles, like a 17-year-old getting in to Julliard. Not likely. The pre-college division is only for musicians, not dancers. Much more likely, she'd audition for School of American Ballet and perhaps, if she's really as good as we're told, Balanchine or Martins would pull her into the NYCB company. Or the depiction of the East Village in 1982, aka the era of Rent. 'Nuff said.

ARC provided by publisher.

10 August 2013

Mistwalker; Saundra Mitchell

MistwalkerMistwalker by Saundra Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My guess is that this is supposed to be "horror lite" and that the publisher has decided that despite the age of the characters (juniors in high school) readers age 12 and up will enjoy it. I'm not sure that the lower end of the range is going to read this, but who knows?

Willa is a Down Easter whose family has been in Broken Tooth for centuries. Recently things haven't gone so well, and Willa's responsible: during an act of revenge against someone trying to poach her family's lobster drops, instigated by Willa, her brother Levi gets shot and dies. She's torn up about it all, trying to help raise money for bills and barely making it through her junior year. Willa's also having strange thoughts about Jackson's Rock, a barren rock with a lighthouse on it and the supposed home of the Grey Lady (or is it a Grey Man?). The Grey Man, we learn, haunts the Rock with one purpose: to either convince someone to take his place or to collect 100 souls. In a century, he's managed to get four souls... and now he's focusing on Willa.

The haunting part feels a bit tame, as though some punches were pulled in the writing. It was also a little odd to have the phrase "Down East Weasley's" dropped in without explanation, but "Tardis" got one. As always, I wonder if it's because I'm older than the target reader or if it's a real problem.

ARC provided by publisher.

Bellman & Black; Diane Setterfield

Bellman and BlackBellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many sophomore efforts don't do as well as the first book, but not here: Bellman and Black is a great follow-up to The Thirteenth Tale.

As with Robertson Davies' The Fifth Business the book opens with a rock being thrown. In this case, the rock leaves a slingshot, hits (and kills) a rook. The four boys involved, William, Charlie, Fred and Luke, initially plan a funeral but then forget about it... years later, William has taken over the family mill, much to his grandfather's dismay but the family's enrichment. Over the years, the others die, while William seems to go from success to success. At each of the funerals there's a dark, mysterious man and eventually he and William meet. The result of that meeting is Bellman & Black, a funeral emporium.

At times this reads like a much older novel, with detailed explanations of life at the mill and in the town. At others, the ghost part sneaks through as William feels somehow haunted but isn't sure hy what or who. Interspersed with the narrative is another, odder point-of-view, that of a rook, which only adds to the haunting nature.

I can't wait to see what happens in Setterfield's third book.

ARC provided by publisher.

09 August 2013

The Lowland; Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spanning generations and continents, The Lowland is a great new Lahiri read. We open in India, shortly after Partition and end in the US in this century - and in between we read about two brothers, what drove them apart, and how that affects their family.

At first Subhash and Udayan are inseparable, to the point where Subhash doesn't start school until they can go together. But as they age, Udayan becomes more political, more aware, while Subhash just basically plods along in school. Eventually, Subhash comes to America for his doctorate and Udayan lives with his parents in Calcutta, more and more drawn into the Naxalite rebellion and political movement. Udayan's death brings Subhash home and there he decides to marry Gauri, his brother's pregnant widow - it's not a happy, successful marriage. Throughout the book we get to hear from Subhash and Gauri, and eventually their daughter Bela and Subhash's mother. Their lives are at once quotidian and extraordinary, as they react to events and the people around them. There's very little proactive plot here, so when someone really does do something it stands out.

For some reason I thought Calcutta/Kolkata was further south, not near East Pakistan/Bangladesh. I'd never heard of the Naxalite rebellion either, and their vision of a Maoist India was, well, disturbing.

ARC provided by publisher.

Unbreakable; Kami Garcia

Unbreakable (Legion, #1)Unbreakable by Kami Garcia
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The paranormal in this book isn't vampires or werewolves, it's ghosts and poltergeists and other such creepy beings. And the Legion of the series title? A group formed centuries ago to battle the demons summoned by the Illuminati (who were anti-Church), membership handed down from generation to generation within a family. Each of the five members of the Legion has specific skills, and each has a piece of the puzzle. Only when united and whole will their work be completed.

So in the world of today, we have Kennedy, a relatively normal girl (albeit one with an eidetic memory and the ability to paint) living in DC with her mother. One night, things change: Mom dies, and suddenly Kennedy's going to either live with an aunt she doesn't know or go to an all-girls boarding school in upstate New York (which can only be one school, my alma mater, but it's never named). Except things don't quite work out that way, as something breaks into her house and destroys it days before she's expected to move. She's rescued by Jared and Lukas, two members of the Legion, and taken to a safe place where she meets the other two members, Alma and Priest.

The rest of the book is taken up with their searching for a relic, based on clues found in various places hidden around DC. A little convenient, in my opinion, that they're so close - why were they brought to the US in the first place? And wouldn't it be safer to hide them all over the country?? Sigh. The love triangle gets a new angle (sorry, couldn't resist) with identical twins. And being that this is a series, there's a cliffhanger and loose ends... including explanations that could be clarified in short order if this were only one book.

Still, it's different enough that I suspect teens will really enjoy it.

ARC provided by publisher.

08 August 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love the way Gaiman makes an alternate world feel so real (Coraline and Neverwhere, not to mention The Graveyard Book). The way our unnamed hero remembers his childhood home was also very real: I went back to my grandfather's years after he left and, well, it wasn't quite like I remember it. In this case, however, there's something a little extra. Suddenly there are memories flooding his mind (sorry, couldn't resist that image) that don't always make sense. The magical realism at times reminded me of Abarat, albeit a very British version.

Some of what Lettie and her mother and grandmother say and do are so very different, and yet the young boy accepts them - which many young people do. The mythology and strange world visited in this novel(? novella? long short story?) are just different enough to be wholly new yet also familiar.

Eagerly awaiting his next book.... or Doctor Who episode...

Accidents Happen; Louise Millar

Accidents Happen: A NovelAccidents Happen by Louise Millar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Talk about a Series of Unfortunate Events! Kate's life seems to be filled with tragedy (parents die on her wedding day, husband killed in a break-in), leading to a very understandable need for security and comfort. For some reason, statistics are what grab her - knowing what the dangers are and what the safest options are make her feel safer. Whatever. Then one day she meets a man who says he can help her get over this... his methods are more than a little bizarre.

At times this reminded me of Into the Darkest Corner, which in many ways is the stronger book. The ending to this felt rushed, and a little forced (and coincidental). Still, there's a definite creepy core for readers to get stuck on, which is never a bad thing.

Copy provided by publisher.

Speechless; Hannah Harrington

SpeechlessSpeechless by Hannah Harrington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You're at a party, you've had a little too much to drink, and you see something that probably should be kept quiet. What do you do? If you're Chelsea, you immediately tell your friends. The problem is that they're not really friends, and what she saw leads to a gay bashing incident. Trying to make things better, Chelsea tells the police who did the bashing, promptly making her persona non grata in the school and losing all her "friends." Next step? Shut up. Permanently. So what if that gets a daily detention from the not-so-understanding teacher?

Of course, slowly Chelsea does make friends, just not the "cool" people (and, to make things even more sticky, they're friends with Noah, fighting for his life in the hospital). Also of course, things get better for her and this new crowd proves that they are, in fact, real friends.

Hence the three-stars: predictable. The story is well-written, and the issue of gay bashing and what to do when you know who did it is one that I suspect teens are facing. I'm not sure that Chelsea learns not to blurt things out, but she does seem happier by the end.

Copy provided by publisher.

Loteria; Mario Alberto Zambrano

Lotería: A NovelLotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is getting much love and it's mostly deserved (of course, being me, I have a quibble or two).

At first, it's not clear what happened to bring Luz to a youth home (not a foster home, which surprised me). Slowly, though her journal writing, we learn about her home life, her alcoholic father, the physical violence he inflicted on her, her sister and her mother, and what happened to everyone. This is the third book I've read this year where a main character has embraced silence and this is the least effective use of that tactic (quibble number one). The home violence will certainly bother many readers, as will Luz' determination to be with her father but some people do love their abuser.

My other quibble is about the Lotería itself. The cards and dichos used in the game weren't fully explained - that bothered me. Perhaps other readers won't mind!

ARC provided by publisher.

Freakboy; Kristin Elizabeth Clark

FreakboyFreakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've said this before: books in verse don't really do it for me. Still, I did get through this despite the format (and when I say format, I'm not just talking about the verse but also that it was often in shapes, or with italics that spell out an additional message).

Plot-wise it was mixed. Angel is the strongest character, Vanessa the weakest. Brendan's confusion about who/what he is or could be is poorly served by the format. Instead of a continuous internal monologue and reaction, getting a fuller picture of him and his questioning would have been far stronger.

As an addition to the GLBTQC* collection, this is not as strong as, say, I Am J but it wouldn't be a bad buy.

ARC provided by publisher.

01 August 2013

Heartbeat; Elizabeth Scott

HeartbeatHeartbeat by Elizabeth Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The premise of Heartbeat is a little over-the-top: a pregnant woman is kept alive until the fetus reaches the point of viability (25 weeks, in case you were wondering). This is told from the point-of-view of Emma, the 17-year-old daughter of Lisa, who greatly resents her stepfather's choice. From her perspective her mother is dead but she still has to see Mom every day in the hospital - making it difficult to truly grieve and move on. Emma's grades have plummeted, she's going through the motions and hates her stapfather. Hates.

Then along comes Caleb. Every school has a Caleb: the troubled boy who does drugs, steals cars, doesn't always come to school and when he does there's a forcefield around him. He's doing community service in the hospital and sees Emma's distress.

Predictable? Yes. But the writing and the exploration of grief and loss elevate this from the normal "girl with dead mother" book.

ARC provided by publisher.