27 February 2013

The Astor Orphan; Alexandra Aldrich

The Astor Orphan: A MemoirThe Astor Orphan: A Memoir by Alexandra Aldrich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quirky memoir about growing up Astor... in name, sort of. Ms. Aldrich is related to the Astors, Livingstons and other aristocratic Americans but is definitely the poor cousin. Her family lives at Rokeby, the Chanler estate, a decrepit mansion on 450 acres in Duchess County, New York. Dad Teddy is the unpaid handyman, trying to keep things ticking along, at war with his brother over what happens with and on the property. Grandmother Claire, an alcoholic, despairs of her younger son's life and tries to take care of Alexandra, eventually organizing things so she goes away to boarding school at age 14. All Alexandra wants is a clean house, good food and to fit in. You can guess how that goes.

The writing style is a little breezy, and some of the relationships between Astors would benefit from a family tree, but this is definitely a fast, fun read.

ARC provided by publisher.

26 February 2013

Benediction; Kent Haruf

BenedictionBenediction by Kent Haruf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once again, Haruf has written a quiet, moving novel wherein nothing happens, and everything happens.

Dad Lewis is dying and the novel covers the last few weeks of his life; of course there are some flashbacks to previous events, as Dad relives (or imagines) his past. The members of his family, neighbors and a few other townspeople visit to say their last respects or interact with each other in the ways in which people in small towns do interact. With only one exception (Reverend Lewis)they're all recognizable, predictable. Rev. Lewis' crisis of faith is the one thing that really surprised me, and I'm happy that the surprise didn't overwhelm the rest of the book.

It was also nice that the people in Plainsong were mentioned tangentally, in such a way that if you haven't read that book you wouldn't even notice.

ARC provided by publisher.

24 February 2013

Fearless; Cornelia Funke

FearlessFearless by Cornelia Funke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We're back in Mirrorworld, based on our world but alive with all the creatures we read about in fairy tales. Jacob, in our Chicago, has bid on a magic bottle inhabited by a northern djinni - their blood is rumored to reverse curses and boy does Jacob have a curse (that moth which will eventually eat his heart, a 'gift' after his role in the Blood Wedding; confused? read the first book). Turns out, the blood doesn't work so we're on to Plan Z, a magical crossbow that will either kill thousands or save one (depending on how it's fired).

Jacob and Fox/Vixen/Celeste go off searching for the crossbow, then for the heart, hand and head of the man to whom it belonged, all the while racing time and a bastard treasure-hunting Goyle. We take a side trip to Albion, get stopped through chokeweed, learn about crosses and doublecrosses, and even meet Bluebeard. Funke has, once again, fully realized an Other World and unlike Inkspell's "middle book" issues, Fearless is as good as Reckless. Of course, the story is not completely wrapped up, so stay tuned for another book before we hit Happily Ever After.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Burgess Boys; Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess BoysThe Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was oddly compelling - on their own, I'm not sure the different threads would have worked, but mixed together they did.

The Burgess Boys are bombastic Jim, a famous criminal attorney, and schlumpy Bob, a Legal Aid appeals attorney. There's also a sister, Bob's twin, Susan, who is bitter and apparently overly attached to her strange son Zach. The Boys live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, while Susan has never really escaped Shirley Falls, the small town in Maine they grew up in. The trigger for the changes and disruptions in their lives is that Zach, for reasons unknown (but apparently not malevolent reasons) has taken a frozen pig's head and rolled it into a Somali mosque during Ramadan, Shirley Falls having become a refugee outpost for that population.

By the end of the book, Jim's career and marriage will be in shambles, Bob's assumptions about his life will have completely changed (he moves to Manhattan, becomes less schlumpy, and starts to question his role in the family), Susan is slightly less bitter but closer to both brothers, and Zach's hate crime will send him to his father in Sweden and some measure of happiness. In many ways, these changes are cliche, for example of course Jim will have an affair that leads to his dismissal from the Big Law Firm and his wife kicking him out. It's the writing, the way in which these cliches are approached, that kept me reading.

ARC provided by publisher.

22 February 2013

Margaret from Maine; Joseph Monninger

Margaret from Maine: A NovelMargaret from Maine by Joseph Monninger
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF after 100 pages - I just couldn't care about these relatively wimpy, passive people. The context (Margaret's husband is in a coma following a heroic act in Iraq, she's going to DC for the signing of a bill increasing aid to those veterans; Charlie is also a wounded veteran who is sent to "mind" her during the trip) felt so contrived, as though the author wants to highlight the plight of the wounded but not too much. Just enough to give us the reason for a romance. If this is your thing, fine. It's not mine.

ARC provided by publisher.

21 February 2013

Going Clear; Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read Inside Scientology, I knew about most of the history and scandals surrounding this religion. What Wright does (unlike Reitman) is present as neutral as possible an account, giving people credit where it's due while still highlighting the discrepancies between the official Church record and other's memories/experiences.

The other thing that Wright does very well is clarify why - or why not - Scientology could be considered a religion. This isn't something that is easy to tease out, with much of their literature declared to be a trade secret. Auditing is explained, but exactly what happens in the courses that people pay thousands (and they do pay thousands) for is never fully explained.

20 February 2013

The City of Devi; Manil Suri

The City of DeviThe City of Devi by Manil Suri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When we think about the end of world as we know it, do India and Pakistan feature as the places that will start it all? We should: they both have nuclear capabilities. The City of Devi is set in a world where a movie, Superdevi, has inflamed passions to such an extreme that Pakistan has declared that they will bomb Mumbai. The Muslims and Hindus are fighting it out, bombs are exploding in cities far away from India and chaos is reigning.

In the midst of this is Sarita, relatively newly married to Karum, an astrophysicist. Their marriage is... not intimate, and Sarita is trying to fix that but one day Karum essentially disappears. Rather than flee Mumbai (as her family has done), she stays, seeking him and trying to bring him a pomegranate to remind him of their love. On the way she survives a bomb scare, a train bombing and meeting Jaz, a Muslim who is also (we learn, although Sarita doesn't know until later) seeking the love of his life - Karum.

What separates this from the run-of-the-mill love triangle with bisexual twist is the setting: an apocalyptic Mumbai filled with sectarian violence and passions. The intricacies of the Muslim/Hindu hatred coupled with the Devi story (and various Devi incarnations) add to the sense that this isn't just your usual story.

ARC provided by publisher.

19 February 2013

Farewell, Dorothy Parker; Ellen Meister

Farewell, Dorothy ParkerFarewell, Dorothy Parker by Ellen Meister
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

How ironic: one of the Key Events in this book is a review that movie critic Violet Epps (aka "our heroine") writes about a movie that doesn't live up to it's promise. She repeats a prayer while watching, "please surprise me". Couldn't have said it better about this book myself. Of course, the chances of this review going viral are far slimmer than hers...

Violet was essentially bullied by her sister Ivy into changing from a smartmouthed kid to one who is afraid to say anything in public (at one point, the author calls this "social phobia" but it's hardly that, it's learned behavior). Her reviews, on the other hand, are witty and engender much comment. She's involved with a self-absorbed artist, Carl, and fighting to retain custody of her newly orphaned niece, Delaney. Via a relatively contrived circumstance, she ends up with a guest book signed by the various celebrities who have eaten at the Algonquin - a guest book that just happens to be haunted by Dorothy Parker's shade.

Coached/goaded by Mrs. Parker (never Dorothy!), Violet starts to change. And, sadly, no surprises anywhere along the line. The entire book seems to be an excuse for Ms. Meister to add in Parkeresque quips and give us an abbreviated history of the celebrated author/bon mot expert. As Ms. Epps says at the end of her infamous review, it's not awful. It's just not great.

ARC provided by publisher.

Unlearning Liberty; Greg Lukianoff

Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American DebateUnlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate by Greg Lukianoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Seeing Mr. Lukianoff on BookTV piqued my interest, so I ordered this book via ILL. The disappointing part is that there should be a second subtitle "... and how I (and FIRE) are fighting the good fight", because all too often he inserts himself into the narrative. It reads more as an advertisement for FIRE (and him) than is necessary.

Having said that, it is truly frightening how many of these codes and limitations are not only being promoted by colleges but are not being protested by students. When I was in college (early 80s) there were a few professors we knew brought their personal biases into class and that it was better to agree with them (or not publicly disagree with them) but that was a mere few... From what this book suggests, that ratio has flipped radically and we're now in a world where students must agree with their professor or face sanctions, and not (as was in our case) just a lower grade. The mandated sensitivity training sessions were even more disturbing. I probably would have been tossed out of my college within that first week because I would not have put up with that!

16 February 2013

The Stonecutter; Camilla Lackberg

The Stonecutter (Patrik Hedström, #3)The Stonecutter by Camilla Läckberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I forget who said that if you're on vacation and Jessica Fletcher appears, run. Or Miss Marple, right? Seems to me they're not the problem, smallish tourist towns are the problem! Fjällbacka is one of those small towns, ridden with people with Deep Dark Secrets.

The initial event is the discovery of the body of Sara, a young girl. Originally assumed drowned, it turns out she was - just not in the ocean where she was found, but in a bathtub. And there were ashes in her esophagus. Was it someone in her family (always the initial suspects) or her grandmother's archenemy/next-door-neighbor Kaj? Perhaps it was Kaj's son Morgan, who suffers from Aspergers. Or someone else? Intercut with the investigation are three other stories: one, from the 1920s, of Agnes, the beautiful, impetuous rich daughter who is disowned by her father when she becomes pregnant by the titular character; two, the discovery of a son, and attempted bonding efforts with said son, by inept Superintendent Mellman; and three, the ongoing saga of Sara and Lucas' marriage. Of the three, the middle is the least important and the least related to anything in the larger story. As for our detective, he's dealing with his newborn baby and Erica's exhaustion in dealing with Maja's feeding and sleeping needs, not to mention the beyond inept efforts of Ernst Lundgren (which might, finally, get him off the force).

These aren't as dark and violent as, say, The Millennium Trilogy or Jo Nesbo's works, but they're plenty dark. Something about the Swedes...

ARC provided by publisher.

14 February 2013

The Book of Killowen; Erin Hart

The Book of Killowen (Nora Gavin, #4)The Book of Killowen by Erin Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With most mystery series, you don't need to read them in order, and this one is no different. Hart's "detectives" are Amateur Sleuth, involved with antiquities - specifically, the bog people/items often found in Ireland's peat bogs. As usual, the story is based in some fact (the Bog Person here was a famous philosopher of the 9th century, Psalters have been found in bogs and some were preserved in shrines) mixed with a lot of supposal (there's no proof that eirugenia was murdered, much less in Ireland).

Intertwined with that is the modern day murder mystery (or, by the end, mysteries) and the question of who is really who, etc. The problem is that part isn't as well plotted - I could see the twists coming and while they weren't telegraphed, there were few surprises. Still, that's par for the course in this genre. And if you're a huge fan of mysteries set in Ireland, or the Amateur Sleuth, this series is definitely for you.

ARC provided by publisher.

13 February 2013

The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen; Syrie James

The Missing Manuscript of Jane AustenThe Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some types of predictable books annoy me. The types that don't are usually mysteries: for example, you know that Miss Marple or Annie Darling will solve the murder, that they'll employ the same old tactics, etc.. This falls into the "doesn't annoy" category for an entirely different reason - if you've read any Austen, you know that there's a pattern (of sorts) to her writing and a book that deviates from that just isn't Austen.

Here we have two Austen stories. The first, the titular "Missing Manuscript" is The Stanhopes, supposedly written in 1801/2 and lost during a visit by the Austens to Greenbriar. The second is the modern day finding of said manuscript. Yes, it's a little like Byatt's Possession, but done in a very nice Austenesque pastiche. The couples that are supposed to be together end up together, the villains get theirs, All Is Right in the end. As for the Manuscript, the author gets around it not being quite as good as Real Austen by making this a very early effort, written at least 10 years before Sense and Sensibility is published, and thus her talents haven't been polished yet.

ARC provided by publisher.

12 February 2013

Dance of Shadows; Yelena Black

Dance of Shadows (Dance of Shadows, #1)Dance of Shadows by Yelena Black
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The more I thought about it, the less I liked this - originally I thought 3 stars... then 2.5... now it's 2. And for me to not like a book set in a fictional version of SAB? That's saying something.

First of all, I never cared about the characters. They all seemed to be stock creatures: the pretty mean girl. the gay boy friend. the good looking and talented senior who falls for the freshman. etc. the obligatory love triangle. the mean teachers. Not one of them had anything that was original.

Then there's the plot. Yes, the paranormal element was interesting (who didn't love "The Red Shoes"?) but the rest? Pacing issues abounded. Take Elly's disappearance - there's a flurry of activity and caring, then it disappears for pages and chapters and then reappears. Why wouldn't the girls have followed up more on the note/rosin package? It gets totally ignored for the longest time. And the dancing is so unclear, particularly the La Danse du Feu. What steps are being done? Is it anything like the Giselle mad scene? Particularly during the rehearsals it would have been so helpful, but instead we just hear how Vanessa feels (and there's a whole lot too much telling, not enough showing). I could go on, about the Lyric Elite and Justin and so much more, but, why bother?

And then the world is not fully realized. A brief chapter on the lives of the dancers at the school would have helped set the story more clearly: they have morning and afternoon classes, but what about academics (they're touched on, but do they take all subjects? I know that many SAB students go to PCS for academics, or are in on-line programs; what about these kids?), and in those dance classes are they done as an entire school? by ability level? are they all the same class or is it partnering vs barre vs ?? Maybe I just know too much about the real NYBA.

Finally, this is the start of a series? Please God, no.

ARC provided by publisher.

11 February 2013

Requiem; Lauren Oliver

Requiem (Delirium, #3)Requiem by Lauren Oliver
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disappointing. Predictable. Why was this a trilogy?

Ok, you need a little more: there's a love triangle that started in Book Two that gets resolved (almost literally on the last page). The Bad People get theirs, the Good People triumph (was there any doubt?). Hana and Lena's voices are still interchangeable.

Even having missed Pandemonium it was easy to catch up on what was happening - and without a ton of exposition wasted either. That's a good thing, I'll admit. But seriously, this was possible a book, or a book and sequel. Not a trilogy. That's not going to stop the fans of the Delirium series, so I'll stop now.

ARC provided by publisher.

Mind Games; Kiersten White

Mind Games (Mind Games, #1)Mind Games by Kiersten White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was supposed to be filled with suspense, but the flashbacks killed the mood. And really, does it need to be a series? I think not - anything past this is going to be so very, very predictable.

Fia and Annie are siblings, orphaned by a car crash. Annie is blind but has started to experience visions of a future; Fia seems to have infallible reflexes, automatically knowing right from wrong (on multiple choice quizzes) and physically able to sense where/how to move. The two become "students" at Keane School, which has a unique curriculum. Fia is slowly turned into an assassin, while Annie becomes a hostage to keep Fia in line. This can't end well, right?

There was such promise here, but as I said, the flashbacks don't help ratchet up the suspense factor. More on the school would have been nice, instead we get choppy excerpts of what happened and how Fia reacts. Far, far less on the trip to Europe would also be nice. Having said that, I'm not the target audience and those readers may not see the holes and the missing.

ARC provided by publisher.

10 February 2013

Through the Skylight; Ian Baucom

Through the SkylightThrough the Skylight by Ian Baucom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A relatively strong version of the modern children go on an adventure genre: here, three siblings in modern day Venice find a mysterious shop and the shopkeeper gives them the opportunity to take a turn at his sack of oddities. They pull out two rings and a die, all somehow magic and somehow integrated in a book about the One Thousand and One Nights. Thanks to these 'trinkets' and the book, Jared, Shireen and Miranda are drawn into an adventure that includes three children enchanted during the Middle Ages, St. George's dragon, a faun, talking cats and the stone lions of Venice coming to life.

While those may sound relatively quotidian to followers of this genre, they're brought together in a way that will engage readers. To my mind, it was better than The Thief Lord, which was supposed to be this sort of magical adventure!

ARC provided by publisher.

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Trinkets; Kirsten Smith

Trinkets Trinkets by Kirsten Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Really far too much going on here. The Wallflower Girl, the Popular Girl and the Weirdo are all shoplifters, sentenced to SA. Of course they become friends, of sorts, bonding over the thrill that stealing gives them. Why they steal comes up, and in some ways each of them resolves their issues by the end of the book; not just that problem, but the boyfriend/popularity/family problems, too. It all seemed a little easy, a little simplistic.

Told from the three different points-of-view, it helps that each chapter is labelled as they all sound alike (even Elodie's poetry sounds similar to Moe and Tabitha's voices). Sigh.

ARC provided by publisher.

When We Wake; Karen Healey

When We WakeWhen We Wake by Karen Healey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When you hear "this isn't your usual dystopia - this is different" there's a part that says "uh huh. prove it". I'll grant that this isn't the usual dystopia, and Healey certainly knows how to sell a story but, well, this isn't amazing.

Tegan (Teeg to her friends) lives in 2027, loves music (especially the Beatles), has just started going out with her brother's friend Dalmar and is into free running (the "non tricky flip" version of parkour). Then she's shot and suddenly it's 2127 and she's completely at sea. The problem isn't just that everything has changed, from slang and fashion to technology and the environment, or that her parents and family are long gone, it's that the army handles her waking up very, very badly. That's one of the problems I had with the book: the way the army treats her, as a suspect to be bullied rather than as someone to be cherished and promoted.

Another problem? There's a strong environmental message here, which makes sense since Healey is from Australia, where the climate has definitely changed over the past decade. It's just that this wouldn't be news in 2027, and we don't need to be hit over the head with it in 2127.

Final problem? The similarity of the Ark Project to Across the Universe (which is even the title of the chapter that talks about the project - someone should have caught that!). I wasn't thrilled with that book, which may have influenced my reaction to the end of this one.

ETA: Apparently, in the future, the internet really is a series of tubes!

ARC provided by publisher.

Where the Light Falls; Katherine Keenum

Where the Light FallsWhere the Light Falls by Katherine Keenum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was at turns fascinating and frustrating, and I'm still not sure where I stand on it.

The fascinating part was exploring pre-Belle Epoque Paris, with the changing mores and the advent of the Impressionist movement. Because Jeannette aspires to be an artist, there's lots of discussion about the propriety of painting nudes (male and female), the process of learning to be a painter, how the Salon show worked, etc.. Her Cousin Effie was very much the poor cousin, albeit one who wasn't exactly poor, and makes herself indispensable both in New York and Paris, giving Jeannette's life a veneer of propriety in addition to helping them gain entree into a world (that of the Renicks) by becoming a sort of companion to Mrs. Renick.

The frustrating part was that despite 450+ pages none of this is gone into in the detail that I'd like. The bohemian life of some of the artists Jeanette gets to know is not as finely drawn as it could have been. How social life in Paris were changing is not as clearly spelled out (although the fashion changes are). Some things are taken for granted, like the readers familiarity with the 1848 revolution in Germany and why Theodore is unable to return, but Edward is. Etc.

I'm also not happy with the blurbage: this is not an extraordinary debut novel, nor is there any mystery here. It's a perfectly good work of historical fiction that with reasonable success blends the famous (John Sargent) and the imaginary.

ARC provided by publisher.

08 February 2013

Crash; Lisa McMann

Crash (Visions, #1)Crash by Lisa McMann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 starts is a bit generous - 2.5 would be better. Why? Because the author is trying to do too much here and it's the start to a series (a one-off would have been much better).

First, there's a family feud between two pizza families. Second, there's a gay older brother. Third, the author uses lists far too often. Fourth, Our Heroine has visions. And Fifth, Dad's a depressive hoarder. Subtract any two of them and it would have been a stronger book. That Jules' brother is gay is casually tossed in, which is fine, but it felt deliberately casual, as in "hey, look, here's a gay character because they happen, you know?" (if so, the comments about going to church could have been stricken). That Dad's a depressive hoarder was, I suppose, to further illustrate why Jules had no friends and to give her Something To Overcome. Without the visions the story wouldn't move forward, so ok, leave them in but... Sigh.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Burn Palace; Stephen Dobyns

The Burn PalaceThe Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Talk about the perfect read during a blizzard: it's got possible Satanism, werewolves, a high body count and a solution that doesn't get telegraphed. Add to that a writing style that ranges from "you are there" to sounding vaguely like the Narrator in "Our Town" and, well, yes, I loved this book. I'd first met Dobyns through his Charlie Bradshaw series, then read Church of Dead Girls but then he disappeared, so when I saw that this was available, I jumped on it.

Brewster RI is a small, sleepy town until a baby is stolen from the neonatal unit and replaced with a corn snake. Then a visiting insurance investigator is stabbed, and scalped. And then there's Carl Krause, who seems to be off his meds and acting very strangely, including growling. Added to this are extremely (unnaturally) aggressive coyotes and another girl who was raped and her baby stolen. Soon there are competing police jurisdictions and several widely divergent lines of inquiry, at the heart of which are Woody (a laconic state trooper recently jilted by his finance) and Bobby (an amiable black man who drives a Z). What's really going on is buried under several layers of "alternative" religious rituals and the fear that there might be shapeshifters. Until the very end, I had no idea who would end up alive or who was behind everything. Yay!

ARC provided by publisher.

07 February 2013

The Tragedy Paper; Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy PaperThe Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was odd reading this, having both worked at "Irving School" and attended a boarding school (although mine was all girls, not co-ed). Some of it sounded so very familiar from both perspectives, while some of it was - I thought - influenced by books like A Separate Peace.

Tim Macbeth's seeming lack of knowledge of his namesake was a bit odd, as was the fact that it was so easy for the past seniors to leave alcohol for the incoming seniors as a treasure (it would have been fine when I was in school, ditto the author, because of the drinking age being 18, but now? perhaps I'm just naive). It was great that his story was handed to Duncan; as Mr. Simon says (sorry, didn't mean the pun!) the two of them have history. As Duncan gets drawn further and further into Tim's story, you can see his wheels turning in terms of figuring out exactly what happened and what his (Duncan's) role might have been.

Tying this into the idea of tragedy, and literally asking the question at one point about the difference between a literary tragedy and a tragic happening will, I hope, make readers think about the two. It's also great that the tips to writing a great paper are included (I wonder if those came from the author's personal papers, when she had to write hers).

06 February 2013

Dualed; Elsie Chapman

Dualed (Dualed, #1)Dualed by Elsie Chapman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's so much in this book that just doesn't quite make sense: how do you have a population continually at risk of being collateral damage in a "completion" without an uprising? do you really expect readers to believe that all that killing and death (West alone has lost two brothers, a sister and both parents) doesn't seriously affect the social fabric, let alone everyone's mental state? And that going from "idle" to "alt" can happen virtually at any time up until age 20? What's the point? It's like the author took parts of her favorite dystopias and just put them into a blender without giving us any reason to really care about West, let alone Chord.

Sadly, this was promoted with the phrase "I know you're sick of dystopias but this one is different" - it is different, and the premise sounded even better, but that's where it ends.

ARC provided by publisher.

Notes from Ghost Town; Kate Ellison

Notes from Ghost TownNotes from Ghost Town by Kate Ellison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This had elements of things I love in books: a mystery, a ghost, a girl looking for... something. But for some reason, it didn't grab me as much as I'd hoped and I'm not sure why.

Olivia (Liv, Liver, etc.) is an artist off to art school when her BFF Lucas kisses her - suddenly, everything is greyscale, all color gone. Shortly after that, her mother is under arrest for the murder of Lucas and Olivia's life unravels. Barely a week before the final hearing to lock her schizophrenic mother away under "diminished capacity" custody, Lucas appears to Olivia and convinces her that he was killed, but not by her mother. So Olivia has three problems to deal with: her artistic talent is gone because she cannot see color any more, she's trying to clear her mother, and she might be going crazy because she's seeing/hearing/talking to a ghost.

The creep factor, the level of suspense never rise to the occasion. I also found some of Olivia's life implausible for a 16-year-old. Perhaps that's why it's only a 3 star.

ARC provided by publisher.

05 February 2013

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine; Teddy Wayne

The Love Song of Jonny ValentineThe Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not sure why this is an adult book (except perhaps because of the drugs, alcohol and Jonny's impending puberty) or why anyone would think that this is some sort of comment on popular culture - it's really just a supposal about Justin Beiber's life. Given some of the kids I've seen with serious stage mothers, Jane wasn't that bad.

Jonny is very passive, allowing his mother to do pretty much anything to promote him; all he wants is to sing, play Zenon and take sleeping pills. Maybe learn to masturbate. When he meets people he actually admires, he has the all-too-natural reaction of wanting to hang out with them and manages to garner some bad publicity - suddenly, they're gone from the tour and dumped by the label. His reaction? He calls, then lets it drop. The only real moments of conflict sort of fizzle away.

I'm really unclear who the audience for this is: it'd be great for tweens if toned down, great for older teens and adults if made more edgy and raw.

ARC provided by publisher.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove; Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: StoriesVampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories by Karen Russell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I haven't read any of Ms. Russell's other books, so I came to this with no preconceptions. It's eight stories, and the first two are the strongest - the others, I sort of sped-read through after a few pages because they didn't really grab me.

"Vampires" is not horror, it's more about a sad old man who happens to be a vampire and is maybe losing his wife? They've stayed in Italy, in a former nun's lemon grove (or nearby), drinking lemon juice rather than, you know, blood. But it isn't working any more... "Reeling for the Empire" is more disturbing, with former women-turned-silkworms in Mejie Empire Japan. The rest of the stories felt like they were trying too hard, with "The New Veterans" reading like an update version of Bradbury's "Illustrated Man".

ARC provided by publisher.

S.E.C.R.E.T.; L. Marie Adeline

S.E.C.R.E.T.S.E.C.R.E.T. by L. Marie Adeline
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Just.Couldn't.Finish. I guess younger women need to hear that "you can be an empowered, sexual being" message (I got it growing up in the 70s) but in a poorly written book that has about as much sex as a Harlequin romance? Perhaps this is supposed to be riding the 50 Shades wave, yet it does the genre no favors.

Copy provided by publisher.

04 February 2013

The Rithmatist; Brandon Sanderson

The RithmatistThe Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is this the start of a series? Will there be a sequel? I can't tell... and I'm not sure how I'd feel if it were Book 1 of [some number]. We're in a world similar to ours, but not quite. There's the United Isles, an archipelago where the United States now is, Italian food is eaten with chopsticks, the Scots have been routed from Scotland and need visas to visit, etc.. Most important there's some danger in Nebrask, creatures called chalklings in a Tower trying to overrun the Isles (I think - I was never too clear on that). Chalklings are made of chalk and are essentially dumb, needing glyphs of instruction before they do anything. Who creates chalklings? Rithmatists, who fight using geometric shapes, Lines of Vigor, chalklings and more, all using chalk.

To be a Rithmatist you have to be incepted on the July 4th of your 8th year and Joel wasn't able to do it; when he did get incepted there was a problem with the ceremony and he was ruled just normal. However, because his father was a chalkmaker, he got a scholarship to Armedius Academy, where he sort of goes to classes (turning in 9 of 40 homework assignments?) and instead sneaks into the Rithmatist classes (where he's not supposed to be). Then Rithmatist students start disappearing, with strange chalk marks found at each scene... and Joel manages to get into a summer tutorial with the teacher sort of investigating it all. There are Wild Chalklings, a student who seems to be able to create more sentient chalklings, chalk duels and research into new shapes.

Yeah, it confused me at times, too. Hence the 4 stars - but if you're a real math person you might get more of it than I did. Still, this is very original and will really appeal to boys (not that girls won't enjoy it but with a male lead, I'm guessing that's the target audience).

ARC provided by publisher.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia; Jenny Torres Sanchez

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie GarciaDeath, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's something clearly wrong with Frenchie: she's depressed, doesn't want to hang out with her friends (even as Joel is pulling away because of his involvement with Lily), didn't get into art school and doesn't seem to care, and when Robyn tries to set her up with Colin she's rude and obnoxious. Then, at the depths of her despair, she asks Colin to hang out with her one night - a night the mimics the night she spent with Andy Cooper, recent suicide and former classmate.

Their night is relatively stereotypical teen rebellion (swimming in the ocean at night, trying to "steal" a swan boat, getting a tattoo, etc.) and Frenchie is somehow convinced that she missed a clue, a sign, that could have saved Andy. It's something that probably every friend of a suicide wishes they could have done, that if they somehow relive the last time they were together they could change something and the friend would still be alive.

In that way, this book gets it right. The problem is twofold, however: Emily Dickinson seems randomly chosen to be a friend/mentor (if Frenchie's an artist, why doesn't she have an artist to talk to?) and I really didn't care about Frenchie. Her problems and despair just didn't move me.

ARC provided by publisher.

02 February 2013

Dark Companion; Marta Acosta

Dark CompanionDark Companion by Marta Acosta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really hope this is a one-off, because it really doesn't need to be part of a series!

Orphan Jane (like Eyre, only in California and we do get a sense of what she looks like) is suddenly granted a scholarship to a chichi prep school, living expenses and a new status as an emancipated minor - although, as anyone whose previous life was in the foster system, she wonders "why me?" Once at Birch Grove she meets the Headmistress' sons, Jacob and Lucian and falls for... well, it's clear that she's infatuated with Lucky (he's gorgeous) but Jake does something to her (infuriates her, confuses her, stalks her, nicknames her Halfling). She also finds friends and seems to settle down.

Of course, this is a Gothic/semi-vampire book so things are never what they seem and Jane's life becomes more complicated and fraught than one might have imagined. As in Jane Eyre there's a climactic fire scene, but that's pretty much it for the comparisons. The Gothic part is really pretty mild, with none of the heart-thumping that, say, Victoria Holt produces (or Jane Eyre, for that matter). The quotations at the start of each chapter may lead readers to search out other Gothic novels if they don't already know them). Mary Violet deserves a book all unto herself, particularly those French translations!

The cover is a bit off, and I hope this isn't the final artwork. Jane is pixie-like, with brown hair, brown eyes and light brown skin, thanks to her part-Mexican mother (the rest of her is anyone's guess, although MV's Laplander is probably out). Why not highlight that on the cover? This person looks a tad light...

ARC provided by publisher.

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Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock; Matthew Quick

Forgive Me, Leonard PeacockForgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So glad I got this ARC - now I just need time to digest what I read, and to stop vacillating between a 4 and 5 star review.

Leonard is an odd duck, deliberately not trying to fit in and defiantly marching to his own drummer. His missing father was a one-hit rock wonder, while mom is not literally missing but with her fashion designer life in NYC might as well be. He spends time mostly alone, but often watching Bogart movies with Walt, the old man next door. On his 18th birthday (which no one remembers) Leonard has decided to hand out a few gifts and then kill himself and his former BFF-now object of hatred, Asher.

The build-up here is slow, and we really get a sense of how smart Leonard is, how he's not afraid to be different (or think different) than his peers, and how lonely he is and desperate to see something - anything - good in life. It also takes a long time for us to learn why Asher Must Die, and the last third of the book is truly heartbreaking. I'm not so fond of the Letters from the Future, however, and Herr Silvermann was (at times) too much of the Good Teacher Who Cares, hence the rating issue.

What I loved most was that this was not the happiest of endings, that the author doesn't promise that everything will be all right. That may bother readers, but to me it was perfect.

ARC provided by publisher.

01 February 2013

The Time Fetch; Amy Herrick

The Time FetchThe Time Fetch by Amy Herrick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in Park Slope Brooklyn, The Time Fetch has a The Dark is Rising quality to it: the rock Eddie brings to class isn't a rock, but a Fetch filled with moments that we don't need. Of course, this is all near Midwinter's Eve so there's a great urgency about the whole thing because that's when the threads between the worlds are thinnest. Eddie's not one of those friend-filled guys, but he manages to bring Danton, Brigid and Feenix along as they try to fix what Eddie mistakenly broke.

At times the writing is a little rushed, and explanations of what's going on (for example, what the Fetch is or how it all ties in, let alone some of the things and people we meet later) would have been nice. Setting this in Brooklyn does bring this sort of book into today's world, showing that even in a large city there's room for mystery and Olden Ways.

ARC provided by publisher.