31 October 2013

Captives; Jill Williamson

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

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

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

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

The September Society; Charles Finch

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

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

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

26 October 2013

The Winter People; Jennifer McMahon

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

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

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

ARC provided by publisher.

Frozen in Time; Mitchell Zuckoff

Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War IIFrozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For some reason I'm a sucker for these types of stories: Resolute, The Impossible Rescue and Lost in Shangri-La were all recent great reads. Add to that the fact that Zuckoff wrote Shangri-La and I just knew this would be a 5-star. So happy I wasn't wrong.

The heroism involved in the rescues is only matched by the will-to-live shown by the ones stranded on the ice. Even though you know what's going to happen (much as you do when you read a book about the Titanic or a biography) there's a sense of excitement and nervousness about whether or not it will work. As those stranded wait out their days freezing, with frostbitten toes and limbs, in the dark and diminishing food supplies, readers will wonder whether they, too, could survive (or would they give up early on and wander out into the cold to freeze to death). Interspersing the events with a modern search for the remains of three pilots and the downed planes gives us the opportunity to take a step back before diving back in to the events of World War II.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky; Nancy Horan

Under the Wide and Starry SkyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Loving Frank so was interested in Horan's latest historical fiction look at an artistic figure and their life - that it was about Robert Louis Stevenson, an author I'd enjoyed as a young 'un, was icing on the cupcake.

There was much I didn't know about him beyond his being Scottish and dying in the Pacific. Apparently he had serious health issues, possibly tuberculosis (one doctor says yes, one says no), throughout his life. He also seems to have suffered from what I think we call "artistic temperment", that blend of selfishness and generosity that we forgive because of the end product. Fanny, an American married women with three children, flees her serial-cheater husband and goes to Paris where one son dies; distraught she takes a vacation in the French countryside where she meets first Bob Stevenson (not the author) and then Louis Stevenson (the author - they're cousins and it takes a little time to figure out which is which).

Neither are really likeable, and their relationship is fraught with ups and downs, complicated by finances, Louis' illness and what I'm guessing was bipolar disorder for Fanny. The descriptions of their lives together, the travels, health scares, good times and bad times are so well done it's clear that much research went into this. The author admits to inventing dialogue, which explains why they sound a little modern at times. That quibble aside, this could get younger readers more interested in an author they probably only know from Treasure Island.

ARC provided by publisher.

15 October 2013

The Impossible Knife of Memory; Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of MemoryThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Odd for a Laurie Halse Anderson book to have a multi-word title, isn't it? That's not a comment on the contents, just an observation - and not one made by me but by a student who saw the ARC I got.

So, what about those contents? As always, the author has thoughtfully taken a problem faced by some teens and written a book that not only illuminates it but also somehow uplifts the reader. I feel odd writing that, because the ending isn't uplifting in the sense that you walk away smelling the roses, but it is in the sense that you feel that for Hayley, at least, things are going to be better.

Without spoiling this, let's just say that what Hayley went through emotionally felt very real to me. Her emotions and the language she used were, most of the time, very much what teens sound like (and, from what I hear, feel like). The problem I had was with her comments about the school (would a student notice or care about budget cuts? that felt a little like an Author Issue shoehorned into the book) and her trucking days with her father (surely someone would have noticed?). Beyond that, this was a great read and teens won't notice my quibbles.

ARC provided by publisher.

Sweet Thunder; Ivan Doig

Sweet Thunder: A NovelSweet Thunder by Ivan Doig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'll be honest, historical fiction set in the semi-Wild West isn't quite my thing. No gunslingers here, we're in the 20th century with Prohibition and mining strikes and newspapers being the tool of the Big Bad Company, which moved this up to a three-star. Morrie Morrigan, the star of previous Doig books, is back, this time as the "inheritor" of a mansion (except that he's inherited it from a living man who still stays in the house) and a new role as a semi-anonymous op-ed writer going after the Big Bad Mining Company. And.... action!

Many of us in the East haven't really learned about (or paid attention to) the mining wars, so this book was an interesting way to learn some of that history. My problem was that I didn't care as much as I possibly could have about Morrie, or Sandy Sandison, or the Robert Burns festival or the whole Chicago Black Sox problem (which may have played a role in the earlier book. The antics he employs to get away from his persecutors just didn't grab me, possibly because there was a little too much going on - take away the newspaper, or the Mob, or Sandy, or something. There was some short shrifting going on, which prevented this from moving beyond a three.

12 October 2013

Clever Girl; Tessa Hadley

Clever GirlClever Girl by Tessa Hadley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A difficult book to review - it's not really plot-driven, it's more a memoir-like account of a woman's life that started off with some semblance of promise and devolves from there. What might have happened to Stella had she not been a teen mother is always a question, and some of her choices are less than well-thought-out. But Stella's story is more than that and at the same time somewhat less: she's a normal person, living a life that isn't filled with adventure and Big Things but instead is filled with regular, everyday things and events. And that's the difficulty in reviewing, isn't it? You want to be able to say "and then the murder happened..." or something significant, but most of our lives aren't filled with those things, they're small moments that add up. Hadley's recounting of Stella's life reminds readers of that, and how even those small moments are important.

ARC provided by publisher.

What We Lost in the Dark; Jacquelyn Mitchard

What We Lost in the Dark (What We Saw at Night, #2)What We Lost in the Dark by Jacquelyn Mitchard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not bad as a sequel to What We Saw in the Dark and - even better (for me) - not set in a dystopia!

Juliet's death hasn't unhinged Allie, but it has driven a wedge between her and Rob because she's obsessed with trapping Garrett Tabor into either confessing or giving himself away. The emphasis on the XP and how Allie, Juliet and Rob couldn't go out during the day is lessened here (thankfully) as is their parkouring adventures. Instead we get deep diving, which of course leads to major clues and discoveries. There were moments when the action was a little over the top, dropping this from a solid four-star to a three.

Having said that, this series (guessing here, as the ending is final enough that it could be the end but there is enough of an opening that could also lead to another book) is one that I can see appealing to teens needing something more that romance and less than future worlds.

ARC provided by publisher.

Jack Glass; Adam Roberts

Jack GlassJack Glass by Adam Roberts
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The first third of this book was interesting: not the locked-door mystery that the jacket promises, but a good read all the same. A group of prisoners are left in a sealed seam of an asteroid, given "air scrubbers" to help them breathe, stuff that provides a nutritious goop, and some warmers so they can live. As in all prisoner stories, the strong overpower the weak, demanding the best places and heat and so forth. Will they survive their 11 year sentence?

The problem was the next bit, set somewhere else and in a very different tone. Diana's voice is just annoying and unlikeable: she's petulant, trying to be older/wiser/more important than she is and somehow fancies herself a detective. I didn't like that voice enough to continue to see if she actually was a detective of sorts, solving some mystery that wasn't really presented before I DNF'd the book.

Pure; Julianna Baggott

Burn (Pure, #3)Burn by Julianna Baggott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This it, I think, the end of the "Pure" series, and it sort-of works as a stand-alone. There is enough exposition in the beginning to help people new to the series work out what happened before, and what's going on now; at times I wondered if I'd read the previous books because of the skillful way that part is done.

Having said that, this version of a dystopia isn't quite my cup of Earl Grey. It's certainly plausible, that there would be an event that would leave people fused to whatever they're holding a the time, and it's equally plausible that some mastermind (evil, of course) would engineer that to help purify the world. We've seen genocides before, right? It's just that, well, for some reason, I didn't care as much as I probably should have cared. That's probably due to the plethora of dystopian books I've been reading the past few years more than anything else, but it's also in part because the characters hadn't grown in ways that made me care more this book than previously.

ARC provided by publisher.