21 November 2013

The Ice Cream Kid; Todd Clark

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

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

Copy provided by publisher.

20 November 2013

The Sea Garden; Deborah Lawrenson

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

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

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

ARC provided by publisher.

Sammy Feral's Diaries of Weird; Eleanor Hawken

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

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

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

ARC provided by publisher.

13 November 2013

No One Else Can Have You; Kathleen Hale

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

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

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

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

ARC provided by publisher.

11 November 2013

Coincidence; J.W. Ironmonger

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

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

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

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

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

ARC provided by publisher.

Africa is My Home: Monica Edinger

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

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

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

06 November 2013

One Hundred Names; Cecelia Ahern

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

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

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

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

ARC provided by publisher.

04 November 2013

The Disappeared; Kristina Ohlsoon

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

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

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

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

ARC provided by publisher.

03 November 2013

The Kept; James Scott

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

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

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

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

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

Ketchup Clouds; Annabel Pitcher

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

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

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

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

ARC provided by publisher.