18 October 2014

The Soul of Discretion; Susan Hill

The Soul of Discretion (Simon Serrailler, #8)The Soul of Discretion by Susan Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. So dark. So very, very dark. Not just the Simon main story but Richard's side story - it did make me wonder why we needed both in one volume (and dropped this to a 4.5). Hill frequently "goes there" with darkness, yet this felt a little more than usual. Richard's part felt a little forced, despite our seeing him increasingly as a bully and potentially an abuser.

So the main story? Disturbing to say the least: Simon enters the world of child pornography, and while we don't "see" anything, his reactions to what he's watching and hearing let us know exactly how bad it is. And coming just after his really negative reaction to Rachel's moving in (which he's ok with, except for her moving furniture or adding her own touches... let alone her suggestion that they move)? Poor Simon. I've often thought of him as a new version of Adam Dalgleish and this just cements that.

There's so much fallout being held over to the next book (what's going to happen with Rachel's bookshop? is this the last we'll see of Judith? how will Cat move forward? what will Richard do now?) that I'm hoping it's already partly written. Given the ending, however, I suspect that we'll join everyone several months (or longer) in the future with this book still resonating but well behind everyone. Can't wait!

The Pierced Heart; Lynn Shepherd

The Pierced HeartThe Pierced Heart by Lynn Shepherd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Less of the vampire theme than I'd expected (hence the 4), but the atmosphere is wonderfully creepy and suspenseful. What's going on in the mysterious castle Charles Maddox visits? How is any of it related to what happened to the various girls being killed (in Ripper-esque style) in London? Is the Baron for real, let alone human (he never seems to eat, avoids sun, etc.)? These questions lie at the heart of this book, and the conclusion does seem a bit too coincidental and convenient to be completely satisfying. Because this is an hommage, the characters are a little flat and sacrificed in service of plot and setting.

I don't remember great detail about the previous Maddox book's writing style (my copy is in storage just now) but it does feel as though this book's style differs - Shepherd seems to mimic the style of the genre/author she's riffing on (Austen, Shelley, Dickens/Conan Doyle, now Stoker). That can be off-putting to some readers, particularly those who are used to modern pacing and sentence styling. And I do need to go and read the two earlier books I haven't yet read...

ARC provided by publisher.

Tear You Apart; Sarah Cross

Tear You ApartTear You Apart by Sarah Cross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do love me some fractured fairy tale, and this one works. Yes, it does sound a little like a condensed novelization of a "Once Upon A Time" episode arc, but I can over look that. There's a blend of tales here, deliberately so, and it's that blend that allows Viv and Henley to find a loophole in the Snow White tale. I didn't realize this is a series and now I'm going to check out the earlier book (when I say "series", I mean "books set in the same world with some overlapping characters" not books that need to be read in sequence; you know how happy I am about that!).

ARC provided by publisher.

The Way of Tea and Justice; Becca Stevens

The Way of Tea and Justice: Rescuing the World's Favorite Beverage from Its Violent HistoryThe Way of Tea and Justice: Rescuing the World's Favorite Beverage from Its Violent History by Becca Stevens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very close to a DNF but I did find that skimming (very very quick skimming) got me some interesting information. The subtitle and blurbage suggest that this is about tea and its history, while the vast majority of the book is about the author's travels and Thistle Stop Cafe and social justice. She experiences a tea ceremony, yet we don't get to experience it through her eyes - that's the point when I said, SKIM.

ARC provided by publisher.

Prince of Shadows; Rachel Caine

Prince of ShadowsPrince of Shadows by Rachel Caine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Using Romeo and Juliet as a basis for a story is guaranteed to provide teens with an initial understanding of the milieu for the book, as well as immediate familiarity with the characters. In this case, Romeo is a sidekick of sorts and Juliet barely enters (stage left or right): Benvolio is Our Hero. It's almost a teen "Rosencrantz and Guilderstern" but not as well-written.

There's a good sense of place and ambiance here, particularly how the two Houses brawl and roam around fair Verona. It might confuse readers when the clothes are being discussed (what? shirts have removable sleeves?), but that's the way things really were. It was interesting hearing such a realistic view of the role of women back then rather than having someone who breaks the rules. As for Tommasso, I was uncomfortable with that addition because while it gives some context to his "plague on both houses", his reason felt very forced, as though it wasn't enough to riff on the R&J story from a different point-of-view, we also need to subtly promote tolerance for gays. That part could have been left out with no loss to the plot, or, had the author wanted to make that statement, told this from Tommasso's point-of-view.

For Real; Alison Cherry

For RealFor Real by Alison Cherry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure about this one because the premise sounded, well, a little lame. So glad I was wrong! Ok, yes, there's a huge degree of predictability here but there is a great twist at the end that makes up for much of that.

Teens today are into reality shows and the shows are getting more and more bizarre, so the ones that Claire is so well-versed in actually sound plausible. It's also highly plausible that the producers would change the format and premise of the show Claire and Miranda are on (just think about all those ambushed guests on shows like Dr. Phil!). I won't go further because 1. we all know what to expect from reality shows and 2. I don't want to spoil anything.

This feels like a great read for any teen.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing; Sheila Turnage

The Ghosts of Tupelo LandingThe Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A worthy follow-up to the first book, Three Times Lucky. The sense of place and the characters far outweigh the mystery, and it's the plot problems that dropped this to a four.

Lucky's search for her Upstream Mom is not as front-and-center here, but there are still letters that appear regularly from Lucky (they don't seem to be dropped into a river but are in a diary; perhaps I misread that). In some ways I was glad that was a little less stressed, as it shows she's comfortable with her place, and in some ways I hoped we'd resolve that part of her mystery and then could move on. Perhaps next book?

06 October 2014

King Solomon's Carpet; Barbara Vine

King Solomon's CarpetKing Solomon's Carpet by Barbara Vine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vine's psychological mysteries (or are they purely suspense?) are always a good read - this one suffered from the huge amount of added-in information about the London Underground. Some of that was interesting, but it dragged the action down to a stop at times when it shouldn't have.

The characters here are a curious mix of apathetic, pathetic and impulsive. Take Alice: after one impulsive move (leaving her husband and child), she gets stuck in an apathetic rut of living in the School, busking, practicing her violin and planning to resume her studies but never quite has enough initiative to do it properly. Her relationships with Alex and Tom seem less like real relationships and more like something she's just fallen into.

The other problem is that the motivations, the suspense factor, seem more muted than in other of her books (The Dark-Adapted Eye, for example). Still, for an end-of-cold-and-don't-want-to-think-too-much read this was perfect.

Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly; Conrad Wesselhoeft

Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to FlyDirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly by Conrad Wesselhoeft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The end was rather surprising, which raised this from a three to a four. Beyond that, a teen from a dysfunctional family with an exceptional skill at video games? Yawn. It's the ethical decisions that Arlo makes, and his acceptance of the consequences that are different - they may lead readers to question what they would do if presented with the same opportunities.

ARC provided by publisher.

Lost for Words; Edward St. Aubyn

Lost for WordsLost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Patrick Melrose novels have been on my To Buy/To Read list for a while now, but when this book crossed my path I decided not to wait for those to become acquainted with St. Aubyn's oeuvre. And am I glad I didn't wait!

If you aren't familiar with overly pompous English-literature-speak, some of this won't make a lot of sense. But if you are, it can be quite funny reading the arguments about why each book submitted to the Elysian Prize committee is worth, or unworthy. And Benoit! I swear I've worked with him... The problem is, to explain more would be to delve into textuality and satire and all those other pretentious buzzwords, so let's just say I enjoyed the read and am looking forward to reading his other works.

The Family Romanov; Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial RussiaThe Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Years ago I read the Massie Nicholas and Alexandra and saw the movie made from the book and, well, became fascinated by this family. This book doesn't add much to my knowledge, but the insertion of excerpts from diaries and letters unavailable when the earlier book was written does deepen that knowledge.

It still boggles the mind how wealthy the tsars were, and how out of touch with the reality of what was going on (particularly at the end) they all were. Maybe the exact amount of danger they were in once they fled Tsarkoe Selo wasn't clear, but prior to that? It takes a special arrogance to be that unaware.

It also helps that Fleming is an engaging writer, minus the ticks of Edward Radzinsky's The Last Tsar (which may suffer from translation issues, or the fact that he was a reporter and assumes a short attention span from his readers). My only complaint is around the addition of Lenin and others: it was greatly appreciated, and adds to our understanding of what was going on in Russia, but more at times would have helped. For example, the tutors are dismissed at the end with a "that's the last time they'd see the royal children" but what happened to the tutors?

With luck this will engage readers as much as Massie's book engaged me.

ARC provided by publisher.

Ravencliffe; Carol Goodman

RavencliffeRavencliffe by Carol Goodman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading the first in this series would have helped, because there were few "previously" moments to explain the world of Ravencliffe and the characters. Once I got into the world, the idea of a half-breed was nothing new (there have been so many in fantasy worlds by this point) so the bigger question is, did this book do anything really new with that? Not really. Had we delved more into that aspect, or into the worlds of the other creatures, it might have worked better (for me).

One example? Etta, a religious Jew, is brought into this world. Rather than spend any time on her differences from the other people, we get one or two sentences about her eating habits (keeping kosher proves difficult in Blythwood). The similarity between Ruth's possession and a golem would also have been interesting to explore. Etc.. I'm also not convinced about Van Drood (really?) being such a Big Bad - perhaps that's explained more in Book One, or will be dealt with in Book Three? And the potential love triangle? Yawn. Again, nothing new.

Perhaps this suffers from Middle Book Syndrome, which is too bad.

ARC provided by publisher.

Cold Calls; Charles Benoit

Cold CallsCold Calls by Charles Benoit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In many ways this reminded me of Secrets and Lies, especially the question of Why Is Anyone Doing This? (and unlike in the previous book, there is an answer)

There is a good suspense factor, although at times a suspension of belief is required - would a school have reacted quite so strongly to a first offense? would their friends/families really react that harshly to the secrets being revealed? why would Eric have done what he does at the end, knowing what he knows now? For readers who worry about their deepest secrets being revealed, this might give them confidence to not worry quite so much.

Lives in Ruins; Marilyn Johnson

Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human RubbleLives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll be honest: Marilyn Johnson's last book didn't wow me. This book made up for it, but I can also see flaws here. The too-breezy tone, for example, or her only covering the "exciting" archaeologists doing work in places like Macchu Piccu or the 9/11 recovery (as opposed to "dull" academics working on digs sponsored by universities). And all the stuff about The Clan of the Cave Bear? Fluffy filler.

Having said that, the stories she tells are interesting. The hardships that archaeologists face, from conditions at the site to finding funding to training/retaining workers, are stressed, but so is the excitement of the work. The importance is also highlighted: the understanding we get of our past is critical and without the work and exploration we're poorer as a society.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy; Tracy Holczer

The Secret Hum of a DaisyThe Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dead mother. Going to live with Grandma, with whom Mom had no relationship and being separated from the only friends she has. Grace's story is well-written, albeit predictable.

Copy provided by publisher.

Buzz Kill; Beth Fantaskey

Buzz KillBuzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just the other day I was wondering why it is that students today aren't as interested in mysteries as they are in, say, dystopian fiction or romance. Reading Buzz Kill was a welcome break from those genres, but was it as good as it could have been? Not quite. The thing is, in order to make the mystery interesting they have to add in other things, like romance, and for some reason dumb down the characters (I didn't really believe they were high school students, or perhaps they were high school students back in the 1950s?).

As for the mystery itself, it was relatively bland. No real twist, no complete surprise, and a little more than Nancy Drew-level (which would have been expected if this were not aimed at older readers).

My advice? This works for 5-7th graders, possibly 8th and younger 9th graders. But older mystery readers - if there are any - won't like it.

All the Bright Places; Jennifer Niven

All the Bright PlacesAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure if this was trying to cash in on If I Stay and The Fault In Our Stars popularity, or if this was trying to be venture out on its own; it doesn't matter too much, but the similarities are a little striking. I'd throw in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock as well.

What sets this apart is the ending, which was a little surprising for me. Violet was less surprising, but Finch was: it was clear to me that there was/is something wrong, but there was never any diagnosis or confirmation. I liked that, and the ambiguity it allowed in "knowing" who Finch is and why he does what he does. I also enjoyed the realness of the emotions Violet and Finch experience.

So why three stars? See paragraph one. And perhaps that's my problem, that I've read the other books and didn't find terribly much new here. Teen readers probably won't care.

ARC provided by publisher.

Long Gone; Alafair Burke

Long GoneLong Gone by Alafair Burke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A set up, or is she guilty? There's a series of coincidental meetings and occurrences that the ordinary person might not have been so readily gotten into, but for Alice it seems like life is just the way it's supposed to be. She's been rather protected thus far, expecting things to go her way (even after losing her job after telling her father she no longer wanted his "help") - this is just more of life being as it should be.

That's really what cost the book it's star: normal people aren't quite so trusting, they're a little more cautious about the sort of job set up that Alice is invited in to. There were times when I thought, "really? you're just going along with that?" or "that's a little suspicious, isn't it?"

However, as these types of suspense books go, Burke is one of the best authors. Go and read.

The Ether; Laurice Elehwany Molinari

The Ether: Vero RisingThe Ether: Vero Rising by Laurice Elehwany Molinari
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The premise was interesting, but the execution? At times it was mushy, with vagueness standing in for explanations as if the author didn't know what or how; at other times, it was trying too hard to be Percy Jackson for the Christian set.