26 June 2015

Lila; Marilynne Robinson

Lila (Gilead, #3)Lila by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How lucky am I? Reading Lila in the same week as a Julian Barnes and close to reading Kent Haruf's last? Very lucky.

There are people I know who don't like Robinson's Christian elements (especially in Gilead). This has some of that, but so much less. Lila's story is one of hardship before and during the Dust Bowl, taken by Doll (whose relationship to Lila is unclear, if one actually exists) from an abusive/neglectful family that necessitates them moving constantly, usually as part of a group of migrant farm workers. Eventually, after a long stint in St. Louis and an attempt to return "home" to find Doll, Lila manages to walk into the preacher's life (John Ames, from the two previous books). The twists and turns of her life, her relationship with Doll and John and God and religion are told in Robinson's usual wonderful prose. There are questions left unanswered, but isn't that life? We never know everything about people, no matter how much we might want to.

Cockroaches; Jo Nesbo

Cockroaches (Harry Hole, #2)Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By now I've read the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th and 9th Harry Hole books. Yes, I'm doing this haphazardly! This had everything I'd expected from the series but lost points on the stereotype of why people go to Thailand and the things they get up to there. The corruption angle was good enough, why muddy things with pedophilia? That would have been rather refreshing... As always, when I read mystery series out of order, it's interesting seeing how the relationships so taken for granted later in the books form and settle.

Did You Ever Have a Family; Bill Clegg

Did You Ever Have A FamilyDid You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I did like the writing, but the multiple (multitude of) narrators was a bit much. The tragedy of loss of several lives due to a faulty gas oven becomes the background by which we explore the lives touched by Will and Lolly, a young couple due to be married the day after this explosion; they aren't married, instead they're buried. It's very true that our lives create ripples far beyond our own, but it isn't clear from the start that the narrators are in any way related. Instead we get slow, almost meandering narratives exploring the characters' pasts, eventually leading to the present and the lives intertwining. As I said, it's the writing less than the many POVs that got me. There's an overlay of sadness (expected, obviously, but in some places a little surprising). Because the plot doesn't seem to be moving forward much of the time, instead dwelling on the past, readers might not be inclined to continue but it is, in the end, worth it.

One quibble unrelated to plot or writing (well, sort of): why don't authors do a better job of disguising the setting? By giving us a fake town name, a fake CT prep school name, but giving us real nearby towns, the exact route to the one school it could possibly be? Seems lazy.

ARC provided by publisher.

In a Dark, Dark Wood; Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark WoodIn a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If only this hadn't been predictable! The writing and the set-up were good, atmospheric enough that (like any good horror movie or murder mystery) you know something is going to happen and you're pretty sure you know what that will be but are still interested in the who and the how. Where this fell apart for me was the why, telegraphed from afar and thus not surprising when it happened. There were a few moments when I thought, surely here is where there'll be a twist, where it won't be Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick, but, well, not this book. Still, I do read a lot of these books so perhaps for others it will be a surprise.

ARC provided by publisher.

After Alice; Gregory Maguire

After AliceAfter Alice by Gregory Maguire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I so wanted to love this, but, well... This isn't quite the reimagining of Alice that it could have been. Yes, there's wordplay, and yes, there are appearances by the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea Party and other favorites. But there was nothing really new here, just Ada - a neighbor of Alice's who happens to go down the rabbit hole just after Alice must have - and Siam and their interactions with the cast of characters. Unlike Wicked or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister the new view of the old tale isn't quite as imaginative. Interspersed with this is life in Oxford, where Darwin is visiting Ada's father, along with an American who is Siam's guardian, and Alice's sister and Ada's governess go searching for the missing children. Maybe if Maguire hadn't added the "real world" parts and instead had concentrated on Wonderland it might have been as magically different as his earlier books? If you love his stuff, and loved Alice, though, YMMV.

ARC provided by publisher.

23 June 2015

Levels of Life; Julian Barnes

Levels of LifeLevels of Life by Julian Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've said it before: I would read the phone book if Julian Barnes wrote it.

The first two thirds of the book deal with history: balloon travel, arial photography and Sarah Bernhardt. And that's ok, sort of Flaubert's Parrot-esque. Barnes' interest is that you can take two things and mix them together - look what happens (or, to quote the start of each section, "You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed...").

It's the last third that is so powerful. Barnes explores his grief following the death of his wife, how that grief is ongoing and how inept others are when it comes to speaking with him (or those who have also had a death in the family). In many ways, this is a modern version of A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis and just as much of a gift from the author to readers. I'm not suggesting there be a "here are books to get you through this" gift basket with both books in it, but, maybe there should be.

Transition; Iain M. Banks

TransitionTransition by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first of the Iain M. Banks books I've read, having exhausted all the Iain Banks books (and, obviously, no more are forthcoming). Apparently this is a one-off, not connected with his Culture series so obviously I'll have to explore that next.

We open with an unreliable narrator - he? she? admits that up front - and move on to several different narrators and worlds and points-of-view. The idea is that there are many worlds and people (some, specially capable people) can flit between them, inhabiting people so as to influence events or just "visiting". One of our narrators is just such a flitter, while another two are bigwigs (or traitors?) in the organization that oversees this sort of thing. There's also a philosopher, who is really a torturer. And a few random others. Any one of these could be our original narrator.

The sense that it's not clear to whom we're listening, not clear whose motivations are real and not clear where exactly we are (and at times, not clear which timeframe we're in) is part of the appeal of this book. In the hands of an author less skilled, this could have been a mess. In Banks' hands? Read and decide for yourself.

20 June 2015

On Sal Mal Lane; Ru Freeman

On Sal Mal LaneOn Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this just as the Charleston shootings happened was interesting: Sal Mal Lane is a mixed race (Sinhala and Tamil, with some Burghers) enclave that devolves as the situation in Sri Lanka worsens. At first there are class differences, based on education and wealth. But by the end, it's religion and race that are the issue, and the anti-Tamil pogrom that finally breaks the community. Because this is told mostly through the eyes of the children, there is both questioning (why is this happening? what exactly is happening?) and unconscious mimicking of the adults' attitudes. This makes a great companion read to Island of a Thousand Mirrors or just an introduction to the Tamil/Sinhala/Sri Lankan Civil War.

Fatal Enquiry; Will Thomas

Fatal Enquiry (Barker & Llewelyn, #6)Fatal Enquiry by Will Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is definite humor here, with Llewelyn acting like an early version of Archie Goodwin. Barker is no Nero Wolf, on the other hand, nor is he particularly Holmesian. It may be this particular book, but there's little detection and more running around, more fighting and more talking about Barker's past interactions with Nightwine than I'd hoped for. It didn't really feel like a historical mystery (a la Anne Perry's Pitt mysteries) but more like a modern one shoehorned into the Victorian era.

18 June 2015

The Wild Ones; C. Alexander London

The Wild OnesThe Wild Ones by C. Alexander London
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A definite "next read" for fans of the Warriors series and a gateway to Redwall.

The worlds of the Flealess and the Wild Ones are well drawn, along with their conflict over Ankle Snap Alley. How Kit manages to manipulate things to his benefit, despite being a naive newcomer to this world, will engage readers as much as the different animals we meet (the headlines blurted out by the finches are so funny and the evil of the Rabid Rascals is perfect).

Will this be a series? I do hope so.

ARC provided by publisher.

These Shallow Graves; Jennifer Donnelly

These Shallow GravesThese Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This will probably be a great success when it's published because the plot moves along so quickly and Josephine is so well drawn that the fact this is a mystery may elude readers (for some reason, mysteries aren't appealing to younger readers). Josephine's idol, if one can use that word, is Nellie Bly, the journalist, and her determination to investigate the death of her father and its suspicious nature mean that she's going to go against her breeding and type to do just that. I'm rounding up from a three because of that. There was a bit too much, however, of her fighting against expectations (could the use of a corset be any more apt?!) and too little of what those expectations were. My other quibble was that this all starts at her all-girl's boarding school in Farmington (gee, wonder what that's based on!) and yet after one chapter, there's virtually no mention of her education or going back.

ARC provided by publisher.

The Men Who United the States; Simon Winchester

The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, IndivisibleThe Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible by Simon Winchester
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that you can start and stop easily, which is what I did. Winchester divides things into sections: wood, earth, water, fire and metal. Those essential elements are then explored in some detail, for example, how the rivers and their exploration led to the completion of our Manifest Destiny, or how ore finds spread the population. Where the conceit falls down, however, is when Winchester inserts himself into the proceedings for seemingly no reason. Example? He's visited every town named Paradise in the US, which could have led to an interesting discussion about how they'd changed since his 1984 visit and how "progress" has made things better or worse. Instead we only get part of a visit to a couple he'd met in 1984.

The Blood Guard; Carter Roy

The Blood Guard (The Blood Guard, #1)The Blood Guard by Carter Roy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A new middle grade series, one that has seemingly normal people in it yet, underneath it, they're part of a great conspiracy to either protect or rid the world of the 36 Pure Ones (with a slight explanation of the Talmudic concept). Sounds great, right? And in parts, the execution is perfect, with people who don't die, amazing tricks with swords, a wild RV ride and more. That's on the good side. The bad side is that for me (not the target reader!) more about the mythology and history would have been nice. How were the Blood Guard formed? Who organizes them, etc.? And the same with the Bend Sinister. Maybe in book two?

Copy provided by publisher.

Dictionary Days; Ilan Stavans

Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion by Ilan Stavans
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love me some word books, be they about grammar or etymology or the creation of dictionaries and encyclopedias and the like. This looked to be a cross between one of those and Manguel's A History of Reading, but somehow was less than and slighter than anticipated. Rather than get a real sense of Stavans' passion we got a glance at it, a few word definitions seen through the eyes of different languages and dictionaries, and a short history of the type. Oh well. Usually I hold to the adage "half as long, twice as nice" but not here. More would have been better.

The Glass Gauntlet; Carter Roy

Glass Gauntlet, TheThe Glass Gauntlet by Carter Roy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Decent second in the series, but very little different than before beyond the conceit of the Glass Gauntlet: the differences between the Blood Guard and the Bend Sinister, the characters and the conflict seem no less evolved or further along than before. Not necessarily something the target audience will notice or care about, hence the three stars.

ARC provided by publisher.

13 June 2015

The Missing and the Dead; Stuart MacBride

The Missing and the DeadThe Missing and the Dead by Stuart MacBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MacBride hasn't reached Stephen Booth's seeming dislike of his major characters level, but at times I wonder. Making McRae Acting Detective Inspector overseeing several small stations outside Aberdeen was brilliant, allowing us (and ADI McRae) to explore other areas and small town/village life. Dragging DI Steele back in? Well, inevitable but she does suck the air out of things. I guess if you haven't read the previous books you don't know how disgusting she is in terms of personal habits, lack of professional boundaries, etc., but for those of us who have, it's a bit like hearing about Nero Wolfe's eighth of an acre of yellow pajamas in each of the 47 books.

Here's hoping for a little less Steele in the next McRae outing. It's good he's getting on with his life and career.

The Girl on the Train; Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Part of me can see the appeal of this, the acclaim it's received. But part of me doesn't quite: clearly the author is borrowing several old tropes (for example, a dash of Christie's 4:05 from Paddington) and not doing anything particularly original with them. I'm also tired of unlikeable narrators and while I grant that Rachel's alcoholism gives her the ability to make stupid decisions, like calling her ex multiple times a day/night, that didn't make her sympathetic.

The Redeemer; Jo Nesbo

The Redeemer (Harry Hole, #6)The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with several series, I'm reading this one out of order and I think this is the earliest Harry Hole I've read yet (despite it being the 6th in the series). I'm not sure that really matters, as his character doesn't quite seem to have evolved much between this and the following books.

As a mystery, it's not bad. For all we hear about Hole being a loose cannon, his detecting is rather ordinary slog work. What made this one more interesting for me was the idea of facial hyperelasticity and how that makes detection more difficult (and think of the implications in daily life!). The flashbacks didn't tie in as well as I might have wanted, but ultimately they do pay off... somewhat.

So, should I start with Book 1? Or keep on with the random approach?

Speak; Louisa Hall

SpeakSpeak by Louisa Hall
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Maybe it was me, or maybe it's because there are too many books out now with multiple narrators, but this felt like a few too many stories being told. Three could easily have been cut, so I started to skip them. Then the good stories started to become predictable so... DNF.

ARC provided by publisher.

Another Day; David Levithan

Another Day (Every Day, #2)Another Day by David Levithan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't alone: Every Day was a great stand alone book. So I started to read Another Day with some trepidation. As the blurb says, this is Levithan's Roshomon book, the story of A and Rhiannon from Rhiannon's point-of-view (it's doubtful, but maybe Justin's story is next? That would be interesting). Now, I'm a fan of the alternative version, so yay!

For obvious reasons, this hews closely to the story already established. We do learn more about why Rhiannon stays with Justin, what it's like from her side to be in love(?) with an entity that isn't constrained by one body (or ethnicity) and what their life together might be like. There were things that I had problems with, like her initial concern over A being the devil (not a spoiler if you read the first book!) and then almost completely ignoring it - wouldn't she have checked up on this more? worried a little more about whether "they" were catching up with A and whatever A is? I think so.

As the letter in my ARC stated, this can easily be read by those who don't necessarily remember the first book, those who never read it and those who read it just a few moments earlier. It might be interesting to read it in reverse, too.

ARC provided by publisher.

06 June 2015

Wildalone; Krassi Zourkova

Wildalone (Wildalone Sagas, #1)Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The only reason I finished this was because I loved the passages about music and some of the passages about mythology. But Rhys and Jake? Ugh. If they weren't brothers, I'd say the author was going for a Edward/Jacob/Bella triangle. Oh wait, she is. And Thea, the object of their obsessive love, is ok with that, apparently. She rarely shows agency of her own, even willingly giving up her time practicing the piano to allow these brothers to monopolize her time. But I'm not, so I won't continue with the series.

Watching the Dark; Peter Robinson

Watching the Dark (Inspector Banks, #20)Watching the Dark by Peter Robinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maybe it was the fact that my first exposure to DCI Banks was via the tv show? Or maybe the mystery part was subsumed into a travelogue about Tallinn? Whichever, or for whatever other reason, my first print DCI Banks mystery was sort of a "meh". There were some writing quirks that bothered me, the types of things that are usually relied on by authors from a different place (all the named shops, the too-clear setting so as to prove that the author really has local cred, while really local authors take much of it for granted; the exception being them eating at "Pret", rather than saying "Pret-a-Manger, the upscale prepared sandwich chain") and authors early in a series, when they heavily point back to previous episodes to drum up back catalog business. This doesn't mean it will be my last in this series, just not the first series I'll run to when I need a mystery read.

Bradstreet Gate; Robin Kirman

Bradstreet Gate: A NovelBradstreet Gate: A Novel by Robin Kirman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I should know by now to stay away from books that promise a The Secret History experience, because those books are far too frequently not that experience. Like this one: college setting? check. charismatic professor? semi-check. closed group of acolytes? uh, no. Yes, a student dies, but there's nothing pointing to anyone but the professor and, well, yes some of that is perhaps questionable but it's not a group of acolytes covering anything up. Mainly because there is no group. Instead we have three students, none of whom are likeable and who are clearly unreliably telling their side of the story and their lives over the past 10 years. I finished, but only because this was a quick enough read to not qualify as a DNF.

ARC provided by publisher.

Look Who's Back; Timur Vermes

Look Who's BackLook Who's Back by Timur Vermes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I fully understand the uproar over this book and the dismay of many at its popularity. Here's why I gave it such a high rating: having grown up in a survivor community, one that stressed all the times during the long history of the Jews when they were exiled or nearly wiped out of existence, the mantra of "never again" was repeated over and over. Yet at this remove, how someone like a Hitler could rise and start his movement again seems unlikely. Hence The Third Wave. And now this book.

Hitler's arguments about the Volk, self-reliance and how to solve many modern problems seem reasonable. Couple that with his charisma and lack of self-doubt... I never met Bill Clinton, but I've heard his charisma is extraordinary. Imagine if he felt as Hitler did.

So the high rating is less pro-Hitler and more pro-we need to watch out of those who spout these types of solutions, because it could happen again. Oh wait: it has. Rwanda. Bosnia. Sunni/Shia. Hmmm....

Members Only; Julie Tibbott

Members Only: Secret Societies, Sects, and Cults Exposed!Members Only: Secret Societies, Sects, and Cults Exposed! by Julie Tibbott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This really deserved a 2 or 2.5, but I can see teens enjoying it so I decided to be generous.

Here's the problem: the book skims the surface (for obvious reasons) but could have gone deeper into the "here's why people are fascinated" side of things. And then there's the "exposed!" part, which really doesn't apply to groups like the People's Temple or the Symbionese Liberation Army, to name two of the examples. There were many still secret societies left out (the Odd Fellows, for example) that could have taken the place of the ones she mentions. It felt as though several were added simply for quirk value, not for their culture of secrecy.

The Absent One; Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Absent One (Department Q, #2)The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read the first Department Q book a short while earlier, it's fun filling in the spaces between then and the later books read longer ago. I'm not sure I completely followed all the action, but the developing relationships between Moerk, Assad and now Rose make much more sense now. As for the mystery itself, there's clearly something with Kimmie that never got identified and/or treated. Her life on the streets was fascinating, showing how some of the people we see are able to function at a relatively high level despite appearances. That she was willing to wait and play the long game was as interesting as her methods of revenge.

Can't wait to read Book 3.

I Am Her Revenge; Meredith Moore

I Am Her RevengeI Am Her Revenge by Meredith Moore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In many ways, this is an update of Great Expectations as told by Estella, which is why I'm rounding up from 2.5. If it weren't for that... the school was not realistic, the writing a bit overwrought and the plot unbelievable. Too many coincidences, and Mother's anger and desire for revenge too contrived.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly; Stephanie Oakes

The Sacred Lies of Minnow BlyThe Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can someone raised in a cult truly rebel? Minnow, who remembers some of the five years before her family joined, can and does... repeatedly. Why the Prophet indulges some of her questions and antics and punishes others only becomes clear later. Later, Minnow's scars and damage are both physical and mental/emotional, which made me seriously question why the book chooses to put her not only in juvie but to deny her prosthetics. The lack of real psychiatric care was also puzzling. The unravelling of Minnow's life and what exactly happened before she committed her crime takes place at a good pace, with information doled out in such a way as to allow readers to process it before moving on.

ARC provided by publisher.