Thursday, May 21, 2015

2015 book 128

T. Kingfisher's Bryony and Roses
NC author Ursula Vernon is back with another one of her entertaining takes on fairy tales--this time, she's taking on Beauty and the Beast, with a couple of interesting twists. Apparently this owes a lot to Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter, which I've actually never read; although I did read her Beauty countless times in my youth (and more recently), I was unaware of Rose Daughter's existence until a couple years ago. Maybe I should read that next to compare? I will say that it's pretty much in the same vein as Beauty, as well. NOT that I'm complaining. Ursula Vernon is a lot funnier than Robin McKinley. B+.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

2015 book 127

Eva Ibbotson's A Song for Summer
I liked that other Ibbotson sort-of-YA sort-of-romance book I read, so thought I'd give this one a shot. And it's also pretty great! It focuses on Ellen, a young woman raised by her suffragette/career women mother and aunts, who are mildly disappointed that she's much more interested in domestic stuff (she is very clever though). So she goes off to be the matron of a British boarding school in Austria, which would be totally idyllic--except . . . it's 1937. Her love interest also works at the school, though helps rescue/transport Jews and other political refugees as a sideline (he also has a past he is hiding!). This isn't really a romance, though romance does occur--it's much more her story, and the story of the school, and the students there, and it doesn't go at all how I expected. There is also a lot about the process of creating art. Anyway, Ellen is AWESOME, I am delighted to have discovered a new plucky girl, and so much of this is hilarious and adorable and even heartbreaking. GREAT. A/A-.

Monday, May 18, 2015

2015 book 126

Camille Griep's Letters to Zell
I'm prone to liking books that rework fairy tales, and this one isn't the usual YA fare--instead, it focuses on adult princesses trying to deal when their happy-ever-afters aren't actually that happy. The whole thing is told in letters to Rapunzel, who has left their fairy tale town to run a unicorn preserve, from Cinderella (who longs to be a chef), Snow White (who's being forced to marry a guy who's just a friend), and Sleeping Beauty (her marriage is . . . not great). Now, the letters thing doesn't always work--a lot of them read like, well, book chapters, and not actual letters to a person (they tend to pick up where the last person left off, which means the story moves along, but it's not really authentic). Still, there are some genuinely moving moments, and the characters are great--I am THERE for a foul-mouthed, bisexual Snow White who is perpetually flipping everyone off. This is better than it has any right to be. B+.

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A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in July.

2015 book 125

Eva Ibbotson's The Secret Countess
I've read a couple of Ibbotson's kid's books, though none of her YA/adult books--but someone mentioned this on Twitter the other day and it seemed cute! And it was super cute, fluffy, funny, and silly. It takes place in England just after WWI, and centers on a young Russian countess whose family fled the Russian Revolution with basically nothing, and she's determined to earn a living and goes to work as a maid in a house with a handsome young Earl. Of course it's more than a little predictable, but that doesn't lessen its charm. Props to some cool, if stereotypical, Jewish characters too. A-/B+.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

2015 book 124

Maggie Mitchell's Pretty Is
I'm so disappointed with this one--the premise was really interesting, and it started off so strong, and then it just ENDED. Like I expected a few more chapters wrapping things up, answering some questions (but not all of them), and it just stopped so abruptly. Anyway, it's the story of two women who, when they were twelve, were kidnapped and held for six weeks before being rescued. Now one is a college professor, who, under a nom de plume, has written a slightly fictionalized novel about her experience, and the other is an actress, who's been hired to act in the movie version of said novel. The book takes way too long to bring them together, though their meditations on their lives and that summer are really well done. And meanwhile, one of the professor's students is acting suuuuuper creepy, adding a thriller element to something that seems like it wants to be a literary novel (I'm honestly not sure which genre this is supposed to belong to, if any), and she's amazingly stupid about the whole thing. Mitchell does a great job building the two main characters and building tension, but I really needed a lot more from the ending. B.

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A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in July.

Friday, May 15, 2015

2015 book 123

Sarah Crossan's Apple and Rain
OK, so, this is the story of an eighth-grade girl in England whose young mother abandoned her when she was three, running off to be an actress in America, and the girl hasn't seen her mother since (she's been living with her grandmother). Now her mother is back, claiming to want to be a part of her life, but she's not exactly being honest about everything (like, say, the existence of troubled younger siblings). The story beats here are kind of obvious, and a lot of it is a little cheesy, plus there's a whole through-line about poetry that's a little on the nose, but in general this was readable enough. I guess I like books where girls kind of figure themselves out and get it together. B.

2015 book 122

Willa Cather's My Antonia
I asked for recommendations for books involving plucky girls recently, and a friend suggested this one. It's easily been twenty years since I last read it, so figured I'd see how it holds up--which, of course, it totally does, and Antonia does turn out to be pretty plucky as these things go. It's the story of a boy growing up on his grandparents' farm, totally enamored of the (older) girl next door (well, next farm over), part of a family of new Bohemian immigrants (Bohemia is currently part of the Czech Republic). Cather has some really evocative descriptions of farm life and the Nebraska scenery. I'd compare the works of modern writers like Jane Smiley or Kent Haruf to this--they also both have a sort of no-frills but tender look at farming and farming families. Good stuff.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

2015 book 121

Lyndsay Faye's The Fatal Flame
The final book in Faye's series on Timothy Wilde--a young policeman in the early days of the New York Police, in the era of crazy political corruption, etc--centers on a local alderman who is being threatened with arson--by a LADY! An activist! Who wears PANTS! Obviously things are more complicated than that, especially once Timothy's brother gets involved. I really like these characters and this world, which is great, because they're a lot more compelling than the mystery here (maybe that's the point). I did have some unanswered questions (particularly about Mercy), but on the whole found this to be immensely readable. A-/B+.

Monday, May 11, 2015

2015 book 120

Jessica Day George's Silver in the Blood
I really think Jessica Day George is one of my favorite MG/YA authors--I am consistently entertained and satisfied with her books, and this latest one is awesomeeeeeeee. It's set in 1897, as a pair of young girl cousins are traveling to Romania for the first time to meet their mothers' families--and to find out a TERRIBLE SECRET (actually an awesome secret). Werewolves and Dracula descendents are involved. The story is told alternately in letters, diary entries, and just straight up 3rd-person narration, which is a little odd, but helps with the atmosphere. Anyway, things move at a good pace, both girls are likable, there are various love interests, lots of action, etc. My only complaint is that there wasn't MORE. (This is a stand-alone, but according to the author's blog, she could revisit these characters down the line, and I hope she does.) A/A-.

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A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in July.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

2015 book 119

Bridget Foley's Hugo and Rose
Ever since she was a little girl, Rose has dreamed every night of having adventures on a magical island with a boy named Hugo. Now a stay-at-home mom of three with a busy doctor husband, she's happy with her life, though feels a vague sense of dissatisfaction. And then she thinks she sees a grown-up Hugo in real life, and everything changes. This was immensely readable, if occasionally melodramatic and with an ending I found to be kind of a let-down. It was certainly an interesting book to read on mother's day, since so much of it focuses on motherhood. I dunno, it was fine, but it wasn't quite the story I hoped it would be. B/B+.

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A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book is available now.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

2015 book 118

Stephanie Kallos' Language Arts
Kallos' latest (after Sing Them Home and Broken For You) centers on a middle-aged man, Charles Marlow, a high school teacher, whose daughter is just off to college, whose ex-wife is engaged to another man, and whose autistic son is about to age out of his care facility. Meanwhile, things keep flashing back to Charles' childhood, where he learned the Palmer method of writing cursive and where something bad happened to a mentally disabled classmate. There is also a whole thing with a nun with dementia who's in his son's home. As always, Kallos' writing and characters completely drew me in, even though a reveal toward the end really annoyed me--it was just unnecessary in every way and felt like a major cop-out. And the thing is, I really loved how this ended, otherwise!  Well, it'll be a good talking point for book clubs. B+.


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A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in June.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

2015 book 117

Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice
I was in the mood to read something with a plucky girl in it, and I ask you: who is pluckier than  Jean Paget? I have read this so many times that I started bawling as soon as she said "I want to dig a well." JEANNNNNNNN. Jean. No one gets things done like Jean. She freaking BUILDS A CITY.  If you have never read it, here's the skinny: Jean is a young English woman working in Malaysia when WWII breaks out; along with a bunch of other women and children, she is marched all around the country by Japanese soldiers (b/c there are no prison camps for women and no one knows what to do with them) and it's awful, but Jean makes it work. (This is not historically accurate--although Shute thought such a march had happened, it does not seem to have actually occurred.) Anyway, the whole thing is narrated by an elderly lawyer who's in charge of a sudden inheritance she receives--and who's kiiiiiind of secretly in love with her. And then there is Joe Harman, who merits about a thousand heart-eye emojis. Jean deserves ten thousand though. And we'll throw in a couple for Shute, who has a talent for ending chapters on a cliffhanger and for making me cry.

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The usual warnings for racist/orientalist/colonialist language b/c the book was written in the 1950s by a white British man (though it is really not as bad as it could have been).

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

2015 book 116

Eloisa James' When the Duke Returns
I'm sort of reading the Desperate Duchesses series at random based on library availability (they seem to only be loosely related anyway). This one has an unusual premise--the woman involved was married at age 12, by proxy, to a man she's never met (he's been abroad in Africa and India), and now she's 23 and he's finally returned, and she's longing to be a real wife and have some kids--only he insists on having an elaborate wedding first and won't consummate their already existing legal marriage. So she's determined to seduce him, and he's picked up some vague Eastern spirituality that makes him unwilling (self-control over baser instincts and whatnot), plus he claims to want a demure little wife with himself in charge. He's super attracted to her, though, and with a charming and meddlesome butler on the scene, their marriage is bound to be real before long. (The butler is named "Honeydew," so of course I just kept picturing the Muppet.) There's also a whole subplot about a super smart friend of hers and her husband and another man and a chess match that will apparently be addressed in another book in the series, though I don't know why, as it has a lot of real estate here--because there isn't much plot in the main story, presumably. Most of the plot involves the husband being sexist and the wife getting stuff done in between arguments. It's tiresome after a while. This one was not my favorite, even if it does end nicely. B.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

2015 book 115

Barbara Trapido's Brother of the More Famous Jack
Normally, I find the trope of middle-class-person-gets-involved-with-and-enraptured-by-a-family-of-eccentric-upper-class-people to be an annoying one, but it's totally charming in Trapido's 1982 debut (recently reissued with an introduction by Maria Semple, and $1.99 for the Kindle today). Or maybe it just feels fresh because it's a young middle-class girl falling in with said eccentric family (the family of her college professor, or whatever the British equivalent is) and falling in love with their son. Plus, she's not some namby-pampy kind of character--she may be naive, but she's smart and fashionable (she knits cool stuff!). It's definitely funny and occasionally heartbreaking, and I loved every minute I spent reading it. A.

**
I discovered when I went to post this review on Goodreads that I read it back in 2009, which I had absolutely no memory of!

Monday, May 04, 2015

2015 book 114

Jen Brooks' In A World Just Right
I love books about alternate worlds, and Brooks has a really interesting spin on the concept here. After surviving a tragic accident as a child, Jonathan discovers he has the ability to create alternate worlds, and now that he's a teenager, he spends most of his time in a world where his dream girl, Kylie, is his girlfriend (but everything else is more or less the same). But one day he gets the worlds confused and approaches Kylie in the real world, and suddenly she is paying a lot of attention to him. And then things start to get even weirder. It's great. I definitely wished less of the story focused on the romance when there was a whole big mystery thing I wanted answered, but it makes sense in context. I mean, things are a little bit predictable, but the end packed a wallop for sure (minus the very very end but whatever, it's YA). B+.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

2015 book 113

Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation
This book has two parallel stories going on, one of which is much stronger/more interesting than the other (at least to me). In the current time, Simon, a librarian at a failing library, who lives in a house that's about to crumble into the ocean, received a MYSTERIOUS book from a MYSTERIOUS bookseller (this guy is much more of a literary device than a character) that seems to be related to Simon's family history. See, he comes from a family of circus people--his female antecedents have all been mermaid acts--and each one has drowned on July 24th. Now his sister is coming home for the first time in years, and he's worried she'll be next. The other half of the story involves a traveling circus in the late 1700s (they're the story in the book he's received) and they are totally fascinating. Magic/magical realism is hinted at in Simon's story, but is much more overt in the other half. The problem is that Simon is a total sad-sack and doesn't deserve the good things that happen to him. The other problem is that I think this is supposed to be like a literary mystery, but Swyler doesn't do much to build any tension, and most of it is pretty predictable. I actually wish this had just been a book about a traveling circus in the late 1700s! Those characters were so much more compelling and way less overwrought. B.

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A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in June.

Friday, May 01, 2015

2015 book 112

Melina Marchetta's The Piper's Son
The follow-up to Saving Francesca is another beloved favorite of mine, focusing on a secondary character from the first book dealing with several levels of family tragedy and heartbreak. One of the things I like about these books is friends saving each other, and themselves. Just such great, great characters and such a realistic world.

2015 book 111

Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca
After trying, and failing, to plow my way through a book I didn't find enjoyable, I needed a palate cleanser for my brain and had to reread a book I love. And I love this one every time--the story of a girl, part of the first class of girls at what was previously an all-boy school, trying to figure out who she is and almost unwillingly making friends, but most of all, dealing with her mother's depression and her family starting to fall apart. Marchetta gets me every time with this one.