Friday, July 01, 2016

2016 book 116

Darcie Wilde's A Useful Woman
Hooray for a historical mystery set in Regency England! All my Jane Austen and romance reading prepared me to like this quite a bit, and the story mostly lived up to my high expectations. It centers on a woman whose father ran off after some major financial problems, and now she survives by helping gentlewomen with party planning and other useful things. But! An acquaintance is found dead at Almack's! And his sister asks her to investigate! And his sister is engaged to the man SHE hoped to marry! Also there is a Bow Street Runner on the case! The solution was pretty predictable and I wasn't super interested in the love triangle being set up for future books, but I found the main character to be interesting and liked seeing all the relationships between the women, as well as their class tension. I would definitely read another one in this series. B/B+.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

2016 book 115

Bob Proehl's A Hundred Thousand Words
Proehl's debut novel was right up my alley--and will probably be right up the alley of any comic book or sci-fi nerd. It centers on a woman who once starred on an X-Files/Fringe-ish tv show, and married and had a child with her co-star--but after things went badly, she took the little boy and headed to New York. Now she's on her way back to Los Angeles for the first time in years, stopping to make appearances at comic book conventions along the way. We also get the POV of her son, a budding storyteller, along with the only woman comic book writer at a DC-ish comic book company (or maybe it was the Marvel counterpart--I got a little confused with the fictionalizations of all the real life stuff), and a young male comic book artist working on a smaller press book. I actually thought this was a really woman-friendly book--I worried about how the issues surrounding women and comics would fare with a male author, but he did a pretty good job (I especially appreciated his takedown of the Alan Moore analogue). The writing here is strong--I like stories about stories--and I found it all satisfying--I loved how all the threads came together. I /did/ wish for just a little bit more from the ending, but I can see why Proehl wrapped it up the way he did. Really, I had no major complaints--this managed to be both fun and moving. A-.

2016 book 115

Bob Proehl's A Hundred Thousand Words
Proehl's debut novel was right up my alley--and will probably be right up the alley of any comic book or sci-fi nerd. It centers on a woman who once starred on an X-Files/Fringe-ish tv show, and married and had a child with her co-star--but after things went badly, she took the little boy and headed to New York. Now she's on her way back to Los Angeles for the first time in years, stopping to make appearances at comic book conventions along the way. We also get the POV of her son, a budding storyteller, along with the only woman comic book writer at a DC-ish comic book company (or maybe it was the Marvel counterpart--I got a little confused with the fictionalizations of all the real life stuff), and a young male comic book artist working on a smaller press book. I actually thought this was a really woman-friendly book--I worried about how the issues surrounding women and comics would fare with a male author, but he did a pretty good job (I especially appreciated his takedown of the Alan Moore analogue). The writing here is strong--I like stories about stories--and I found it all satisfying--I loved how all the threads came together. I /did/ wish for just a little bit more from the ending, but I can see why Proehl wrapped it up the way he did. Really, I had no major complaints--this managed to be both fun and moving. A-.

Monday, June 27, 2016

2016 book 114

Dorothy Gilman's A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax
The fourth Mrs. Pollifax book finds our intrepid New Jersey grandmother/spy jaunting off to a hotel/rest home in Switzerland on the trail of some stolen plutonium. And of course she befriends the usual assortment of eccentrics while trying to figure out who the villain of the piece is. This one definitely veers into Orientalism/overtly offensive stereotypes of Muslims, which was a definite bummer and downgrades it to a B+.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

2016 book 113

Maggie O'Farrell's This Must Be The Place
O'Farrell's latest (after Instructions for a Heatwave, The Vanishing Ace of Esme Lennox, and The Hand That First Held Mine, among others) is more of what she does so well: complicated families with complicated histories, just trying to figure it all out and make it through. The main figure here is American Daniel, an academic, center of a web of wives, exes, children, and others--all of whom get to have their say. Daniel is actually the weak spot here--I was never really invested in him as a character and didn't really care about his issues, whereas his mourning, eczema-suffering son, intriguing wife (a famous actress who ran away from her life and now lives isolated in Ireland), and charming stepson were all much more compelling to me. But I was definitely caught up in these interwoven figures and, as always, enjoyed O'Farrell's writing. I definitely recommend this as a summer read for those who want something a little meatier but still satisfying. A-.

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

Saturday, June 25, 2016

2016 book 112

Robin Stevens' Jolly Foul Play
I LOVE Stevens' Wells and Wong series, and this fourth one was just as delightful as the other three. The girls are back at their boarding school (the series is set in England in the 1930s), now under the reign of a terror of a Head Girl--when said Head Girl is MURDERED, by one of her prefects! Of course Daisy and Hazel are on the case, with the assistance of their dorm-mates and a certain pen pal. I love the focus here on female friendships and find these characters super likable and interesting. Plus really solid mystery plotting! I wish Stevens would write four more of these immediately. A/A-.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

2016 book 111

Sarah-Jane Stratford's Radio Girls
This book is primarily the story of a young Canadian woman in London who gets a job as a secretary at the BBC in its infancy in the late 1920s, with all sorts of great female camaraderie and mentorship, great period details, etc. I did wish that a somewhat underbaked political/corporate espionage plot didn't appear partway through--I was much more interested in a woman working a professional job, learning the ropes, helping to plan radio programs, and so on, and just when all of that was getting really interesting, a sort of mystery element would take over. It just wasn't necessary! The characters and settings and office politics and secretly gay people and proto-feminism (women in England get the vote during the course of the story) are perfectly interesting without villainous fascists interfering. I was psyched to read the author's note at the end that several of the characters were actual historical figures, and that Hilda Matheson really was that awesome. Fun stuff! A-/B+.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

2016 book 110

Dorothy Gilman's The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax
I think the third Mrs Pollifax book is my favorite so far--the plot works a little better than the others (though they are all fine, I never felt like Mrs Pollifax was doing anything dumb here), there's no period-appropriate racism, there are a bunch of fun new characters, etc. Plus, let me just describe the premise to you: Mrs Pollifax is being sent to Bulgaria (remember, it's 1971 and there's the Cold War), smuggling eight passports IN HER HAT! And of course she randomly befriends a bunch of young hippies and all sorts of mishegas ensues and she GETS THINGS DONE. I LOVE that there is a series about a grandma spy, please someone make this into a Netflix series. It would be a period piece! A lighter version of The Americans! Surely other people would watch that. A/A-.

Monday, June 20, 2016

2016 book 109

Loretta Chase's Silk is for Seduction
My friend Erin read this recently, and based on her review, it should have been right up my alley--it centers on the oldest of three sisters from a good family who are now super classy dressmakers trying to get more noblewomen to come to their shop, so she's determined to get some Duke's attention so his future wife will shop there (which in my opinion is a very silly plan). I think I wanted this to have a little more plot and a little less lusty thoughts--they are just ogling each other from the moment they meet, so there isn't any buildup, and most of the story is about them having makeouts and falling for each other. I loved the three sisters and their relationship, though, and also really liked the girl the Duke is expected to marry (I didn't really like the Duke, who is the sort of domineering type that's meant to be romantic, and in fact kind of wished the two ladies would run off together). The writing was also a little more overwrought than I usually like. I mean, it's a super cute story, I just wanted a little bit more. B.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

2016 book 108

Virginia Zimmerman's The Rosemary Spell
First of all, I really think the publishers did this book a disservice with this cover--it looks like a cliched YA book about witches, when actually it's a sweet middle grade book about book nerds, growing up, family, Shakespeare, and a little bit of magic. (It also namedrops Rebecca Stead and Edward Eager, two of my favorite authors, so I know the author here is a kindred spirit.) It centers on thirteen-year-old Rosemary, her best friend Adam, and Adam's older sister--they've always been a trio of kids reading and talking about reading, but now Shelby is sixteen and doing teenage things and Rosemary feels left behind. Which is of course when she discovers an old book with what seems to be some magical properties, and things quickly go awry. Not in a wacky Edward Eager way, either. I felt like this book pulled some of its punches but that was sort of a relief, I guess? I really liked the writing here--it felt very natural--and enjoyed the characters a lot--it came really close to being GREAT. I will definitely read whatever Zimmermann does next. B+.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

2016 book 107

Tamora Pierce's Wild Magic
After seeing adult Daine--who has magical powers with animals--in action in the Protector of the Small series, I was excited to check out this earlier series by Pierce and get her whole story. I didn't really feel this though. I didn't love the way Pierce wrote her (particularly her dialogue, which had some really inconsistent dialect going on), and also just had mixed feelings about her as a character (whereas usually I am rooting for Pierce's heroines in a major way). She is just kind of blah, despite her cool animal powers! It was all just a little too overly written for my taste. I also admit that knowing adult Daine ends up with the guy who is her much older teacher here squicked me out a little. Like, how is that going to go down? I'm not sure I'm going to read the sequels--are they better? B/B-.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

2016 book 106

Dorothy Gilman's The Amazing Mrs Pollifax
The second book in Gilman's Mrs Pollifax series is even awesomer than the first one. I can't believe an author in the 1960s wrote a whole series about a New Jersey grandma GETTING S--T DONE!!! In this one, Mrs. Pollifax's CIA contact rushes her off to Istanbul to try and meet with a defecting spy--who is also a middle-aged lady! (There are so many awesome older ladies in this book, it just made me super happy.) This one also has surprisingly little 1960s racism (though the depiction of the Roma is slightly romanticized). I mean, Mrs Pollifax is a TERRIBLE spy, but she is so funny and resourceful that she makes it work. I love it! A/A-.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

2016 book 105

Alison Umminger's American Girls
I feel sort of bad for Alison Umminger, because who could have known her book that heavily references the Manson Girls would be released as Emma Cline's book of the summer, which is also about the Manson Girls? Of course, Umminger's book isn't /really/ about them--it's about a teenage girl, fleeing family problems and other issues, who runs away to her older sister, a young, struggling actress in LA. And of course she ends up hanging out on various sets and meeting celebrities--but she's also hired to research the Manson Girls for her sister's ex-boyfriend. Umminger is straight up telling a story about the American Dream, and family, and how even being a "regular" girl is hard, and so on. It's definitely engaging, if not entirely believable. But I hope it will be a hit with the teens. A-/B+.

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

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

2016 book 104

Dorothy Gilman's The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
Another charming old book as a Kindle Daily Deal! This is the start of a series that I have to think is at least a little bit hilarious--in this one, the protagonist, the titular Mrs. Pollifax, a widow in her 60s, decides she's bored of being a respectable member of the Garden Club and jaunts off to DC to ask to become a spy. AND THEY'RE ALL, SURE! We totally need someone to go be a tourist in Mexico and pick up a package! Off ya go! Things quickly go awry, but Mrs. Pollifax is pretty effing great--I mean, you never see a character like this. I want to see like Helen Mirren play her (except that Mrs. Pollifax is from New Jersey). This was written in the 60s and the CIA here is very concerned about "Red China," so there is a little bit of racism, to forewarn you all. I definitely am going to read more of these. Heh. A-.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

2016 book 103

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing
This seems to be one of the big summer buzz books--and with good reason, because it's excellent. It's the story of a family, from the 1700s to the present, each chapter recounting a new generation--and it's also a pretty solid history of the slave trade, as the family originates in what is now Ghana. Although Gyasi does not shy away from the brutality of the slave trade, she doesn't dwell on it either, and I didn't find this to be an upsetting read--instead, a compelling and ultimately hopeful one. Really strong writing, excellent atmosphere, great characterization. Because of the structure, we never get to know the characters in great depth, but their stories drift down through their descendants to good effect. A/A-.

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

Monday, June 06, 2016

2016 book 102

D.E. Stevenson's Celia's House
Like the previous Stevenson book I read, this was recently a Kindle Daily Deal--but I one hundred percent would have paid full price for it. At first I was like, this is just one of those delightful old British books about nice, friendly upper class people, and good things happen to good people, and it's all just satisfying. Which is TRUE, but then at the end I saw where Stevenson was going and just straight up burst into tears of happiness and RIGHTNESS. SO charming. I just loved this. A.