Saturday, July 30, 2011

2011 book 194

Dana Reinhardt's The Summer I Learned to Fly
The life of a thirteen-year-old girl changes one summer when her widowed mother opens a cheese shop and when she meets a new boy with the help of her pet rat. Reinhardt has written a few other solid YA books and this was no exception--the cast of characters was really likable, especially a Vespa-riding surfer who works in the shop and an Irish busker. A-.

2011 book 193

Shirley Jackon's We Have Always Lived in the Castle
This is one of those classic books that somehow I'd never read, and of course there's a reason it's a classic. Maybe a few too many shades of "The Lottery" but excellent atmosphere and characters.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011 book 192

Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus
When a book gets as much buzz as this one has for months before it comes out (and it doesn't even come out till September), I'm always a little leery--how can it possibly live up to the hype? Well, it turns out people are buzzing so much about it because it's just THAT GOOD. Seriously. It's the story of a mysterious night-time circus full of wonders--but really it's the story of two rival magicians (actual magic, not just stage magicians) who each train a student to defeat the other's in a mysterious contest--and how the circus ties into that. And there's romance, and beauty, and a hint of creepiness. Also, there are lots of kittens.

Morgenstern's writing is nearly impeccable and completely draws you in--I started this during dinner and planned to finish it tomorrow, but couldn't wait that long to see what would happen. Morgenstern didn't disappoint. A+.

An e-galley was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2011 book 191

Hillary Jordan's When She Woke
So this book is basically The Scarlet Letter meets The Handmaid's Tale. Hannah lives in a near-future dystopia where, after having an abortion, she's arrested and dyed red (criminals are dyed different colors; red = murder). Then some other stuff happens to her--she makes a friend, she falls in with a mysterious group, she's ostracized from society, and through it all, she's still in love with the man who knocked her up. Jordan is occasionally heavy-handed with her world-building (I completely agree with what clearly are her political views, but this book isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't) but the story is engrossing and moves quickly (I read it all in one sitting) and Hannah's struggles with religion make her even more sympathetic. A-.

A galley was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

2011 book 190

Amor Towles' Rules of Civility
I'm just going to flat-out say it: this is going to be on my best of the year list. Doesn't matter about all the awesome books by great writers coming out this fall. This is tops.

I read a review that summarized it as "Mad Men in the 1930s" and that's accurate enough; our protagonist, Katey, is a young secretary with a madcap best friend whose world changes thanks to a chance encounter on New Year's Eve 1938. Towles nails a variety of New York cultures and populates the city with a myriad of believable and likable characters. And the writing is impeccable and beautiful. Great, great story--completely absorbing. A+.

Monday, July 25, 2011

2011 book 189

Randy Russell's Dead Rules
A teenage girl dies and ends up in Dead School, a sort of weird purgatory boarding school afterlife. With the requisite cute bad boy ghost, of course. But she's still madly in love with her boyfriend and wants to figure out how they can be together forever. Russell doles out information to the reader so that s/he's all antsy waiting for the protagonist to figure everything out, but in a good way. A-.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

2011 book 188

Sara Zarr's Sweethearts
Another solid-but-kind-of-a-downer from Zarr, this one centers on a former outcast who's reshaped her life--and how things change when her childhood sweetheart--who she thought was dead--comes back into her life. A-.

2011 book 187

Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl
Zarr is one of those YA authors people always rave about, so I figured I'd give her a shot. And this is a really solid story, about a girl who got involved with an older guy when she was only 13, and has spent her teenage years trying to live her bad reputation down--and trying to deal with her dysfunctional family. It's kind of a downer but a really good read. A-.

2011 book 186

Rosie Alison's The Very Thought of You
A novel involving the lives of various British ppl during WWII--a child evacuated to a fancy old Yorkshire manor-turned-school; her mother, relishing freedom; the unhappily married couple who own the estate; and friends of the couple who work at the embassy in Warsaw (by far the most interesting characters--and it turns out they're real). Anyway, it starts off strong but bogs down badly in the second half, when it just turns depressing. B.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

2011 book 185

William Goldman's The Princess Bride
This was one of my favorite books when I was a kid, so I was psyched to look it up on Amazon and see that the Kindle version was 5 bucks. Unfortunately, the Kindle version is the 30th anniversary edition, whcih features TWO nearly impenetrable forewords discussing the very realistic but fictional Florin, the also fictional Goldman family, and all sorts of Hollywood namedropping. The only redeeming parts are the bits involving Andre the Giant (and at least some of those are fictional too). Then, at the end, is another impenetrable afterword featuring more of the same (plus Stephen King) as well as the first chapter of the fictional and/or unfinished sequel (which is terrible). So the first 8 percent and last 15 percent of this version aren't worth reading (believe me, I really tried). Too bad, because the original novel is a clever masterpiece.

Monday, July 18, 2011

2011 book 184

Cristina Garcia's Dreams of Significant Girls
Three girls--an Iranian math genius, a rebellious German-Canadian girl, and a Jewish Cuban girl who loves books and desserts--spend three summers together at a ritzy Swiss boarding school. This book is pretty likable, though a twist at the end involving two of the girls' fathers pissed me off, and I found the epilogue to be mostly unsatisfactory. B.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

2011 book 183

Jenny Wingfield's The Homecoming of Samuel Lake
I can't figure out why this book isn't being super buzzed about, b/c it is damn excellent. Maybe Once Upon a River is cornering the market on grim near-historical tales? (Though this is not nearly as grim for most of the time.) Anyway, this is the story of what happens in 1950s Arkansas when a preacher isn't assigned a church, and his family goes to live with his mother-in-law and all her complicated relatives (great characters, all), and what happens when his daughter Swan (yes, one of our main characters is named Swan Lake) befriends a troubled neighbor boy. Now, this book wasn't perfect--the villain was perhaps over the top (he abuses his family, horses, and kills kittens for fun) but was absolutely terrifying nonetheless (Wingfield really captures his family's fear). And parts of it are just dreadful to read--I cried several times, though to be fair, one of those times I cried from happiness. Any book that makes me cry from happiness gets an automatic A.

2011 book 182

Meg Cabot's Overbite
The sequel to Insatiable is perfect pool reading. It's got even more vampire and vampire hunting action! B.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

2011 book 181

Meg Cabot's Insatiable
I enjoyed those other books by Cabot that I read recently, so figured I'd check out her non-YA vampire series, whcih focuses on a woman who writes for a soap opera called Insatiable. She's not just a writer, though, she's got a psychic power that lets her see how people will die. Then of course she meets a vampire, who's not just any vampire, but the PRINCE OF VAMPIRES!! And even though the character constantly rails against the whole vampire trend and its lame heroines, she does fall into some of the tropes herself--like Cabot has them fall in love instantly--but she's at least more interesting than most chicks from paranormal romances, with a great dog, an entertaining best friend, and an unemployed but likable brother. There's also an interesting vampire hunter character with his own job-related drama and some very funny writing, so I do think it's worth a read. B+.

Friday, July 15, 2011

2011 book 180

Alissa Grosso's Popular
Five girls are in a group called the clique and they're the most popular girls in school. But they all sort of hate each other and some are actively plotting against their queen bee. And then like 2/3rds of the way in, it turns into a completely different book, which I had some mixed feelings about. B.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

2011 book 179

Michael Northrup's Trapped
I frequently have the discussion about current YA books vs. the YA books we had growing up in the '80s and '90s, and how today's tend to be meatier/deeper. This book is a good example of that--one of my favorite books when I was a kid was No Time for Rabbits, about a few kids and a teacher trapped in a school during a blizzard. And Trapped is the modern version of that, but it's much more harrowing and there really isn't much humor. Which, frankly, is more realistic. Anyway, great story--some of the characters aren't well-developed and the end is a bit abrupt, but it managed to give me the chills on a day with record-breaking heat, so. A-/B+.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

2011 book 178

Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
I don't think I've read this since we covered it in middle school (my childhood copy has marginal notes and doodles in pink pen) and it holds up really well--I guess it's a classic for a reason. The only thing I really remembered was Aunt Sissy, so it was a really nice rediscovery and a great exploration of pre-WWI New York immigrant culture (very interesting discussions of Jews, too).

Monday, July 11, 2011

2011 book 177

Cecilia Galante's The Sweetness of Salt
When her estranged older sister invites an overachieving valedictorian to visit her in Vermont, family secrets emerge and also other cheesy things happen. This book was totally overwritten--no subtlety at all--and very predictable. C.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

2011 book 176

Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice
I haven't read this book in years--not since I started this blog in 2004, anyway--but it's always been one of my favorites (and that didn't change this time around). I've read it several times but only ever remember the first quarter of it well--because really it's a stunning story (in that it leaves you feeling stunned). For those who have never read it, it's the story of one Jean Paget--one of the bravest, cleverest, and funniest women in literature--and her experiences as one of a group of women and children on a forced march by the Japanese during WWII (based on the experiences of a similar group in Sumatra). That's only the first part though--what happens to her afterward, as narrated by her somewhat elderly and very British lawyer, is somehow just as compelling. And surprisingly romantic.

I feel I should mention that this book was written in 1950 and thus contains some fairly racist/colonial terminology. It doesn't make the story any less great, but makes for some slightly uncomfortable moments for the modern reader.

2011 book 175

Helen Grant's The Glass Demon
Grant--author of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden--is back with another tale of possible supernatural shenanigans in small-town Germany. Lin's dad is a professor at Oxford or someplace and he's all obsessed with these lost medieval stained glass windows that are supposedly infested with a demon, so he drags the family to a forest in Germany to research/search for them. Things get melodramatic pretty quickly (the end is completely ridiculous) and Lin is exceptionally moronic at times. I don't know why I even finished this, except to find out what embarrassing thing "Lin" was short for. C.

2011 book 174

Samantha Sotto's Before Ever After
Shelley, a young widow, is astounded when a man comes to her house claiming to be her young dead husband's grandson (with photographic evidence) and that her husband Max is actually alive. As they travel to find him, Shelley tells the story of their courtship--which actually contains the story of her husband's long life. Interesting characters and I especially liked Max as an eccentric tourguide of Europe. But though it had the end it needed to have, it still felt unsatisfying for some reason. B.

An ARC was provided by the publisher.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

2011 book 173

Megan Abbott's The End of Everything
Why are there so many books about young missing girls? I guess American culture is fascinated by them, judging by the media, but it still seems strange. I will say that this book--about a 13-year-old girl whose best friend goes missing, and who is determined to find her--goes some pretty unexpected places. B+.

2011 books 171 and 172

Maryrose Wood's The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 1: The Mysterious Howling and Book 2: The Hidden Gallery
I love love love these books. I wanted to reread the second one, but of course had to start with the first so it would all be in context! Wood's narrative voice on these is hilarious and I love her plucky heroine and her three raised-by-wolves charges. Lots of mysteries are unfolding and I can't wait for the third one and hope some answers are forthcoming.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

2011 book 170

Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns
So you know how sometimes you're reading a book and get so absorbed that you look up and some large amount of time has passed? This is one of those books. It's about a young princess and a lot is going on in her life when we meet her--it's her sixteenth birthday and also her sudden wedding day to the king of a nearby land, and oh yeah, she's the one person in a century gifted with a Godstone, a blue stone on her stomach that indicates ties to God and to a future unknown Service (the theology here is really very complex and interesting). But she's a fearful little thing, inexperienced in the courtly life, much more interested in books (especially holy texts and military history)--and pretty soon it's not just the politics of the royal life that she needs to worry about. Great, great stuff here, and unlike most YA fantasies, romance is a factor but not the main event (so refreshing!). It is the first in a trilogy, but don't worry, it wraps up very satisfactorily. If you like books with magic, and where girls learn to accept themselves and their gifts and to become total badasses, this is the book for you (fans of Kristin Cashore, take note). Totally an A.

An e-galley was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

2011 book 169

Chris Moriarty's The Inquisitor's Apprentice
Wait, wait, wait. A book exists that combines alternate histories, Judaism, and magic? And there's interesting subtext involving class struggles? And it's all wrapped up in an entertaining middle-grade package? YES. Yes, it exists, and this is that book! I scoff in the face of that article from a couple years ago claiming there were no really Jewish fantasy novels.

Anyway. This is the story of Sacha, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants to an alternate New York back in the times of pogroms and factories and horses. But he's not just any Jewish boy--he can see magic. So of course he ends up apprenticed to an Inquisitor, the branch of the police that monitors magic usage. And also of course, his fellow apprentice is the daughter of one of the most prominent and wealthiest New York families. And soon they're embroiled in a case involving a dybbuk, Thomas Edison, and Harry Houdini. And all of it is awesome. I do wish there was a little less lying/secret-keeping (which seems to be a staple of this genre for some reason--seriously, confide in a grownup already), and the illustrations aren't really necessary, but this is a fascinating look at immigrant life in the craziness of old-time New York. With magic. A/A-.

An e-galley was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

2011 book 168

Alice Laplante's Turn of Mind
A surgeon with Alzheimer's is a suspect in the murder of her best friend--but this isn't really a mystery, it's more a portrait of the deteriorating mind. Very well done. A/A-.

Monday, July 04, 2011

2011 book 167

Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River
OK, well, this book is definitely worthy of the critical acclaim it's been getting, but the first 2/3rds are not at all an easy read. It's grim stuff--very Winter's Bone, but with more rape. And I don't entirely get the Huck Finn comparisons (I feel like descriptions of the book are like "a girl runs away from some crazy badness and travels down the river to find the mother who left her a year ago" and while that is in some sense accurate, it's not really what this book is about. And frankly for the first chunk of the book my brain was screaming at the protagonist to stop being such an idiot and just falling into these insane situations, none of which have much to do with the river). Of course, I've never actually read Huck Finn, so maybe that is sort of a survivalist book with lots of animals being skinned.

That last paragraph reads really negatively and actually I loved this book, but it is really really hard to read at times. A/A-.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

2011 book 166

Lev Grossman's The Magician King
I'll admit that, unlike most people, I didn't love Grossman's The Magicians--of course I was excited to read something billed as "Harry Potter for grownups," but none of the characters were likable. They were mostly all pretentious jerkwads acting too cool for school--and I ask you, who is really too cool for magic school? And protagonist Quentin was just kind of annoying. And why didn't Grossman just make the magical land Narnia when it was so clearly Narnia? (Maybe worried about a lawsuit?) It was all just so . . . disappointing.

I didn't remember most of the details of the first one when I started the sequel, but right away I was enjoying it much more--much of it focuses on Julia, Quentin's high school friend who failed the exam to get into his magic school, and how she managed to become a magician anyway, which is a frankly scary journey at parts. And there's plenty of Quentin adventuring going on, but I liked it much more this time, maybe because he was actually a grownup, or because he wasn't surrounded by his douchey friends. It all manages to be fairly thrilling. I really enjoyed Grossman's characterizations this time around, and the way he weaves fairy tales into the narrative. Plus all the pop culture references. This was much, much better than the first one. A.

An e-galley was provided by the publisher.