Wednesday, November 30, 2011

2011 book 304

John Green and David Levithan's Will Grayson, Will Grayson
So this is the story of two teenage boys, both named Will Grayson--one is an awkward guy who's all into Neutral Milk Hotel (hilarious) with a large and awesome gay best friend called Tiny; the other is a superannoying depressed guy who never uses capital letters (oh god, I'm too melancholy to hit the shift key)--and what happens when they have a chance encounter, and Tiny falls for the depressed and annoying Will Grayson. But actually this book is pretty good--I loved Tiny and the musical he's writing--with realistic and mostly-likable characters, and I admit to getting a bit teary at the end. A-.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

2011 book 303

Carson Morton's Stealing Mona Lisa: A Mystery
So the title bills this as a mystery, and it appeared on more than one best-of-2011-mysteries list, but dude, this is NOT a mystery in any way. It starts in Paris in 1925, where a reporter is interviewing a guy on his deathbed who is narrating an increasingly ridiculous tale about his life as an art-related con man, leading up to how he and some confederates stole the Mona Lisa in 1911 (an actual thing that happened in history). But the narrative focus is sloppy--too much time is spent on the inner lives of other characters (especially a married woman who frequently thinks soppy things about the protagonist). And Picasso is brought into it in an entirely stupid way. And there are sitcom-level misunderstandings. And way too much melodrama. and NO MYSTERY WHATSOEVER. If you couldn't tell, this book pissed me off. I really don't get how it ended up on best of 2011 lists. And can someone explain what the mystery was supposed to be? F.

Monday, November 28, 2011

2011 book 302

Melina Marchetta's The Piper's Son
The sequel/companion to Saving Francesca picks up our gang five years later, but focuses more on one of the boys from the first book and his complicated, tragic family (and especially his aunt, who is really a wonderful character).  Seriously, no one writes like Marchetta.

2011 book 301

Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca
Rereading Jellicoe Road made me want to reread more Marchetta, b/c dang her books are good. I love the characters and their friendships in this one (and its sequel, which I'm going to start right now).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

2011 book 300

Lauren Groff's Arcadia
Groff's first novel, Monsters of Templeton, was one of my favorite books of 2008 (she also has a book of short stories), so I was eagerly awaiting her follow-up and very pleased to find it waiting for me when I came home from Thanksgiving travel. Arcadia details the life of Bit, the first child born in a crazy hippie commune in the late 60s, from his childhood to his middle age (in what seems to be the near future). Much of his life is shaped by the commune and its politics--and by its leader's troubled daughter. Groff does a good job of fleshing out Bit's story, and her language is lovely, though I will say I felt less connected to and/or interested in him than I did in the protagonist of Monsters. The descriptions of the community, though, are stellar, and I did like the last section of the book and found the ending fitting. It's a strong sophomore effort, and I very much look forward to reading whatever Groff writes next. A-/B+

An ARC was provided by the publisher. The book comes out in March 2012.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

2011 book 299

Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road
After reading a bunch of generally unsatisfying books in a row, I wanted to read something that I knew I'd love, which meant rereading this! Marchetta writes such beautiful, complicated, crazy, real characters. Her books are never predictable. Which is why I love them!

2011 book 298

Emily St. John Mandel's The Lola Quartet
Interesting and likable story about a reporter who discovers he may have a ten year old daughter--and it's also about the very big mess her mother, his high school girlfriend is in--because she stole over one hundred thousand dollars from a drug dealer and has been on the run ever since. But it's not a thriller--it's really more of a story about relationships, about how high school dreams can die, and about whether or not we can escape our pasts. And it's about swampy, muggy, crazy Florida (Mandel nails the atmosphere). B+.

An e-galley was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in May 2012.

Friday, November 25, 2011

2011 book 297

Hannah Harrington's Saving June
After her older sister kills herself, a teenage girl decides to go on a road trip to California to scatter her ashes, accompanied by her own best friend and by a mysterious boy who mysteriously knew her sister. And pretty much from that description you can guess most things that will happen. Sigh. I just want to be surprised sometimes. Also, this weirdly read like it was written a few years ago (in terms of pop culture references), but it just came out. B.

2011 book 296

Kathy Mccullough's Don't Expect Magic
Cute but insubstantial book about a girl whose mom dies and she goes to live with her heretofore mostly absentee father, a famous motivational speaker (I feel like teens going to live with unknown fathers is a weird trope of YA lit that I've seen a lot lately). But her dad has a secret, and it's something that might make life a lot more complicated. This turned pretty predictable but the characters were likable. B/B+.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

2011 book 295

Jenn McKinlay's Death by the Dozen
The third book in this series about a cupcake bakery owner who is forever finding herself involved with murders is pretty good, actually, if you can pretend the first two didn't exist and that this character has gotten entangled with her third murder in a year, b/c honestly, how often do bakers deal with dead bodies? And the body here doesn't turn up till almost a third of the way through, since McKinlay is busy building up the characters and plot--and honestly, the characters are way more interesting than the mystery (which is pretty easy to figure out). These books are the fluffiest of fluffy cozy mysteries, but damn if I'm not a sucker for cupcakes. B/B+.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

2011 book 294

Moira Young's Blood Red Road
Pretty decent YA dystopia about a girl whose brother is kidnapped for heretofore unknown reasons and she vows to find him (with their little sister tagging along). But it's a dystopia, so things aren't that easy.  (Except that she keeps handily meeting people with helpful information.) Not a huge amount of world-building, but I think this is more about the character and her growth and her adventures, which are all well-done. I did like a lot of the sidekick characters that she collects--a fun motley assortment. And there was a romance, but it was pretty minimal in the grand scheme of things. B+.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

2011 book 293

Esther Freud's Lucky Break
Before you ask, yes, Freud is the descendent of that other Freud. Anyway, this novel involves a trio of British drama students and their travails in drama school and afterward. I do wish Freud had delved into their inner lives a bit more; I didn't feel like I knew them well or knew what they wanted really (the male character was especially lacking). It felt like it would be a satisfying movie, but there was no depth here. I mean, it's interesting enough, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure what the point of it was. B.

Monday, November 21, 2011

2011 book 292

Jay Asher and Carolyn Macker's The Future of Us
I was excited about this book for a couple of reasons--Asher is the author of the EXCELLENT Thirteen Reasons Why, and this has a great premise (it's about a couple of teenagers in the 90s who find their future Facebook pages and start trying to alter their futures. I love this concept and of course it made me wonder--what would teenage you think of your current social media presence?). But it turned out to be even awesomer (for me) than I'd hoped--besides the premise and the very likable characters, it totally resonated with me b/c the girl character is just my age, and it's set in a small town near Pittsburgh. Plus the 90s-era references to Oasis and Dave Matthews (though actually, I don't remember Dave Matthews really getting huge till my freshman year of college, and this takes place two years earlier) and Discmen (is that the plural of Discman?) were pretty funny. The end is pretty obvious, but I really liked the future-changing shenanigans, and like I said, very appealing characters. Completely absorbing and entertaining, if a little silly. A.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

2011 book 291

Vicky Alvear Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon
Very well-done novel about Cleopatra's daughter and her exile in Rome--there aren't a lot of historical facts about Cleopatra Selene, so Schecter has the space to create a winning character and a whole world around her (plus, there are no intrigues like Roman intrigues in terms of sheer entertainment value). Schecter also does a really good job dealing with Egyptian religion (not surprisingly, I especially liked a scene where Cleopatra Selene has a philosophical debate with a rabbi). Even the requisite YA love triangle is interesting due to various political situations (though perhaps some of the romance was a bit farfetched). A/A-.

2011 book 290

Gregory Maguire's Wicked
I hadn't read this since college and was in the mood for a more grown-up fairy tale story. I remembered liking this a lot, but actually it's surprisingly boring at times (lots of long speeches about made-up politics and religions). I had planned on reading the sequels after this, but I don't really want to now. Have any of you read them? Are they worth checking out?

Friday, November 18, 2011

2011 book 289

Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze
It's the summer of 1960, and young Sophie is sent to live with her (casually racist) grandmother and aunt in Louisiana after her parents divorce. But when she encounters a mysterious creature in a hedge maze, she gets whisked back to 1860 (just like her favorite book by one of my favorite authors, Edward Eager's The Time Garden), where she's mistaken for a light-skinned slave and sent to work in the Big House on the plantation. Sherman makes Sophie's experiences feel real without being heavy-handed--I think it would be really easy to cross that line, but she toes it gracefully.  Clearly a lot of research went into this, and it's especially satisfying to read it as a book and history nerd. I love books where contemporary characters go back in time and learn valuable historical lessons. A.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

2011 book 288

Y.S. Lee's The Agency: The Traitor and the Tunnel
I can't figure out why the Agency series isn't more popular--or am I the only person who likes books about an agency of girl detectives in Victorian-era England featuring a protagonist with a mysterious past? And speaking of Victorian England, the third book in the series finds Mary working undercover as a maid in Queen Victoria's palace (Victoria is one of my favorite historical royals and she is pretty awesome here, I have to say) to uncover a thief. But of course things are never that easy, and soon Mary finds herself involved in a murder case that hits close to home. Lee brings a light touch, humor, and romance to a story that could easily be over-the-top, and while things may resolve a bit too easily, I was pleased with the resolution nonetheless (and anyway, this is a YA book, things are allowed to wrap up neatly). A/A-.

An e-galley was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

2011 book 287

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
My sister and I decided to both read this and have our own little book club meeting over Thanksgiving, and I'm glad we did; it's a book I've been meaning to read for a long time (but you all know I avoid non-fiction as much as possible) and there's a reason it was on so many best-of lists last year. Skloot does a really good job of weaving together the story of Henrietta and her family--and the story of her cells and the scientists who made them a crazy force in scientific research. And it's all very readable--normally non-fiction takes me a lot longer to read than a novel would, but I plowed through this with no trouble at all (at least until the afterword, which delves into Important Ethical Issues and loses the train of the story somewhat). Plus there are several points where Pittsburgh plays a part! I look forward to talking about it while in that awesome city. :) A.

Monday, November 14, 2011

2011 book 286

Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle
After reading a string of disappointing books--and starting another that didn't seem promising--I decided it was time to reread one of my favorites as a palate cleanser. The Kindle edition of this is one of those ones full of weird typos, but that doesn't stop the story from being great. I still wish the Miyazaki movie had hewed closer to the book.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

2011 book 285

Ha Jin's Nanjing Requiem
After reading a bunch of light--and not very good--books in a row, I wanted something meatier and more satisfying, and the story of an American woman running a college/refugee camp in China in the late 1930s (after Japan has invaded) seemed to fit the bill. Only it's based on a true story and reads like a recitation of facts--you never get to know the characters, even the narrator. And horrifying things happen, but it's told so dryly that I hardly even felt it. I can't figure out why Jin would structure his narrative this way (if it was even deliberate). Most boring book about war crimes ever. B-.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

2011 book 284

Lauren Baratz-Logsted's Little Women and Me
With all of the books/miniseries about modern day ladies being super into Pride and Prejudice, I'm surprised there hasn't been a Little Women one until now (or have I just missed them?). Anyway, this is a YA book about a 14-year-old who gets sucked into Little Women, which is a great premise, right? Too bad it is the silliest book I have ever read. For one thing, the narrative voice needs to be toned down like three notches--it's all "OMG" and "Facebook" and "I'm a teenager squee!" Not to mention the protagonist is a total brat. Like, if she'd just been interfering trying to help Beth, I'd have been totally into it. But her macking on Laurie was just ridiculous. And don't even get me started on how WRONG the end is. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. C.

Friday, November 11, 2011

2011 book 283

Nancy Jensen's The Sisters
This novel chronicles two sisters and their descendents from the late 1920s--when the sisters are separated by an annoying miscommunication--through the late 2000s. Pretty solid characters, though not all are fleshed out as much as they could be (particularly social climbing daughter Alma). And I think the last part was supposed to be a surprise but it was something I assumed from very early on, which didn't make for a compelling resolution. This book was kind of a downer for something that seems like women's lit. Maybe for the Jodi Picoult fans? B.

2011 book 282

Elizabeth Bunce's Liar's Moon
I feel like I've been slogging through this book for weeks--for a fantasy adventure murder mystery, it was INSANELY boring. The thief girl from the last book is trying to prove a friend innocent of murder, but the pacing or something is way off, and each new discovery is more boring than the last. (The eventual resolution is also extremely stupid.) I didn't care about any of the characters, and the murder victim remained a cipher. And don't even get me started on the romance, which thankfully didn't take up too much time, but was entirely wooden. I don't even know why I finished this, except I'd already invested so much time and wanted it to count toward my totals. F.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

2011 book 281

Elizabeth C. Bunce's StarCrossed
This is the second book called Starcrossed I've read this year, and it was also a strong story, about a young thief girl who, while fleeing the local police types, ends up becoming a maid to a sweet royal type and gets caught up in a whole mess of intrigue. What I found refreshing about this fantasy book is that there is very little romance at all--it's all about politics and magic and secrets (the sequel came out this month and looks like it's much more of a traditional romance, alas). I love books with strong heroines and the world-building here is pretty solid, too. A-.

Monday, November 07, 2011

2011 book 280

Jessica Day George's Tuesdays at the Castle
Very cute MG book about a royal family living in a magic castle, where the youngest daughter is trying to map all the new corridors and rooms that appear, and what happens when the royal parents are ambushed and apparently dead, and the three royal children must protect themselves, their castle, and their kingdom. A-.

2011 book 279

Shannon Hale's Austenland
I basically hate chick lit (because it's so formulaic and boring) but thought I'd give this book a chance for the following reasons:
--Hale is the author of a bunch of YA books I like a lot.
--They're filming a movie of this, starring Keri Russell and Jennifer Coolidge (who is perfectly cast)!
--It was one of those $1.99 Kindle book deals.
And if you want to read a cute book about a 32-year-old New Yorker who's obsessed w/ Mr. Darcy and whose aunt wills her a trip to England for an Austen-themed role-playing adventure, you really can't go wrong with this. Like all chick lit books, it's totally formulaic and you know exactly what will happen (actually, Hale did surprise me with one plot point), but her narrative, as always, is fun to read. I was a little annoyed that the protagonist was all "Why can't he be more like Mr Darcy?" about the guy who is EXACTLY like Mr Darcy, who is totally a stuffy crankypants in the book. Anyway, I didn't dislike this, which is frankly surprising. B+.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

2011 book 278

Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog
Another strong contender in the Jackson Brodie series--though it is hard to sympathize with one of the main characters here, since she buys a kid. Jackson's part of the story is still great though. And I love the dog!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

2011 book 277

Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News?
The third Jackson Brodie book just might be my favorite--mainly b/c of teenage Reggie, but the storylines are also really strong, and Atkinson doles out information at the perfect intervals.

Friday, November 04, 2011

2011 book 276

Edward Eager's The Well-Wishers
I've started and given up on a couple different books in the past few days (but it's ok! They're library books! On my Kindle!) and just wanted to read something I knew I'd like--and you can't go wrong with a classic Edward Eager book. Except that this is a sequel to another one called Magic Or Not?, which weirdly is NOT available for the Kindle. Get it together, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

2011 book 275

Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn
I remembered the second Jackson Brodie mystery as the weakest of the four, and it does start off reallllllly slowly (I almost quit reading it b/c I was bored), but like a quarter of the way through, the pace picks up as the disparate stories (a man in a coma whose wife is befriending his dominatrix; an assault after a car accident; Jackson finding a dead body; some sort of theater festival) start to collide, and eventually things get pretty exciting. B/B+.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

2011 book 274

Alan Bradley's I am Half-Sick of Shadows
The fourth Flavia de Luce mystery is a really strong entry in the series, involving Flavia's plots to trap Santa Claus while an A-list film is being shot on their estate. Flavia is always such an interesting mix of intelligence (about chemistry, anyway) and innocence (I doubted that a science-minded 11-year-old would believe in Santa, but it was the 1950s, so who knows). It's not a super-long book so things move swiftly, but I thought it worked. A-/B+.