Thursday, January 31, 2013

2012 book 36

Melina Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock
Rereading this was my reward for finishing that last book, because this book is GREAT.  And because it's Marchetta, the usual YA fantasy epic is complicated with issues of community, exile, and loss, but is also somehow optimistic. I love this so so much and am now about to read the sequel (and then the new one that comes out in April!).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

2012 book 35

Isabel Allende's Maya's Notebook
This book starts off really strong--it's about a 19-year-old girl who's been exiled to a small town in Chile, and she's describing her life there, interspersed with the story of her childhood with her beloved grandparents, and the events that led to her leaving America. But the thing is, the events that led to her exile are so mind-bogglingly ridiculous that I grew to hate the character for her idiocy, and even to hate Allende for throwing such stupid melodrama into what had been a really nice and interesting book till that point. I mean, seriously, EVERYTHING that happens in Las Vegas is completely unbelievable. I kept reading, hoping it would get good again, but it mostly stays an overwrought and predictable soap opera with an unlikable protagonist (though, at least while in Chile, a realistic one). And while I appreciated Allende's efforts to address some of the more horrible aspects of recent Chilean history, every mention of her cousin Salvador Allende (who was overthrown in the coup that led to Pinochet's dictatorship) took me out of things a little bit. I think this might still be a popular book, but I didn't find it to be very enjoyable. C.

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

Monday, January 28, 2013

2012 book 34

Gordon Dahlquist's The Different Girl
Completely fascinating YA book about an island where four girls--identical except for the colors of the hair--live and learn with two adults. And then everything turns topsy-turvy when a different girl is shipwrecked on their island and they suddenly have a lot of questions. The story reminds me a bit of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go--not from a literary perspective, but thematically, and how things are very gradually revealed to the characters and to the reader (though I still have questions! So many questions! I need someone else to read this ASAP so I can discuss it!). Very enjoyable read, might be a good choice for nerdy book groups. A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on Feb. 21st.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

2012 book 33

Kerry Greenwood's Ruddy Gore
The 7th Phryne Fisher book has Phryne and the local police investigating a murder that took place during a performance of a lesser Gilbert and Sullivan show. Ah, theatre folk. I found this one especially amusing, having been unwillingly exposed to Gilbert and Sullivan in my youth (I still know snatches of songs from HMS Pinafore, our 8th-grade operetta. Yes, I went to a school that had 8th-grade operettas). There's also an interesting subplot involving the Chinese community in Melbourne. Greenwood loves to throw in some social consciousness! (I'm not really complaining about that. Phryne is totally an Orientalist though.) A-.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

2012 book 32

Gail Carriger's Etiquette and Espionage
I really liked Carriger's Soulless series, and was kind of bummed when it came to an end--but then I found out there are two spin-off series! This is the first book in the Finishing School series, a YA series set at a finishing school where the girls learn, well, etiquette and espionage. And poisons. And fighting. And other skills. Our main character is recruited, which is a handy way for the reader to learn about the less-than-typical elements of her education along with her. And of course she soon meets up with a motley crew of friends (some of whom appeared in the earlier series) and has to save the day from some mildly unexplained evils. It's ok, there are three more books in this series, I'm sure it'll all make sense eventually. Anyway, this was a super cute and quick read. I love Carriger's sense of humor. A-/B+.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on Feb. 5th.

2012 book 31

Kerry Greenwood's Blood and Circuses
In the 6th Phryne Fisher book, our intrepid heroine goes undercover at a circus to unravel a string of nasty incidents--including a murder. This one is particularly interesting because it talks so much about class (the very wealthy and titled Phryne has to portray a poor dancer). I also find the morals of this series pretty fascinating--Phryne has new lovers every book and no one seems to think much of it, and one character murdered her husband and everyone who hears the story is like "eh, he deserved it." I'm not sure how historically accurate some of these things are (would a cop really care if another cop was saying derogatory things about circus freaks?) but they're very fun to read about. Plus there is a great bear. A-.

Friday, January 25, 2013

2012 book 30

Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca
I started three or four different books after finishing Code Name Verity last night, but everything seemed so insipid after that book! So I had to read something equally good, but slightly less intense, so then I can go back to reading regular books. And this book is obviously excellent, and the contemporary-ness helps! I love all of Marchetta's books but this one is particularly awesome.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

2012 book 29

Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity
I wanted to read something GREAT to cheer me up after the last book, plus one of my book groups is discussing this on Saturday and I needed to refresh my memory. You know, I have read this three times now, and I just don't get the complaints that it's a slow starter (several people have said this to me). Even if you don't suspect that anything is up (and even on my first read I did, though not to the correct extent), isn't it still kind of a fascinating story? Not just the whole giving-info-to-Nazis thing, but the story of the girls' friendship, and Maddie learning to be a pilot! All leading up to the harrowing and heartbreaking second part. I love this book.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

2012 book 28

C. Robert Cargill's Dreams and Shadows
This book . . . this book was not my thing. It seemed like it should have been my thing-- a literary-ish fantasy novel about a young boy kidnapped by fairies; his very unpleasant changeling; and another young boy who encounters a djinn, and all their dealings with the fairy kingdom (and with Austin, Texas). I totally loooved the opening part; it was delightfully sad and creepy. Buttttttttt. I didn't really like the rest much. I never felt like I got to know the two human boys, and if I was supposed to feel sympathetic for the changeling, it was hard. Plus the plot is kind of not plotted enough. PLUS there are hardly any women! I could four who are more than incidental. 1) Alcoholic mom in one chapter. 2) Mom of the kidnapped boy who . . . well, spoilers, but she's not really proactive on her own. 3) A fairy woman who briefly causes trouble at the end. 4) The most prominent lady character, who gets I'd say 5th billing, and whose only personality trait is "IN LOVE WITH A DUDE." She actually, unironically, utters the phrase "my hero" MORE THAN ONCE. I just don't even know. This could have been so good! There's a bar where supernatural creatures hang out, and an interesting bookstore, and the main plot is just so BLAH.

The writing was nice but man, this book was not for me. C.

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012 book 27

Kerry Greenwood's The Green Mill Murder
The 5th Phryne Fisher book features more of the same (there are like 19 in this series and I can see I'm going to run out of things to say sooner rather than later)-- a murder at a jazz club and a search for a missing veteran are the centerpieces, and most of the plot is predictable (especially Phryne sleeping with any and all attractive straight men), but I still really enjoy the writing and the characters. B.

Monday, January 21, 2013

2012 book 26

Leila Rasheed's Cinders and Sapphires
The first book in the Somerton series is yet another series designed to appeal to Downton Abbey fans, and has quite a bit in common with another recent series starter, Summerset Abbey. But because Cinders is a YA book, it is super DRAMA-RIFFIC. Ladies Ada and Georgiana are returning from India with their father in 1910 under what seems to be a cloud of scandal, plus Ada immediately meets a cute Indian guy on the boat, which will obviously be trouble. Then their father remarries and they have a slew of unpleasant stepsiblings who will obviously be trouble. Then there's a maid with questionable parentage (the book addresses the obviousness of this quickly, which was a relief), which will obviously be trouble. Trouble is a-brewing. Plus there's all sorts of romantic intrigue and pretty dresses. I can't decide if this is more drama-riffic than season one of Downton Abbey, but it's definitely better than seasons 2 and 3. GREAT guilty pleasure reading. I can't wait for the sequel, which I'm sure will be deliciously devious. A-.

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

2012 book 25

Kerry Greenwood's Death At Victoria Dock
The fourth Phryne Fisher book involves a runaway teenager and an anarchist murder, though honestly the mysteries start to feel secondary to Phryne's love affairs and other relationships. I find it odd just how many of these books have mentioned child abuse, though. And in such a light kind of series, it feels a little weird. Anyway, still an entertaining read, despite the whole convoluted anarchist plot. B.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2012 book 24

Kerry Greenwood's Murder on the Ballarat Train
The third Phryne Fisher mystery was right up my alley--not because of the train murder case, but because there's a little girl with no memory who's in braids and an ill-fitting wincey dress and immediately I was like "omg Anne of Green Gables" and horrified on the girl's behalf and immediately in love with her. Plus there is a GREAT kitten. Kittens + braided girls 4-eva. And the mystery is pretty solid, and I still love all the other characters too. It's nice to have a rich socialite detective who can solve any problem by throwing money at it and/or inviting it into her home. I mean that in the best possible way. A-.

2012 book 23

Kerry Greenwood's Flying Too High
I liked the first book in this series well enough and was in the mood for a lighthearted mystery, so decided to read the second one. Our heroine has apparently settled in Australia and set up shop as a private detective, and is soon involved in both a murder and a kidnapping. Maybe it's weird to call such a story lighthearted (especially when the kidnapper is a child molester--though the child in question isn't molested, which isn't really a spoiler so don't get all mad), but Greenwood has a distinctly breezy writing style (to match her heroine's lifestyle) and there's a good sense of humor about everything. B+.

2012 book 22

Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys
Strout--author most recently of the multiple-award-winning Olive Kitteridge--writes great books about small towns and dysfunctional families, and this book features both. It centers on the Burgess family, in particular the titular brothers, raised in small-town Maine and now both lawyers in New York (though different kinds of lawyers--one is a famous criminal defense lawyer, the other works for Legal Aid) and what happens when their nephew commits a hate crime against the Muslim Somali population in their hometown. In general a strong story, and I think it'll be popular, but parts worked less well for me (in particular, one brother's spectacular flame-out, and reactions to the nephew's crime). But for the most part, the characters are vividly captures--I haven't even mentioned the two women who are just as much a part of things as the brothers, who are both interesting and vulnerable. I liked this a lot, I just wonder if things worked out too easily, and look forward to discussing it (I might make my book group read this). A-.

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

Saturday, January 19, 2013

2012 book 21

Tamora Pierce's The Will of the Empress
I think this is a standalone, not the start of a new series, but who knows! Anyway, this book finds the four mage friends at 18, on a journey to visit the empress (the cousin of one of them) and obviously are soon caught up in crazy court machinations. The end drags on a bit, but the story here is more interesting than some of the earlier ones, and it's nice to have the kids all back together. Props for a positive lesbian relationship, no props whatsover for the boy being kind of a manwhore and the empress being kind of slut-shamed. And don't even get me started on the whole kidnapping-an-unwilling-bride custom. That's rightfully treated as a terrible thing though. And the rest of this book is pretty entertaining. B+.

Friday, January 18, 2013

2013 book 20

Tamora Pierce's Shatterglass
Considering that Tris is my least favorite of the children from the original series, I wasn't much looking forward to reading a book dedicated to her. I mean, she's a cranky brat all the time. But she gradually becomes much more likable, and the plot in this book is stronger than in some of the others--the stuff with her student was much more interesting, plus the two get involved with helping to hunt down a serial killer. Crazy and exciting stuff. B+.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013 book 19

Tara Conklin's The House Girl
This book has a really interesting premise--a super-ambitious young lawyer working on a case about slavery reparations is trying to track down information about a slave who may have painted some well-known works of art, and that is interspersed with the story of the slave planning an escape in 1852. But there are a few problems here (or I should say, things that weren't really to my taste, as this veered too much into women's fiction for me): lawyer Lina and her plotlines are like super annoying and straight out of some bad 80s fiction for the first half, plus her backstory is unnecessarily complicated. Slave Josephine's story is stronger, but requires a LOT of suspension of disbelief (especially after reading Kindred so recently, which has a whole lot of info about why slaves weren't taught to read). I actually had to take a break from this book halfway through because I didn't really like it. But I picked it back up, and luckily things pick up a bit in the second half, mainly thorough some first-person letters that move the plot along and are frankly more interesting than most of what came before. Then things resolve way too easily, there's a shoehorned-in romance, and the end is completely ridiculous. Basically I didn't really like anything with Lina; it felt like another cliched "young lawyer in the city" kind of thing. But the historical stuff, especially the first-person sections, is pretty strong. I don't know, B/B-?

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

2013 book 18

Tamora Pierce's Cold Fire
The third book in the Circle Opens series breaks the formula a bit--smith/metal-mage Daja finds twins with magic, and also finds them proper teachers, and then has to deal with a crazy arsonist. The identity of the arsonist is revealed early on to the reader, and I'm not sure if that was a better choice than making it more of a straight-up mystery. It's hard to know the answer and be frustrated at the characters who haven't figured it out yet. Luckily that's not an issue for too long. B/B+.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2013 book 17

Tamora Pierce's Street Magic
The second book in the Circle Opens series focuses on plant-mage Briar (the only boy of the four children), traveling with his teacher, and what happens when he befriends a young stone-mage and they get involved in some gross gang wars. Generally this was cute but predictable. I wonder if all four books will involve the original children becoming teachers--I might lose patience with that. B.

Monday, January 14, 2013

2013 book 16

Erin Kelly's The Burning Air
Halfway through this book, a twist I never saw coming actually had me say out loud "Holy S---!" and I was convinced this will be 2013's Gone Girl. Now, it does wrap up slightly (slightly!) more neatly than that book (no book's ending will ever be as crazy as that one's), but the twists, turns, family secrets, plots, and intensity are all there. The story focuses on the MacBride family--wealthy British types from a fancy school, where their father was the headmaster. They're all getting together for the first time since the death of their mother. And at first you think you're just getting into the usual interesting dysfunctional family secret sort of story . . . but NO. Dang, I think I'm still hopped upon adrenaline from the shocks. GREAT crazy read. A/A-.

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

Sunday, January 13, 2013

2013 book 15

Octavia Butler's Kindred
Butler is one of those authors I've always meant to read, but my lack of interest in sci-fi has put her on the backburner. Then I read a description of this one and honestly, it's not sci-fi at all, it's really kind of straight-up fantasy, about a young (black) woman in 1976 who keeps getting sucked back to the early 1800s to save the life of a young (white) boy--who's one of her ancestors. But it's not all life-saving, as she becomes a part of the household--and what kind of role is there for a young black woman? Butler spares no punches and parts of this are completely horrifying to read--mainly because of their historical accuracy. This is a weirdly great companion to all the things I've been reading about Django Unchained--and now that I've finally read this, I can see how it's influenced a few other books I've read. Powerful stuff, though the narrative voice is occasionally over-explainy. A-.

2013 book 14

Lauren Oliver's Requiem
In the interest of not spoiling the finale to a fairly popular YA trilogy, this review will be especially . . . . vague. If you've read the first two, you'll have some idea of what to expect. This leaned less-heavily on the love triangle angle than I feared, it being set in a world where love has been "cured"--though there is still plenty of love-triangle-ing for those who are into that. And the story is actually narrated in part by Hana, best friend of protagonist Lena, as she prepares for her wedding to a high-profile dude. Her parts were actually my favorite. Anyway, it's a fine conclusion to the series, even if there are a few too many crazy coincidences and an ending that didn't entirely work for me. Still, I fully expect that the teens who are its intended audience will be thrilled with it. B/B+.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on March 5th.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2013 book 13

Fiona Maazel's Woke Up Lonely
I really enjoyed Maazel's first novel, Last Last Chance, and so was super excited when Twitter alerted me to this new one--and it's just as weird and wonderful as the first. It involves the leader of a movement that is more than a little cultish, and which is rumored to be a terrorist organization; his ex-wife (and mother of his child), who actually works for the government on tracking him, and who is under major pressure; the four people she employs to bring things to a head . . . and a bunch of other things. Really interesting writing here--Maazel is clearly having fun--and I loved the action-packed and occasionally silly and occasionally sweet plot. All-around, a very fun read. A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Thanks, Michael!). This book will be released in April.

Friday, January 11, 2013

2013 book 12

Sean Pidgeon's Finding Camlann
So this was described as being like A.S. Byatt's Possession, except about scholars studying King Arthur instead of medieval poetry (or whatever it was they were doing in Possession, I don't really remember). And I guessss that is accurate, except that the scholars here don't have any "omg WOW!" moments, at least not in my mind. Congratulations, you fixed a mis-translation and are looking at some maps! I kept waiting for a big exciting discovery to happen and lead to other exciting discoveries, but all the discoveries here were small and boring, and also I have to say there was some seriously shoddy scholarship happening. No good archaeologist would make the leaps this guy makes.

Which brings me to the characters. The other thing that happens in Possession is a torrid scholarly romance (I think?) and so clearly this book needs to have one too. Except that, being an Arthurian kind of story, there has to be a love triangle, so our linguist lady is married. And she's not even in a bad marriage, just a vaguely dissatisfying one (at first, and then things take a really dumb turn). Not to mention that the archaeologist and the linguist have absolutely no chemistry, so that whole plotline was a bust for me. There's also a whole subplot about Welsh politics and legends that feels really shoehorned in--the book would have been way tighter without it, and it feels like a really false way to drive a wedge between the linguist and her husband. Like just have an honest conversation and don't wait for the end of the book for a big reveal out of nowhere.

This book is not bad by any means (I mean besides being kind of boring), but it annoyed the heck out of me. C+.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2013 book 11

Brenna Yovanoff's Paper Valentine
Guys, wow, this book was really really really good, the kind of book you can easily devour in one sitting, because the narrative voice is so likable and engaging, and because the story is ABSOLUTELY NUTS. Sort of. Here's what's going on in Hannah's life: she's being haunted by her best friend, who died of anorexia the year before (literally being haunted, Lillian's ghost hangs out with her); she's suddenly weirdly interested in a delinquent boy at school; and oh yeah, a young local girl has just been murdered. All of these pieces come together in a really amazing way. I should say the mystery element is a teensy bit weak, but a) this is ages 12 and up, and b) I'm not sure it's intended as a mystery per se, being more of a general teenage-girl-coming-to-terms-with-things kind of book where there happens to also be a murder mystery. But yes, I loved the writing here and was totally sucked in and loved everything about this book (especially Hannah and her sister). A.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

2013 book 10

Michael Hainey's After Visiting Friends
I don't normally read much nonfiction, but this memoir--about GQ editor Hainey's attempts to uncover what happened the night his father died in 1970, when Hainey was only six, sounded pretty compelling. And it was! It did occasionally get a bit overly writer-ly, but most of the time I was caught up in the story (especially during the scenes with his mother). And all the details of a 1960s newspaper were really stellar (Hainey's father was a newspaperman, which complicates things for Hainey's search). This is a great one for people who like stories involving FAMILY SECRETS and SECRETS OF THE PAST, ie drama and tragedy. Great stuff. A-.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in February.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

2013 book 9

Tamora Pierce's Magic Steps
So there's apparently a sequel series to the Circle of Magic series, and this is the first one, featuring one of the four from the earlier books a few years later, now staying with her uncle (a Duke). Soon she's caught up with discovering a boy who can do magic through dance (I don't know) and then there's a series of grisly murders to deal with. I was reading this as an antidote to the grisliness of my last book, and I have to say, it utterly failed in that regard. B.

Monday, January 07, 2013

2013 book 8

Melanie McGrath's The Boy in the Snow
The second book in the Edie Kiglatuk series finds Edie in Alaska to support her ex as he races in the Iditarod--at least, until she finds the body of a dead baby in the snow and gets involved in a case that involves Alaskan politics, weird religious sects, and some seriously gross grossness. Seriously, this book is even grimmer than the dead baby suggests. Things wind up as well as they could, but this was a rough read at parts. B/B+.

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

Sunday, January 06, 2013

2013 book 7

Jennifer Haigh's News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories
Haigh--author of the marvelous Faith, among other books--has written a series of connected short stories, all set in a coal mining town in central Pennsylvania, chronicling the town (and a couple of families in particular) from the 1930s to the present. There are several standouts--I particularly liked the story involving a young Polish girl going to New York to work for a well-off Jewish family, and loved everything involving Joyce Novak, but all the stories are stellar. I have loved everything I've read by Haigh, and this is no exception--she's a brilliant writer, and one of the few very literary writers I can recommend to just about everyone. Particularly of interest to my Pittsburgh/Pennsylvania friends! A, and an early contender for my favorites of 2013 list.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on January 29th.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

2013 book 6

Tamora Pierce's Briar's Book
The final book in the Circle of Magic series (though apparently there is a sequel series) has the four children and their teachers dealing with a plague, and is occasionally a bit grisly. The end is a bit bonkers--these kids never learn the right lessons--but whatever, still enjoyable. B/B+.

Friday, January 04, 2013

2013 book 5

Tamora Pierce's Daja's Book
The third book in the Circle of Magic series has the same smallish scope and predictability as the first two, as our four magic children and their teachers travel north to check out an area dealing with drought and fires, but it's somehow really touching anyway (I mayyyyyy have teared up at one point). I really do enjoy these characters, though I admit that I'll be glad to take a break and read something entirely different . . . after I finish the fourth one, anyway. A-/B+.

2013 book 4

Tamora Pierce's Tris' Book
This series is perfect sick day reading, although nothing particularly interesting happens in this one despite the lessons learned and the pirates fought--the latter of which takes up basically the whole story. I still really like the four kids though. B/B+.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

2013 book 3

Tamora Pierce's Sandry's Book
I like Tamora Pierce, and this first book in the Circle of Magic series is $2.99 for Kindle right now, so it seemed like a good time to check it out. And it's a fun book, about four children with odd gifts rescued from less-than-ideal circumstances and whisked away to a magical community/school where obviously they will develop their gifts and their friendships. It's all pretty predictable but no less engaging for that, and the four children are very likable characters. A-.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2013 book 2

Louisa Hall's The Carriage House
This is one of those great mildly-dysfunctional family stories whose plots sounds overly convoluted when trying to explain it in a blog post, but which actually works really well. There's patriarch William Adair, obsessively proud of his three daughters, and fighting to restore the titular carriage house built by his grandfather--at least until he has a stroke; his childhood love and neighbor, Adelia, who's inserted herself into the family in the wake of his wife's diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's; her caretaker, Louise, who is a weak character in several senses of the word (though also seems to be a stand-in for the author?); and finally, the three daughters--Elizabeth, former actress and recent divorcee, Diana, a failed tennis player and architect, and troubled Isabelle, whose motivations made little sense to me. Some of these are clearly stronger than others, but for the most part, the story of a momentous summer in their lives is a compelling one. The wrap-up veers a bit toward women's fiction category, but that just means I can recommend it to my mom. :) B+.

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

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2013 book 1

G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen
It's always so weird to be back at number 1 again. Anyway, this book was a strong start to 2013's reading--Wilson, author of the now-defunct Vertigo comic book series Air (which I occasionally loved and was occasionally infuriated by) has written a fantasy novel set in the Middle East involving a computer hacker, romance, crazy government plotting, and jinns. I liked this a lot--really strong writing, and Wilson isn't using the usual urban fantasy tropes (mainly because she's using tropes from Arabic literature, which was GREAT--really interesting discussions of language(s) here). There are even some lady characters (including one who, like the author, is an American convert to Islam, and one who is genuinely awesome). I did feel like it left a couple of threads dangling, but very satisfying story nonetheless. A/A-.