Thursday, February 28, 2013

2013 book 69

Beatriz Williams' A Hundred Summers
I started reading this book at lunch and was honestly angry when I had to put it down and get back to work, because I wanted to know what would happen! It flashes back and forth between 1931--when Lily accompanies her friend Budgie to a Dartmouth game and meets dashing half-Jewish quarterback Nick, and 1938, when Budgie and her new husband (Nick) show up to spend the summer on the beach in Rhode Island where Lily is (and where Budgie determines to set Lily up with her own ex-boyfriend, now a pitcher for the Yankees). I was more than a little impatient to find out what happened in the interim, but Williams unfolds things at a pretty good pace, and the story has some nice twists (though Lily is annoyingly stupid about many of them). From a more critical standpoint, there are some bothersome things--Budgie is way too much of a mean girl/frenemy, Lilly is too passive/"nice," and the dramatic climax takes place during . . . a hurricane. With that said, I still really enjoyed this and think it will be a perfect summer reading book. A-/B+.

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

2013 book 68

Mindee Arnett's The Nightmare Affair
Well, it's hard to go wrong with a YA FANTASY MURDER MYSTERY! Especially one with such interesting world-building. Protagonist Dusty is the daughter of a Nightmare (a creature that feeds on dreams) and a mortal man, attending magical kid school with various other magical teenagers and their various magical creature hierarchies (this is all very fascinating). Then she discovers she has a special tie to a (cute) mortal boy from her old school, and they have to help solve a murder! Some of the mystery parts were pretty predictable (I did incorrectly guess one major plot point though), but the organic teen romances, the strong friendships, and the general atmosphere of the story made up for that. The end leaves an opening for a sequel (yes please to more magical mysteries) and I would totally read it. A-.

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

2013 book 67

Steph Cha's Follow Her Home
Our story begins when Juniper Song (GREAT name)--who loves Philip Marlowe to an almost bizarre extent--is asked by her best friend to find out whether or not a hot young girl is sleeping with his dad. Things quickly (too quickly) take a sinister, even Chandler-esque turn, leading to some of the most ridiculous plot points I have read in my life. And I'm pretty sure, now that I'm done, that the whole thing didn't even make any sense. There's also a whole subplot about Juniper's first investigation, involving her younger sister Iris, which was much more compelling. I have not really read much hard-boiled detective fiction--I think this falls under that category, but it was a little much for me. I did, however, like the examination of Asian womanhood that featured throughout. B/B-.

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

Monday, February 25, 2013

2013 book 66

Kerry Greenwood's Unnatural Habits
In the 19th--and most recent--Phryne Fisher mystery, Phryne gets caught up in the story when a young girl reporter is investigating three pregnant girls missing from the Magdalen Laundry--and then the reporter herself is kidnapped. This one is, again, pretty funny--Phryne is weirdly down on the middle class (though the books make it clear that people from all classes are terrible) and has taken to referring to her troop of wards as "minions." The story here takes some pretty ridiculous twists and turns, but it's hard to go wrong with visits to brothels, "gentlemen's clubs," an all-woman fruit-growing commune, plus a rogue nun performing unasked-for vasectomies. B/B+.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 book 65

Jane Nickerson's Strands of Bronze and Gold
I generally am super into the YA genre of retold fairy tales, so was pretty excited about a book that was going to rework the Bluebeard story, which isn't one I've seen much. Our protagonist, 17 year old Sophie, is sent from Boston after her father's death to live with her heretofore unknown godfather in Mississippi. (This is especially a huge culture shock, as it's 1855 and he has many slaves.) At first she is annoyingly naive and susceptible to his charms, even though he is the creepiest creepster who ever creeped. Eventually she wises up and becomes a lot more interesting, but she doesn't have a lot of choices, as he's her legal guardian and is also extremely controlling. It's honestly pretty horrifying--Nickerson is very effective with the narrative tension. And things don't quite follow the fairy tale--Sophie is given a bit more agency, which is nice. Apparently this is the first in a series; I'm not sure what the rest will cover, but I'm interested in finding out! B+.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released March 12th.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

2013 book 64

Kerry Greenwood's Dead Man's Chest
When Phryne takes her family on vacation, she's hoping for a break from solving mysteries . . . except that the house's servants have apparently gone missing. And there's a phantom braid-cutter on the loose. And pirate treasure, Surrealists, a nosy old lady, and a super awesome dog. Plus Greenwood's trademark humor. Another fun read and I can't believe I have only one book left to read in this series (at least until the next one is published). I might try another series by her, though I doubt it can be as great as these. B+.

Friday, February 22, 2013

2013 book 63

Nancy Kricorian's All The Light There Was
So, this is a novel about a teenage Armenian girl living in occupied Paris during WWII--though I will say, it wasn't nearly as harrowing as I feared based on that description. It's, maybe surprisingly, more about young love and family, though certainly the hardships of war aren't ignored. I had some minor complaints--the dialogue is often very stilted; at one point it becomes clear that four years have passed, though story-wise it only seems like a couple of months; although there is certainly tragedy appropriate to the time period, it's obvious that things will work out and how they'll work out (but this is kind of on the women's fiction end of thing, so while that was a complaint for me, I think it would be appealing for others). The Armenian genocide isn't dwelt on in detail but is definitely relevant to the story, and the author does a good job of showing how historical events can haunt people. She's also strong on friendships and sibling relationships. Bonus points for a cute orange kitten. B/B+.

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

Thursday, February 21, 2013

2013 book 62

Kerry Greenwood's Murder on a Midsummer Night
Okay, I realize this is a silly nitpick, but isn't 1929 too early for "Friend of Dorothy" to be a phrase? The Wizard of Oz movie didn't come out till 1939. Surely there is a more historically accurate and yet non-offensive phrase to use to indicate that a character might be gay. None of which is really relevant in the 17th Phryne Fisher book, which has Phryne and company investigating two cases: an apparent suicide that might be murder, and whether or not a deceased woman had an illegitimate child over sixty years ago. These cases manage to touch on antiquities, Palestine, buried treasure, Shakespeare, and even more random stuff. I can't believe I have only two more of this series to read before I'm all caught up. At least I found out this week that there's a tv show, and thus my Phryne Fisher addiction will stay sated. B.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2013 book 61

M. Molly Backes' Princesses of Iowa
I should note here that this is the February book for FYA book club, and I was very unwilling to read a book with this title, not even knowing what it was about. And the very first section is kind of unusual and I really related to it . . . and then it turned into one of those books about a bitchy popular girl who only cares about her popularity and is obviously going to learn some Life Lessons (with, obviously, the help of a creative writing class [because THAT'S never been done before], an irrepressible girl who knew her before she was cool, and the inevitable sensitive cute writer boy) and start to be nice to the nerds or whatever. (Though honestly, I really think a popular girl could say "Hey, don't be a dick" to her boyfriend's stereotypical jock friend without losing popularity points, as opposed to calling a dude a /fairy/ to seem cool.UGH.) I think if I'd read this when I was younger, I would be like "wooooow, she is so REAL" and though she is an authentic character, this plot is cliched in basically every way. And I mean, if I was going to read a book about a popular girl learning Life Lessons, can't it at least be Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall, which besides having a more interesting premise, is also excellent and sad. Not to say this book was bad--the writing is solid and the characters are mostly realistic, if unlikable, but it's just sooooooo predictable. So predictable. And that's boring. B/B-.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

2013 book 60

Alex Lidell's The Cadet of Tildor
This book comfortably fits in the genre of epic fantasy involving a badass girl caught up in crazy politics and whatnot. Our protagonist here is 16-year-old Renee, the only girl training to be a fighter in some fancy elite royal squadron (there are other girls, but they're training to be lawyers, and we only meet one of them). She's one of those heroines who is annoyingly stubborn and refuses to see the truth of things, but eventually gets it together and is much more likable. There's also a hot young army commander who's the new teacher, but thankfully, romance is very minimal here (though I expect it to pick up in any sequels), her friend who obviously has a crush on her, and a cute little boy and his dog. Comparisons to Tamora Pierce are apt enough, though the writing isn't as strong here (and the book is ridden with typos), but certainly Renee fits the Pierce heroine mold. And there are several plot points that take a little bit too long for the characters to figure out, but Lidell manages the reveals just before I was about to get angry about their stupidity, so I guess that's ok. (And then there's this whole thing where an attempted rapist is kind of redeemed and becomes helpful and like adorable? What? WHAT. It's a very minor plot point but GROSS.) All this rambling is to say that this is a perfectly good girl warrior YA fantasy book with some solid worldbuilding, and though I'm not like SUPER EXCITED about it, I would read a sequel. B/B+.

Monday, February 18, 2013

2013 book 59

Lauren Graham's Someday, Someday, Maybe
If you're looking at the above line and thinking " . . . wait a minute . . . " -- yes, this book is by THAT Lauren Graham. And since it's about a young woman struggling to be an actress in 1995, I have to think parts of it are based on Graham's own life. I mean, the parts about having curly hair ring too true to be anything else. And the hopes and fears and desperation for even the most minor jobs. Anyway, this is a perfectly satisfying and cute story, mildly predictable but no less enjoyable for that, and honestly, Graham is a pretty solid writer. I'm not normally into women's fiction-y books like this, but it was very charming. Definitely an easy one to recommend. A-.

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

Sunday, February 17, 2013

2012 book 58

Kerry Greenwood's Murder in the Dark
This Phryne Fisher book (maybe the 15th? I've lost count) finds Phryne at a multi-day house party to end 1928, where death threats and kidnappings and riddles abound. And all sorts of ridiculously goofy shenanigans of the time are taking place. The end is beyond silly, but whatever, I like this series because of its silliness, not in spite of it! B.

2013 book 57

Herman Koch's The Dinner
Translated from the Dutch, this book is garnering comparisons to We Need To Talk about Kevin, which I've never read, but is probably accurate. I've also seen it labelled as a kind of thriller, which I don't think is really fitting in terms of narrative tension or content. The action all takes place at a dinner as narrated by one man, who is out with his wife, his brother (a douchey politician), and his brother's wife. And something is up with their children, but that's revealed later, gradually. There are plenty of flashbacks/memories to fill in the gaps, so saying that it all takes place at a dinner is maybe not entirely accurate. Anyway, maybe this is a spoiler, but all of these characters are unbelievably horrible people, and this book was riveting in that car-crash kind of way, where you can't look away. I'm not sure how to grade a book like that, but I can see why it's an international bestseller and probably will be popular with book groups. B?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

2013 book 56

Kerry Greenwood's Death by Water
This Phryne Fisher book finds Phryne on a luxury ocean liner to try and find a jewel thief. There's also a whole lot about Maori culture, which I actually appreciated, though sometimes I wonder if the casual racism (calling them noble savages and whatnot) is meant to be historically accurate, or if the books are just casually racist. I'm PRETTY sure it's just historical accuracy. Though Phryne dressing for a costume party as a Chinese girl doesn't really help any. B/B+.

Friday, February 15, 2013

2013 book 55

Gillian Philip's Firebrand
I'm honestly not sure where to even start with this one! It's about a fairy boy, growing up in the fairy realm, caught up in fairy politics and battles. And then he and his brother get tangled up with people--which, considering it's the late 16th Century and witch-hunting is a popular pastime, might be a little bit dangerous. But mainly it's about fairy politics and battles. The main character is pretty great, and I love his relationship with his brother, and there are also some awesome wolf puppies. The gender stuff is pretty okay, though I wasn't particularly interested in the romance here, and there was a bit too much of the "if only I'd known" and "ah, but I'll get to that later"s in that regard. And the end was . . . I don't know. Interestingly, besides the fact that the characters live for hundreds of years (unless outright killed), it doesn't read like a story set in the fairy worlds at all. I also find it interesting that the series is called Rebel Angels, and look forward to seeing what happens next. B/B+.

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

2013 book 54

Sean Ferrell's The Man in the Empty Suit
Sooooo this is basically a time travel murder mystery! Only all the characters are one guy! See, this guy has a time travel machine and goes all over in it, but every year he celebrates his birthday by going to 2071 (the 100th anniversary of his birth) and hanging out with himself at every age. But then! The 40 year old him is murdered! But all the older versions are still there! And he has to figure out what happened!

Then things get a little bit convoluted and I am still kind of puzzling it all out. But I think I liked it? B/B+.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2012 book 53

Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy
Considering how much I enjoyed Sepetys' first book, and considering how much pre-publication buzz this has gotten, I am somewhat surprised to admit that I just wasn't really feeling it. It's the story of a teenage girl in 1950 New Orleans, the daughter of a prostitute, who becomes obsessed with escaping the city (and everyone who's mean to her) and attending Smith. There's also a murder, and a love-triangle-ish thing going on (though neither guy is particularly well-developed). The whole book is kind of gross and depressing (and normally I don't have a problem with depressing books), and kind of full of brothel stereotypes and predictable plot points. I also just didn't really feel for the protagonist, who certainly is in a situation not of her own making, but who is also kind of dumb about everything. B-.

Monday, February 11, 2013

2013 book 52

Kerry Greenwood's Queen of the Flowers
This is another fun outing in the Phryne Fisher series, involving carnivals, elephants, gambling, kidnapping, secrets of the past, and all sorts of other craziness. I was mildly annoyed that Phryne's nickname in the Chinese community has suddenly changed from Silver Lady to Jade Lady--I mean, she's been the Silver Lady for seven books, how did that get forgotten? Eh, whatever, the plots in these don't always hold together either, but I like them anyway. B.

2013 book 51

Amity Gaige's Schroder
Soooo this is basically a novelization of the whole Clark Rockefeller thing (the author even says so in a Q&A at the end of the book), presented as the father with a false identity writing his confession/a letter to his ex/an account of his week with his kidnapped daughter. At first he seems sympathetic, but as he goes on, he becomes more and more unbearable and pretentious. And more obviously a total prick. And I can logically say that it's a well-written novel, but reading a whole book in that guy's narrative voice was not at all enjoyable for me. I only finished b/c I'd already sunk a couple hours into it and figured I might as well. B-.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

2013 book 50

Kerry Greenwood's The Castlemaine Murders
This was seriously the most random Phryne Fisher book yet as she discovers the mummy of a murdered man at a carnival and decides to find out who he was. It should be a simple cold case, but soon she's getting all sorts of threats. Meanwhile, her Chinese paramour is trying to discover what happened to some stolen gold from the 1850s. And Phryne's sister has some to visit, and she's a very trying houseguest. The plot is entirely predictable, but surprisingly funny somehow. B+.

2013 book 49

Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons
Surprisingly fun novel where an elderly woman--a renowned scientist--is looking back on her early years, discussing how she came to be on her path. It's set in Victorian-ish times but in an alternate world (not only are there dragons, all the countries have different names and the religions are very different--sort of. The main characters come from an England-ish place but their religion has some similarities to Judaism). So girls being scientists, and particularly being interested in dragons, is frowned upon, and her journey is an interesting one. She's only like 20 when the book ends, though, and the text implies sequels--which I am eager to read. This book fits in nicely with all those Jane-Austen-ish books where there's magic, and that's a genre I'm way into. A-.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

2013 book 48

Kerry Greenwood's Murder at Montparnasse
This volume's murder case ties in with Phryne's past in post-war Paris, leading to lots of flashbacks where she's hobnobbing with the artists and literati of the day. There's also a missing girl, a French restaurant, and odd domestic arrangements. You'd think I'd be bored of this series after reading 12 of them but I totally love it. Seven more to go! B/B+.

2013 book 47

Amy Spalding's The Reece Malcolm List
Hope Larson keeps talking about this on Twitter, so I figured I'd check it out--it's a cute story about a teenager who, after her father dies, goes to live with her heretofore unknown mother, a famous writer living in LA. (There are a lot of YA books about teenagers being whisked away to live with heretofore unknown famous parents, I don't really know why.) Anyway, the writing here was engaging enough that I kept reading, EVEN THOUGH the main character is super into musical theater and talks about like callbacks and auditions all the time (musical theater is so not my bag), and EVEN THOUGH the backstory to her childhood without her mother is easily the most ridiculous thing I have ever read in a YA novel (tied only by her love interest's backstory). I did like that teenage relationships are treated much more realistically than in most other YA books, and like I said, the narrative voice is strong. But "cute" is still the best word. B/B+.

2013 book 46

Kerry Greenwood's Away with the Fairies
The 11th Phryne Fisher book has Phryne investigating the death of a woman who wrote stories about fairies, and finds herself working at a women's magazine. There's also a whole thing with pirates in the second half of the book. Another enjoyable read, though not as compelling as the last couple. B.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

2013 book 45

James Lasdun's Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked
After reading an excerpt of this in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, I knew I wanted to read this intriguing memoir about a writer/professor who is stalked and harassed by a former student in a monumentally creepy way. So imagine my surprise when it also turned out to be a memoir about the author's Judaism (and a little bit about his father, apparently a well-known architect). There's also an artery running through the story dealing with Gawain and the Green Knight. Very compelling stuff all around, and I hope some of the author's demons were exorcised by writing this, but I admit to being a little worried for his safety now! Don't worry, he addresses issues about it only being his side of the story, etc. B+.

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

2013 book 44

Kent Haruf's Benediction
Haruf has written two of my most-beloved books, Plainsong and its sequel Eventide, exemplars of the kinds of books about gruff old men with hearts of gold.  And his latest is just as good, focused on gruff old man with a heart of gold "Dad" Lewis, who is dying of cancer with his wife and daughter tending to him (though his estranged son is nowhere to be found). Though there are other characters--a liberal preacher and his troubled son, a neighbor and her granddaughter, a mother and daugher who are family friends--this book is primarily a meditation on life, death, and family. It's very beautiful and sad. I probably would have cried anyway, but reading about the quiet death of an elderly man reminded me of my own grandfather's recent death, so I was basically sobbing buckets. But in a good way. Haruf reminds me a bit of Marilynne Robinson both thematically and stylistically, so I hope this will receive that level of acclaim. A.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on February 26th.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

2012 book 43

Kerry Greenwood's Death Before Wicket
The 10th Phryne Fisher mystery has Phryne off to Sydney, to investigate a theft at the university (which is more complicated than it seems) and to track down a missing woman. I loved all the academic politics and especially adored the crankly old coot of a professor emeritus, who only cares about cricket. Since I don't know anything about cricket, I could have done with sliiiiiightly less of the play-by-play of the several games that occur, but that's ok, it kind of adds to the atmosphere. And it's interesting to note that in the first few books, the sex scenes very vague, but apparently Greenwood has gained confidence, because the last few have been VERY descriptive. B+.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

2012 book 42

Kerry Greenwood's Raisins and Almonds
Oh yeah, Phryne is finally mixing it up with some Jews in a mystery involving a murder in a bookshop, alchemy, kabbalah, and Zionism. Greenwood clearly researched Judaism and threw in all sorts of references to Kosher laws and Maimonides and golems (there's a fairly extensive bibliography in the back along with a glossary of Yiddish words). However, I wish she'd thrown in fewer "oys" and "nus"--it was a little much after a while. Plus the villain was kind of obvious. BUT bonus points for cat-puppy interspecies snorgling. B+.

Monday, February 04, 2013

2012 book 41

Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away
This is one of those books where I can see why it's kind of a classic, but it's not really an enjoyable read. I kind of like the pervasive sense of dread and inevitability, but the of-its-time racism, ableism, and homophobia aren't exactly fun, and all the characters are unlikable (if sympathetic). But what else can you expect from a book about a boy raised with some odd ideas by his great-uncle who is, to say the least, a religious eccentric. Exquisite writing and theologically interesting but DANG there is some messed-up stuff in there.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

2012 book 40

Kerry Greenwood's Urn Burial
I'm still making my way through the Phryne Fisher mysteries; this is one of those manor house ones where murder and mayhem occur in an isolated country house and everyone has SECRETS! Side note: some of the silliest sex metaphors ever are in this book. There is also an interesting section on limestone caves. These books are so educational. B+.

2012 book 39

Carlene Bauer's Frances and Bernard
A sentence preceding the novel notes that it was inspired by Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell, and I almost wish it hadn't, because I spent the whole book wondering about literary gossip and how much of this was based on fact. Which doesn't do the book justice AT ALL. Anyway, this is an epistolary novel, set in the late 50s, about two writers who meet at an artists' colony and decide to correspond (the novel also occasionally includes letters to/from other characters, but the heart is these two). For the first half or so, I was kind of like, it's nice to read such an intellectual conversation, but there was a little too much about Catholicism for this Jewish reader (there is a LOT about Catholocism, and it makes me want to recommend it to a couple of theologians I know). I wasn't really emotionally engaged. But by the end I was quietly weeping. Really lovely and heartbreaking. Now I need to go reread some O'Connor. A-.

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

Saturday, February 02, 2013

2012 book 38

Melina Marchetta's Quintana of Charyn
So this is a perfectly good conclusion to the Lumatere series, and has a lot of interesting reveals, politics, romance, action, etc. I mean, I was definitely laughing and crying at the same time at one part. I don't know why I expected that anything by Marchetta should be THE BEST THING EVER, because that's not really fair when this is still an enjoyable book. And I mean, more than enjoyable, it's GOOD. It's an A-! And way less stressful/harrowing than the second one. And I love all the characters--I was going to say something about the great women characters, but the men are awesome too. And I mean, obviously things are going to work out the way they do, but finding out how they all get there was pretty entertaining.

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

Friday, February 01, 2013

2012 book 37

Melina Marchetta's Froi of the Exiles
I'd forgotten that the second book of the Lumatere series is much harder to read than the first--and that one wasn't exactly a laugh a minute. In this one, the characters from the first book are trying to put their kingdom back together after the horrors they faced for ten years--and meanwhile, they've sent one of their own to assassinate the neighboring king who caused it all, except things there are more complicated than they could have imagined. And all the characters are just completely broken people; it's very sad to read. I will say that this could have been edited a bit more--Froi's moods and decisions seem really inconsistent sometimes, though I guess he is dealing with more crap than basically any character ever. Ugh, heartbreaker of a book.