Thursday, May 30, 2013

2013 book 155

Susan Elia MacNeal's Princess Elizabeth's Spy
OH MY GOD, this was easily one of the most ridiculous mysteries I have ever read. I don't even know where to start--I think I have to bullet point it.
  • What is the protocol for writing a book where the current Queen of England is a major character? Is it like a law that her fictional self has to be insanely clever, brave, and kind? It's a little bit much. 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth is perfect in every way.
  • Maggie Hope is kind of annoying in this one--she willfully ignores information b/c she's angry, and she frankly is not that good of a spy.
  • Don't even get me started on the romance stuff.
  • Props for upfront feminism and a prominent gay Jewish character.
  • The plot here is way too convoluted, involving lots of suspicious people and murders and spies and Germans determined to put the pro-Nazi Duke of Windsor (the guy who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson) back on the throne. Also it involves polygamy, but that's kind of a side thing (and also a spoiler, I guess).
  • I wish I was an editor--there were several parts that just needed to be toned down a couple notches. Exclamation points should be used sparingly in fiction. All books would be better if I was fixing their grammar.
  • This book ends with not one, but two cliffhangers. One is obvious, the other completely nutbars. I can't decide if I'll read the third book in this series that just came out, or not. I am kind of curious to see where on earth MacNeal is going to go, but I also can foresee a lot of predictable melodrama.
I don't even know how to grade this book. B-?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

2013 book 154

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake
As I noted when I read Year of the Flood last year, it had been so long since I read this book that all I remembered was a guy on a beach (which, to be fair, is a big chunk of the novel!). Anyway, I liked it a lot this go-round, even though all the women characters are kind of awful (weird, for Atwood. Oh man, remember when it was so weird for a literary writer like Atwood to write a dystopian novel?). Jimmy is ridiculously compelling, though, even with his (many) weaknesses. And I feel like the mix of science and capitalism bringing down society is kind of realistic, as these things go, even though all mentions of technology are kind of outdated already (CD-ROMs, come on). I do think it's interesting how Year of the Flood fills in a lot of the holes in this story, and can't wait to see how MaddAdam completes things. A-.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

2013 book 153

Susan Elia MacNeal's Mr. Churchill's Secretary
Books about smart and plucky girls solving mysteries in the first half the 20th century = easily one of my favorite genres, and the Maggie Hope series is getting a lot of buzz lately (the third one just came out). I wanted to start at the beginning, and boy, there is a LOT going on in this first one. Maggie is supposed to be starting grad school in mathematics at MIT, but has decided to stay in London as war breaks out (whyyyyyy) and ends up taking a job as a secretary for new PM Winston Churchill (all the while railing against the institutional sexism that won't let her have a more prestigious position, ha) after one of his previous secretaries is murdered. There's also a mysterious woman involved with that murder, some IRA bombings, and a society of anti-Semites who blame the Jews for the war (sadly, historically accurate). Plus Maggie has a whole cadre of friends and coworkers and love interests, and OH YEAH there's a secret about her father that everyone knows but her.  Somehow all of these plotlines come together to create a surprisingly action-packed story, and one full of GIRL POWER. I'm feeling it. A-.

Monday, May 27, 2013

2013 book 152

Elizabeth Wein's Rose Under Fire
Sooooooo Elizabeth Wein has written a companion/sequel to Code Name: Verity (which quickly became one of my favorite books). This one centers on American Rose (more specifically, the Pennsylvania Dutch Rose--sooo many references to Hershey PA!), who gets a job in England as one of the civilian pilots transporting planes and befriends one of the characters from Verity (saying who is a major spoiler for that book, so I won't). But then her plane is captured by Germans and she's sent to Ravensbruck.

Look, this is an excellent concentration camp book. Wein's writing is powerful, her characterizations are great, and she has a real gift for writing about female friendships. She doesn't shy away from any of the camp atrocities either (and goes into a lot of detail on the medical experimentation that went on). It's just that I have read a large number of concentration camp books in my life, and so none of this was really surprising to me. Verity had me on the edge of my seat the whole time, but here, we know who lives from the beginning, and so it's a little bit less intense (if a concentration camp book can ever be "less intense"). Maybe I should say it's less suspenseful. Still an excellent read and a great companion novel, and I guess I'm glad people are still writing GOOD and POWERFUL concentration camp novels for YA audiences that don't feel exploitative.  I just didn't fall for it as hard. Though, to be far, it is rare for me to fall for any book as hard as I did for Verity. A-.

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

2013 book 151

Eli Brown's Cinnamon and Gunpowder
I have just two words for you: LADY PIRATE! Okay, maybe you want more words than that. This novel is narrated by a chef whose lord is killed by aforementioned lady pirate (we find out why soon enough), and then she kidnaps him to cook her some fancy meals every Sunday. I loved reading his descriptions of the indignities of the pirate life, and his ingenuity in his cooking was equally as compelling. I don't want to say anything else about the plot to avoid spoilers, but be assured there is plenty of adventure, justice, vengeance, friendship, a teeny bit of romance, and lots of pirating. Props for plenty of diversity, too, even if a red-haired lady pirate and an uptight British chef are the stars. It all feels refreshing and new, somehow. Definitely a fun read for summer. A/A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released June 4th.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

2013 book 150

Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes
Sometimes you just have to reread one of your favorite books from childhood (I don't know why all of my favorite books from childhood were written in like the 1930s, but they were). I am generally angry that none of Streatfeild's books are available as e-books, but especially this one, which is one of the best books about an unconventional family assembled by a missing fossil-hunter ever. OK, it is definitely the only book about that. And about the intricacies of being a child performer. Also, I'm pretty sure a pair of the minor characters are a lesbian academic couple, and that's pretty cool.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

2013 book 149

Mur Lafferty's The Shambling Guide to New York City
Full disclosure: I have met Mur Lafferty several times (I used to work at Chapel Hill Comics, where, by the way, she will be doing a signing on June 1st) and think she is super nice, so I wasn't really reading this with a critical eye or anything.

Anyway, this was a really entertaining urban fantasy where protagonist Zoe, after leaving her job in Raleigh more-or-less in disgrace (read: sleeping with her married boss), has moved back to NYC and is looking for a job--and finds one, at a publisher staffed by, well, vampires and sprites and other mythical creatures. And like that isn't enough to deal with, it seems like someone is bent on sabotage--or more! Like I said, this was a really fun read, and reminded me a little bit of Seanan Macguire's Discount Armageddon series (monsters in the big city and whatnot). It did suffer a bit from my pet peeve, a lack of contractions that make the writing seem stilted and awkward, but that might just be me. I think this is ripe for a sequel and I'd definitely read one. B+.

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

Thursday, May 23, 2013

2013 book 148

Elizabeth Peters' Die for Love
The third Jacqueline Kirby mystery is as delightful as the first two; here, Jacqueline wants to escape the Midwest and decides to go to a conference for romance writers (it's about books! it's tax deductible!). Obviously this setting is ripe for both intrigue and hilarity (and there's plenty of the latter--especially when Jacqueline decides she should write a romance novel). I also love how she always has some guy after her and she's just secretly rolling her eyes at him. Have any of you read her other series? Are they this awesome? There's only one left in this one . . . A/A-.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

2013 book 147

J. Courtney Sullivan's Engagements
Sullivan's latest--after Maine and Commencement--is another book that straddles the line between literary fiction and women's fiction, and is just as satisfying as her first two. This one has five separate storylines (it's not clear how they fit together until the end), all involving marriages/engagements in some way. My very favorite was the one involving Frances Gerety and her work with an advertising agency on DeBeer's--she basically singlehandedly created the engagement ring industry! I had intended to compare her to Mad Men's Peggy Olson until the acknowledgements clued me into the fact that Frances was REAL and was really that awesome--so really, Peggy Olson is modeled on Frances, and not vice-versa. The other storylines are strong too--I also really liked the most current one, involving an anti-marriage woman helping with her (gay) cousin's wedding in 2012, and the story of a French woman scorned (though one of her actions immediately took away all my sympathy). There's also a woman in the 1970s dealing with her wayward adult son, but the flashbacks to her own youth are pretty powerful. I was less interested in the EMT with a struggling marriage and financial situation--also the only major male character, and I'm not sure what that says about me! Anyway, this is a great pick for summer reading, and I definitely recommend it. A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on June 11th.

Monday, May 20, 2013

2013 book 146

Rosemary Clement-Moore's Spirit and Dust
This is a sequel/companion to Texas Gothic, focusing on one of the cousins of that book's protagonist--a cousin who can communicate with the dead. She's assisting the FBI with cases when she gets suckered into helping find a kidnapped girl, but also there are weird cults and Egyptologists (including the ghost of one of the main character's ancestors, who is pretty awesome) and whatnot. The plot of this one was kind of all over the place and pretty predictable, but I liked the characters a lot, the writing is a lot of fun, and much of it takes place at a museum (which has a helpful librarian!) so I liked it anyway. I really hope to see more of the Goodnights. B/B+.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

2013 book 145

Garth Nix's Sabriel
I'm not sure how I'd never read this before--a book about a badass girl with a magic cat should have been on my radar!--so was glad when it turned out to be the May selection for FYA book group. And it wasn't quite what I was expecting--it IS about a badass girl, but one who's trained to stop the Dead from doing bad things, and what happens when she goes to rescue her father, trapped by the Dead, and also there is a magic cat (who is enslaved? But maybe ok with it? I was not sure about this part). And a dude trapped in wood. And some creepy zombie type things. It was a little darker than I had anticipated, and the first half is a bit slow (lots of journeying), but things pick up quickly enough, and the second half was great. AND there are apparently two sequels to read! B+.

Friday, May 17, 2013

2013 book 144

Koethi Zan's The Never List
Y'all, I don't even know where to START talking about this book. I could say how it's weirdly timely, being about three young women who were held captive in a sex/torture dungeon for years before being rescued, and how ten years later their captor has a parole hearing (like, what, how would a guy who kidnapped and tortured several young girls EVER be eligible for parole), and one is determined to find out more about him and keep him behind bars. I could also talk about how that one was kidnapped with her best friend, who was killed by the guy, and there's some interesting stuff about friendship in there. It also turns into a crazy story involving weird cults and S&M clubs at a certain point.  And the writing . . . on the one hand, some of the grammar might be cleaned up by publication (this was an ARC), but there was an exclamation point after a crazy plot development that kind of made me laugh, along with some other minor things (mostly involving commas--I wish writers would err on the side of over-use rather than under-use of commas). And on the other hand--for a lot of plot points that I'd have to suspend disbelief for, Zan does a really good job of explaining why the characters are doing the dumb things they do (people always do dumb things in mysteries, that isn't a reflection on these characters at all). And there are some really harrowing moments (I had to put the book down a couple of times b/c it was stressing me out). I kind of called the end but it was interesting enough that I can't wait for other people to read this so I can be like "omggg!!!" about it. Pretty satisfying, if crazy, thriller, though I'm trying not to analyze the gender stuff too much. B/B+.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in July.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

2013 book 143

Elizabeth Peters' The Murders of Richard III
It was high time for me to read another Jacqueline Kirby mystery, and this one did not disappoint. Here, our clever, dry-witted, and generally amazing academic librarian finds herself talked into going to a house party in England full of Richard III enthusiasts. Obviously things soon go awry, with a series of thematic attacks, but it's ok, because Jacqueline (and her purse of wonders) are on the case. And because this was written in the 70s, there's even a great part where she gets to tell off a couple of sexist jerks ragging on Women's Lib (yes, the book capitalized it). If this book had been written this year instead of before I was born, that scene would be ALL OVER Tumblr. And I would reblog it. A/A-.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2013 book 142

David Samuel Levinson's Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence
Sooooo, this is a book set in a small upstate NY college town in the 1980s, about WRITERS and SECRETS and AFFAIRS and PAST AFFAIRS and a MYSTERIOUS DEATH. But mostly about writers and critics and vengeance and sorrow, centering on the young(ish) widow of a not very successful writer, the critic who kind of destroyed him--and the hot young writer (the titular Antonia) the critic is sleeping with, who has some unusual motives and drama of her own. Things start off really promisingly, but the characters soon become pretty tiresome, and this wasn't as engaging as I had expected. The widow, in particular, is some combination of naive and overwrought that really doesn't work for me. The very end is really pretty great, but wasn't enough to make me like the rest. B/B-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on June 4th.

Monday, May 13, 2013

2013 book 141

Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave
O'Farrell's latest, after the awesome The Hand That First Held Mine and others, takes place in England in 1976 during a major drought, and involves a fairly dysfunctional Irish family--and what happens when their father disappears. The three adult siblings all have a lot of stuff going on--the older two are in complicated and/or unhappy relationships, and the youngest (an undiagnosed dyslexic, which is very frustrating for a modern reader) is living a somewhat punk-ish life in New York (I'm pretty sure her night job is supposed to be at CBGB's! She is the best!)--but they all come together to track down their father. Who isn't the only one keeping secrets! Family drama ahoy! Though the drama is not TOO dramatic, and even with so much going on, O'Farrell keeps things on the lighter side. Really an enjoyable read, one I'll recommend a lot. A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on June 18th.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

2013 book 140

Rae Carson's The Bitter Kingdom
It's always something of a relief when the last volume of a series manages to hit all the high notes, resolve all the plot points, and be entertaining enough to live up to everything that came before--and Carson definitely manages. This series is really action packed, and Carson manages to weave a lot of disparate threads into a cohesive whole. For a change, this one varies the narrative between protagonist Elisa and the captain of her guard, who have been separated, which keeps things moving and answers a lot of questions the reader would have had. I don't want to say much else for fear of spoilers, but I thought this was a GREAT wrap-up to Elisa's story. A/A-.

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

2013 book 139

Rae Carson's The Crown of Embers
I don't really have too much to add to my last review of this, except to say that it's just as excellent as it was the first time, and a great middle chapter in a trilogy. It manages to have a story of its own--increased turmoil in the kingdom, and a quest for a magical source of power--and have a totally crazy cliffhanger ending that makes me very excited to start the third one, which I'm doing RIGHT NOW.

2013 book 138

Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns
The third book in this series comes out this summer (and I'll be reading it soon, thanks publishers!), so I wanted to reread the first two so everything is fresh in my mind. I loooved this when I first read it, and was happy to revisit the story of a chubby book nerd with a special relationship with God, who becomes a leader and a warrior. Really great world-building and religion-building in this one, and the series in general takes a WAY better path re: character romances than most other YA fantasy books. Anyway, I love this. Still an A.

Friday, May 10, 2013

2013 book 137

Andrew Sean Greer's The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Heyyyyyyy, it's another TIME TRAVEL STORY! Sort of. This one is more similar to the new Kate Atkinson than River of No Return. Greer (author of Story of a Marriage and Confessions of Max Tivoli [which I remember liking a lot, though I read it before this blog existed, and which I still think that Brad Pitt Benjamin Button movie stole stuff from, anyway, not relevant]) has created a world where it's 1985, and after the death of her beloved twin brother from AIDS, the titular Greta falls into a deep depression, and her /awesome/ doctor thinks electroshock therapy is the answer. Instead, it sends her back to another version of her life, in 1918, and when THAT version of her gets electroshock therapy, she's sent to yet another version in 1941. Who's also undergoing electroshock therapy. She cycles through all three, trying to deal with the different incarnations of the people in her life--particularly the man she's married to in two of them (who left her for another woman in 1985), and her brother and his heartbreaking situation as a very closeted gay man. It sounds convoluted, but it's really a well-crafted story, and one I really liked. A/A-.

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

Thursday, May 09, 2013

2013 book 136

Sarah Ockler's The Book of Broken Hearts
YA Romance is easily one of my LEAST favorite genres, because reading about teenagers pining over each other is really uninteresting to me, and they tend to be pretty cheesy. Plus I hate that so many of them are, like, "yay, I met my soulmate!" I get that teenagers FEEL that way, but as a 34-year-old, I'm interested in something more realistic, and less drama-riffic. (This one ACTUALLY CONTAINS THE LINE "Everything inside me begged for his kiss." Cringe-o-rama.) There are a couple other things going on in this one--the protagonist's father has early onset Alzheimer's, for one thing; for another, the whole premise of the book is that like all the Vargas boys broke all her older sisters' hearts, and thus she has vowed to never get involved with one . . . and of course ends up hiring the hot youngest one to fix her dad's old motorcycle. You can basically guess the whole rest of the plot from there. I personally would have liked more with the sisters--the glimpses we get are so interesting--but it's a YA Romance, so teens pining and whining instead. So, this was really not my thing. B-.

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

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

2013 book 135

Bee Ridgway's The River of No Return
I'm not sure why, but I really love a good time travel story, and this book turned out to be an excellent time travel story. Our protagonists are Julia, whose grandfather has just died in 1815 and now her terrible cousin is inheriting the estate, determined to ferret out her grandfather's secrets! And Nick, who is about to die in the War of 1812 when he is suddenly whisked away to the 2000s and trained to blend into the future by a secret group of time travelers . . . . who also have secrets! We find out pretty early on that these two are actually neighbors in the 1800s, so waiting for their paths to cross is a bit frustrating, but after that things get pretty action-packed. And things end with a lot of threads left dangling, so I have to assume there's a sequel. Which is great, because I'd love to see more of these characters, and Ridgway injects a lot of humor into the proceedings (there's some particularly funny business with a Rubik's cube, and I liked Nick's nascent feminism). Really a lot of fun, this reminds me of the Ruby Red books by Kerstin Gier, but they aren't YA and the romance is a lot more palatable, at least to me (and I like those books a lot, so). Highly recommended. A/A-.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

2013 book 134

Lauren Roedy Vaughn's OCD, The Dude, and Me
This is one of those books you could easily read in one sitting (in fact, I had to force myself not to, in order to go to bed on time), because the narrative voice is so engaging and compelling. It's the story of Danielle's senior year, told through journal entries, emails, class assignments, and other miscellany, and it's GREAT. Even when completely down on herself, Danielle is funny and sympathetic, and I loved watching her learn and grow, and also I cried a LOT. The Big Lebowski doesn't come into things until like 2/3rds of the way through, but makes everything more awesome, obviously. I will say that I was a little annoyed at the sheer quantity of typos in the last couple of chapters--it's like the copy editor ran out of time or something--but whatever, this was a really good read. A/A-.

Monday, May 06, 2013

2013 book 133

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah
Another excellent novel from the author of the awesome Half of a Yellow Sun). Adichie manages to touch on cross-cultural assimilation, academic politics, blogging, family, relationships, blackness in America, and Barack Obama in a novel that travels from Nigeria to various other places and back again. Our main protagonist is Ifemelu, who's lived in America for thirteen years, writes a well-known blog on race, and is a fellow at Princeton--when she somewhat suddenly decides to return home to Nigeria. And it's also about the boy she left behind, now married with a child, and the paths that led them together and then apart. I guess that makes it sound like a romance, but it's certainly more than that. Both have the usual immigrant travails, and then some, and both stories are profoundly moving (Ifemelu's is more so, but more time is devoted to her). And I'll also say that excerpts from fictional writings in another book don't always work for me, but the entries from Ifemelu's blog are really well-done. The end is mildly overdramatic, but this is still really a solid novel, well worth a read. A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on May 14th.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

2013 book 132

E.L. Konigsburg's The View From Saturday
When Konigsburg died recently, I bought a bunch of her books for my Kindle, because I had actually never read any others besides Mixed-Up Files. And it's so dreary today that I needed to read something I knew would be GOOD. Anyway, this is weirdly emotionally resonant considering it's about the four sixth graders on a quiz bowl team, and the teacher leading them. There's also a great dog and some baby turtles. A.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

2013 book 131

Alafair Burke's If You Were Here
This is easily the most ridiculous mystery/thriller I have ever read in my entire life.

I don't really have too much else to say about it. It centers on a lawyer-turned-journalist-after-a-disgrace, and what happens when she thinks an old friend who's been missing for ten years might actually be alive. Except that it has an unbelievably convoluted and preposterous plot. Like, I actually could not believe some of these plot twists. Not to say that it wasn't a fun read, though by the end it was a little tiresome. And I could have done without the rampant slut-shaming--that was REALLY unnecessary to any of the ludicrous plot points. Actually, I guess I didn't really like this very much. Though there is a mildly amusing explanation of retweeting. C.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on June 4th.

Friday, May 03, 2013

2013 book 130

Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland
Sittenfeld's latest (after Prep and American Wife and one other one I've never read) involves a pair of psychic twins living in St Louis, and what happens when one of them predicts a major earthquake. I wonder if the temptation to write about twins, especially ones with weird powers, is hard to resist for writers. It seems like there are a lot of books about twins, and not just the ones from Sweet Valley. At any rate, Sittenfeld handles the psychic twin thing pretty well--one longs to be conventional and leads a cookie-cutter life, married with a couple of kids, judging the other one, who embraces the New Agey lifestyle and has recently come out as a lesbian. Frankly, the protagonist (named Daisy, but now going by Kate, b/c god forbid even her name be interesting, and also she is trying to disassociate from her childhood psychic self), is not really that likable, even as I sympathized with her struggles and fears. Then towards the end of the book she does something so ridiculous that I was just like GET YOUR S--- TOGETHER ALREADY and was monumentally annoyed. Did Sittenfeld feel like telling this kind of internalized story about sisters and senses wasn't enough, so she had to throw in this plot twist? It just felt kind of needless to me. But it should provoke a LOT of discussions at book groups. Anyway, this is well written, and I liked most of it, but don't know why Sittenfeld abruptly turned it into a domestic drama at the end. B.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on June 25th.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

2013 book 129

Chelsea Campbell's Harper Madigan: Junior High Private Eye
Oh dudes, this book was hilarious and adorable. But how could I expect anything less from the author of Renegade X? This is more of a middle grade book, about the titular PI, on the case of a missing luck pencil, trying to prove an old friend innocent of a crime she didn't commit, and saddled with a partner he doesn't want. Not to mention that the school is run by an amazingly evil PTA determined not to let him interfere with their plans! Campbell's narrative voice here is EXCELLENT--she nails the PI tone without being overly tongue in cheek. A quick but delightful read. A-.