Wednesday, July 31, 2013

2013 book 208

Natasha Farrant's After Iris
This is one of those YA books that just makes you straight up WEEP, about 13-year-old Bluebell, whose twin, Iris, was killed in an accident almost three years earlier--and her family has basically been falling apart ever since. There are also a bunch of pet rats, a bearded Bosnian au pair, first crushes, school drama, and more. Things resolve a little too neatly for my personal taste, but that feels about right for a middle-grade book, and it's still fairly satisfying. B/B+.

2013 book 207

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites
Based on the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland, this novel centers on an accused murderess in 1829, who's sent to live with a local official and his family while she awaits her execution. She tells her story to a young local priest (and to the sympathetic matriarch who's housing her). Really well-done atmosphere, though some of the characters weren't as well developed as I might have liked, and I'm still not sure what to think about murderer Agnes. But I will say that, for all the complaints I've had about historical based-on-a-true-story novels, this one actually passes muster. It's a bit slow, but totally nails feeling of the long winter in the frozen North. B/B+.

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

Sunday, July 28, 2013

2013 book 206

Phoebe North's Starglass
Normally sci-fi books about spaceships are REALLY not my jam, but when it's a sci-fi book about a JEWISH spaceship, I am SO THERE. Sixteen year old Terra lives on a spaceship founded generations ago by a bunch of secular American Jews (though obviously after 500+ years, the religion has changed somewhat), and now they're about to finally arrive at their destination planet! The usual plotlines happen--a brewing rebellion, corrupt leadership, various love interests (I actually have no complaints about the way the love interests are here--very rare for a YA book), interesting social/LGBT issues, etc. The only problem is that, as with all YA books, the protagonist is a teenager, and teenagers are stupid. Terra is particularly easily manipulated by basically everyone else in the book. Not that that's a bad thing--it actually works with the story/worldbuilding, and things end up in an interesting place (this is the first of a two-book series). I liked this much more than I was expecting to--because spaceships, whatever--and look forward to seeing what happens next. B/B+.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

2013 book 205

Sarah Beth Durst's Conjured
I have really enjoyed Durst's last few books, but this one didn't work for me quite as well. It has a great premise--a girl with magical abilities is in paranormal witness protection, but doesn't know who she is, and every time she has a vision, she loses huge chunks of her (newly formed) memories. There's also a whole romance thing with a boy who's a library page that takes up most of the rest of the book, and which I was pretty uninterested in. I mean, they literally do magic by kissing; it is  . . . not my thing. My main problem here, though, is that the characters feel really underdeveloped--they're basically cardboard cutouts, even the ones who /have/ their memories and know who they are. The world-building is strong, and the girl's background turns out to be kind of fascinating--I just wish this had had one more pass through an editor or something, because it just fell a little flat. B/B-.

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

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

2013 book 204

Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs
This is one of my all-time favorite books--I read it many, many times in childhood and beyond--so I was super excited that it was FYA's July book (even though it's not really a YA book! It's a classic girls' college book!). Jerusha is one of the funniest, sweetest, most exuberant characters ever, and the epistolary format really works here. She's also occasionally wickedly sarcastic; I love all her little digs at women not being able to vote. PLUS, I found a Kindle edition that has the adorable illustrations! This is truly a classic book and it sucks that Webster died in childbirth before she could write many more. Stupid early 1900s.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

2013 book 203

Lily Brett's Lola Bensky
In the opening scene of this marvelous novel, Lola Bensky, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who now live in Australia, has come to London to be a rock journalist and is having a remarkably absorbing conversation with Jimi Hendrix. From there, we see her interact with Mick Jagger, Cher, and various other notables of the day, full of self-deprecating wit and good humor (not to mention plans for really weird diets). Then we go forward and see her in her 30s and 50s (and I would totally read the detective series she's writing in her 50s) before going back to the 60s for Monterey Pop. Basically, it's several of my major interests (Judaism, music, vulnerable but cool woman protagonists) combined into one book of awesome! And I'm pretty sure it's semi-autobiographical, based on Googling the author, which is kind of a surprise--the writing feels really young and fresh. I could have done without the list of dead rock stars that Lola had encountered (it's not really new information that like half the rock stars in the 60s died of drug overdoses), but it all came together in the end. I really, really liked this. A/A-.

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

Sunday, July 21, 2013

2013 book 202

Jayne Anne Phillips' Quiet Dell
Phillips' latest--after Lark and Termite--is based on the true story of a family murdered by a con man in 1931. It starts off strong--the first quarter lets us get to know the family and a former lodger/family friend--but then things go off the rails a little when a journalist comes to write about the case and has some immediate love connection with the local banker. The whole thing was really bizarre and unnecessary, I thought. And it just gets really dull from there, with weirdly fake-old-fashioned-style dialogue and people traipsing around and nothing happening! Like, I did not care about the weird relationship between the journalist and the banker, and that's what the whole last 3/4 of the book is about. Plus, parts are from the POV of the youngest child's ghost, and . . . no. Even the section on the murderer's trial manages to be boring. I gave up reading it twice but figured I didn't have time to finish another book, so kept plugging away angrily at this one, wishing it was like 200 pages shorter. Side note: this book also has the most genteel description of anal sex that has ever been written. I'm not basing that on any kind of expertise on writings about anal sex, but on the extremely hilariously polite way it is described here. It was kind of amazing. Nothing could possibly ever top that. Still not enough to make me like this book, though. I feel like I've had this problem with books based on real events before--like authors get so caught up in trying to keep things authentic that the story suffers. I don't know, C?

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

2013 book 201

Donna Andrews' We'll Always Have Parrots
In the 5th Meg Langslow book, Meg finds herself at a con for a popular Xena-like tv show (her boyfriend is one of the actors), and of course there is a MURDER. (Sorry, at a certain point I find it hard to suspend disbelief that one person would encounter so many murders.) Actually, though, this is a fairly strong volume of the series, with lots of Andrews' trademark humor, and even has a pretty good explanation of fanfiction and slash--which, considering this came out in 2004, is kind of impressive. It's pretty easy to figure out what happened, but all the craziness of a tv show con plus a bunch of loose parrots and monkeys keeps things entertaining. B+.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

2013 book 200

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Apparently Harry Potter is my comfort reading for when I'm not feeling 100 percent, and nothing else would do! I actually have thought of something new to say about this book after umpteenth readings. When Rowling was revealed as the author of the Cuckoo's Calling, all sorts of reviewers talked about the book's depiction of fame in relation to the murdered supermodel Lula. But the HP books are also very much about celebrity, and how people's perceptions of HP shift based on it (maybe more so in the later books, but it's very present in book 1--especially since Harry has no memory of what he's famous for). And Rowling wasn't famous at all when she wrote this book--so maybe it's just something she's interested in? Of course, she can obviously relate to it much more now.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

2013 book 199

Kristen-Paige Madonia's Fingerprints of You
Judy Blume recommended this in her interview with Rookie, and if Judy Blume recommends a YA book, you'd better f-ing read it! This one's about teenager Lemon, named after a color her teenage mother was painting with the month she was born, and what happens when she herself becomes a pregnant teenager, and decides to take a road trip to try and find her heretofore unknown father. Which sounds kind of heavy, but actually this book was pretty cute, helped along by the presence of Lemon's best friend, along for the trip, and the magic of San Francisco. And the inevitable cute boy--who is more likable than most, and who isn't really featured too heavily. Most of all, this is really kind of about a mother-daughter relationship, and how a daughter realizes that her mom is an actual person. I had a few minor quibbles, but things wrapped up in a way I found to be pretty satisfying. B+. (And A+ for the awesome tattoo-inspired cover!)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

2013 book 198

E.L. Konigsburg's The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place
Here's another Konigsburg book I've never read--mainly b/c it came out in 2004, when YA wasn't really on my radar. I kind of love that there are all these delightful and charming books I have yet to discover--especially because some days it feels like there aren't any charming books left in the world. This one starts with twelve-year-old Margaret Rose being rescued from summer camp (and a cabin of mean girls) by her great-uncle. I kind of wish I'd known about her "I'd prefer not to" method of activity avoidance when I went to camp, because man, I'd have preferred not to have to play tetherball. Or camp outside in the mud. (I had very nice girls in my cabin, though.) Anyway. Margaret returns home, but things there are . . . not quite right. Can she--with the help of some others--save the day? Not to make this sound simplistic.  It's not as clear-cut as that--Konigsburg tells a more complicated tale (and I can think of few other YA authors who'd have outsider art as a major plot point) with an ending that is actually fairly bittersweet. A good antidote to yesterday's book (and an episode of Luther), nonetheless. A/A-.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

2013 book 197

Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon
So, this book is about teenager Anais, who's grown up in a series of foster homes, and who's now being escorted to a juvenile facility after an attack on a policewoman. I'm being completely honest when I say that, for a large portion of this book, I wasn't sure if I was reading a very-near-future dystopia or a depressing book about a drugged-out British girl (like Trainspotting or something). I think I finally decided it was the latter, despite Anais' assertions that she's part of an experiment, because most of the story involves her experiences in the home and with the other teenagers there. Also note that, although there are a lot of teenagers, this is NOT a YA book. It is dark as hell. It's one of those books that I recognize is good (it won a bunch of awards in England), and I think there are a lot of people who will really like it, but I personally found so upsetting that I almost wish I hadn't read it. B.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on July 23.

Monday, July 15, 2013

2013 book 196

Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling
So, here it is--the literary mystery that JK Rowling published under a pseudonym months ago, only for all to be revealed by an intrepid reporter! Considering that it apparently got good reviews from Publisher's Weekly and others, I'm a little surprised that I hadn't heard of it until now--literary mysteries are my JAM. Though, to be fair, the description--it's about a private eye investigating the apparent suicide of a famous model--and the fact that she chose a male pseudonym may have been enough to keep me away (I just don't read a lot of books by men--there are so many good books by women that I always want to get through first!).  And I don't think I'd ever have guessed this was written by Rowling (but do you remember how, post-Harry Potter, she talked about writing a detective novel????), but, knowing it, there are clues, like a couple of phrases I noticed from the HP books appearing here and there. Plus, the names! Cormoran Strike, Lula Landry, Freddie and Tansy Bestigui, Kieran Kolovas-Jones, Guy Some. And the line "you ought to give up detecting and try fantasy writing" is extra hilarious knowing Rowling wrote it.

All that rambling is prelude to this: I liked this a lot. Former military police guy Cormoran Strike is a really interesting protagonist, ably assisted by his plucky temp Robin (she is AMAZING! A lot of the book is from her POV, too). The investigation itself moves a bit slowly, but plenty of reveals about Strike's background are doled out too, so generally it's a pretty quick read for a longer-than-average mystery, especially once things really get moving in the second half (another Rowling tell?).Even if Rowling wasn't the author, I'd have really liked it, but I'm just so tickled by the whole situation! Very satisfying and highly recommended. It looks like Rowling is planning on writing more in this series, and I can't wait. A/A-.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

2013 book 195

A. Lee Martinez's Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest
Martinez writes enjoyable and entertaining fantasy books about gods messing around with humans (or at least that's true of the ones I've read). In this one, teenagers Helen--a minotaur-- and Troy--a popular and nice athletic type--are sent by a god on a quest to find some relics for his own god-ly purposes. Meanwhile, they're being pursued by a motorcycle gang of orcs, led by an orc accountant named Nigel. The sense of humor here reminded me a little bit of Good Omens, which is a very good thing, though I will say this was slightly less silly and more heartfelt. Helen is a little bit overly cranky, but hey, she's a minotaur in the modern world, and that has to be hard. Anyway, this was a really, really fun read, and very highly recommended to modern fantasy fans. A/A-.

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

2013 book 194

Donna Andrews' Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon
In this Meg Langslow mystery, Meg is helping out at her brother's video game company--and trying to figure out if something weird is going on--when there's a MURDER! You'd think people would stop being friends with Meg and her family at this point; like four of their acquaintances have been  murdered in what I estimate is less than a year. If you're willing to suspend that amount of disbelief, it's another story with a lot of humor (and animals), and pretty entertaining. But it is REALLY hard to suspend that much disbelief. B.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

2013 book 193

Shannon Hale's Austenland
I wanted to reread this before the movie comes out; unfortunately, it doesn't hold up as well as I'd hoped (I still think the movie will be hilarious though). It just requires a little too much suspension of disbelief for this bitter single thirty-something--but I'd still recommend it to people who like cute things and people who like Jane Austen. B.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

2013 book 192

Jessica Brockmole's Letters from Skye
This was a really well-done epistolary novel, switching back and forth between the correspondence between a young Scottish poet and her American fan beginning in 1912 (and leading up to his becoming an ambulance driver in WWI), and her daughter's own correspondence in 1940 with her own suitor off at war (amongst other things). The earlier is the more vital, but the second does a good job of filling in the gaps in the story and further developing the characters. Nothing really comes as a surprise, but it's still an engaging story, perfect for the beach. B+.

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

Monday, July 08, 2013

2013 book 191

Suzanne Collins' Gregor and the Code of Claw
In case you didn't pick up on the hints in the Hunger Games books, Suzanne Collins thinks WAR IS BAD, and will do everything in her power to get you to think so too (aside from killing off major characters, anyway). On the plus side of this brutal finale to the Underland Chronicles, Gregor's OTHER sister, who I've been waiting to show up since she was given character traits in book 2, finally gets to do something! Yay for 8 year old code-breakers who befriend scary giant rats. Seriously, I might like Lizzie even more than adorable toddle Boots, friend of the giant roaches. And I definitely like them both way more than Gregor and his love interest, b/c twelve year old romances are gross. B.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

2013 book 190

Suzanne Collins' Gregor and the Marks of Secret
Dang, if you thought Mockingjay was dark, you have clearly not read this series. This one has some straight-up mouse genocide. That's not hyperbole. Adorable giant mice who can communicate and whatnot being systematically gassed (spoilers). Genocide. This was almost more traumatizing than that one scene from Watership Down that still haunts me (4th grade is NOT an appropriate place to show that movie! I still see those screaming bunnies). Anyway, there's another quest, another prophecy, another band of bats and rats and cockroaches and people, this time trying to save the mice. There are also the first stirrings of romance between Gregor and the pretty (but badass) princess here; I admit to hoping a little bit that they would just be buds, b/c reading about lovelorn eleven/twelve year olds is really not my thing. Anyway, onto the 5th one, when we finally find out about the BIG prophecy that will put all these puny previous prophecies to shame. B.

2013 book 189

Suzanne Collins' Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
Well, it's another Underland book, must be time for Gregor to go on yet another quest to fulfill yet another prophecy, this time to try and cure a plague. I guess that sounds pretty sarcastic about a series I find enjoyable, but there definitely is a formula here. I will say that it's fascinating to find the parts that kind of thematically resonate with the Hunger Games, plus Collins has created a really interesting cast of characters, so my annoyance is pretty minimal. B/B+.

2013 book 188

Suzanne Collins' Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
In the second book of the Underland Chronicles, Gregor (and Boots) are back in the Underland, on yet another quest, this time to slay a super giant scary rat. Also, Gregor discovers he has magical sword-fighting powers, which I could have done without--it's more interesting to me when a character works for and learns a skill. Then again, these books are not long enough/complex enough to allow for that sort of training montage (that's not necessarily a bad thing for a series aimed at a younger audience). B.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

2013 book 187

Suzanne Collins' Gregor the Overlander
I've meant to check out Collins' pre-Hunger-Games series for a long time, but it was never really a high priority; then a friend who's been reading them with her 8-year-old said I should give them a try. So I did! No surprise, the plotting is great, and I even found myself emotionally invested in a couple of giant cockroaches (and let me tell you, I f-ing HATE cockroaches), so even in these early days, Collins has a way with a story. This one, the first in the Underland Chronicles, finds a boy and his toddler sister whisked away to the Underland, a world full of purple-eyed people who ride around on giant bats. Soon he's off on a quest to fulfill a prophecy and maybe find his missing father--isn't that always the case in these kinds of books? Like I said, it's pretty solid and my complaints were minor (things are overly simplistic sometimes, but this is a middle-grade book), but that may be because the toddler sister was awesome and made everything else seem awesome too. B+.

PS The real reason I read this now is that it's $1.99 for Kindle this month!

2013 book 186

Courtney Angela Brkic's The First Rule of Swimming
This novel is the story of two sisters, Magdalena and Jadranka, from a small island off the coast of Croatia, and what happens when Jadranka goes to New York to stay with a cousin, finds out a FAMILY SECRET, and runs off. But really it's the story of their complicated family and how they've been affected the political turmoil in Croatia. And it's about small towns, and big cities, and love, and loss. I really liked this. A few things about Jadranka's journey are a bit over the top, but otherwise this was really lovely. A/A-.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

2013 book 185

Donna Andrews' Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos
Nothing like hijinks--and MURDER!--at a historical reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle-slash-craft fair! Another hilarious book in the Meg Langslow series. B/B+.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

2013 book 184

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn
Normally I'm not really interested in the Humble Bundle offerings, but this time, THIS was one of the bonuses. Yes, I paid 10 bucks for 5 e-books I don't care about just to own this one, because The Last Unicorn is my all-time favorite movie, since I was a little girl, and discovering there was a NOVEL in college remains one of the highlights of my life. (I have seen the movie so many times that I hear the lines of dialogue as said by the all-star voice cast: Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin, etc.) (I also own the soundtrack, featuring songs by the band America.) Plus, this e-book version has the sequel novella, featuring the main characters from the novel along with a pretty great girl trying to save her village from a griffin. Ah, Last Unicorn. I think even if I hadn't grown up completely in love with the story, I'd still love it for its cleverness, action, friendships, and general bittersweet air. Always an A.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

2013 book 183

Maggie Stiefvater's The Dream Thieves
The best books are the ones that can surprise you--where you don't know what's coming but can't wait to find out. And Stiefvater's Raven Cycle (this is the second, after Raven Boys) manages to be just that. I find this extra thrilling--in a world full of predictable YA romances, Stiefvater's characters and storylines are rich, compelling, and unexpected. This one introduces a couple of new characters--a hit man who likes the Kinks and a drug-addicted, drag-racing classmate of the Raven Boys--but keeps the main plot (questing for dead legendary kings and ley lines) going strong. We find out a lot more about the Lynch family (and meet the third Lynch brother), and there are plenty of great moments with Blue, her family of psychics, and of course Gansey and Adam. Really a solid follow-up in what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite series. A/A-.

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

Monday, July 01, 2013

2013 book 182

Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway
The second Claire Dewitt book (after Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead) is more of the same, only Claire is more of a mess than ever, trying to figure out who murdered her ex-boyfriend. That's all interspersed with a case (?) from her teenage years, when she and her best friend are determined to be detectives and try and find a missing girl, a year before her best friend disappears herself. Plus there's a whole running thing involving miniature horses which is pretty great. This series isn't for everyone--it's definitely not a traditional mystery series, except maybe in the tradition of the craziest, most drug-addled noir detectives--but Gran's storytelling is really exciting, and the end of this one definitely has me eager for the next one. A/A-.

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