Monday, September 30, 2013

2013 book 253

Lauren Oliver's Panic
Although I've enjoyed all of Lauren Oliver's books, I was really glad to see her make a return to contemporary YA (as opposed to more fantastical/dystopian YA), because Before I Fall is seriously one of my favorite books. I actually wasn't sure what this would be like--the description says something about high schoolers playing a high-stake game, which I worried would be Hunger-Games-y, but it's just a serious of increasingly intense (and dangerous) challenges dreamed up by bored and reckless small-town teenagers. The story alternates narration between Heather, who enters on a whim after her boyfriend dumps her, but then realizes how much the winnings could help her change her life, and Dodge, who enters for REVENGE!!!!!!!! (The caps and exclamation points are justified.) The teenagers are all really well-done characters and the games are believable, though most of the adults in the story are not. But they're not really the focus here. In all, this was a quick and somewhat insane read, though I mean that in the best possible way. A-.

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

Sunday, September 29, 2013

2013 book 252

Trish Doller's Where the Stars Still Shine
So, this book is about a teenage girl whose mother kidnapped her when she was four and they've been on the run ever since--until her mother is pulled over for a busted taillight and arrested. Now Callie has been reunited with the father she doesn't remember (and his new family) and a million other relatives from their tightly knit Greek community. Also, there's a hot guy who works on a boat. I really liked Callie as a character and this book was immensely readable--it's very reminiscent of the darker Sarah Dessen books, which I mean as a compliment, and I'd definitely recommend it to Dessen fans. It could go a little deeper, especially regarding Callie's relationship with her relatives, but I liked this a lot. A-.

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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

2013 book 251

Laurie R. King's The Bones of Paris
After not really being into the last couple of King's Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell books, I was excited to read something entirely different from her. This new mystery involves an American PI in France in 1929, trying to find a missing girl, and hobnobbing with the usual notable names of the day (Hemingway, Man Ray, etc. There is a weird amount of Gertrude Stein dissing, too). Things only get more complicated when he encounters a woman from his past. The central story is pretty solid, and the seamy dark side of the Parisian art world is kind of fascinating, but everything just moved SO SLOWLY. The descriptions of various weird Surrealist theater pieces and otherwise creepy artworks could have been cut waaaaay down, and in general a lot of this could have been edited out for a more streamlined mystery. I think King is going for a more literary mystery thing here, but I found a lot of the descriptions tedious. On the plus side, there's a character who's basically the human equivalent of Lying Cat from Saga! B.

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

Friday, September 27, 2013

2013 book 250

Megan McCafferty's Jessica Darling's It List
OK, I'm just gonna say, first of all, I LOVE the Jessica Darling books, and was glad to revisit Jessica and her world. But a cynical part of me feels a little bit like McCafferty bombed a little bit with her dystopian duology (Bumped and Thumped) and wanted to get back to something she was comfortable with. I'm not sure a prequel to the Jessica Darling series was exactly the way to go. On the one hand, like I said, it's great to revisit Jessica and get her origin story. On the other, a lot of this was covered in the books themselves, and seeing a Jessica that hasn't grown up (in the sense that we see her maturing and becoming stronger in the original books) yet feels a little bit like going backwards. But it is all very charming, in the usual Jessica Darling way. I guess this is aimed more at a middle-grade audience--it's all about Jessica starting middle school--but it doesn't feel like McCafferty is writing down to them (a problem I had with Bumped). And she totally nails that middle school feeling. Looks like a sequel is due out next fall and yes, I'll probably be reading it. B+.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

2013 book 249

Sarah Rees Brennan's Untold
I have actually been anticipating this book and dreading it in equal measure--I really liked the first in this series, but the end made me very angry/upset. I really wasn't sure what to expect from this installment. And even halfway through, I couldn't tell if I loved it or hated it or hated it because I loved it or loved hating it, or what. I mean, for one thing, there's the ridiculously eloquent dialogue; it's like all the teenagers have stepped out of a 1940s movie featuring fast-talking dames. And I kind of like that, while recognizing its ridiculousness. And then there's the fact that all the teenagers are SO STUPID. Every time they start to have an honest conversation, it devolves into a bunch of lies and idiocy because of FEELINGS. I just wanted to shout, "Nut up, Kami!" and "Come ON, Jared!" on like every page, and then reach into the book and give everyone a good shake. I hate books with stupid miscommunications and misunderstandings that could be cleared up with one sentence, but aren't for annoying plot reasons. Things do get better in the second half in this regard, though there are still some moments where I was like "ARGH." Brennan is clearly going for plot points that make people feel that way, though, and I'm just not sure how to feel about that.

And that's not even getting into the plot, which involves evil sorcerers and slightly less evil sorcerers fighting for the town, or whatever. I don't know. B.

2013 book 248

Ursula Dubosarsky's The Golden Day
This was an excellent, if mildly weird, novel about a group of schoolgirls in 1967 whose teacher disappears while they're on a (frankly ill-advised) field trip. Really strong characterizations of the girls, and I actually really liked the resolution. It may be a short novel, but it packs a punch. A/A-.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

2013 book 247

Patrick Ness' More Than This
I want to write my usual little review of this book, but instead am paralyzed by indecision over how to tag it without being spoiler-y! Sigh. These tags are inadequate.

Anyway. Ness' latest YA book (he has an adult novel coming out in January) focuses on teenage Seth, who drowns in the opening pages . . . and then wakes up outside his childhood home, only the whole town seems to be abandoned. Things get progressively more heartbreaking and insane from there, kind of in alternate waves. I thought the big reveal was a bit silly, but Seth is a really well-written character, and the flashbacks to his life are really well-done. All the young people we meet are kind of incredible. But, yeah, comparisons to a famous movie of the 90s make it hard to take it as seriously as we should. B/B+.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

2013 book 246

Eve Harris' The Marrying of Chani Kaufman
It took me a few days to read this book--not because it was super long, or because I didn't like it; in fact, it was excellent and I loved it. I think it's because I related too strongly to and felt too much for the characters. The story begins at the wedding of Chani Kaufman and Baruch Levy, a pair of young Charedi (super religious) Jews in London, and flashes back to their betrothal. Their story is contrasted with that of the Rabbi performing the ceremony and his wife, the Rebbitzin tutoring Chani on being a Jewish wife, as their marriage becomes increasingly troubled. Books about very fum Jews always give me weirdly complicated emotions; I spent a chunk of my high school years hanging out with Yeshiva girls and knew a lot of girls like Chani (though slightly less sheltered) and have seen this environment firsthand. So I can say that Harris completely nails it. Plus, it's extremely well-written, has some really funny parts, plenty of touching parts, and is all-around great. I mean, it was longlisted for the Booker for a reason. The reason is that it's awesome. A.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

2013 book 245

Mary Miley's The Impersonator
It's 1924, and a young vaudeville actress has been hired to impersonate a long-missing girl, so she and the girl's uncle can claim the inheritance. I actually thought this was going to be a straight-up historical novel, but the actress almost immediately encounters a murdered woman and gets caught up in trying to solve the mystery--and find out what happened to the girl she's impersonating. WHICH of her genteel but money-grubbing relatives or hangers-on could be the killer?? Great historical details here, especially regarding the vaudeville/acting life and bootlegging. The mystery itself is a little bit over-the-top, and the protagonist's crush on a supposed relative is squicky (even though the reader knows they're not really related), but the characters are strong and I think I liked the way everything wrapped up. B/B+.

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

2013 book 244

Emma Chapman's How to Be a Good Wife
I never quite know how to evaluate books that are objectively good and affecting when they are just so UPSETTING. My feelings here are also tempered by the official book description, which compares this to two other recent literary/thriller type books, and those comparisons really give the game away earlier than Chapman perhaps intended. (On the other hand, strongly suspecting what happened adds a lot more tension to the narrative--and there was plenty of tension already.) Briefly: this is the story of a woman who stops taking her mysterious medication, and starts hallucinating--or remembering?--mysterious things. I was completely frustrated and angered by the ending, and can already see book clubs screaming about it.

This may be the vaguest review I have ever written! But I don't want to give anything away. It's a strong, compelling, but ultimately kind of depressing story. One that I want to yell about. B/B+.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on October 15th.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

2013 book 243

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Rereading this book raises a few questions I've always had about this series:
a) How on earth does a romance bloom between a giant and a human??? Especially based on what we see of the giants later in the series. I'm not even just wondering about the . . . mechanics. Like, how does one strike up a conversation with a giant? You wouldn't run into one at the grocery store. Actually, do wizards have grocery stores? Where do they get, like, canned goods? Do they use canned goods?
b) It's made clear here that using any of the Unforgivable Curses = a life sentence in Azkaban. Harry definitely tries them out in later books, but doesn't get in any trouble. Is it b/c he's using them on, like, Bellatrix Lestrange? (It's said that Crouch allowed the use of Unforgivable curses on Dark Wizards--so was that rule still in effect?)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

2013 book 242

Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave
I was, let's say, not excited to read this for FYA book club. Aliens are not really my bag. It started off not-terrible--I wasn't into the narrative voice, but teenage Cassie, alone and on the run after a multi-pronged alien invasion, was interesting enough, and there was plenty of action. Then like a quarter of the way through, the story starts to be narrated by a guy who is clearly Cassie's high-school crush and I was just like, seriously?? And every other part after that annoyed me even more. An alien assassin thinks Cassie is too cool to kill! Then she meets a different cute teenage boy and instantly becomes the most annoying character ever to exist. And that's all just in the first third of the book, before the ridiculous coincidences start piling up. I feel like Yancey is trying to make some philosophical points about humanity, but damned if I can tell what he meant. This book was extremely stupid. C.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

2013 book 241

Lauren Grodstein's The Explanation for Everything
Grodstein's latest, after the excellent Friend of the Family, is another strong and readable novel. It was actually amazingly readable, considering how many parts of it involved things that I personally find grating (student-teacher relationships, people who are into intelligent design [can't you believe in God AND evolution?? I do, so it's certainly not impossible!], an incorrect description of the academic grant application process [sorry, but I work with grants at a university! Professors don't just directly submit to the NSF and you certainly can't be still writing the scientific portions a week before it's due! There are CHANNELS and OFFICES you have to go through and SIGNATURES needed from the school!]).


The book is about a biology professor at a small (and apparently not very reputable) school, a widower with two daughters, who teacher a class on evolution called There Is No God (modeled after his Princeton professor mentor's most famous course). When a student approaches him about doing an independent study on intelligent design, he finds himself exploring the idea of faith. Grodstein absolutely nails writing people who are basically total messes and has academic politics (and neighborhood politics) down to a T. I'm actually still not sure how I feel about where things end up, but this was really good. A-/B+.

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

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

2013 book 240

Daniel Woodrell's The Maid's Version
I've never read anything by Woodrell before--he's getting much more hype now that Jennifer Lawrence is super famous: she received her first Oscar nom for Winter's Bone, based on the book by Woodrell. Much like Winter's Bone (the movie--like I said, I haven't read the book), this is a powerful, but harrowing, story. And it's surprisingly dense for such a short novel. It's narrated by young Alek, whose grandmother is relating the story of a terrible tragedy where a dance hall blew up, killing many people inside. But it's also the story of their family, and their town, and the family his grandmother worked for, and a few of the people who died that day, especially since the narrative moves back and forth in time, kind of all willy-nilly. I will also say that when the truth behind the disaster finally comes, it's . . . anti-climactic. From a literary perspective, this is strong, but I didn't really ENJOY it. B/B+.

Monday, September 09, 2013

2013 book 239

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Sometimes when you're sick and cranky, only Harry Potter will do! Man, I am still angry about the movie version of this and how they never say that Harry's Patronus is the same animal his dad could turn into. That connection is like the whole point of the book! Well, that and Hermione being awesome.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

2013 book 238

Tamora Pierce's Battle Magic
In the last couple of books in the Circle series, Pierce has referenced a war involving Pierce's Imperial China analogue that Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy fought in/survived, and I guess she decided to write a whole book about the war, even though we already know our main characters make it out mostly unscathed. Actually, this is stronger than some of the other books in this series--there's a lot more going on, especially since the three characters split up for a while. But the second half of the book is mostly getting ready for battles, and battling, and I just think reading about battles is boring. Plus, some cats are killed by the bad guys just to show how bad they are. It's entirely unnecessary, since they're also torturing a 12-year-old girl (not a spoiler--this is referenced in the earlier books). Gratuitous animal murder is an automatic downgrade. B/B-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on September 24th.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

2013 book 237

Tamora Pierce's Melting Stones
I figured I should read this before the new book in the Circle series comes out, even though I haven't been super excited about the last couple books in this series--and this was no exception. I like the characters plenty--it just seems like not really a lot happens in these books unless it's directly promoting personal growth or averting the one bad plot thing that's going on. Because there's only ever one plot thing going on. Anyway, in this one stone mage Evvy accompanies Rosethorn and some new character to an island to find out why parts of the land are dying. There are also some adorable pirate orphans and this series' best non-mage character (or at least, most competent non-mage character) to date. I kind of wish there was more to the story though. B.

2013 book 236

Dara Horn's A Guide for the Perplexed
Well, this book just warmed my history-and-Judaism-loving little heart! Horn's latest (after All Other Nights and In The Image, both of which I loved) has two main parallel storylines--the first, a sort of modern retelling of the story of Joseph from the Bible (I fully expect someone in the future to write a college term paper on the symbolism here--the names alone!) involves genius software developer Josie Ashkenazi, who's invented a program called Genizeh that is like social media ++, and who is convinced by her sister to go to Egypt to do a project with the Alexandria library, where she is then kidnapped (!!). The second involves awesome scholar Solomon Schechter, the namesake of like every Jewish day school, as he (and two Scottish sisters, who are amazing and hilarious here) uncovers the famous Cairo Genizeh. There's also a whole thread involving the Rambam, author of the original Guide for the Perplexed (whose papers were found in the Cairo Genizeh). That all may sound confusing or convoluted, but Horn's novel is entirely readable. She deftly draws all these narrative threads together into one completely engrossing story. I LOVED this. A.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on September 9th.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

2013 book 235

Meg Cabot's The Bride Wore Size 12
The latest entry in the Heather Wells series (also known as the series with my least-favorite titles) has more murder and mayhem at the dorm where Heather works, mainly centering on a rich Middle Eastern prince who's taken up residence there. She's also about to get married, but thankfully for me (who isn't interested in reading novels about weddings), there's not too much plot devoted to wedding planning or whatever. Anyway, there's a great sense of humor, as always, plus a long-awaited confrontation with Heather's crappy mom! Great stuff, perfect read on a day where I'm coming down with a cold and need something fun. A-/B+.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on September 24th.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

2013 book 234

Seanan McGuire's Chimes at Midnight
The seventh October Daye book (they're not really mysteries at this point) find Toby and her companions trying to stop a bad fairy drug from being sold, which leads to Toby getting exiled . . . and starting a revolution. It's all very action-packed, but with McGuire's trademark sense of humor. I seriously love this series--total entertainment. A-.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

2013 book 233

Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project
 I'm not sure what I was expecting when I started this book about an Australian genetics professor (who clearly has Asperger's, but seems unaware of the fact, though the text makes it obvious to the reader) who decides to create a questionnaire to find the perfect candidate to be his wife. And then a friend/colleague throws a young woman (the titular Rosie) looking for information on her biological father his way. The main beats of the story are pretty transparent, but the story was still TOTALLY CHARMING. Don and Rosie are both fully realized and likable characters, and I loved their interactions. The supporting characters are all really well-done too, as is the investigation on Rosie's father. This was completely delightful. A/A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on October 1st.

2013 book 232

Matthew Quick's Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
Quick is the author of, I guess, Silver Linings Playbook and some other books, but this one doesn't make me want to read those. I mean, it made me get all teary at an airport, but I feel like it's a book I've read several times before. It's about troubled teen Leonard, who's planning to murder a classmate (for reasons we don't find out till like 3/4 of the way through, and though I found the reasons very upsetting, they weren't presented in a way to make them, like, powerful) and then kill himself. Leonard is a typical fictional troubled teen, where he's the only one who's DIFFERENT and the only one who can see through all the BULLSHIT and CONFORMITY. It's too bad Leonard didn't grow up in the 90s; we hated conformity and surely he'd have found some peers to relate to. There's also the typical cool/okay teacher, and the old neighbor who gets him into Humphrey Bogart movies. It's all pretty  . . .  I don't want to say predictable, but there aren't really any surprises (I was mildly surprised by some things the mother does, but not in a good way). Anyway, this was a perfectly fine book, if you want to read one of those books where a troubled teen plans a suicide, but I wasn't really into it. And there were waaaaayyyy too many footnotes. B/B-.