Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 book 26

Adina Rishe Gewirtz's Zebra Forest
So it's like 1980, and a girl who's been following the Iran Hostage Crisis ends up a hostage herself when the father she believed to be dead escapes from prison. Pretty solid story about family--I thought the relationship between the protagonist and her brother was especially well-done--and a pretty solid read in general. I mean, it's a middle grade book. But a very readable one. B+.

2014 book 25

Diana Gabaldon's An Echo in the Bone
Gabaldon has really interesting stuff going on with Brianna and with Claire/Jamie here, so of course decides to devote a chunk of the book to William, fighting with the British during the Revolutionary War. It's hard to make war interesting when the reader knows the character is on the losing side, and William has not been enough of a presence in earlier books to make spending time with him feel like anything but a chore, especially because he's always getting lost and otherwise being an idiot. He gets a little better in the second half, but then Jamie and Claire and Young Ian get sucked into war activities too, and it's so blah. I don't know how she makes war SO boring! The pace does pick up toward the end, when several plot points I was sure would be cliffhangers were abruptly resolved. There's a fair amount of stupidity in this one--I mean, if you were writing in a secret notebook all of your time travel secrets, wouldn't you put it somewhere safe, and not keep accidentally giving it to nefarious people? Whatever. WHATEVER. Now I have to wait until June to read the next one and find out how all these morons survive. B.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2014 book 24

Diana Gabaldon's A Breath of Snow and Ashes
Well, here we are, dealing with the American Revolution, or whatever. All that was overshadowed by YET MORE RAPE, good lord, Gabaldon, why. WHY. There are so many other interesting things going on with your women--Claire being a doctor and feared as a witch, Brianna being an engineer (better shovels! matches! syringes! pipes and kilns!) and being overly outspoken and disliked, plus various time travel and interpersonal dramas. And murders. And yet they keep getting raped and/or kidnapped. Basically all of the main characters (including the men!) have been raped now and are emotionally traumatized and it's become very unpleasant. And it seems especially weird in a book, where, like, a girl straight-up marries a set of identical twins and Gabaldon is clearly gung-ho on this sex-positive threesome. You know, I have finally realized that this series is a historical SOAP OPERA and that's why it's so engaging and, at the same time, so terrible. At least no one tried to stone anyone on the Young and the Restless to death, though! Damn. B.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

2014 book 23

Diana Gabaldon's The Fiery Cross
The fifth Outlander book was made for North Carolina history nerds--there's a huge chunk involving the Regulators (the namesake of my local bookstore), though frankly Gabaldon makes the actual history party pretty uneventful and boring. There's also a scene, hilarious to modern NC residents like myself, wherein characters debate the merits of vinegar- vs tomato-based barbeque. It sounds just like every conversation I have ever heard about barbeque in modern times! Otherwise, it's same-ol', same-ol' here--it seems like nothing has major consequences, and that includes a hanging and a snakebite. Plus several attempted murders. But it feels like I read a thousand page book where nothing really happened. And yet I still like this series! The racism is also less awful this time around, though that's probably because there's little interaction with minorities in this one. I dunno. B/B+?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

2014 book 22

Sarah Addison Allen's Lost Lake
I have generally enjoyed all of Sarah Addison Allen's works, though they come a little too close to the border of cheesy/predictable/women's fiction for my own tastes--but they've always been tempered with a little bit of magic and a lot of likable characters, so even when the story beats were obvious, the books were satisfying. This one, about a recently widowed woman who takes her daughter to see her great-aunt at her lakeside resort, only the great-aunt is about to sell, well . . .  it didn't work for me as well. And, full disclosure, my review here is tempered by the author's note at the end revealing that this was written after Allen was diagnosed with breast cancer. So I don't want to be mean. I'll just say that . . . yeah, it didn't work for me. Especially the various reveals/wrap-ups at the end. Some of the characters are really great, and the town feels really fleshed out--there just wasn't quite enough going on or enough at stake. It ultimately just wasn't as charming as some of her earlier books, all of which I still wholeheartedly recommend. B/B-.

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2014 book 21

Erin Bow's Plain Kate
I had to reread this for FYA book club this month--not that it was a hardship, since I remembered loving it and only loved it slightly less this time around. Hard to go wrong with orphans and witches and Roamers and one extremely awesome cat. (Seriously, Taggle is SUCH a good character. He overrides any complains I'd have about the story [particularly its pacing].)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2014 book 20

Diana Gabaldon's Drums of Autumn
These books are so dang long that by the time I get to the end of one, I can't remember if what happened in the beginning was in this book or the one before. Well, definitely Claire and Jamie settle in North Carolina in this one, so there's a lot more racism as they interact with various slaves and Native Americans. (And when I say racism, I don't just mean the characters, who are historically accurately racist, but Gabaldon's descriptions, written in the 1990s. She is really pushing the "noble savage" thing here. It's gross.) Plus, the rapiness is back! I thought now that Claire was in her 40s, we'd be ok, but now there's a nubile young daughter time traveling as well, and she flat out gets raped (spoilers). Plus all the men are, like, "brutes"--which I think Gabaldon means to be romantic, but really just has me wanting to call the modern day cops for domestic violence. I really wonder about her life sometimes. The sad thing is, I still enjoy reading this books (despite their length--each could easily be like 300 pages shorter) and want to know what ridiculous things will happen next to these ridiculous characters. But I really can't recommend them in good faith. B.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

2014 book 19

Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikrey
I devoured this book. I just ate it up. It is basically a love letter to book-lovers everywhere. I can think of few authors as versatile as Zevin (who has written, among other things, a YA trilogy set in a near future where chocolate is illegal) and I really love what she's done here, in the story of a recently widowed bookseller, a publishing sales rep, and an abandoned toddler, and how books bring them--and other characters--together. Does it veer mildly into cheesy/overly-neat territory? Yes, but it is no less delightful for that, and I think most people don't mind that anyway. I just adored this, and it made me want to give up my informal ban on short stories. Really a GREAT book for fellow word nerds. A.

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

2014 book 18

Diana Wynne Jones' Black Maria
After that last book, I wanted to read something lighter and also wanted to read Diana Wynne Jones--but I think I've read all her GOOD books and am down to the dregs. This one involves a trip to visit an aunt in a mysterious and sinister town. It was weirdly sexist, for Jones, and the protagonist isn't really very proactive. There are some good cats but otherwise I was really not into this one. B/B-.

2014 book 17

E. Lockhart's We Were Liars
The publisher is making a Big Deal out of people with advance copies not revealing any of the plot of Lockhart's latest book--I'm not really sure why, as it's not THAT crazy. But hey, publicity.  Apparently I CAN reveal that it involves a rich family who summers on a private island. There are also a lot of Diana Wynne Jones references. I didn't really love this, though it did make me cry in an airport. It's kind of upsetting. Good writing, I just wasn't really as into it as I expected and wanted to be. B/B+.

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

Friday, January 17, 2014

2014 book 16

Diana Gabaldon's Voyager
Well, the third Outlander book has slightly less rapiness, but WAY more racism. A Chinese character and several Jewish characters are introduced, and the stereotypes are just awful, particularly with the Chinese character. And then they go to Jamaica and encounter slaves, since it's the late 1700s, and that's just as bad. I don't know why--these were written in the 1990s! Gabaldon should really know better. And it's a bummer, because this one is otherwise a lot more readable than the last one. The first third involves a lot of historical research (my favorite!), and then Claire decides to abandon her 19 year old daughter and her career as a doctor to go back in time, because of her GREAT LOVE, which seems a little silly, but whatever, then there are pirates and things, and lots of action. But oy, SO MUCH racism. Really, really bad racism. B.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 book 15

M.R. Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts
M.R. Carey is actually Mike Carey, author of many comic books (including Unwritten, one of my very favorites). I'm not sure why he's using initials here--to separate his fiction from his comics?--but whatever, I only wanted to read this in the first place because he wrote it! It's about a mysterious girl, Melanie, in a mysterious school in a mysterious place isolated from the world outside--because it's full of Hungries. Yes, I accidentally read a zombie book. No, that's not a spoiler, the hungries are mentioned pretty early on. Anyway, the deal with Melanie is explained in good time, because the story is told not only from her POV, but from her favorite teacher's and various other characters. And then things take a drastic turn and things get really crazy. But, I mean, it's a zombie book, and I really feel like it should be marketed that way if Carey really wants a wider audience. I do like the vague and mysterious nature of the official book description though. B+, because zombies give me nightmares and also this book is crazy.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2014 book 14

Julie Murphy's Side Effects May Vary
I feel like the description of this book--which made me want to read it--implies a different sort of story than what is actually here. It's about a Cancer Girl, and her longtime best friend, a guy who's been in love with her for years--and what happens when she goes into remission. The description implies that she has a whole list of crazy/mean/vengeful things she does (with his help) when she thinks she's dying, and then has to deal with the consequences, but really she only does, like, two things. It's really about her relationship with her friend (and her unwillingness to have an honest conversation with him, because she's a stupid teenager). It's really well-written, though, even though Harvey is kind of too perfect to be true, and I liked the end a lot. Perfect for fans of complicated characters and complicated romances. B+.

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

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2014 book 13

Natalie Whipple's House of Ivy and Sorrow
This was a pretty solid YA fantasy about a teenage girl in Iowa who's secretly a witch, living with her witch grandmother, when the Curse that killed her mother seems to be looking for her as well--along with some mysterious, and possibly evil, men. There's some really interesting world-building here, and I really liked the protagonist's relationships with her best friends and her new boyfriend (there are some love triangle elements that I found tiresome, ie a boyfriend jealous of some other guy, but I liked that she was committed to her boyfriend). Things are a little draggy in the middle, but I liked the end a lot--the way things wrapped up made me interested in reading a sequel, if one is coming. B+.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in April.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

2014 book 12

Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber
The sequel to Outlander is a lot less awesome than its predecessor. It starts off strong, in 1968, and the beginning is so startling after the way the last one ended that I checked three times to make sure I hadn't skipped a book. But then we flash back to where we left off, with Jamie and Claire doing whatever it is they're doing. Mainly they're in France here, doing really boring political things, and then in Scotland, half-heartedly participating in a war. Seriously, this book was soooo long and sooo boring. And I say this as a history major! It seems like it could have been interesting, but it just isn't. Also, this one has even MORE rapiness than the last one did. It's very . . . unpleasant. I also feel like Claire and Jamie's relationship is supposed to read as passionate, but some of their arguments are very cringe-worthy. I'll probably check out the third one, but this one was like 400 pages too long. B.

Friday, January 10, 2014

2014 book 11

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander
When I mentioned my love of time-travel books a couple months ago, someone (I think it was Elizabeth) suggested I check this one out. Plus, it's about to be a tv show! I think I was expecting it to be silly and/or cheesy, but it's actually surprisingly GREAT. It's about a woman who served as an army nurse in WWII, and now that the war is over, she and her husband have reunited and gone on a trip to Scotland, to get to know each other again, and so he can research his genealogy. Then she goes to sightsee at a mini-Stonehenge-thing and gets SUCKED BACK IN TIME to 1743! Good thing she knows all about that period of history from her history-nerd husband! Aaaand there's totally a hot Scottish guy! (All I knew about this plot going in was that she falls for some guy in the past, and I was worried for a minute that it'd turn out to be her husband's ancestor--scandalous!!--but he turns out to be a real dillhole.) Now, this book is not perfect. There's too much of the rough sex/stuff = romanticized manliness (it /was/written in 1991) (but like, at one point he straight up BEATS her, which is somehow good here?). Various dudes try to rape the protagonist like four or five different times (I LOST COUNT, that's how many times dudes try to rape her!). When someone is eventually raped, though, the psychological effects are handled pretty well. But really, this book was good! The writing is a lot better than it needs to be. In fact, I am about to BUY the second one because the library e-book has too many holds and I can't wait to see what happens next. A-.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

2014 book 10

Cara Hoffman's Be Safe I Love You
Hoffman's second novel (after So Much Pretty) centers on a young woman who's just returned from the war in Iraq, and is clearly deeply troubled about something that happened there (and being in the war in general). She's determined to take her beloved younger brother up to Canada, where she'll meet up with an army buddy and start a new life. But meanwhile, she's dodging calls from an army psychologist and assaulting her on-again/off-again boyfriend. Honestly, the plot isn't really the main thing here--it's much more of a study of a young soldier back from war, and the relationship she has with her brother, and the people who live in a small army town. I was not entirely sold on the ending, but really, really enjoyed reading this. Really strong writing and very compelling. A-.

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

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

2014 book 9

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life
I've been wanting to reread this for a while now--the details had gotten all hazy, which means it's time--and then just yesterday it won the Costa Award, so now seemed like as good a time as any. I was worried it wouldn't be as great as the first time I read it, even if I didn't remember everything, but really, there's never any need to worry when it comes to Atkinson. This one manages to delight me, terrify me, and have me sitting with bated breath all in equal measure. It's also a very well-done war novel. I just really love Ursula's growing awareness and resolve and how much this story is about family. So great. Definitely my favorite book of last year.

2014 book 8

Carrie Vaughn's Dreams of the Golden Age
The long-awaited (at least by me) sequel to After the Golden Age centers on Celia's teenage daughter, Anna, who's been hiding her powers from her parents and secretly assembling a team of superheroes among her classmates. They're teenagers, so some ridiculous ego-driven power struggles arise--I think I like reading about superheroes more when they're a little bit older and less stupid. Despite that, the characters are all really likable, and it's nice to see what Celia and her cohort have been up to. The big bad villain's motivations don't make a ton of sense, but I really enjoyed the way this wrapped up, and would definitely read more books set in this universe. A-/B+.

Monday, January 06, 2014

2014 book 7

Leila Sales' This Song Will Save Your Life
I have actively been avoiding reading this book, despite positive reviews, because I absolutely HATE the title. It's like that one scene in that Garden State movie. Terrible. No. But then I realized that Sales was the author of Past Imperfect, which I looooved. So, okay. It's about teenage outcast Elise, who everyone has hated since they were all kids because she . . . wore an ugly sweater? I don't know. Also, she listens to THE CURE and thinks pop music is terrible, so obviously she just can't fit in at school no matter how hard she tries! Actually, the beginning of this book is completely depressing, even though I sound flippant about it--I just hate books about teenagers who JUST CAN'T FIT IN because they like music that is "uncool" even though the Cure sold millions of albums and had videos on MTV, ok, everyone likes the freaking Cure. I've seen college a capella groups do songs by the Cure. Listening to the Cure and the Smiths does not make you special. And surely there is one popular song she can secretly find catchy, no? Musical taste is not a good marker of weirdness nowadays--don't they have hipsters at her high school? My high school had hipsters, but then again, it WAS the 90s. Sales does nail Elise's feelings of loneliness, though. Anyway, then she discovers an underground dance party and her life is TRANSFORMED. Teenagers dancing to Blur! What a world.

And as a former longtime college radio DJ, I can tell you that Sales' DJing info is accurate! But, like, everything else was kind of annoying. I kind of resented the implication that Elise's problems were due to her being precocious, when she never makes any effort to actually be friends with the people she hangs out with. She's never like, "hey, want to see a movie?"  I started wondering if Elise was on the autism spectrum at a certain point, because she was so bad at interacting with people and reading social cues. Things get better like 2/3 of the way through, but the inevitable triumphant ending feels pretty pat.

This book was fine. It probably doesn't merit such sarcasm on my part, but man, YA tropes involving music are like grrrrrr to me. Whatever. B/B-.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

2014 book 6

Jennifer Nielsen's The Shadow Throne
The final book in Nielsen's Ascendance Trilogy (after The False Prince and The Runaway King) hits all the right notes and has plenty of great gotcha moments, but the whole thing is yet another war story. I'm kind of tired of fantasy war stories, because you know that--especially in a middle grade novel--the good guys will overcome all odds and win, and no beloved characters will die. So then it's just like reading about a chess game--there are no stakes, just moves and countermoves. And I find chess boring. To be fair, the characters here are all great and this is still a fun read, just like the first two. I'd definitely recommend this to middle grade kids (with the caveat that there should be more badass women in it). I'm just sick of war stories. B/B+.

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

Friday, January 03, 2014

2014 book 5

Erika Johansen's Queen of the Tearling
When a book gets a ton of buzz--which this has been doing for months now, when it and its sequels were sold for seven figures and then optioned into a movie set to star Emma Watson--it can be hard for it to live up to the hype. Let me say: it surpasses the hype. Johansen's writing is amazingly accomplished and assured, especially for a first novel (apparently she's a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop), and her characters are really powerful and compelling. I can't comment on whether this is a "female Game of Thrones," as other people have said, never having read those books, but it is a strong epic fantasy with a lot going on told from several different perspectives. (It definitely has less rape than those books apparently do, though there is some offscreen implied rape.) It actually reminds me a bit of Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns books, at least in terms of a young woman learning and growing and coming into her power--though it is really heads and tails above those (and I loved those books!), and isn't YA. Interestingly, while the setting reads like a typical medieval fantasy, it's quickly revealed that it actually takes place in the FUTURE, adding an interesting nuance to everything.

And I haven't even started talking about the plot or the characters! Our protagonist, the slightly unfortunately named Kelsea, is a nineteen-year-old heir to a throne, raised in hiding with little knowledge of her kingdom's recent history or her mother's death (though she is otherwise well-educated). Now it's time to claim her crown--only just about everyone is determined to stop that from happening, by lethal means. Meanwhile, the next kingdom over has been ruled by the Red Queen for over a hundred years, and she's pretty gung-ho on colonizing everyone else. Tons of action, political machinations, and character growth follow. There is also a hot and mysterious thief. (But, interestingly, no romance, really.) Kelsea is also a book nerd, so there are lots of literary references that caused me plenty of delight. I really loved this and can't wait to see where the series goes. I can't think of an epic fantasy book that has pleased me more. A.

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

2014 book 4

Charles Finch's A Stranger in Mayfair
The fourth Charles Lenox mystery (and I really wish Finch had given his protagonist a different first name, because I am perpetually getting the two confused) has Lenox getting tangled up in a case involving another acquaintance's murdered servant, as well as dealing with being a newly elected member of Parliament. It is a little annoying that it takes him 35 chapters (literally, that is not an exaggeration) to figure out something that's obvious from the first chapter to anyone who's ever read a mystery before, and the killer's identity is pretty obvious too. On the other hand, Lenox is married now, and everything with that is GREAT. I always enjoy seeing actual healthy marriages in my books.The mystery itself is pretty blah though, and I'm not really sure what the point of the Parliament stuff is, no matter how interesting it might be to a history nerd such as myself. B.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2014 book 3

Maria V. Snyder's Taste of Darkness
Sometimes I just don't have the time or inclination to reread the previous books in a series before the new one comes out, and that was a major problem here, because I didn't really remember all the various bad guys, their political machinations, etc, and this book does a TERRIBLE job of bringing a reader up to speed. I know it can be annoying if you've just read all the other books to be reminded of info you already know, but I needed a lot more than was given here. And the writing feels a lot clumsier than in the earlier books. I never really got into this, especially since it's just all war, war, war, journey, journey, journey all the time and the plot is all over the place and it's even more disgusting than the previous volumes. I'm also kind of over Avry and her special magicalness and her connection to the main bad guy--she's much more interesting as a straightforward healer than whatever it is she's doing most of the time here. On the other hand, I do like how the main romantic relationship is presented. It's not enough to make up for an anti-climactic ending and my general lack of interest in the goings-on, though. Too bad, this series had such a strong start. B-.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2014 book 2

Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Goes to War
This 8th Kitty Norville book has Kitty investigating a convenience store chain that may have weird supernatural stuff going on, as well as trying to rehabilitate some werewolf soldiers just back from Afghanistan. I do wish this series had less rapiness--there's some gross language in this one. Anyway, another fine entry in the series, more of the same, etc etc. B.

2014 book 1

Rachel Joyce's Perfect
Joyce's latest--after the great Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry--has two parallel storylines. The first involves two school friends, Byron and James, and what happens when Byron and his mother are involved in an accident. The second involves a grownup Jim and his complicated life. The first storyline has a lot of interesting things going on, particularly with Byron's parents' marriage and his mother's class issues--but at a certain point, Byron and his mother are both so naive that it becomes frustrating to read, waiting for the other shoe to drop on their idiocy. And then things kind of go haywire and everything is a little too much over the top melodramatic. The second storyline is less messy, but more tender and sad somehow. Joyce does a good job of showing how the two tie together, but definitely the modern side of the story is a lot stronger. B/B+.

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