Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2014 book 92

Mary Robinette Kowal's Valour and Vanity
A new book in Kowal's Glamourist Histories series is always exciting to me--it's one of my favorites, adding a touch of magic to Jane Austen-ish Regency era stories. And I like to see a series with a married couple having adventures and solving problems together. The problem with this latest one is that the plot centers on having the main characters be dumb, which isn't much fun to read about. (It also takes a while for things to get going, even with a pirate attack in one of the early chapters.) I appreciated the whole scheming a heist aspect of it, but this wasn't as strong for me as the last couple were. I mean, obviously I'll keep reading the series, but probably won't revisit this one. B.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

2014 book 91

Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange
Durham native Graedeon's (I'm pretty sure her parents are the People's Pharmacy folks) first novel takes place in a near future (not that the dates given in the book add up to any sort of reasonable timeline, unless the protagonist was a VERY late-in-marriage baby) where everyone basically relies on a VR/Siri type thing that is integrated into their brains or something (I don't know how to explain). Protagonist Ana's father is opposed to these sorts of things, being the editor of the only remaining print dictionary in America. But then he disappears, and people start to come down with "word flu"--a fairly terrifying form of aphasia--and Ana has to try and figure out what the heck is happening. In general, this is a pretty solid literary-themed sci-fi/thriller sort of story. Parts of it move a little slowly--my eyes glazed over whenever Hegel was discussed, which was more than a few times, and there are some lengthy exposition dumps--and she leans a bit heavily on the foreshadowing (lots of "Had I only known" and "I never used that again" and "Later, I regretted"). I also wish there was less of people deliberately leaving Ana in the dark. But Graedon does some interesting things once the word flu starts getting more dominant--she manages a nice balance of functional narrative with complete gibberish. Now, it is a bit heavy-handed that reading REAL BOOKS can serve as a cure (like, why is this even available in the e-book format in which I read it?), but I really liked this as a meditation on, like, the meaning and development of language. Fascinating stuff. B/B+.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

2014 book 90

Margi Preus' West of the Moon
Really an excellent and lovely story about a 19th century Norwegian girl who sort of interprets the events of her life through fairy tales (which really justifies a lot of bad behavior!). I liked the protagonist's determination to escape her lot and head to America, and I thought the relationship with her little sister was very strong. One plot point revealed at the end was mildly upsetting and made me wish for a sequel to clear everything up, but I'm pretty sure this is a standalone. :( A-.

Friday, April 25, 2014

2014 book 89

Lindsay Smith's Sekret
Four words for you: 1960s Soviet psychic spies!!

My giddiness about the premise here was pretty warranted--this was a fun read, despite the dangers faced by the protagonist, a psychic teenager kidnapped by the KGB to train with other psychic teenagers to ferret out traitors and American spies. Ah, the Cold War. I would have enjoyed this more if the romance angle had been a little less prominent (my complaint about many YA books)--I mean, if your life was in danger and your mom and brother were being held captive to keep you in line, would you really have time to fall for a boy with dreamy eyes who introduces you to the music of the Beatles? OK, I mean, it IS the Beatles, maybe it makes sense. And a major plot twist is pretty easy to figure out, but that might be on purpose. Anyway, this was enjoyable, if entirely unrealistic. Then again, 1960s psychic Soviet spies!! B/B+.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

2014 book 88

Cynthia Kadohata's The Thing About Luck
Winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2013, this is one of those books that probably resonates more if you read it when you're an actual young person, and not 35. Not that parts of it aren't charming, because they are. Plus, it's educational--I never before knew so much about wheat harvesting! (I realize that sounds facetious, and don't mean it to.) I was just uninterested in Summer's crush (though liked how that plotline resolved) and some of the writing was a little bit TOO for-young-people. But everything with Summer and her family was great, and I enjoyed Summer's efforts to make sense of A Separate Peace, a book I also struggled to comprehend at that age. B+.

2014 book 87

Deborah Coates' Wide Open
So this seems to be the first book in a series, where Hallie Michaels, overseas in the Army, is sent home to South Dakota for her sister's funeral. Only she's not alone--since she technically died and was brought back to life, she sees ghosts, and one of her Army buddies is hanging out with her. And then her sister's ghost starts hanging out, and Hallie starts thinking maybe her sisters' death wasn't a suicide or an accident after all. Mainly b/c everyone in town acts super dodgy all the time! Seriously, the writing here is way over the top and telegraphs way too much to make this a satisfying mystery. And Hallie is kind of a dumbass of an investigator, lacking all subtlety and getting into bar fights. I also can't tell if all the conversations are purposefully super awkward and/or dumb or not, but either way, it's frustrating to read. Anyway, things get totally bonkers, which is at least a little interesting. But Hallie isn't really a relatable character, and in general, I wasn't really feeling this. B/B-.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

2014 book 86

Brenna Yovanoff's Fiendish
Yovanoff's latest (after the excellent Paper Valentine) is delightfully creepy and more than a little crazy. It involves one Clementine, buried in a cellar ten years ago and alive through magic, who is discovered and rescued by a local boy. And then the magical shit starts hitting the proverbial fan.  Clementine has little-to-no common sense but is sympathetic and likable anyway, and I especially enjoyed her relationship with her cousin and with another friend of theirs--both of whom are also gifted with magic, and thus viewed with suspicion by the rest of the town.  Things wrap up in a fairly satisfying manner, even if a couple of questions are left unanswered, and though this seems like a standalone, I'd definitely revisit these characters. And definitely will check out whatever Yovanoff does next. A-/B+.

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

2014 book 85

Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia
First published in 1983 and then apparently forgotten, this has just been reissued, and I'm really glad! Although it's thirty years old, it has a timeless quality to it, and could just have easily been released in the past decade. Narrated in the first person plural, it's the story of four (girl) cousins who live at their grandmother's house (she's the titular Queen), as various other relatives (particularly their five aunts) come and go. It's kind of a coming of age story, and kind of a family epic, and all really wonderful. Gorgeous writing, steeped in nostalgia and wistfulness. A-.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

2014 book 84

Susan Jane Gilman's The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street
Gilman's first novel (after Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, among other non-fiction) is RIGHT up my alley. It's about one Lillian Dunkle, the Ice Cream Queen, mired in scandals in the 1980s, and narrating her life story from the 1910s, when she was a little Russian-Jewish immigrant girl. Then she gets trampled by a horse and subsequently adopted by its owner, an Italian ice salesman. I love stories about immigrants in this period of New York history, and I ESPECIALLY love reading about ice cream, so this was basically the greatest. Lillian is sympathetic and repellent in equal measures, and Gilman displays a sly sense of humor here.  It manages to be both a skewering of corporate culture and excess across the decades and a moving novel about an immigrant making her way in America. Parts of it are a little slow and I felt like a couple of minor plot points went unresolved, but on the whole, this was pretty excellent. A-.

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 book 83

Danielle Paige's Dorothy Must Die
This is not a book I had any particular interest in reading, but hey, you take what you can get with library e-books. At first, it was actually really readable, and most of it moves along at a good pace, as Kansas teen Amy, bullied for living in a trailer park, is whisked away to Oz by a tornado, where she encounters various Oz denizens (I loved the goth Munchkin) and finds out Dorothy has basically become a fascist despot. Things drag a bit in the middle--the romance angle is unnecessary and really bogs the story down, and the whole learning-to-believe-in-yourself thing feels pretty trite--and some plot points are VERY easy to figure out if you've read any of the Oz books (and those take WAY too long to be revealed). The writing itself is fine, if repetitive and occasionally cheesy. The ending indicates a sequel is coming, but I doubt I'll read it. B.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 book 82

Elizabeth Gaffney's When The World Was Young
So this is the story of a young girl, way into Wonder Woman comics (yay!) and entomology (interesting!), from V-J day--when a family tragedy hits--up through the 1950s. I loved everything about her interest in science and desire to be a professor studying ant pheromones, as well as her friendship with the family maid and the maid's son. I was less interested in her love-life and how things got a little cheesy toward the end. But in general, this was a satisfying historical read with some strong political/cultural points. B/B+.

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

2014 book 81

Dana Reinhardt's We Are The Goldens
Reinhardt's latest YA book (after The Summer I Learned to Fly and A Brief Chapter in my Impossible Life) centers on the younger of a pair of sisters, Nell, looking forward to starting high school and living the dream. But things aren't as dreamy as she'd imagined, especially once she finds out a secret of her sister's, putting her in a moral quandary.  Really solid writing, and I appreciate that Reinhardt is centering her story on an ethical dilemma and on the relationship between sisters. Nell's experience with romance is also more realistic than that of a lot of YA books, which was great. B+.

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

2014 book 80

Francine Prose's Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
Prose is one of those authors who inhabits an entirely different world with each book she writes. This one involves a group of people in Paris in the 1930s, all brought together by the titular Chameleon Club, told through their letters and memoirs and an extremely terrible biography of a lesbian racecar driver turned Gestapo torturer. It's fascinating to see the same scenes from different perspectives, and I loved seeing the art world of that era through an up-and-coming photographer, his baroness patron, a writer who fancies himself as another Hemingway, the latter's ex-girlfriend (who I hate to label that way, since she is by far my favorite character), and more. I also love how character beats are revealed slowly and somewhat hilariously. A few parts drag--including, oddly, a scene where the racecar driver has dinner with Hitler--and I struggled with the casual (and not-so-casual) anti-Semitism of several of the characters (though it is very accurate!) but in generally really loved this--another strong contender from Prose. A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on April 22nd.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

2014 book 79

Claire North's The Fifteen Lives of Harry August
This has kind of a similar premise to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, in that the main character dies and is born again into his old life. But here, he doesn't die that often (mostly lives to an old age each time), and is very aware of his situation. Eventually he discovers a club of people who also relive their lives--as well as someone determined to bring their club down to enable his own experiments. It's all pretty sci-fi-ish? I'm not really sure. It's interesting enough, I just wasn't really into the conflict between Harry and Vincent, which makes up the majority of the book. B.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

2014 book 78

Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Man, you write a reworking of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale set in New York in the 1920s, and I am THERE. And this was VERY well-done, centering on the twelve daughters of a wealthy man who doesn't really interact with them at all, and doesn't let them out of the house (so they sneak out to dance at speakeasies!), and is now about to start marrying them off. The girls are believable, and all have distinct personalities, and best of all, they don't rely on a prince (or any dude) to rescue them! (OK, a few dudes help, but mainly they rescue themselves.) I loved the relationships between the girls, and loved how they all progressed. In fact, I loved everything about this book. I'm sure if I wanted to get nitpicky, I could find some things to criticize, but I don't see why I should, especially when I'm still full of delight about it. Because it was delightful. A.

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

2014 book 77

Ann Brashares' The Here and Now
Brashares takes a pretty big departure from the world of the magical traveling pants with her latest, which I /think/ is a standalone. It centers on Prenna, a girl FROM THE FUTURE!!! Yes, in this book, about a thousand people from a devastated future have come to live in the past, in theory to try and stop a series of plagues, but also to live in luxury. One of their main rules is not to get too friendly with the natives, but of course Prenna is way into a cute boy from her high school. I actually didn't hate the romance here, but wish more time had been spent on the world-building, because it's pretty interesting, and less on the hand-holding. Anyway, it's Brashares--the plot is pretty interesting, the writing is adequate, and Prenna is mildly unrealistic, even considering that she's FROM THE FUTURE. But I like time travel books and this wraps up in a better way than I'd have imagined, so: B/B+.

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

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

2014 book 76

Laini Taylor's Dreams of Gods and Monsters
The final book in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy is a pretty good wrap-up! I don't really have much to say about it--I appreciated that, although it's all about gearing up to a battle of good vs evil, or whatever, there was minimal violence, and I could have done with a little less of the angsty forbidden romance stuff (the amount of time spent talking about how they haven't even kissed yet is WAY TOO MUCH). And definitely, I feel like the action on Earth is a plot thread that just kind of gets dropped. But I liked the way it wrapped up, and new character (at least, I don't remember her from the earlier books) Eliza Jones, a grad student with mysterious and disturbing dreams, is AMAZING. And things go in interesting directions. I don't know, I have no complaints about it, but I'm also not like "OMGGGG I need to talk to someone about this!" It's fine. It's good! B+/A-.

Monday, April 07, 2014

2014 book 75

Roxane Gay's Untamed State
What do you say about a book when you recognize its literary merit, but wish you hadn't read it because it was amazingly upsetting? This book is going to haunt me for months and months. I honestly felt a little sick while reading it. And I still feel sick just thinking about it. Anyway, it's about a woman visiting her (wealthy) family in Haiti with her husband and baby, when she is kidnapped and held for ransom. Only her father doesn't want to pay, on principle. And they rape and torture and break her for thirteen days. And somehow she has to survive it.

I have read and enjoyed several of Gay's essays, but this novel turned me into a quivering heap of terror. Is that a good thing, from a writer's perspective? Certainly this novel is powerful. But also certainly, I felt like finishing it was kind of like punishing myself? (I hesitate to use the word "masochistic" because of its sexual connotations, because nothing in this book is remotely titillating.) Although I did really like the relationship between the woman and her mother-in-law.

I don't know how to grade this book. I'm giving it 4 stars on Goodreads, but don't really recommend it except for the most stout-hearted readers.

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

Sunday, April 06, 2014

2014 book 74

Nina Lacour's Everything Leads to You
LaCour's latest (after Hold Still and The Disenchantments) just further cements her status as one of my favorite writers. This one centers on 18-year-old Emi, a set design intern for a production company in Hollywood (and very talented at what she does), and what happens when she and her best friend discover a letter from a famous deceased actor and start to solve an old mystery. It is also a completely adorable love story between two girls AND a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes stuff in movies (SO FASCINATING!). I just loved everything about this--cute and functional families, realistic relationships, honest communication, and so on. I really feel like LaCour would be great for A.S. King fans, particularly those who liked Ask The Passengers. A.

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

Saturday, April 05, 2014

2014 book 73

Emma Straub's The Vacationers
Straub's second novel--after Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures--will be PERFECT beach reading for the more literary-minded set this summer. Which I absolutely mean as a compliment. It centers on a family vacationing in Mallorca--Franny and Jim and their troubled marriage (the details of which are revealed in a timely manner); daughter Sylvia, about to start college and determined to lose her virginity; Franny's best friend, Charles, and his husband Lawrence, who are trying to adopt a baby; and adult son Bobby and his older girlfriend, who none of the rest like (very unfairly, in this reader's opinion). The writing here is strong--particularly descriptions of beaches and other local color--and the interactions feel realistic, and if it all wraps up more-or-less neatly, well, that's why it's a good beach read. Bobby is kind of a weak link, but all the other characters are great and I enjoyed this very much. A-.

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

Friday, April 04, 2014

2014 book 72

Emma Donaghue's Frog Music
Donaghue's first novel since Room (though there was a book of short stories somewhere in there too) didn't immediately grab me like its predecessor did. It was one of those books where I enjoyed it as I was reading, more or less, but was never in a hurry to pick up again once I'd put it down. It centers on Blanche, a burlesque performer/prostitute in late 1800s San Francisco, dealing with the murder of her friend Jenny (a pants-wearing, bicycle-riding, frog-catching free spirit kind of woman). The story flashes back and forth from their meeting and burgeoning friendship (during a smallpox epidemic!) to the weekend after the murder, with Blanche kind of flailing around helplessly, trying to figure out what happened and finding out about Jenny's past, and also trying to find out who has her missing baby, because of course her common-law husband kidnapped their baby to punish her. I will say that at times this was very hard to read--Donaghue seems to have an interest in writing about men degrading women, but it's not something I particularly have an interest in reading about. In general, this is kind of a slow book. Apparently it's based on a true story. I am kind of meh about it, if you couldn't tell. B.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

2014 book 71

Lauren Owen's The Quick
This book starts off with a dusty, old-fashioned, Gothic literature sort of atmosphere to it, as young James and Charlotte are mostly left to their own devices on their isolated estate. And then James grows up, and goes to Oxford, and is struggling to be a poet while living with a dissolute aristocratic type.  And things start to feel really moving and hopeful and romantic . . . and THEN! Things go in a totally unexpected and amazing direction! Like, so many exclamation points were in my mind! And it's all told in diaries and letters and from all different perspectives. And James stops writing letters, and older sister Charlotte comes to London to try and find him. I don't want to give away anything else, b/c the surprise twist was really great to me, so I'll just say this was GREAT, full of great characters (including lots of amazing girls/women). I have no complaints at all, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. A.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on April 3rd.