Monday, June 30, 2014

2014 book 149

Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar
Sooooo, it's the Meg Wolitzer Sylvia Plath YA novel. Actually, it's a novel about a girl who's sent to a school for "gifted but emotionally fragile" teens after a personal tragedy, where she and four other students are enrolled in a special English class to study the works of Plath--and write in magical journals allowing them to relieve their pasts. OK, sure. I will say, I was totally engrossed in this book for the first half, and then things fell apart a little for me, probably because I wasn't sure about all the teen romance going on, some things/feelings are stated way too blatantly/awkwardly, and also b/c the other four characters are never that well-defined. I guessed most of the ending (though Wolitzer really went much farther than I had anticipated with her reveals, which was cool) but wish it had been a little less neat. I feel like sometimes authors writing YA who normally write for adults kind of dumb things down a little, and that's kind of the case here. I mean, this is a nice book and I think bookish teenage girls will be WAY into it, I just wished for a little more. B/B+.

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

2014 book 148

Mary Miller's The Last Days of California
Miller's debut centers on a young girl, Jess, whose family is road-tripping cross country to California for the Rapture, in theory trying to "save" people along the way. Instead, it's sort of a hellish family road trip--Miller really nails the claustrophobic atmosphere and the feeling of endlessness of driving west--where her older sister is secretly pregnant, and Jess is more interested in boys than God. The writing here is really strong, but I had some really mixed feelings about how things wrapped up, and wished we'd gotten more insight into the parents--particularly their mom. Miller absolutely nails teenage girls, though. B+.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

2014 book 147

Katy Simpson Smith's A Story of Land and Sea
Katy Simpson Smith did a Ph.D. in History at UNC, and it shows. Which is meant to be a compliment--she really makes 1700s North Carolina come alive. The story is primarily set in Beaufort (primarily known to me as the home of the Duke Marine Lab, haha), and starts with a young girl, whose mother died in childbirth, being raised fairly unconventionally by her father (a former pirate!). Then we flash back to her mother's youth, and this section was a lot slower for me, but the third section brought everything home, especially the parts told from the perspective of Moll the slave. Smith has a deft touch on the horrors of slavery and the hardship of being a woman in that period, even though her main protagonists are a couple of sad white dudes. Anyway, it's a solid debut, and historical fiction fans and NC denizens will probably be into it. B+.

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

2014 book 146

Rebecca Rotert's Last Night At The Blue Angel
Oh man, this book was beautiful. I had to force myself to put it down last night so I wouldn't stay up too late, because it would be all too easy to devour this in a single sitting. It's about Sophia, a ten year old girl in 1965 whose single mother is a struggling singer at a downtrodden jazz club--except we find out right away that she's about to become famous. Then we flash back to the year leading up to that one big night, interspersed with the story of mother Naomi's teen years in the 50s and the start of her career. It's fascinating to see the two stories start to collide (especially as we meet Sophia's beloved family friends one at a time through Naomi's eyes) and I loved every minute of both of them. Also high marks for Sophia's friendship with the one little black girl at school (ah, the 60s) and their library trips, and the photographer besotted with her mother who is basically her dad. Seriously, everything about this book was just great. A.

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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

2014 book 145

Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers
I've actually never read a book by Perrotta--he's one of those authors I always /mean/ to check out, but there's always something more interesting on the to-read list. Having a well-received HBO show based on this book premiering tomorrow shot it to the top, though! And I actually liked it a lot. As probably everyone knows, it's about a small town in the aftermath of a world-wide Rapture-like event, where a few million people just up and vanished all at once (but they were of all races, ages. religions, etc, so it's emphatically not really the Rapture). Anyway, yes, small town in the aftermath, told primarily from the POVs of the mayor; his college-age son, who's in a cult that's falling apart; his wife, who's joined some other kind of fringe group (this fringe group was a majorly weak link for me by the end); their teenage daughter; and a local woman whose entirely family (husband and two small children) vanished. Strong writing and I really liked the end, though at the same time, I really wanted the story to keep going. It'll be interesting to see how they adapt this to tv. A-.

Friday, June 27, 2014

2014 book 144

Tim Pratt's Heirs of Grace
This was the perfect book to read when I was feeling gross and sad and itchy--a really nice distraction. It's about a young woman who inherits a house outside of Boone, NC from a relative she never knew existed--because she never knew any of her biological relatives, having been abandoned as a baby. But now she's in NC, discovering this crazy house is full of magic--and she has magical relatives (and their last name is Grace, so this title is a bit too on the nose). There's also a cute lawyer love interest, which is the handiest kind of love interest when you've inherited a magical house. Apparently this was originally written as a Kindle serial, but it reads just fine in one go. Really solid ending, too. I liked this a lot. It's $3.99 for Kindle till the end of the month, too. A-.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

2014 book 143

Deborah Harkness' The Book of Life
The final book in Harkness' academic-nerd-Twilight series is . . . more of the same. The writing is still really awkward and Harkness explains things way too much. And the story kind of just moves from one crazy crisis to another (literally, as soon as they speak of a possible danger, that danger calls them on the phone). There's also a lot of dumb macho posturing--many of the dude characters are straight up sexist, explained away as their old timey vampireness. And mustache-twirling villains raping ladies as part of a psychotic breeding program is really not something I enjoy reading about. Seriously, is it that hard to write a bad guy without rape being involved? Anyway, the stakes never really feel that high, and the protagonist definitely wouldn't still be a professor after all this (was she on sabbatical for the entirety of this book? This is never explained). I mean, it's entertaining enough, but it's kind of all over the place. B.

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

Monday, June 23, 2014

2014 book 142

Tana French's The Secret Place
AHHH AHH new Tana French and I LOVED it! Once again, she turns a minor character from a previous book into her protagonist--only here, it's Holly Mackey, Frank Mackey's daughter, in a book about a murder at her elite boarding school. A year after the body of a boy from a neighboring school was found on the grounds at Holly's school (and the murder went unsolved), she brings new evidence to a detective she knows, Stephen Moran (there are some references to his past with Detective Kennedy, but I don't remember him from past books). Moran, desperate for a shot at working on the murder squad, worms his way into working with the prickly (but awesome) lead detective, a woman who's sort of ostracized from her peers. Interestingly, the murder investigation itself takes place over just one day--a long, slow, crazy day--interspersed with flashbacks to Holly and her friends at school in the days leading up to the murder. It's kind of beautiful and sad--not words I normally use when discussing mysteries, but Tana French is really doing something special here, especially with Holly and the other girls. She nails teenage friendships in a big way, but the mystery is satisfying too (even if there are some weird elements). Seriously, I loved this. A.

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

2014 book 141

Leigh Bardugo's Ruin and Rising
WOW. I really liked the first book in this series, and was kind of meh on the second, and at first thought this one would be kind of meh too (so many love interests!), but then Bardugo took it to MANY unexpected places. Really great twists and turns, and a very satisfying conclusion to the series.I enjoyed this a lot. A/A-.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

2014 book 140

Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land
Well, so Lev Grossman's trilogy has come to an end, and Quentin is just as insufferable as ever (I can never tell if that's deliberate or not!). Actually, I liked this pretty well--it's somewhat less problematic than the earlier books (no elder god rape), and has some non-Quentin POV sections that I liked a lot (cynical Janet is great, and new character Plum is interesting as well). I also liked all of the Fillory stuff, which is once again drawing really heavily on the Narnia books, but with a darker edge. Once the story gets going, it's pretty compelling, and even Quentin gets less annoying. I don't want to say anything else for fear of spoilers, but I thought this was a solid conclusion to the series. B+.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on August 5th.

Friday, June 20, 2014

2014 book 139

Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm
Well, of course this is really J.K. Rowling's The Silkworm, and I liked it just as much as its predecessor. In this one, Cormoran is hired to try and find a missing writer--only to stumble on the writer's grotesquely murdered body. And there are plenty of suspects--besides being something of a womanizer, the writer has also just written a book satirizing several major literary figures. Meanwhile, assistant Robin is chomping at the bit to be doing more real detective work (I really hope we get more of Robin's backstory soon). Really solid writing here, and obviously well-plotted with Rowling at the helm. I totally did not see the end coming and I loved it. A/A-.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

2014 book 138

Mary S. Lovell's The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
Sometimes you just want to read a dishy book about a group of larger-than-life British sisters, and that's when the Mitfords are there for you. I haven't read this in years--my prior reading seems to predate this blog--and was amused anew at Lovell's attempts to be even-handed and considerate, even when describing the sisters who were straight up Nazis/Nazi sympathizers. (One of those sisters, Diana, was still alive and cooperated with the writing of this book.)  At one point Lovell writes, "It is tempting to wonder what might have happened had Diana been able to arrange a meeting [between Churchill and Hitler]. Might the war, which tore Europe apart, have been prevented? Hitler was pro-England, and had made a study of its culture and history. He was especially fascinated by the ability of such a small nation to control and apparently subjugate a vast empire containing millions of people. He regarded this as evidence of the superiority of the Aryan race and it is widely considered that this was what saved the United Kingdom from invasion. When Nazi chiefs of staff were poised and ready to strike, at a time when Britain was at its most vulnerable, Hitler hesitated to give the order until the moment was lost."
 . . . . I can't even formulate a response to that, as this history major in me is kind of bug-eyed in rage and disbelief. Jo Walton wrote some terrifying novels (the Small Change trilogy) about just such a scenario, and let me tell you, it didn't work out well. Don't be a Nazi sympathizer, Mary Lovell. OK, maybe that's a harsh term, but she's definitely a /Diana/ sympathizer--at one point she unfavorably compares Diana's war-time imprisonment to DACHAU. DUDE. Come on. Totally tone-deaf. This book really feels like a defense of Diana, with sections on each of the other sisters--minus poor Pam, receiving short shrift here as everywhere else. I mean, it's well researched (there's like 50 pages of notes), and obviously the subjects are fascinating, but there is WAY TOO MUCH excusing of Diana, it made me very angry.

Here is a ranking of the Mitford sisters by the Toast (I think I agree more with Nicole on this one) just for your own edification and enjoyment.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

2014 book 137

Corrine Cuyvis' Otherbound
Really, really strong YA fantasy debut wherein a teenage boy, whenever he closes his eyes (including blinks!), suddenly can see through the eyes/mind of a girl in another world--a mute girl, serving a cursed princess on the run, and subject to astonishing brutality. There's some great stuff with his home life--everyone thinks he's having microseizures whenever he goes to the other world--particularly with his parents and sister. And the OTHER world is really well-done too--there's almost a mystery element, with both protagonists trying to figure out how they're connected, especially once he realizes he can take over her body (the weirdness/creepiness of this is acknowledged). AND there is a TON of diversity here, in terms of race, sexuality, and people with disabilities. I feel like this is like a model book of what YA lit should be--AND it's well-written! And action-packed. And a stand-alone! High fives all around, and an A.

Monday, June 16, 2014

2014 book 136

Heather Mackey's Dreamwood
This is one of those middle-grade books that makes for perfectly pleasant adult reading, but that I think a kid would LOVE. To someone who's read a ton of books (perhaps literally?), the story beats are really obvious, but the world is interesting and the main character is likable enough. Our protagonist is a twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a famous ghost . . . buster? (I already forget the term the story used), who runs away from school to join her father and assist with his latest research. Only, he's gone missing while trying to find a cure for a mysterious tree disease. I was kind of like eeeeeeeeh on the depiction of Native Americans (the girl we get to know is a pretty cool character, but I feel like there is some serious stereotyping going on) and the wrap-up feels a little quick, but in general, this was an enjoyable read. B/B+.

2014 book 135

Diana Wynne Jones' The Time of the Ghost
Here's another Diana Wynne Jones book that I somehow have never read! This one involves four sisters who live at a boarding school for boys--and a ghost, who's one of the sisters, but isn't sure which one. It's complicated. Really an engaging (and delightfully weird!) read, even if things do wrap up a bit neatly. Then again, it /is/ aimed at kids. B+.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

2014 book 134

Lauren Oliver's Rooms
Oliver's latest (after the Delirium trilogy, Panic, some middle grade books, and my beloved Before I Fall) is her first adult novel, though I feel like older teenagers might enjoy it too. It centers on what happens when a wealthy man dies, and his family--his ex-wife, his troubled adult daughter and her little girl, and his suicidal teenage son--returns to the house for the first time in like a decade. Oh, and did I mention that the house is haunted? And that the ghosts--along with the living visitors to the house--are the narrators? Mixing family drama with a ghost story turns out to be seriously compelling reading, in my book. I mean, I definitely wished adult daughter Minna's characterization was something beyond "molestation victim turned nymphomaniac" (that's not really a spoiler or anything, it's hinted at from early on, and honestly, it makes no sense to me), but everything else about this was GREAT. The ghosts, and especially their relationship, were really well-done and entertaining. Very readable story. A-.

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

2014 book 133

Rachel Howzell Hall's Land of Shadows
Solid mystery set in LA, where a (black, woman) detective is called to the scene of a possible suicide, except that the case has several things in common with the disappearance of her sister twenty-five years ago. Her clueless partner, a recent transfer from Colorado, is a handy way to provide exposition, and the discussions of race/class in LA are appreciated. I also liked the glimpses of the detective's home life--a philandering husband, and two awesome college friends. There's a lot going on, so plenty of viable suspects, and I liked the solution. This definitely seems like the start of a series, and it's one I'd read. B+.

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

2014 book 132

Mary Rickert's The Memory Garden
I think this is going for a Sarah-Addison-Allen-y feel, but doesn't quite get there for me. Part of the problem is that three of the main characters are confused--and confusing--old women keeping a secret, and the narration sort of feels confused as well. There are a lot of plotlines going on--a temperamental adopted teen dealing with friends and crushes, a visit from old secret-keeping friends, a cute gay guy hanging out just 'cause, a young woman searching for a scoop so she can write a novel, plus magical gardens and ghosts. Everything comes to a head during one weird weekend party, though a lot feels unresolved. In general, this was kind of muddled and meh for me. B.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

2014 book 131

Lish McBride's Firebug
 I looooooooved McBride's first two books (Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone--by far two of the best titles ever) and was excited to read her latest, featuring a new cast of characters but set in the same universe. However, this one didn't work for me as well. For one thing, it's missing a lot of the humor of her earlier books. For another, it reads like a typical paranormal YA kind of book--perfectly adequate, but nothing really special. It focuses on a teenage girl with firestarter powers, being forced to work as basically a hitman for the local supernatural-creature-in-charge, all while trying to pretend to be a normal girl for her human boyfriend. I liked the chemistry with her two mission partners, but found all the romance stuff to be mildly annoying. The glimpses of the supernatural world's politics and interesting creatures (particularly the local dryads and a were-rhino) were great, and I wish there was more of that, because the lead character isn't as awesome as I wanted her to be. I mean, her backstory is compelling, and her struggle to control her powers is interesting, but her narrative voice was a little blah. Maybe that's what sells? I prefer the sly black humor McBride is so good at, though. B.

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2014 book 130

Emily Murdoch's If You Find Me
Ah jeez, this was kind of a hard book to read. It's about a teenage girl living deep in the woods with her younger sister--their mother is on meth and leaves them alone for long periods of time--and what happens when social services and her father finally find her. Parts of this ring a little bit awkward--her romance with a boy, and her relationship with her stepsister, in particular, could have used more development--and it was kind of relentlessly upsetting. I guess I see why so many people have raved about it, but I feel like the story could have used a bit more, in general (it's only like 200 pages long). B.

2014 book 129

Diana Gabaldon's Written in My Own Heart's Blood
I think this is the first Outlander book where no one is raped (though there is an attempted rape and a lot of flashbacks to a previous rape), so, hooray for that? The racism is also toned down somewhat, though that's mainly because there are so few minority characters (there is some anti-Semitism, but that was period-appropriate and is expressed by the characters, not in the writing) (A black lady blushing is compared to a plum at one point, just FYI. Is that racist or just weird?). All in all, this was a much more pleasant reading experience than the last couple of books. I mean, it's still basically a time-traveling soap opera with an ever-expanding cast of characters (I had to Google two of them, b/c I had no idea who they were). And there are a few characters, like Roger, who disappear from the narrative for like 200 pages at a time--but that's ok, because Roger is boring. And a couple of plot points are left hanging. But I honestly feel like, with the way this wrapped up, this could be a nice finale for the series. Sadly, it's a huge money-maker, so I'm sure Gabaldon will think of some more torturous experiences for these characters to go through before it's all over.

I jsut noticed that I wrote all that and didn't even mention the plot, which is mainly b/c nothing much happens in 800+ pages. There's the Revolutionary War and whatnot, but still. Soap opera. B.

Monday, June 09, 2014

2014 book 128

Monica Byrne's The Girl in the Road
Boy, I just could not connect with this. And I'm not sure why, as it's pretty interesting! It centers on a young woman and a girl converging on Ethiopia in what seems to be the semi-near future. The girl is traveling across Africa with a convoy of trucks and a mysterious woman (I liked this storyline a lot), while the (clearly mentally ill) young woman is walking across some sort of energy-generating water bridge from India  (I didn't understand the futuristic science here and found this storyline a lot less compelling). Things get better once the two stories come together, but that's like 2/3rd of the way in, and  then it all gets super depressing. Bonus for diversity--everyone is Indian/African and there are lesbians and transsexuals. Also bonus for the way both halves of the story used mythology. B?

Sunday, June 08, 2014

2014 book 127

Brittani Sonnenberg's Home Leave
This is one of those books where the official description doesn't at all match what I'm seeing, and I wonder if whoever wrote it ever even read it. I mean, I honestly wasn't sure I was reading the correct book at first (the first chapter is narrated by a house, which has a surprisingly engaging narrative voice). I actually enjoyed it much more than I was expecting based on that description, though! I would say that it's really a book about a semi-dysfunctional family and how they cope with a loss, and it's also about sisterhood, family, and what it means to be home. (It's about a family of expats, more or less.) Several of the chapters feel like short stories sort of shoehorned into a novel, and the last section didn't really work for me (it felt too pat) but on the whole, I liked this quite a bit, particularly the sections from Leah's perspective. B+.

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

Friday, June 06, 2014

2014 book 126

Merrie Haskell's The Castle Behind Thorns
This is a super cute sort-of-retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, involving a boy who wakes up inside the mysterious broken thorn-covered castle in his town--and it's soon very clear that an earthquake wasn't the reason it was abandoned. Then the heiress, formerly dead, COMES BACK TO LIFE. Which is . . . a little unsettling, but also pretty cool. I really liked how this all played out and will have to check out more of Haskell's works. A-.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

2014 book 125

Miriam Forster's City of a Thousand Dolls
I like when an author is ambitious enough to try and write a mystery set in a fantasy world, and Forster manages ably. Her world is clearly drawing on Indian/Chinese influences (a two-child system, with unwanted daughters cast out [to be trained at the titular city for various womanly things], and there's also a complicated caste system). Our protagonist was left at the city as a young child for MYSTERIOUS REASONS, and serves as the Matron's assistant/errand girl/spy. She also TALKS TO CATS. THERE ARE TALKING CATS!!!1!!! It's GREAT. I loved all of the cats. Anyway, now she's 16 and her future may be in jeopardy, and also some girls have been getting murdered, and her only shot at freedom is to solve the case. Now, there aren't really enough suspects for this to be a super solid mystery, but Forster doles out information at a good pace, and everything comes together. And I kind of LOVED the ending. Also, as a plus, only like one character is specifically white. Yay diversity! I can't wait to read the sequel. A/A-.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

2014 book 124

L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle
Oh man, I have easily read this book like a hundred times, and I never stop loving it. It's one of Montgomery's few adult novels, in that it has an adult main character--a 29-year-old spinster! Who funds out she has a serious heart condition, and for the first time ever, takes her life into her own hands. ILU, Valancy. It also sliiiiightly more adult plotlines that some of Montgomery's other books--like a baby born out of wedlock! Of course, its mother is punished with tuberculosis, but Valancy actually doesn't judge her, and the narration is not pleased with those who do. Actually, the narration here is very subtly hilarious, particularly about Valancy's awful family. I also really like the very end, which I will not spoil here, but will happily and loudly discuss at any time.

2014 book 123

Tiphanie Yanique's Land of Love and Drowning
I'm not sure where to start with this one. Can you enjoy, and find beautiful, a novel that has multiple instances of incest? Because I did enjoy it and find it beautiful, but unsettling just the same. (As a reader, I also generally dislike books where the plot wouldn't exist if just ONE character was willing to have an honest conversation, so this did lose some points in that regard.) Anyway, this is sort of an epic novel about a family on the Virgin Islands, from the early part of the 1900s up through the late 60s, touching on a lot of fascinating cultural things going on then, interspersed with magic and mythology. The main characters are the family's two daughters, both strong and interesting women and narrators of their own histories. (I really like the way Yanique tells this story--the use of multiple narrators is really well-done.) An author's note at the end reveals that this was partially written in response to Herman Wouk's Don't Stop The Carnival (!!!), one of the few Wouk books I haven't read (though this makes me want to), but it's clearly also inspired by Yanique's own family history. Really a lush, atmospheric, otherworldly novel--but with some distressing elements, for sure. A-/B+.

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

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

2014 book 122

Amy Rowland's The Transcriptionist
So this is about the last transcriptionist working at a New York newspaper in the mid-2000s, who becomes haunted by the death of a woman (killed by lions at the zoo). Rowland, herself a former transcriptionist, really nails the details of the job and of working with a dying technology. There's not much to the story, though, and things move a little slowly for such a slim book. It's also frustrating that Lena meets a mysterious archivist whose identity is clear to the reader, but she's too dumb to figure it out. In general, this is not a plausible sort of story, especially as things get going. If you're willing to read it as a dream-like fantasy sort of thing, it works a little better, but . . . I don't know. I think I didn't get it. B/B-.

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

Monday, June 02, 2014

2014 book 121

Heather O'Neill's The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
I looooved O'Neill's first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, so was a little disappointed that I wasn't as engaged with this one. I'm not sure why--the characters are certainly compelling. Our protagonist is one of a set of twins, children of a well-known folk singer, and she and her brother were raised in the public eye. But now their father isn't a success, and, at 19, they're pretty aimless. Also, for some reason there are cats everywhere. (Is that a thing in Quebec?) The plot is kind of meandering, and at times reading this felt like slowing down to watch a car wreck (but like, a minor car wreck--nothing overly tragic). I liked the narrative voice and liked the end, but just didn't really connect with this. B?