Thursday, October 30, 2014

2014 book 257

Sarah Addison Allen's First Frost
The sequel to Garden Spells is set ten years after its predecessor, when things are mooooore or less the same, though Claire is now running a candy company (very successful thanks to a piece in Southern Living!), Bay is in high school and has seen a boy she KNOWS she belongs with, and a mysterious older man has come to town. Things progress as you'd expect in a novel by Allen, but the characters are all great and lovable, a few surprises happen, and it's all completely satisfying (I personally always enjoy seeing happy marriages in fiction). A really solid follow-up that I highly recommend to fans of Garden Spells.  A-.

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

2014 book 256

Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells
This is one of those books that I liked A LOT when I first read it, but never reread it for fear that it wouldn't hold up. Buuuuttttt there's a sequel coming out in January, so I needed to refresh my memory! And I was relieved that I liked it just as much the second time--it's just so charming! I didn't love Allen's last couple of books, but I am very interested to see where she has these characters going next.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

2014 book 255

Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Velvet Room
This was a Kindle deal the other day, and since I'd never read it, I figured I would (Snyder died a few weeks ago)--and it was excellent! It was written in 1965, but set in 1937, and has a fresh and timeless feel. It's about a bookish girl, part of a large family of migrant workers, who always longs for something more. When her father lands a new job at an apricot orchard, she discovers a beautiful abandoned house--and then a kindly old woman gives her a mysterious key, allowing her to discover the titular Velvet Room-- a gorgeous old library. There's also a whole thing with a long-missing girl and a possible ghost, but an astute reader will solve that mystery pretty quickly. It's mainly the story of her family, and the family that owns the estate--particularly the girl just her age. Really just lovely and satisfying. A.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

2014 book 254

Amy Poehler's Yes Please
Let's get one thing straight: I effing love Amy Poehler. EFFING LOVE HER. So this book was enjoyable! It reads like a disconnected set of essays, and some were more interesting to me than others (I liked the sections on her childhood and about Parks and Rec and about Seth Meyers best, the ones about her sons are also strong). She is adorable and funny and occasionally like OMG (see sex tip #11--I cannot quote it here because my mother reads this blog). And the visual stuff is great--all the pictures and other ephemera look like they're attached with masking tape like it's a scrapbook. Well done all around. A-/B+.

Monday, October 27, 2014

2014 book 253

Shari Goldhagen's In Some Other World, Maybe
This really hit very many of my buttons. It's a beautiful book about four teenagers in three different cities in the early 90s who go see a blockbuster movie based on a (fictional) comic book about alternate worlds--and how their lives, and their families' lives, interconnect over the next twenty years. Is it entirely plausible? Is it peppered with too many coincidences? No and yes, but I didn't care in the slightest, because I loved all these characters and their different paths.  Some really strong writing here--just super solid all around. A.

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

2014 book 252

Cristina Moracho's Althea and Oliver
Althea and Oliver are teenage best friends who have a lot to deal with when they realize Althea is in love with Oliver, and then Oliver comes down with a narcolepsy-like disease that puts him to sleep for weeks at a time. I mostly liked this--Oliver is sympathetic, and Althea is pretty realistic--and liked the way things went for their relationship, but was not super into the place where Althea ends up. (I just really felt for her dad. I also was never really the sort to find squalor romantic.) Sorry to be vague, I'm trying to avoid spoilers. Very readable, for sure. B/B+.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

2014 book 251

Krassi Zourkova's Wildalone
I'm not even sure where to start with this one--there are like a thousand things going on. Our protagonist is a freshman at Princeton--a piano prodigy from Bulgaria--trying to solve a family mystery, as well as dealing with the pressures of her talent and being a student at an Ivy League college. Then there's a weird layer of magic and Greek mythology pressed over top, mainly involving Orpheus and Dionysus. Then there's her mysterious suitor, creepy as hell, and clearly also part of the magical stuff (I hated absolutely everything about him, and him with her). Then there's his brother. This book is compared by the publisher to Twilight AND Discovery of Witches AND Jane Eyre AND The Secret History, if that gives you any clues about the mish-mash within. And the writing is sooo melodramatic. I almost gave it up several times--the romantic stuff had me rolling my eyes so hard I was worried they'd fall out of my head--but I really wanted to know more about the magic/mystery side of things! But the VERY OBVIOUS reveals take too long to come, and the ending isn't satisfying at all--maybe a sequel is forthcoming, but I can't think of a book I'd less like to read. I feel mean saying so, but there it is. C.

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

2014 book 250

Jane Smiley's Some Luck
Lovely, lovely book about an Iowan farm family, from 1920 to 1953 (each chapter covers a year). It starts with a young farmer meditating about his life, and then quickly shifts to his baby son's perspective. The book covers the young parents and their five very different children as they learn and grow--and it's all just so satisfying. There's romance, war, babies, squabbling, farming--and even spies. Just super well done. A.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

2014 book 249

Emily Schultz's The Blondes
This came to my attention because Margaret Atwood was into it, though it turns out Schultz is the author known for having a book with the same name as a Stephen King book and creating a Tumblr about it. So I was predisposed to like her even before I realized this was a literary post-apocalyptic novel, one of my favorite genres! In this one, a plague develops that only affects blonde women--and turns them crazy/rabid and violent and destructive. (It even affects those with dyed blonde hair, making me momentarily wonder if I should go back to my natural brown.) The whole story is being narrated by one young woman to her unborn child, as she's holed up in her married boyfriend's wife's cabin. I will say that I was not super interested in the whole I'm-a-grad-student-sleeping-with-my-married-adviser thing--it's been done a million times--but things get really interesting when she's talking about anything else. Great concept for a pandemic, too. I did wish the protagonist had been a better friend, and I had mixed feelings about the end, but a fun read for sure. B+.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

2014 book 248

Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Heroes Are My Weakness
I was in the mood to read something lighter, and this has gotten some pretty solid reviews, so I figured I'd branch out from my usual reading selections and check out something more on the romance/chick lit side. I will say that parts of it are a bit overwritten--I don't need to be reminded so many times that our protagonist was a shy, awkward child, or told multiple times who people are when I was /just/ told who they are a couple pages before, or read about Native Americans with their "carved cheekbones" (when did that trope start?). But that was all pretty minor, and the story itself is entertaining--it centers on a failed actress turned ventriloquist (that is so random and is entirely the reason I chose to read this) who returns to her late mother's Maine cottage to try and find a valuable item, and meanwhile the hunky dude next door she knew as a teenager (he was her stepbrother, but let's not dwell on that) is back, and he's still a huge jerk--OR IS HE???? Yeah, he kind of is, mainly b/c there's a bit of a Gothic/mystery element here. But it's ok, this book is still really funny (the puppet stuff is especially entertaining) and the romance is slow burning enough to be believable. Definitely entertaining stuff. B+.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

2014 book 247

Mette Ivie Harrison's The Bishop's Wife
This is sooooort of a mystery, and sort of a character/community study--well, however you want to classify it, it works! I was intrigued to find out that it was written by a Mormon woman, b/c it's not particularly flattering to the church. And I was also intrigued to find out it's based on an actual crime--which one, I'm not sure, because there are two women's deaths on hand here. Our main character is the titular bishop's wife (I'm not going to try and explain the role of a bishop in the Mormon Church, but it's more of a community/spiritual leader role than someone ordained or whatever), haunted by the stillbirth of her daughter years earlier, and increasingly caught up in the case of a church member whose wife has apparently left her family--or has she been murdered? And what's up with the super old dress covered in blood that she found in the shed of a friend's dying husband? So many crimes to solve, so little time. I will say that this reads as much more believable than the usual amateur sleuth type of mystery--she's a meddlesome woman, but she gets the police involved when appropriate, and is more concerned about the women and children involved than anything else. Things do get pretty dark here, but end on an optimistic note. A couple of minor plot threads involving her children are left dangling, but otherwise this is a really solid read, with really strong writing. And great for those with a fascination for Mormons--Harrison really brings this world and these people to life. A-.

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

2014 book 246

Sydney Taylor's More All-of-a-Kind Family
Still making my way through this delightful series about early 1900s Jewish life--seriously, these books are SO Jewy, I am amazed they were ever published. In this one, there's a trip to the beach (to avoid polio or some similar disease), a wedding, and the family moves from the lower East Side to the Bronx! They also attend a Reform synagogue for the first time (their father is horrified that it's all in English and the rabbi doesn't even have a beard. Hilarious).

Saturday, October 18, 2014

2014 book 245

Alan Bradley's As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust
UGHHHH, I was so excited about this series after the ending of the last one, but this was a major disappointment. I mean, Flavia DOES go to spy school, but on her very first night finds a dead body in the chimney in her bedroom, and this becomes another one of the books where a 12-year-old girl wanders around, gathers small bits of information, then, voila, solves a mystery. It's just not FUN! Especially when there are only like three suspects, who of course Flavia just happens to know. I wanted to see her get trained as a spy! Instead, she gets no straight answers from anyone about anything. It seems to be a very inefficient kind of spy school. And then the end . . . sigh. I might be done with this series.
How do you rate a book that is perfectly adequate, but a personal disappointment? B? B-?

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

2014 book 244

Holly Black's The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
Hey, look at me, reading a YA vampire book. This has gotten pretty good reviews, and was billed as "one of those books for people sick of reading YA vampire books" (though I thought it was pretty typical of the genre, myself--hot troubled vampire boys, etc). Anyway, it's a world where vampires are public, and are ravenous monsters but goth teens want to be vampires anyway, and the main character is at a party and everyone ends up dead but her and her ex-boyfriend, who's been bitten and is thus infected, plus there's a vampire hanging out there randomly, so they all have to go to Coldtown, which is like a vampire quarantine zone. What a run-on sentence THAT was. The writing is generally solid, though occasional POV switches were awkward (related side note: Fables writer Bill Willingham is a minor character for some reason). Black keeps things moving pretty well, and the characters and plot twists are interesting enough. I dunno, B/B+?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

2014 book 243

Ashley Weaver's Murder at Brightwell
Oh my, was this right up my alley--there are few things I love more than 1930s-set mysteries about moneyed British people, starring a sassy and/or vivacious protagonist! In this one, our vivacious protagonist is Amory, five years into a marriage that isn't working, when her former fiance turns up, asking her to join him at a seaside resort, to try and convince his sister not to marry her shady fiance. And then . . . murder! I have to say, this is a first novel, and the writing here is outstanding. Weaver does a great job building the characters and the mystery, but just every word feels well-chosen. I mean, occasionally Amory acts like an numbskull, but that's par for the course when an amateur is investigating a mystery in a novel like this. I was definitely invested in her shenanigans (not to mention her romantic situation). I really hope to see more from Weaver, and soon. A/A-.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

2014 book 242

Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows
In general, I have liked all of Toews' novels, and this one was no exception. It hits on a lot of her common themes--depression/suicide, sisters, Mennonites, Canada, etc--but feels like a more grown-up sort of story than some of her others (maybe because the main characters are in their 40s) (or maaaaaybe because this is more than little bit autobiographical). In this one, a woman is dealing with her famous concert pianist sister, who has just tried to commit suicide (not for the first time), and basically has to decide whether to try and save her, or to let her go. I mean, she has some other stuff going on in her life too, but her sister's hospitalization, and her (and their mother) trying to deal with it, and the many inherent frustrations, are the main things here. Along with a lot, lot, lot of sadness. The characters are great, though (I especially loved their mother), and things end in a good place. A/A-.

Monday, October 13, 2014

2014 book 241

Marie Lu's The Young Elites
I enjoyed Lu's Legend, though never got around to reading the rest in that series. This is the first in a new series, and I figured I'd give it a try--it's about a land where a horrible fever killed many adults and disfigured many children--though gave a few of those children strange powers. And a few of /those/ have banded together to form the titular Young Elites. Our protagonist is one of the disfigured (she's lost an eye and has a scarred face), treated pretty horribly by her father and society in general, when the Elites rescue her and decide to train her (she has powers of illusion). At first, she's interesting--she's motivated by fear and anger, and longs for power--but Lu puts her in a stupid position that I found very frustrating. I can see that I'm supposed to be sympathetic and feel that the protagonist is torn, but instead I thought she was an idiot. Of course, I'm predisposed to hate plotlines that could be cleared up with one honest conversation. Still, the worldbuilding/political stuff is pretty interesting, and it ends strongly. Not sure whether I'll check out the sequels. B.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

2014 book 240

Jessica Day George's Thursdays With The Crown
The third book in George's latest series (After Tuesdays in the Castle and Wednesdays in the Tower), picks up right where the second left off--with Celie and her siblings/assorted other friends in a strange new land, trying to solve the problems with their magical castle--and encountering more griffins! I am way into griffins now thanks to this series. Anyway, this was just as charming as the first two, and I certainly hope the next book--with its promises of UNICORNS--comes to be. A-.

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

Thursday, October 09, 2014

2014 book 239

Rick Riordan's Blood Of Olympus
The final book in the Heroes of Olympus series is here, and it's . . . more of the same. The writing is still kind of awkward/silly (and Riordan is also STILL comparing the skin color of minority characters to food), there are two series' worth of characters to keep track of (I definitely Googled more than a few), but there's a ton of action. And there are some nice girl-power moments that had me cheering, as well as some great stuff for Nico. Things go pretty much how you expect they'll go, but it's entertaining enough. I dunno, B+?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

2014 book 238

Marilynne Robinson's Lila
I always read Robinson's novels at a bit of a remove--being Jewish, there's a layer I just don't quite get. That doesn't really lessen my enjoyment, however, and I enjoy the theological discussions. The center of this novel is Reverend Ames' much younger wife Lila, who featured heavily in Gilead (which was narrated by Ames). Lila's childhood is rough, and even as an adult she longs for Doll, who straight-up kidnapped her from her neglectful family, and showed her love and kindness--though she does spend years pondering her identity, too. I don't know what to say about this, really--I like knowing more of Lila's story, and I liked her relationship with the Reverend and the more meditative parts dealing with her pregnancy. If you like Robinson's thoughtful work and beautiful prose (and I do), this is more of the same. I actually might reread Gilead in the near future, since this is almost a prequel. A-.

Monday, October 06, 2014

2014 book 237

A.S. King's Glory O'Brien's History of the Future
I am historically a big fan of King's books, even the more . . . unusual ones, and this one definitely falls into the latter camp. It's about teenage Glory, about to graduate high school, and seemingly planning her suicide (her mother killed herself a la Sylvia Plath when Glory was four), when she and her erstwhile best friend drink a petrified bat (just go with it) and suddenly see visions when they look at people. Her friend's are fairly innocuous, but Glory sees a person's ancestors AND descendents . . . and sees that a war is coming. A bad one. I like that King manages to draw in all these current social issues that are super depressing when you think about them--and yet the book has a real hopeful note. For the first half of this book, I was basically like "my god, this is weird," and by the end I was like fist-pumping about how into it I was. Let's call it an A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on October 14th.

2014 book 236

Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown
I've been sporadically dipping into the Lizzie Skurnick Books reissues of this classic series--this one is interesting in that it was written as the second book in the series, but publication was delayed because of it's too-realistic content! (An Italian boy living in poverty was apparently controversial.) But I mean, it's the All-of-a-Kind Family! You know everything is going to work out just fine, with lots of Jewishness along the way. I love it.

2014 book 235

Erin Claiborne's A Hero at the End of the World
This was a SUPER cute book, kind of Harry Potter-ish, except if Ron kills Voldemort instead, and Harry gets all pissy about it and flunks out of school and ends up working in a coffee shop. And then accidentally gets recruited into an evil cult. And there's a cute boy! And his old friend the hero is investigating the cult! And has a super cute partner who is basically Hermione with straight hair. I mean, not to say it's derivative, because it's not really, these are just cultural markers we can all recognize. Anyway: super cute. Bonus points for diversity too! Both main characters are minorities. B+/A-.

ETA: I have been informed this book is based on Harry Potter fanfic, so, I guess it IS actually derivative, haha! I'm not changing my grade or anything--Claiborne is a solid writer, I hope she tries something more original next time.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

2014 book 234

Milena Michiko Flasar's I Called Him Necktie
Well, here's a lovely little book that I highly recommend. It's the story of a young man in Japan--a hikikomori, a type of recluse--and what happens when he finally leaves his bedroom after two years and sits on a park bench, where he eventually encounters the titular necktie-wearing man, and they share life stories. Both stories are suffused with sadness, but Flasar's prose elevates the material. Really strong writing on loss and grief and regret. A-.

2014 book 233

Sandra Waugh's Lark Rising
I almost didn't read this book because the description begins "Lark has foreseen two things—she will fall for a young man with sage green eyes, and he will kill her" which is a) way too melodramatic, and b) so obviously cribbing from the Raven Cycle. BUT it's also completely inaccurate! Well, I mean, it's accurate, but Lark sees a lot of things, and those particular things are not super relevant in the grand scheme of things (the romance is a THING here, but not really the main thing). Also, Lark seems to misinterpret her visions at least occasionally (and when she does, it's just a stupid roadblock to the romance that she takes way too long to reveal, my pet peeve! Less annoying miscommunication/unnecessary angst that can be cleared up with one conversation please, authors).

Ugh, here I am talking ONLY about the (mildly annoying) romance, when the world-building here is so interesting! Lark is a seer, and finds out she's one of four mystical guardians of the realm (she's the guardian of Life, and has super awesome communicating-with-animal powers, among other things) and has to get back some stolen amulets from the bad guys or whatever. Who cares, there is a really great horse and a hilarious gnome livening things up! There are weird monsters and her village is in danger! Etc. This is apparently the first of a series, and I will probably check out the others in the hope that the other guardians are less distracted by their love interests. B/B+.