Monday, December 29, 2014

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

Review based on ARC.

This book has been quite the disappointment for me.  It's not that it's a terrible story and the writing is certainly poetic at times, but it took me weeks to slog through this... during the winter holidays, when I hoped to have accomplished much more reading!

The plot? Sounds so interesting... Jane is 15 and half-babysitting a little girl (the father is with them, but doing other things and Jane is charged with watching Lily) when the girl goes missing in the woods. Unable to move forward in her life whatsoever for the next 19 years, Jane obsesses over her failure and her devastation at the loss of Lily and the apparent loss of respect of Lily's father William, also Jane's first crush. So she spends her career focused on the same types of things that William (a scholar) also studies, and there is no surprise that their paths must once again cross. Where Lily was lost also happens to be the rough location of a lot of happenings surrounding (and the home of) certain historical figures (the Chesters, the Farringtons) about whom William and Jane study/research/write about/work in a museum about. This location also happens to be the rough location of the Whitmore convelascent hospital, from which yet another young lady, N--, had gone missing over a hundred years ago.

So right. You've got the two girls going missing, just sort of disappearing out of thin air, from the same location, and Jane who is able to research both.  So various ghosts converge on Jane to follow her around her life, hoping that someday she might stumble upon the answer of who they are, why they are there, and what happened with the missing girls.

This all sounds very intriguing to me. But that's not really what the book is about. That's almost more just like the backdrop for what feels like an excuse for the author to philosophize and wax poetic, redundantly, repetitively, meanderingly, aimlessly, and frustratingly (for the reader).

Sure, Hunter seems to have an ability to put together pretty sentences, and she seems to have a desire to drop little "a-ha" sentences along the way that are supposed to make the reader ooo and aaa.. But, unfortunately, those moments were more eye-rolling moments for me.  I was frustrated that the *story* never seemed to move forward. Between Jane's inability to progress and her ghosts' obsession with the past or the moment (but never the future), it just stagnated. That's how the story felt to me.... stagnant. And, frankly, a little obvious. It was clear to me rather early on who the ghosts were and what they were doing there.  I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how it took them 19 years to figure out some of the things it took them 19 years to figure out.

And personally... I thought the love interest was a cheap throw-in. It seemed to be an unnecessary sub-plot point created for no purpose other than to add some ... I don't know, steamy interactions? Wasteful to me.

So what was good? Well, as I said, Hunter is able to put together pretty sentences. And there was a great idea and a certain amount of intrigue. And although I felt she spent too much time on the nitty gritty details of the Farringtons or the Chesters that were wholly irrelevant to the rest of what was going on, there were interesting stories there. Certain characters were interesting (George and Norvill), and some of the dialog moved. So it wasn't terrible.  It was just terribly disappointing.

This is one of those books that just takes one step at a time... there's no real point, there's no real climax, there's not even really a resolution... But Hunter has presented arguably thought-provoking points made by the characters, an interesting way to look at the world and people, and arguably relatable characters simply attempting to make it through their lives... if that appeals to you, you will likely enjoy this book!

Overall, 2 and a half of 5 stars (round to 3 on sites w/o half-stars). A middle-of-the-road rating.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Shark Skin Suite by Tom Dorsey

Review based on ARC.

This is my first Dorsey and, of course, my first Serge Storms. Serge Storms .... appears to be some kind of serial killer homicidal psychotic maniac ... but, ya know, over the course of 18 books, may have become "loveable" and "your favorite." While I don't adamantly disagree with that, I also don't agree. And I suspect that has something to do with the fact that I'm coming at this 18 books in. Although the actual plot in this book can stand alone, all the inside jokes and characteristics and personalities must have taken 17 books to develop, so I think I missed out there. SO my recommendation based on that is: Don't start this "series" with #18!

So, while my rating is based on my experience with this book (and *not* decreased because I felt like I was missing out), it is possible that it would have been *increased* if I happened to know more about the background of these characters and, e.g., what the point, exactly, was with some of them (Serge's best friend Coleman).

But the story. So Serge is this... vigilante, really. He's one of those bad guys w/ a heart of gold who seeks to "even the score." And in this book, he meets this young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed girl and maybe that, combined with a late-night legal movie spree sets him on this mission to... well, become involved in the legal field. Not legally, of course. But aggressively. He insinuates himself in all manner of ways -- he becomes a "fixer" (as a lawyer, I must confess I've never heard of this...) -- someone who "fixes problems" behind-the-scenes (think Nancy Kerrigan and much much worse). In his true psychotic style. And working for the little good guys, he slowly works his way through each of the problems to the final climax of the book.

Think: if Grisham met Evanovich and they co-wrote a sort of Grisham parody really quickly. That's this book. It's fast, there are moments of humor, it doesn't take itself too seriously, it handles some legal issues not terribly accurately, it creates problems for its solutions, and it throws in some love and some scorn and vengeance in there.

If that sounds like your thing? This will not disappoint.
THREE AND A HALF of five stars

Sunday, November 30, 2014

I Am Sophie Tucker: A Fictional Memoir by Susan Ecker & Lloyd Ecker

Review based on ARC.

Sophie Tucker was undoubtably a fascinating person. She seemed to know anyone who was anyone... from Al Pacino to Arthur Conan Doyle to ... well, herself! And this fictional memoir seemed intriguing. I didn't know much about Tucker going into it -- more a recognition of the name than anything else. But I thought it sounded intriguing... a murder mystery, an insider's look at early Hollywood (or, at least, earlier...), the world of Vaudeville.... ok, sign me up!

And... it delivered. to some degree. So, fictional memoir. What was I expecting? I don't know, something more akin to Devil in the White City, I guess... a sort of novelization of real events. An adding of thoughts and emotions -- a researcher's best guess -- and maybe that's what this was. But it seemed a lot more fictional than that. It *felt* like someone was creating a whole persona for a real person. Which just felt weird. It felt like someone had decided THIS must be Sophie Tucker's *real* personality -- her behind-the-scenes personality.  And.... it was unsettling to me.

It felt surface. It felt false. It felt over-simplified. Like, rather two-dimensional. And,  I understand the authors did an inordinate amount of research, and had scrapbooks and many items of Sophie's own words to pull from... so perhaps Sophie was really just a two-dimensional person? Seems far-fetched. Much more far-fetched than the so-called "life and times of Sophie Tucker."

And that was my other complaint. Eyebrow-raising, inward gasping, behind-the-scenes reveals? meh. I get that this was a long time ago, and our standards are different now... but it still felt like this fictional character was going from "hey hey, listen to this CRaaaaay-zee story about me!" to yet another and another... nothing felt organic or ... well, real.

Buuut.... It was Interesting. It was somewhat satisfying to read about that time from a so-called insider's perspective. It was ok. I didn't love Sophie; I didn't hate her. I didn't really feel that particularly strongly about anyone except for her first husband.

As for the others... were they husbands? It felt like a lot was left out. How did she meet her 3rd husband? What happened? How did they break? What about the 2nd .... how did that become, er, formal? (did I just miss that altogether?) So yeah, it was the organization. The organization needed work. And as a result, the story suffered.

But it was ok. And if you're really interested in Sophie Tucker's life, from an arguably inside perspective... check it out.  The memoir is pretty consistent from beginning to end, so if you don't like the first few chapters, then you won't like it. If you do, you will.

Overall, three of five stars.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister

Review based on ARC.

It really wasn't what I was expecting.  The Amazing Arden is the most famous illusionist... illusionist. Right. I get that. But then that word "magic" kept appearing everywhere (reviews, descriptions). And it's not really that kind of book.  Not that there isn't a magic, per se, but this is no fantasy.

So what is it? It's a murder-mystery, a love story, a story about a woman learning about her strengths, and her weaknesses (and of both, she has many). It's a tale, and you (or, rather, Virgil Holt, small-town officer) must decide where there is truth, and where there is illusion.

It starts with murder. It begins with a spectacular show, where the Amazing Arden uses an Ax to cut a man in half. And then voila! He's whole again. It commences with a couple of police-friends enjoying the Amazing Arden's show and then some drinks afterwards.. something to help ease the pain.

And then, once the show is over, one officer is called to investigate the murder of the Amazing Arden's husband. And the other, tiny-town officer Virgil Hold, heads off toward home.

Stopping for a brief bite, Holt suddenly finds himself with the Amazing Arden in his hands---the prime suspect for the murder his pal was called to investigate. And she appears to be fleeing. So Holt takes her in to his office. It is now up to Holt to decide whether and to what extent Arden is innocent, and so the tale begins.

Arden insists on not skipping to the end. She insists on telling of her origin, her loves, her losses, her lessons. And as her tale unfolds, Holt must decide---is she telling the truth? How far does her illusion extend? What can she do for him? What must he do for her?

To say more is to give away too much. It reads quickly enough--dragging only a little toward the middle. Macallister has created at least one great character (Ray), a couple of pretty darn good characters (Miss Bates and Holt), and several additional characters to fill the pages and move the story along. While I didn't particularly like Clyde (though I imagine some will love him!), and I thought a few of the characters were rather two-dimensional, I don't think I *needed* to like Clyde or those other characters. They simply aren't the point.

And the magic? Well, perhaps there's magic. Or perhaps it's an illusion of magic. Or perhaps we'll never know...

FOUR of five stars.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

Review based on ARC.

I have been meaning to read anything by Brock Clarke for years! I'm so glad I won this ARC and was "forced" to read it now (sooner, rather than later). He IS funny and smart and dry and witty and thoughtful and enjoyable to read!

This book.... how to describe it. Jens is a newspaper-political cartoonist in Denmark. When an assignment goes horribly awry, an assassin tries to kill him, and the CIA must step in. He heads to the American northeast, to a small town in New York and poses as a high school guidance counselor. And.... that tells you kind of nothing about the book, but serves as a skeleton. And it's not worth anything because what is great about this story has nothing to do with its plot. Rather, it's the characterization and descriptions and humor and observations of an outsider looking in... and of insiders looking at an outsider that make this book so wonderful to read.

It's a quick read, it's funny, it's though-provoking... It presents political and social commentary without being preachy, and it's a story about chances and second chances. One of my favorite things about the book.... I couldn't possibly tell you because it's a spoiler.  But I will say (and I really don't think you should read this unless you've already read the book), I finished the book, laid my head down to sleep, then had a Eureka! moment, where I had to re-read the first chapter. Love what he did there. (highlight to see spoiler)

Highly recommend for people who are looking for a funny, dark, thoughtful commentary, or just an amusing tale about a Dane in New York....

FOUR of five stars.

Sanctum (Asylum #2) by Madeleine Roux

Sanctum is a fine sequel to Asylum.  Not amazing. Not terrible.  Like Asylum, Sanctum is a very quick read; like Asylum, Sanctum has many holes. But, if you read it quickly enough, you almost don't notice the holes and you almost don't mind the lack.

So, what's it about: Dan continues to have weird nightmares and day-mares relating back to the history of Brookline and its warden. His contact with Jordan and Abby has started to fade, and Dan is eager to resolve the issues he's having with both his friendships and his obsession with Brookline.  The three decide to return to New Hampshire College, pretending to be prospies, interested in actually going to college there.

So that's weird. Like, return to the place where you almost died? Sure, yeah, believable. And since it's not, the whole premise is weak. BUT, as I say, it's a quick read. We *quickly* run through all kinds of creepy experiences, hallucinations, and dreams. We meet a handful of new, suspicious characters.  We are introduced to a whole new society of people. And although it's all rather surface, it's enjoyable to read.  I read it in just a few hours, and I will definitely pick up the next one (yep, there's a next one).

I enjoy these. They're not amazing, but they're enjoyable quick reads.

Recommended to someone looking for a creepy escape on a dreary day...
THREE of five stars

Monday, November 3, 2014

Trick or Treat Murder by Leslie Meier

Ultimately, it was an OK murder mystery with some OK twists and turns and conclusions...
but there were some MAJOR flaws... and if those flaws had been, er, done away with... well, what I'm really trying to say is that I think the author actually has potential. Though I don't know if she'd ever realize it, since this formula makes her successful enough...

Major Flaw #1: it's a book called Trick or Treat Murder, yet the murder does NOT happen on Halloween or surrounding any Halloween-related activity. in any way. whatsoever. Rather, the murder happens in the days leading up to Halloween, so ya know, it's being investigated around Halloween time. Which I don't think is enough. But maybe even that could have been if there was more Halloween in this Halloween book. Instead, it's like, they're getting ready for this big Halloween party, and that's supposed to be enough? Where're all the descriptions of all the Halloween decorations all over the neighborhood, the candy being purchased, the costume-planning, the Halloween activities, buying pumpkins, carving them, etc. etc. etc. So, I thought that was a MAJOR let down.

Major Flaw #2: This is the first Leslie Meier book I've read, so maybe this is just what these books are about, but it's NOT about a detective lady, even an amateur detective lady, solving mysteries. It's about a housewife with a bunch of kids, too much time on her hands, and a busy-body attitude. She likes to "investigate" things with not only NO authority to do so, but while being told NOT to do so by the authorities AND while receiving threats. While she has kids. I mean, that's incredibly careless, dangerous, and frankly stupid. Plus, she's not terribly bright. She comes to weird sudden conclusions ... surely crafted to lead the reader astray, but they're not even convincing. Oh! He was having an affair? It MUST BE HIM. I mean, with no other evidence, it's such a WEAK conclusion to draw. All of the various theories are so weakly manufactured, that the reader is, instead of trying to solve a mystery, just waiting for the *right* clues to be "conveniently" dropped on her lap. This, while the main character runs around in circles like a chicken with her head cut off, making grand accusations and essentially ignoring death threats to her and her family. AND THEN? Yeah, this book is more about the trials and tribulations of a housewife with 4 kids, one of which is a brand new baby, than it is about solving a mystery. In particular, it's about nursing, working out, and making 12 dozen cupcakes. Which I can assure the author does NOT take an entire week. Not to mention that the cupcakes that were made earlier in the week would be nice and stale by the time they were eaten.

Major Flaw #3: You've GOT to be kidding me on the husband. He's ridiculously 2-dimensional, which would be fine if he wasn't such a major character with such a major role. From where I'm sitting, he seems like a bit of an arrogant, distant a$$, but for some reason, Lucy Stone ("detective") worships him. And there's quite a bit of hero-worship going on here, which was eye-rolling for me, but might be nice for some people who want to fantasize about... this kind of guy? I don't know. I feel like, he must have been written this way because some people find that attractive....

So yeah. Some major problems. BUT it was enjoyable enough and read quickly enough, once you got past page 125 or so...  It was nice to read a "Halloween themed" mystery at Halloween, even if it wasn't Halloween'y enough.  I'd recommend for people who don't mind the off-topic murder mystery and who don't find reading about a new mom's "milk falling" off-putting...

Two and a half stars... but 3 on cites w/o halves.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Autumn in the Abyss by John Claude Smith

Ok, my initial thoughts (from before): this book definitely needs some trigger warnings (rape victims). And it is probably the darkest book I've ever read (and I'm quite glad to have it done). Nevertheless, it is well written.

And my review:
**I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review**

It's dark. For the majority of readers out there who don't think it gets *much* darker than Stephen King, I think it's important to stress that. It's darker than Stephen King. I haven't yet put my finger yet on what the difference is... I think it's like.. reading Stephen King is like reading a magazine, it's glossy. And reading this book was like reading a horrendous transcript of real life events, it's gritty.

Terrible people do terrible things to other people. BUT there's a sort-of moral response in each. In each? yes, it's a series (short series) of short stories.

Overall, the writing was really good, some of the ideas were great (the title story) and unique (though you don't know why until it's over), and some of the stories were deeply disturbing. The pacing was ok -- better in some place than in others. A little slow from time-to-time. But the short of it is this: if you are into reading books about the horrible, violent things that some people do to others, regardless of whether there are any repercussions, then this is probably the book for you. It is well done, in that. Conversely, if that doesn't appeal to you? This one won't sit well with you.  Also, as mentioned, TRIGGER WARNINGS should be apparent on this one. If you are triggered by discussions of/scenes of/insinuations of rape, particularly the violent kind, best to stay far away.

I also note that, although many seem to think only the 3 shorter stories are linked... to me, they are all quite linked (though not all feature Mr. Liu). Importantly, there is a common theme that runs through each of the stories, which becomes apparent when you finish and take a step back to consider.

All in all, FOUR of five stars because it is well written and, for those who don't mind the DARK stuff, it is probably quite good. For me, it was hard to read and I was glad to be done, but I can recognize the talent therein.

Individually:
Autumn in the Abyss is the best of the stories. It also does not have any trigger issues. To describe it, I think would spoil it. Just the most basic, then: The narrator is a several decade shut-in agoraphobe who has spent the past several decades eating, researching the poet Coronado, eating, not cleaning himself often, not cleaning his digs often, and eating. He is obsessed with the poet Coronado and how/why he disappeared, decades ago. Coronado was a poet in the time of the beat poets (Keroac), but with a dark style, completely his own. One day, his car is discovered on the side of the road, the driver's door open, and Coronado is never seen again. As the narrator delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, he starts to receive warnings and hear disturbing "creature" noises from on his roof.  To say more would be to spoil it, but I will say that this was interesting, unique, well done. Definitely the highlight piece.

Broken Teacup, La mia immortalita, and Where the Light Won't Find You are all clearly related, shorter pieces. In each, a Mr. Liu appears, rendering the experiences of the otherwise-protagonist(s) more unique. In Broken Teacup, it is two porn-movie makers who begin to make more and more disturbing and horrific films, when Mr. Liu appears. In La mia immortalita, it is an artist seeking immortality, who is historically cruel and indifferent to his lovers. And in Where the Light Won't Find You, it is your average, everyday Joe, just out for a movie on a free afternoon. Of the 3, I think La mia immortalita might be trigger-free (though I would not guarantee that), and Where the Light Won't Find you is pretty light, relatively speaking. However, Broken Teacup does describe in some detail some of the darker projects, and I would recommend staying away to anyone w/ trigger issues.

Finally, Becoming Human... This one is the most important one to note w/ a TRIGGER warning. It is a dark piece, from the perspective of a detective who has become obsessed in his life with finding and punishing this truly horrific serial murderer/ETC.'er and, as relevant to this story, his copycat. This one takes a very interesting turn and has a satisfying ending, but, again, to say more is to spoil. IF you like the darkest, sickest, most disturbing, this will be fine for you and perhaps even enjoyable -- esp. in consideration of the potential consequences for actions.... Otherwise, despite the good that is in this story, the detail renders is the most problematic, as far as triggers are concerned.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

I'll not say too much about this.. It's epic. It is the perfect book to cozy up with during the cold, snowy winter nights. It's a love story and a story about love. It's a story about potential and about hope. It's a story about faith and perseverance.

The movie makes this into a story just about Peter Lake, and I'll grant that he really is one of the the "main character," insofar as that's relevant. And I can completely understand why the movie needed to limit the scope. Because the book is beyond a simple movie.

It is a story about winter itself. About the magic of winter and the pain of winter. About the cold and the warmth. About families, about couples, about self. It's a large book with a large story to tell.  It is slow reading because there is just so much to take in. The descriptions of winter cover pages, but it's a story of winter, so it is right.

I definitely recommend. But have patience, it is worth the effort.
FOUR AND A HALF of five stars.

The Future for Curious People by Gregory Sherl

Review based on ARC.

I've struggled with how to review this book. After finishing the book, I learned that there is one woman and potentially several others who have made accusations against the author for abuse of various kinds. These accusations do not appear to be substantiated--at least, not as of yet.  Do you support an author who engages in abuse? Is it relevant to the review? So, I'll simply say this: I absolutely do not condone abuse of any kind against anyone. I also absolutely do not condone false accusations of assault. Since the truth of the matter is not known to me at this time, I believe it makes the most sense to review the book solely on its merits.

THE MERITS:
When I finished this book, I was completely satisfied with the story. Although it's not perfect, it is complete.

So, the premise. I LOVE the premise. In this not too distant future, people can look at a moment (several moments) of their relationships to see how they fare in the future. You can look at your current relationship or a hopeful relationship or a past relationship (assuming you get back together) to see how it all works out and if your'e satisfied with where you are at that time.

And so our protagonists do. Evelyn, quirky librarian and volunteer book-reader, looks into her future to see how things work out with her musician boyfriend. And Godfrey, cell-phone recoverer, is bullied into doing the same with his to-be fiancee. And neither is altogether pleased with the peek they see. So they go peeking a little more, hoping they'll stumble onto a future that satisfies them more.

With classic elements of a romantic-comedy, a "what-if" tale about how our desires to know the future to our detriment unfolds. I read it quickly, in a sort of blur of needing to know how it all unfolds! It is funny and at times sad and at times poignant and thoughtful and, best of all, interesting and unique! I love the concept of getting a quick peek into your future -- but only as it pertains to romance. I love the limited quality of this futuristic technology.

And Sherl did a great job with his characters. Of course Evelyn and Godfrey are well developed, but the peripheral characters are all relatively three-dimensional and interesting. I definitely want to know more about Dr. Chin's back story, and I'm curious about the lost significant others along the way...

Overall, a great story, a great read, a great hypothetical exercise. Although it's true the science could have been more fully developed, the characters a little more robust, you hardly notice these things as you speed through Sherl's world and pal up next to his characters.

Definitely recommended!
FOUR of five stars.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Sometimes, you just want to read a book with your guard down. You want to open the pages and see some promise and allow yourself to believe that this time, you're not going to be let down. You want to find that dark and stormy night and wander through it, feeling satisfied when you turn the last page. Marina gave me that present.

Marina has the ambiance of a good gothic novel (though for various reasons, is not true gothic literature). It is technically a young adult novel, but it was Zafon's last (4th of 4) YA novel and definitely feels like a transitional piece. It "stars" a 15-year-old protagonist, but the themes are dark and intense.

Jacob is often bored at his school and wanders the neighborhood in search of something interesting. Occasionally he is with his best friend JF, but more often, he's just alone. One day, he wanders down a particularly desolate part of town to an abandoned old house. For shaky reasons, Jacob decides to enter onto the property, hearing a sort of haunting melody emitting from within the old house. He enters the house, drawing nearer the music when he is surprised by the apparition of an elderly person with long white hair, and Jacob high-tails it out of the house, accidentally taking with him the old watch he had picked up right before the apparition.

The watch is engraved with a loving quote to a "German." Jacob's guilt at having accidentally stolen the memento drives him to return to the house to return the watch, and there he meets Marina. She approaches him from outside the property, referring to him as the watch thief. Marina, intrigued by Jacob's interest in the dark and mysterious, invites him to accompany her the following morning on a mini-adventure. Jacob, entranced by Marina's beauty and personality, agrees. Thus begins the adventure of Marina and Jacob as they wend themselves deeper and deeper into the dark, deathly, and dangerous past and insert themselves into a web of lies, half-truths, cover-ups, and sinister obsession.

The book is eerie, misty, mysterious, dark, and satisfying. It's got flavors of Shadows of the Wind (and, in my opinion, is much butter than Angels Game or Midnight Garden!) and is perfect for a rainy day/night!


FIVE of five stars.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Wasn't blown away... thought it was a disappointing sequel, but still good.

What I didn't like:
I was disappointed in the pace and the plot.. it felt artificially manufactured to create tension, as opposed to those stories where the tension feels real... And I think that might have been in part because of how I felt abo
ut the pictures this round... it felt that at many points, the author was creating words to fit a picture he wanted to add--when it didn't really add to the plot or the characters or the pacing or really anything.

I was also annoyed by the romantic aspect, but disregard that if you like that kind of thing ;) To me, it's always annoying when it's over-the-top cheesy, and I had a hard time finding it realistic in the atmosphere -- ya know, life or death.

I thought that the characters spent WAY too much time NOT using the peculiarities they've spent a LONG time having when they were confronted with danger... I know, in some cases it made sense, but in others it was like this weird inexplicable delay. And I felt that the development of Jacob's peculiarity, while the rest of us could see it coming 100 miles away, took WAY too long to FINALLY show its face.

And I'll say, I just did not like the near-ending. But what and why are spoilers :)

What I did like:
It's still just an interesting concept and I like the idea of having a story with realistic (ish) pictures accompanying it. I really liked some of the development of characters (Bronwyn and Olive in particular), and I liked the addition of some of the new characters (Peter-and-Joel and Joel-and-Peter). I also thought that Riggs had good ideas and some of his plot development was really interesting. Although I felt the pace was off and forced at times, there were other times when it flowed quite nicely -- particularly when they meet.... Althea (I'll say no more).

If you just loved the first, it's likely worth it to read the 2nd. If you can ignore some of the deficiencies, my guess is you'll probably even really enjoy the second! (a lot of people sure have :))  Otherwise, the above notes may give you just the amount of "managed expectations" needed to enjoy the book anyway :)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Midnight Riot (a/k/a Rivers of London) by Ben Aaronovitch

Not much to say beyond:
It's a good book, and I'm sure I'll read the others in the series (having started with #3, I may end up re-reading it when I get back to that point...).
It's magic and wizards meets crime fiction -- like Dresden Files but ... a little dryer and a little slower. It was definitely enjoyable and had a nice discussion on London :) I would recommend to people to whom the above brief description appeals.

THREE AND A HALF of five stars!

Also, I am happy to hear that they (London people) are planning on making a tv series from the books!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Invisible Ellen by Shari Shattuck

I don't know how Shari Shattuck got her perspective, but she succeeded where Shriver (Big Brother) failed. After having finished Big Brother, in fact, if I had remembered why Invisible Ellen was on my list, I might have passed.

I'm glad I didn't.

This is a book about a woman who has spent the first couple decades of her life perfecting the art of being invisible to other people. Between the way she walks, her posture, the way she smooths hair over her face, stays in corners, etc., she has essentially become "invisible" in society. The reason for this is several-fold, but essentially, her life was hard enough to make her uninterested in participating it. So she's happy with her chosen invisible life. She has no friends, no family, works the graveyard shift at Costco, etc. And yeah, she takes her comfort in comfort foods.. the worst of it. Anything bad for you is high on Ellen's list of to-eats.

Then one day, on her way to work, a blind woman stumbles into her on the bus, and treats her like everyone else. Which Ellen is not used to. This blind woman is charismatic, friendly, and full of life and intrigues Ellen. So when the blind woman gets off the spot, Ellen, who is very early for work and only couple spots away, decides to follow her a little. Lucky she did because two men decide they want to mug the blind woman and as they're running away, Ellen suddenly decides to do what she never does... get involved. Ellen recovers Temerity's purse and Temerity insists on thanking her with a meal.

Thus begins the unlikely and unusual friendship of Ellen and Temerity, which is really what this book is about. As the book proceeds, the reader is let into more and more of Ellen's past and why it was so horrible and why, among her weight and her half-burned face, she hates many common environments and peoples.

It is an encouraging, hopeful, and honest book. A lot of bad things surround Ellen and Temerity brings her light. But Ellen is also able to substantially give back to the relationship in ways that Ellen cannot understand are worthwhile. Due in part to Ellen's ability to blend in with the background, she is privy to a lot of private information in the world, which she and Temerity decide to interfere in, just a little.

The book is funny, light, heavy, and moving. It's not perfect---Temerity's over-the-top laughing at herself wears a little thin and their involvement in some of the stories around them is a little-less-than convincing---but it's really very good.

And it does a really great job of providing a little insight into how someone like Ellen lives, why, and where it all leads, or can lead. I really enjoyed this and I'm thoroughly glad I read it.

And I'd definitely recommend the book. Especially to people who are seeking more understanding into the inner psyche of someone who has placed themselves on the fringes of society. Obviously everyone is different and has a different story, but here's one that makes sense and was presented in a respectful and, as I say, honest way. FOUR+ stars!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Finishing this short book was almost like having the air squeezed out of my lungs. As if I'd been holding it for ~180 pages.

For a synopsis, I think reading the publisher's blurb does just fine. For my thoughts on the book? sigh. Here are just a couple of favorites:

"Why didn't adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?" p. 53

"Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don't. I don't. People are much more complicated than that. It's true of everybody." p. 112

"This book is the book you have just read. It's done. Now we're in the acknowledgments. This is not really part of the book. You do not have to read it. It's mostly just names." p. 179 (yes, that is really the first paragraph of the acknowledgments... you just wanted to keep reading whatever it was he had to say next...)

Everything about this is lovely. And even though it's kind of fantasy kind of dark, it's mostly just a expose on love. And that makes it sound gushy, and it's just not. In other words, it's kind of impossible to describe, but I'll highly recommend it. Yes, even to you, whomever you are...

Friday, August 22, 2014

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix


Review based on ARC.

A fun, fast, lite-horror read.  ... A little less "lite" than some of the other "lite" horrors I've read, but it doesn't get underneath your skin and deeply disturb you.

I love the concept and I think Hendrix executed it very well.  Imagine a knock-off IKEA called Orsk -- cheaper than IKEA, but the same concept. And imagine that it has a secret, dark history that its employees will discover on a long, hard, dark, disturbing, night in the store. There will be blood, there will be guts, there will be death.  But it's so creative (I love Hendrix's names for the various pieces of "furniture" he's created, especially the little details he's employed, like the colors available) and such a quick read that, as I say, it's not deeply disturbing.

It's also not particularly deep in any sense, but that's ok. It was just the thing to pass a few hours on a rainy evening.
Definitely recommend to people who are fans of lite-horror or anyone who's just been horrified by certain aspects of IKEA ;)

I will certainly read more by Hendrix!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

I did not enjoy The Time Traveler's Wife. But I wanted to give Niffenegger another chance because I felt like she had some potential. And I admit up front that Raven Girl is not the "other chance" I intend to give... but I was open to Niffenegger's book because of my intention to give her another chance. And this is a dark modern fairy tale for adults.

It was ok. It was weird in some places, and not that good, creepy weird like Coraline or Creepy Suzie. Just weird-weird like... and I'm sorry I couldn't ignore it... how did the bird and the mailman conceive a child?

But whatever, it's a modern fairy tale so they just did... And thus is born Raven Girl. I enjoyed the story well enough. It didn't make me mad or annoyed or anything. I read it so quickly (half hour?) that I didn't really have time to ponder the holes. It wasn't until after that I started thinking about them. And why they existed. And why Niffenegger did what she did. And since that all came after, I decided that it really was just fine.

So I'd recommend to people who are looking for a quick modern dark fairy tale, who don't mind some holes in the plot or weird decisions. And I'll still give Niffenegger her other chance... I've got [Her Fearful Symmetry] on the shelves...

THREE of five stars.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Thank goodness there are books like this! I really enjoyed Alif. Wilson daringly takes on techie-fiction (is that a real thing? I think it is now...), fantasy, religion (muslim), and love all at once. And does she pull it off? I sure think so.

So, Alif is a young (~18) but brilliant computer programmer in "The City" (in the middle east and typical of the middle east, where Arabs believe they are superior to the Indians, where light skin is better than dark, where muslim is always known if not always practiced). He "protects" (i.e., hides identities and locations of people online) anyone who is willing to and able to afford his fees. Lurking in the background is the state program and/or person known as the Hand, which is working its way through the back channels of the internet and making Alif and his friends nervous about being caught and punished as criminals.

Alif is also engaged in an illicit relationship with someone above his class, and he believes himself in love with the beautiful Intisar. But then, Intisar suddenly ends their relationship, claiming that her father is forcing her to marry some royal person worthy of her lineage. And Alif flies into a first class funk. Alif creates this crazy program that, without going into detail and boring you, basically allows a computer to think, and with it, he shuts Intisar out of his life completely.

Then the Hand finds Alif right around the time that he is graced with the secret book of the jinn (genies), and Alif is forced to both go on the run and discover the secrets of the book and its origin/power. So the book races through technology, fantasy based in religion, religion itself, and love, all while being interesting and novel and accessible and pleasurable.

It was just such a smart and engaging read with likable and unique characters and a plot that flowed with a foreign subject matter that was made readable and accessible by an author who understood the distance.  I really enjoyed this and I very much look forward to more fiction from Wilson.

Recommend to those open to fantasy, who are looking for something more.
FOUR of five stars.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Review based on ARC.

Anyone who was around me while I was forcing my way through this book suffered for my having to finish it.  Why did I have to finish it? Because it was an advanced readers' copy, and I felt like I needed to finish the whole book in order to fairly review it.

But oh, the pain.
So, the premise. I was interested in this book and definitely wanted to read it because of its premise! (this is no more spoiler than what appears on the back cover) Main character (Pandora) picks up her brother (Edison) from the airport after not having seen him for several years and doesn't even recognize him at first because he's gained so much weight. On top of now being a morbidly obese person, the narrator also takes issue with her brother's other developed-habits, such as breaking furniture, convincing high school kids to drop out of high school, etc. So she has to decide between her husband and her brother, which is essentially what the book is about--that choice and the repercussions thereof.

Ok, yeah, sounds interesting! Good of her to take on a less developed theme in current literature and try to tackle the psychological reactions that people have in these types of tough situations. So I was excited.

Then I got the book and started reading. And this is what it was like: Imagine if I told you that a very interesting special was going to be on tv, but it was only going to air once and you couldn't record it because you don't have a DVR or anything. So you are excited about the special and are eager to get to the story, but as soon as it starts playing, your roommate just gets up and stands in front of the tv and starts waxing poetic about anything and everything---his/her opinions, theories, views on politics, social issues, his/her childhood, etc. Just keeps talking. And then they finally wind down and sit down and you are watching the special again, and just as you start getting into the special, s/he gets back up again and does it all over again.  Over and over and over.  That's what it was like reading this book. Shriver (or, purportedly, her narrator) just could. not. shut. up. shut up. shut up. It was infuriating attempting to read the story with the narrator constantly streaming her look-how-smart-I-am consciousness. And yeah, she had a few interesting things to say and said a few things in interesting ways, but I just couldn't CARE after she just kept GOING and going and going.

So around page 100, I decided I couldn't do it anymore. The book was literally giving me a headache and I was doing anything to avoid reading. I took a breather.

After ~a week, I decided, no, I can finish this. And so I did. Unfortunately, not only was Shriver's writing style infuriating, but her story was a disaster. This was one of the least convincing attempts at "understanding" fat people that I've ever been confronted with. It felt like Shriver literally knew NO-ONE who had ever really struggled with a lot of weight. And I understand that her real-life brother died from morbid obesity, weighing approximately what she puts her "big brother" at in the book, but it doesn't appear as if she spent any real time with her brother or talked to anyone who's ever spent substantial time around people who struggle with this kind of weight issue.

As someone with actual perspective here, I can assure the unknowing reader that Shriver is way off the mark. And it's offensive. And, frankly, it takes a lot to offend me. Shriver's fat guy is reckless, selfish, unaware, and stupid. Of course, because he's fat, right? It was a childish viewpoint and impossible for me to read without a scowl on my face.

So what's extra unbelievable about this whole thing is that Edison supposedly exhibits his I'm-a-disgusting-slob person while in the house of not only an essential stranger (his brother-in-law), but also while being openly judged and loathed by said-stranger. Fat people don't do that, Ms. Shriver. But yeah, supposedly, this guy will eat powdered sugar straight from the bag, but in the process just gets powdered sugar everywhere because of course he's a slob; takes a first serving at a first meal that is more than half of a casserole so that others are left hungry because of course he's hungry, stupid, and selfish; insists on making the rest of the skinny family inordinate amounts of terribly unhealthy food because he's inconsiderate, pushy, and stupid; etc.

And every single thing that "Pandora" (or, perhaps, really the author?) says about her brother, who she supposedly loves, comments on his fatness. Like, WE GET IT. HE's FAT. He doesn't just have a big jacket, his jacket is so big it is like carrying a sleeping bag. He doesn't just sit on furniture, he breaks it. Oh and of course he doesn't just sh**, he poops so much that there's literally poop chunks floating down the hall. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Not to mention the fact that his gaining just over 200 pounds in 4 years does not actually match up with what he supposedly eats in a day.

And this is all just in the first half of the book, and I haven't even touched on the celebrity childhood or her famous company, which she also insists on talking about ad nauseum. At page 176, I mistakenly believed it was going to get better. Something actually changed. It wasn't just going to be 400 pages of Shriver...  er, Pandora judging fat people but pretending to care about them. So narrator has to make a choice... choose her jerk of a husband or her fat disgusting slob of a brother.

What choice does she make? How does it turn out? What're the spoilers that everyone is so carefully avoiding? Here's the non-spoiler answer: who. cares.  Take it from someone who suffered through reading the whole thing... it didn't get better. It's not worth knowing. It's worse than pathetic. (if you really want the spoilers? go to bottom and highlight text to reveal)

In sum, I would recommend this book to literally no one.  I would not recommend this book to anyone who has struggled or is struggling with weight because it is unaware and offensive. I would not recommend this book to anyone who knows someone who has struggled or is struggling with weight because it is unhelpful, patronizing, and offensive. I would not recommend this book to someone who knows no one who has this kind of weight issue because it will simply give them the wrong idea about how fat people are in the so-called privacy of their own homes. Just say no. No.

ONE of five stars. A touch of credit can be given because she's poetic with her language.

THE SPOILERS:

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

DO NOT READ BELOW IF YOU DO NOT WANT THE END SPOILED

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

1. she chooses her brother. and is annoying and holier-than-thou in her choice. so she moves into a separate apartment with her brother to go on a crazy crash diet with him for a year. And I mean crazy. We're talking 6 months of less than 600 calories a day. And of course no one cheats. And they lose all kinds of weight. And then they have to struggle with reintroducing food. Etc. And than jerk husband wants a divorce. And crazy fat brother is happy. But then after all the weight is lost, husband wants Pandora back and Edison loses it. and eats a chocolate cake. like the slob that he is. smearing chocolate all over his face and clothes, etc. And then gains all the weight back. All of it.

2. But wait, Shriver thought she'd try to be clever. None of that happened. She didn't go live in an apt w/ her brother, she just let him leave. And be fat. and die. 


END SPOILER


END SPOILER

I mean. really? People enjoy this?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Void of Mist and Thunder (13th Reality #4) by James Dashner

And so, I finally finished this series. The 13th Reality series started with The Journal of Curious Letters, which... well, I couldn't pass that name up. So I picked it up. And though it is definitely in the younger group of YA (or the older group of kids), it was entertaining with a good plot and some very interesting characters.  This series is probably best for kids in the 8-13 age range.

So what's it about? Well, the series is about Atticus "Tick" Higgenbottom (14), who is recruited to become a "realitant," which sort of means, person who knows that there are multiple realities, that there are sometimes issues with and among the realities, and who is tasked with the job of protecting those realities when and how he can, along with the other realitants.

Tick is in Reality Prime, the strongest and most stable of realities, but there are thirteen other known realities that the realitants can travel through and protect. The thirteenth reality is Mistress Jane's domain, and has some weird properties that seem to heighten the "chi'kaarda" levels. So, what are Chi'kaarda levels? Well, it's sort of the juice that allows the realitants to travel between realities, but also much more, allowing people to harness its strength to accomplish great feats. And Tick and Mistress Jane are two such individuals who, for differing reasons, have the ability to harness great amounts of chi'kaarda.

And at the end of book 3, they have done so to such a degree (in a fight against each other) that they have found themselves in the Nonex, along with Reginalt Chu from the 4th Reality, who found himself there by coming into interaction with his "alterant" -- i.e., another version of himself from another reality (in this case, Reality Prime). So, the Nonex is a place where .... well there's just a whole lot of unknown about the Nonex, but what is known is that people don't escape from there. At least, not ever before. So, can Tick, Mistress Jane, and Chu work together to escape the Nonex?

On top of that, resulting from the climactic fight at the end of book 3, there appears to be a rift in the realities, through which the Fourth Dimension seems to be trying to leak in. The Fourth Dimension may or may not have consciousness, may or may not be evil, but is definitely wreaking havoc in the realities and the realitants must work together to try and salvage the worlds.

So the book has a lot going on. And even though it'd been a while since I'd read the 3rd book and had forgotten most of what had happened, this 4th and final book in the series is written in such a way so as to remind me of everything without simply repeating it (which would be rather dull for those who did remember what happened in the prior 3 books). In other words, it all came back to me rather quickly and seamlessly.  The book is quickly paced and suspenseful, leaving you constantly wondering how Tick will react and how Jane will react.

And although you suspect that it will somehow work itself out in the end, you don't know how it can do so, and you definitely don't know who will make it to the end (not everyone does).

I thought Dashner was creative in his approach, and I didn't mind the introduction of new major elements in this final installment. I did think it was a little convenient at times, but then I think Dashner took a rather inconvenient sharp turn--to his credit. Keeping the reader guessing and keeping everything up in the air made the final installment read just like a final installment should -- like a final, grand climax, where everything comes to a head.

And it's wrapped up well enough. I like neat little packages and it was good enough for me; for those who like it a little less neat, I think it's also good enough for them. There's still a future on the horizon, but you're okay that you're not going to read about it.

Overall, definitely recommended. Certainly for those who've started the series, but also for those who haven't, it's a younger and sweeter series than HP, but it hits the right notes and is satisfying in the end.

People I Want to Punch in the Throat by Jen Mann

Review based on ARC.

I really really enjoyed the first few chapters of Jen Mann's snarky take on the world of suburbia. And I should have read the subtitle more closely to really understand that the whole book was going to be about suburbia, but I didn't realize that. And why is that relevant? Well, after about half the book, it started to just feel like a singularly focused rant, with examples of how horrible her co-moms are. Which, yes, is definitely entertaining! But also gets to be a little draggy at times.

So yes, this is I think what people call humor essays. You know, sort of like what David Sedaris does. But focused on, as I said, suburbia and the horrible people who live there who are raising their horrible children. At least, to hear Mann talk of it. And not that I doubt her, but she seems almost to have a vendetta against these horribly misdirected moms.

But she's funny. Definitely witty and smart and funny... and biting and at times cruel. She's dealing with a segment of the population who seems to just not "get it" when it comes to well-roundedness or alternative approaches to child-rearing or... well, a lot of things.

And you can see by this review that I just sort of had a hard time figuring out how to review it because she's funny. But it gets tiring after a while. And as quickly as I read the first half, I slowed down and dragged a bit on the second half.

So my recommendation? Read the first half for sure. And if you're not tired at that point, keep reading. She'll make you laugh and probably make you question a few things about how you do things. And she may annoy you just a little (for me, her constant referral to "the Hubs" was distracting and kind of lame, but I accept that that's probably what she actually calls him in real life? er.....), but she'll entertain you while she's doing it.

So yeah, I recommend it. For sure. But know that you might not finish it. But it's okay because it's just essays and when you're done, you can be done. :)

It's a high three-and-a-half stars, so earning 4 on sites w/o halves.

About that Night by Norah McClintock

Review based on ARC.

I'd never heard of Norah McClintock, but I should have. She writes YA mysteries and, if this one is any indication, they're fast, fun, and surprising!

About that Night is a book that mostly focuses on the disappearance of a popular teenage boy one cold night after Christmas. However, the same night that Derek disappears, a popular high school teacher Elise also disappears. Is it just an unlucky night, or are the two related? Elise is found relative quickly and her disappearance is explained relatively quickly. But Derek's lingering disappearance becomes the mystery of the story.

Jordie, Derek's girlfriend, and the reader know more than the cops for a majority of the story. There are little details to which we are privy, and yet it's not obvious. While Jordie is trying to solve the mystery and save the lives (or quality of lives) of the potentially innocent, so is the reader.

The pacing of the book is fast and energetic, constantly presenting a new theory, hitch, or clue for the reader to chew on. The characters, while not particularly likable, are relatable and feel like normal people in extraordinary circumstances.

The ultimate resolution.... well, you'll have to read it to find out. But I will say I ended the book and my first thought was "whoa." So I recommend to anyone looking for a quick mystery to pass a few hours. (And I note that I didn't think the fact that it's a YA detracted at all from the mystery.)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Reading this book was a long time coming. I finally picked it up because I was going to Savannah and, well, yes, of course, read "The Book."
So I did.

I enjoyed the first half, but felt like the author's journalist background was coming out more than a cohesive story. It was more like a series of mini-biographies on various interesting people in Savannah. Like those long articles where a magazine writer meets with someone of interest over an extended period of time and talks about their interactions (there was a fascinating one with Fiona Appel in the past couple years...). I.e., it was very interesting and definitely put you in the mood of Savannah, but it wasn't exactly a story. There didn't appear to be a fluid tale coming out. It was more like "oh this person! Oh and that thing! oo, and then there was this one time... And oh yeah, she was interesting too!" And it was. Interesting. But not, as I say, a story. So the first half I'd give about 3 1/2 stars.

Except for the Jim Williams stuff which is the beginning, occasionally throughout, and most of the latter half of the book. And I'd give all that 5 stars. Berendt truly brings to life Jim Williams and his house (Mercer House), his experiences, his trade, his peoples, his parties, his personalities... I loved reading all of that. And Berendt did a fantastic job bringing to life the trialS related to Jim Williams.... without being boring or repetitive or, frankly, overly legalistic. It was just interesting and endearing and wonderful.

And what's it about? It's about Savannah. It's about the people in Savannah and the nature of Savannah and what makes Savannah, Savannah. This is apparently why the people in Savannah simply refer to this as "The Book." Because it did its job well. And it's also about a murder trial. And about big personalities. And about a journalist's discovery of a city, its people, and even himself.

And I recommend it. Just to everyone. It's a pleasure reading and a good one to have read.
FOUR AND A HALF stars.

Note: This book is true... mostly. As Berendt explains, not only have many of the names been changed, but the timeframe has also been changed, and perhaps small other details, to provide a story that's truer in "feel" than perhaps in explicit detail.

The Stone Boy by Sophie Loubiere

Review based on ARC.

Yes.

I started this book with high hopes for the French thriller that it claimed to be... So, around page 60, I was disappointed. I took time away from reading to explain to my sister what the book was about, what was happening, and what was bound to happen.

And I love that I was all wrong. And all right. And kind of nowhere in between.

I love that Sophie Loubiere was so deep in her plunge into the psyche of a declining intelligent woman. With a questionable past and an even more questionable present.

So, the book is "about" an elderly woman who returns to her childhood home to discover that things have changed. The neighborhood is not quite the same---but that is a trueism, as time has passed. But what concerns Madame Preau is the child in her neighbor's yard who appears to be neglected, abused, and crying out for help. And what concerns Madame Preau more is that no one seems to have any record of the child. Not his siblings' school, not child services, not the police.

And what concerns Madame Preau's doctor-son and psychiatrist, is that this all seems unsettlingly familiar... as Madame Preau has in her past made claims about the abuse of another child. And it is concerning to Madame Preau's son that Madame Preau claims that this neighbor-child---this "stone boy"---resembles her own grandson. Who she has not been permitted to see in over a decade.

So the question is... is the stone boy real? a hallucination? can Madame Preau be trusted? to what degree? What is happening next door? What happened in Madame Preau's past?

Although the pace of this psychological thriller seemed to be slower than I would have expected for a "thriller".... It appears as if it was just right. I really had a hard time putting the book down, even after I thought the whole thing seemed inevitable and unsophisticated (and there, I was wrong). It read quickly and smartly. It answered questions while fluidly raising others.

I admit that I did not adore the ending as much as the rest of the book.  It was a little bit of a let down after the expert weaving that had just taken place. It wasn't bad... it just wasn't perfect, in the end. But still, a highly recommended book for anyone looking for an intelligent thriller, a moving examination of an imperfect mind, an easy way to spend an afternoon.


I think this is really 4.25 of 5 stars...

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Review based on ARC.

This one was very hard to rate. I fell at 3 1/2 because it purports to be a big novel and in that, it falls flat. In comparison, I confess it is better than Asylum, which I read at the same time. But it receives a slightly lower review because Asylum is, frankly, a kid's book, whereas, as I say, this purports to be more.

This is also a hard book to review because it seems that there are many out there who think it would be a terrible thing to SPOIL the.... well, what I would call the plot. So how are you to discuss it then?

About the plot, I can say these things: It is a book about many. It starts as if it is a book about a brother and sister; it continues as if it is a book about just the brother and the difficulties and crazy insurmountable challenges he will face; it further continues as if it is a book about just the sister and the difficulties and crazy insurmountable challenges she will face; it is throughout a book about love.

So, a little more practically, James Norbury and his sister Charlotte are all-but abandoned by their father in their childhood. Their mother having passed away, they are much left to themselves to grow up and attempt to learn about life. They have their private trials and tribulations, and ultimately, they seem to grow from them. And then fast forward. James is now a young man who has graduated from Oxford and is looking for a life in London. He must room with a young aristocrat who seems James' opposite in many ways. James and his aristocrat roommate make remarkable discoveries together and James finds love. (and this is one of the spoilers.... he finds love in "an unexpected quarter" is how the back puts it...)

Then tragedy strikes and James must continue his learning and life under difficult circumstances. (yes, another spoiler) And this is around where Charlotte revisits us as she attempts to assist James in his difficulties (spoiler, spoiler) and she meets someone who also is going through great difficulties (spoiler of course). They all work toward ... er, spoiler. And then spoiler, spoiler.

So yeah. JUST PURE SPOILERS. But that's ok.  Do I recommend the book anyway? I do. See below...

In review, I will say these things: It's a quick read. This 500+ page victorian-esque novel reads quickly, and you must turn the page to see what next! and how! Although I was not actually shocked by any of the so-called spoilers (it wasn't that I expected it; it's that it wasn't shocking to me), I can see why some wouldn't want it "ruined" for them. So I refrain. But Owen has written one of those dark, gritty, victorian-underworld, mystery-fantasy novels that is very satisfying to read.

Where it fails? It was scattered and choppy and overly ambitious. It was like reading the Meaning of Night... but not as good. It was like reading The Passage, but not as good. It was like reading The Map of Time (Palma), but not as good.  And it was all those "but not as good"'s that just kept adding up.  The Quick is fun, it's fast, it's interesting, but it's not great.

There's a lot of promise in Owen's writing, and I will DEFINITELY read something else by her. This being her debut novel, she starts strong and I'm excited for her additions to the world of literature.

Overall, THREE AND A HALF of 5 stars.

Oh, and for those who really want to know?  Spoiler 1: (highlight to see) In this victorian timed tale, James' "unexpected" love is another man and Spoiler 2: (highlight to see) and yeah, we're talking vampires here. But good vampires, like in The Passage, not like in Twilight. ;) 

Asylum by Madeleine Roux

I really enjoyed reading this book. The pictures weren't always overly realistic (as compared with, e.g., Miss Peregrine's Home...), the story had all kinds of holes, and the characters were weak and flat, but the story was quickly paced and creepily presented, and overall, I was very pleased to have read it.  In fact, I immediately put the sequel on my wish list.

So, the story: Dan Crawford is a 16-year-old gifted student on his way to spend several weeks in the New Hampshire College Prep program (located in an old insane asylum). where he expects to finally be surrounded by other overly-smart kids, like himself.  In fact, when he arrives, he is confronted with an overly-overly smart roommate, who is odd and off-putting. Dan finds an old photo in his desk with what appears to be a doctor whose eyes had been scribbled out, and Dan's odd roommate tells him there are plenty more in the "off-limits" portion of the college, where the asylum has not been renovated or even made safe for students.

Dan is curious about the photo and, after meeting hew new friends Abby and Jordan, he sets forward on a plan to discover what he can about the asylum, its doctor, and hopefully anything else that will explain the odd visions and experiences Dan begins to have.

Of course Abby is this perfect little quirky beautiful teen who is (of course) drawn to Dan (who kind of loves her), and Jordan is your somewhat standard genius gay kid who's just looking for a break from the oppression that is his parents. Abby, Dan, and Jordan have a fun relationship that is immediately tested and challenged, and they struggle with loyalties and suspicion when a murderer appears to be on the loose in the asylum.

So yeah, you can probably see from that brief description that there are already some holes that are bound to appear in the plot. But for me, I read through them all very quickly and got myself all nice and creeped out. I think if you read this one too carefully or too slowly (or on too bright of a day ;)), you might find it hard to ignore the flaws, but if you allow yourself the indulgence on a stormy night, you might enjoy the book anyway.

As I said, notwithstanding some of the issues, I *really* enjoyed reading this and I am definitely looking forward to the  sequel. There were definitely some questions left unanswered, which I expect to be addressed in the sequel.

And for it all, I'm intrigued by Roux and will keep an eye on other books she publishes.
FOUR of five stars.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

I finally sat down with Clarke's second, the Ladies of Grace Adieu. I'm fairly certain I waited as long as I did because I was afraid I'd be disappointed. Because Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of my favorites.

And I kind of was and kind of was not.  The short story collection definitely did not blow me away. But it was also really well done, really well written, well imagined. Each of the stories advances the world Clarke's created, or a version of the world. It feels almost like anecdotes that you might have heard told by characters from Jonathan Strange's world... fables, tales, stories.

The writing is, of course, immaculate. The story-telling is good.. great, even. The collection read quickly, and each story felt complete in its own right. I'm not sure what more I wanted, but it seems that I did want something more. When I was done, I felt it was sort of anti-climactic.

So, I would definitely recommend to Clarke fans and people who would be Clarke fans (but who just haven't had the good sense to read her yet ;)), but with the note that it is good, really good, great, but not as satisfying and fulfilling as Strange & Norrell...

Overall, FOUR of five stars.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

It took me about 20 pages to settle into her "voice"... the result of which was, unfortunately, about 20 pages until I decided I did, after all, like the narrator.  At first, I thought she was a kind of snarky know-it-all. But once I settled in, I realized she was a self-deprecating, well-experienced, down-to-earth cook from the mid-80s, with a very dry sense of humor. And I quite liked her sense of humor.

At the beginning, Colwin says that she reads cookbooks like novels.  This is perhaps why she's written this book the way she has... it reads like a sort of series of short stories, anecdotal short stories, but it's also a cookbook. She manages to pull off jumping around from subject to subject, from story to story, and from recipe to recipe, in a way that makes the reader want to read more, know more, eat more, and COOK more!

Some review I read said that this book is like having a telephone conversation with your best friend. I would agree with that. The way Colwin approaches not only her stories, but also the recipes, is familiar, close, intimate.

Overall, this was a lovely book that I intend to re-index (because there already IS a useful index at the end!) for my own purposes so I can use and re-use and hopefully impress dinner parties full of people...

Highly recommended for people who want to cook, who are good at cooking, who are bad at cooking, or who just like food. or who just like to eat. ;)

Monday, June 30, 2014

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Review based on ARC.

I really enjoy Bennett's imagination and creativity.  He creates whole new types of people and creatures and worlds, but still manages to make the whole story accessible and interesting.

In City of Stairs, we join Bulikov (aka City of Stairs) in the "present," after it has been conquered and re-established as an outpost of the now-powerful Saypur. Bulikov, formerly run by and taken care of by the Divinities, is now a relative wasteland, barely limping along. Somehow, historical hero The Kaj managed to kill the Divinities, free the Saypuri (Shalies) from their cruel slavery, and establish a government.

However, the Saypuri government forbids any worship or or even mention of the former Divinities, and so the story begins with the murder of a Saypuri historian who was studying the forbidden Bulikov history and Divinities.

Enter Shara Thivani, cultural ambassador from Saypur, who sets forth to investigate the murder. However, it is very quickly apparent (immediately to the reader) that Ms. Thivani is not actually Ms. Thivani at all, but rather one of the Saypuri ministry's top spies and perhaps much more well connected than initially divulged.

So yeah, it's a sophisticated murder mystery and a fantasy (think: American Gods) rolled into one. But then add the Romeo & Juliet love story, the Dreyling "man" who murders as a matter of course (and also, of course, works for the ministry), a local Saypuri "governor" with a snarky sense of humor, and a whole lot of anger and intrigue, and you've got City of Stairs.

It was complex and involved and thorough and satisfying. It drew me in right from the beginning, and I confess I was up well past "my bedtime" finishing the book. Although the first half takes a little while to really pick up pace, the character, plot, and scenic development is worth the pace. Then, when it starts to move, it MOVES.

The only real critique I have is that I wasn't ever really surprised or ... substantially moved. There is dark humor and dark romance and dark mystery, all my kind of thing and definitely done well, but those moments where you "A-Ha!" or "No!" or "Yes!!".... I don't remember having them. So it wasn't a book where I found myself attached to it, but it is one that I truly enjoyed, am glad I read, and definitely recommend.

Recommend to anyone who enjoys the meatier mysteries/fantasies, something a little smarter. Do not recommend to those who are queasy around fantasy.

FOUR of five stars.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Four Reviews... Quesadillas, Casual Vacancy, Smekday, and 84 Charing Cross Road...

 1. Quesadillas by Juan Pablos Villalobos

I really enjoyed this quick little angry rant. Juan Pablo Villalobos is brilliant, witty, and dark. Quesadillas is a novella taking place in a small town in Mexico, featuring a 13-year-old boy that feels very much like the author's young self. This may be due in large part to the fact that the novel is supposed to be written by the boy, but 20'ish years later.  Consequently, the narrator has the vocabulary and awareness of someone in their 30s, but the telling of the story itself has the maturity of a teen.

It's fun, funny (laugh-out-loud funny), smart, dark, and thought provoking. While poking at his own country of origin, Villalobos also opens the window into the inner-workings, thought processes, and difficulties of the poor/middle-class-poor of Mexico's rural communities.

Villalobos plays around with the magical realism that his country is known for, while still keeping his head above waters with a psychological smirk on his face.  It was a pleasure reading Quesadillas.

Definitely recommend, but with the "warning" that the narrator is dark and crass. Very crass. But funny. FOUR of five stars.

2. The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Ahh, I think I've been avoiding this review.

In two words, I would say this book is "Devastating Masterpiece." It's devastating. It's brilliant. And, oh, by the way, it is NOTHING like Harry Potter.

As I've said to many people since finishing the book, it's best to think about this as by a different author altogether. Trying to put the Rowling-you-know into this book just creates a disjointedness that is hard to reconcile. Take it separately.

Rowling has a knack for characters. I really don't know how she does it. She has created a world of peoples inside this tiny English village abutting a city that you feel like you know. The "main characters" range in age from their mid-teens to their mid-sixties or seventies... And they're all just as believable as the next. And they are all so very very flawed.

Superficially, this book is about someone dying in this small town in England, leaving open a vacancy in the town government. What happens next is a whirlwind of activity as the two "sides" in the town vie for the open seat.

In this book, you name it and Rowling's probably covered it.  Assuming what you're naming is dark and desperate. While I disagree that she felt the need to "prove herself" by covering so much hard and gritty ground, as some reviewers had suggested, it did almost feel at times as if the darker side of life was fighting to get out, and it all landed in this book.  I mean, seriously: drugs, sex, rape, adultery, jealousy, hatred, fear, abuse, etc. It's there.

Nevertheless, somehow Rowing creates a story about the human condition of hope. With peoples you know. And in this normal, run-of-the-mill life story, extraordinary circumstances occur. Brilliant. Devastating. Hopeful.

FOUR AND A HALF of five stars (but inching toward 5, so 5 on those sites w/o half stars :))

3. The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

Wonderful elementary and middle-school level book. Highly recommended.

The protagonist is an eighth grader who has lost her mother to an alien invasion.
The book takes the form of an essay being written by the girl to explain what Smekday really means to her... The winner will have their essay included in a time capsule to be opened 100 years in the future.

So Gratuity ("Tip") Tucci begins her story.  She's funny, witty, and mature, while still having the light-heartedness and hopefulness of a, well, a middle-schooler.

She first goes into the "what happened"... then the "what next" when her teacher urges her to include more personal reflection.

Tip, her alien (Boov) compadre "J-Lo," and her cat all set out to first save themselves and then to save the world.

It's light, fun, quick, and cute. It's original, thoughtful, and funny. Well-populated by a wide variety of characters with their own personalities, this book is a gem that I'm glad I've discovered!

Definitely recommend for elementary (high level) and middle school readers looking for something new...


FOUR of five stars.

4. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I am so glad this was recommended to me. What an absolutely lovely collection of letters.

I had no idea what this was about when I started reading it. I did not know that it was an actual series of correspondence (or, portions of it) between two actual people in an actual life.

Helene Hanff, a write in New York, begins her correspondence to the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road in London in 1949, seeking a better set and quality of books than what she has been able to find locally.

Frank Doel takes on the task of fulfilling Helene's requests and corresponding with her.

What develops, however, is a real 20-year friendship between not only Frank and Helene, but several other bookstore employees and their family members.

It is at times funny, at times moving, and always just lovely.  I loved this book. I highly recommend to anyone who loves books!

FIVE of five stars.


**Note: I was so eager to see the movie (made in the late 70s) after reading this book.... Ultimately, it was also lovely, but it took more than half the movie for me to adjust my expectations of who the characters were... In my mind, there was more of a playfulness to the people than the movie portrayed. Although I don't recommend against the movie, perhaps following up with the movie right after finishing the book wasn't my best move...

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Black Book of Secrets by F.E. Higgins

Ludlow Fitch, a young boy (somewhere around 11-14) lives a hard life in the City, where his parents have taught him to pick-pocket for his and their livelihoods. When his parents and the dentist, Barton Gumbroot, try to pull his teeth out, one by one, for a small profit to his parents, Ludlow escapes his parents and the City and finds himself in the small town of Pagus Parvus.

There, he meets local tyrant Jeremiah Ratchet and the new secret pawnbroker, Joe Zabbidou. Zabbidou takes on Ludlow as his assistant and Ludlow begins to learn what a secret pawnbroker really does, why, and how the people of the world are impacted by it.

Zabbidou and his Black Book of Secrets, of which Ludlow becomes secretary and keeper, infuriate Ratchet, who sees his power slipping from him in an intolerable manner. Ratchet and his efforts to undermine and undo all the work that Zabbidou has done with his secret pawnbroking ultimately culminate in a town-wide confrontation, from which all the involved players will learn something.

Higgins creates a fast-paced, interesting, original, and fun tale. The story is subtly dark and subtly fantastic. This would be a great book (reading level) for older elementary school kids and younger middle schoolers. Of course Higgins' story can appeal to all levels, and I quite enjoyed my read!

FOUR of five stars.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Hungry Girl Diet by Lisa Lillien


I'm behind.. I owe reviews on Rowling's The Casual Vacancy , Villalobos' Quesadillas , Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday , AND Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road ... but, first... The Hungry Girl Diet, which I just finished last night...

The diet portion of this book is closer to 5 stars, but the book is a bit... cheesy and
cliched for my preferences, so overall it lands at a solid 4 stars.

Lillien's book persona is over-the-top cheerleader "DO IT!" "Try It!" "I'm obsessed!" "Amazing!" about a lot of things.  Also, she likes fake sugar a lot... more than I'm personally comfortable with (i.e., a lot of her recipes include 1 to 2 packets of no-calorie sweetener, like Stevia or Splenda), BUT a lot of her recipes are sans-fake sugar and/or can just be made w/o the added sugar (e.g., the oatmeal may taste sweeter w/ the packet, but it's just fine w/o it!)..

Overall, I was impressed with:
- Her thorough guide to eating better in the real world.
- Her variety of options. She includes a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables (as expected), with enough of the "other stuff" to make you feel like you don't hate yourself for dieting. She does have some processed options in there (e.g., Fiber One brownie bars), but you could totally do the diet w/o ever using those options.
- The size of portions, as promised. You do get a lot of food. Real food. My breakfast actually fills up a full normal size (i.e., not appetizer sized) plate. The oatmeal is a big serving that is actually filling. You get to eat fruits in nice big quantities.
- My success so far! (it's only been 3 days of being ON the plan, but I have already lost 2 pounds :))
- Ohmygosh the App. The App is brilliant. Not because it's a great app (see below), but because of what it DOES do. So there are 3 sections -- 2 of which you'll use. My Meal Calendar, you can add your meals a  day at a time... you pick from a list of the options WITH pictures and create your day. When you're done you can go to the Shopping List and the app will CREATE the shopping list that you need for the meals you picked on the days you've selected. BRILLIANT. Additionally, your shopping list will have extra notes and comments where relevant (e.g., if you need to put 1 cup of strawberries, she tells you that 8 large strawberries is usually 1 cup; or, if you need to buy 2 cups of big-fiber vegetables, she lists your options! but this is all in "notes" so that it doesn't muddy the list itself). AND the list is organized by section of the grocery. But..... (see 3rd "complaint" below)

Overall, I was not as impressed with:
- as mentioned above, she's a bit over-the-top with some things, though I imagine this sort of cheerleader attitude does over very WELL with many people :)
- I'd have appreciated a "if you don't eat fake sugar, try ____" options. Like, in her oatmeal, could I add a packet of real sugar? would the 20 extra calories really be problematic? or would the fact that I'm eating "sugar" be problematic? As I said above, it's fine w/o the sugar at all, but a little sweeter might also be nice ;)  I *am* going to try a packet of stevia this weekend and I'll see how I like that...
- The only thing I'd change w/ the App is adding the recipes for the options... THAT would be perfect. Then I wouldn't have to lug around my phone AND the book whenever I want to make something (including at work). I understand that perhaps she needs to make money, so maybe the FREE app would include what it currently has, and you'd PAY for the app w/ the recipes, except for people who have bought the book, who should get a code to buy the pay-app, so they can have it for free

Overall, I was neutral about:
Her organization. On one hand, I liked the color-coordinated pages (helps you find your section quickly!) and that the recipes were all in one section, etc. But it was weird having more discussion at the end of the book, the color pictures should have come all before or all after the recipes, and some of the interspersed discussion I feel could have been better placed. In particular, if you read the book AS you were doing the plan (as most people would), you might not realize there are some really good tips and discussion points interspersed throughout weeks 2-4, when you are only in week 1.  So. I guess maybe that's a publisher issue, but it was noticeable to me.

So, overall 4 very solid stars.
And I'm excited about this whole plan.