Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas

The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas is intrigue and history tangled to present a very interesting read.

From the publisher: "It is 1941 and World War II has engulfed the globe. Newlywed Nerys Watkins leaves rural Wales for the first time in her life, to accompany her husband on a missionary posting to India. When her husband leaves her in the exotic lakeside city of Srinagar to take on a more dangerous mission, Nerys discovers a new world. Here, in the heart of romantic Kashmir, the colonists dance, flirt, and gossip as if there is no war. Nerys becomes caught up in a dangerous liaison, and by the time she is reunited with her husband, she is a different woman. Years later, when Mair Ellis clears out her dead father's house, she finds an exquisite shawl. Wrapped in its folds is a lock of child's hair. Tracing her grandparents' roots back to Kashmir, Mair embarks on a quest that will change her life forever . . . ."

The clash of two cultures and the liberating role of women during war time adds to the fascination of this mystery. Bringing the present day generation into the mix encourages the readers to pursue the next development in the story.

Posted for reader Mary S.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The December 2012 adult book club discussion book was The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. The author was inspired to write it, her first novel, by the Russian folk tale about a maiden made of snow who comes to life. Jack and Mabel are recent arrivals to 1920 Alaska, a brutal place to homestead. They are childless and drifting apart, but in a moment of levity during a snowfall they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone – replaced by Faina, a living child of the woods.

  I really enjoyed the first part of the novel. The descriptions of the people and the landscape were very good, and the secrets of the mysterious child kept me intrigued. I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next. I felt the plot went a bit flat with the entry of a romance toward the end of the book, and I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying. Still, if you are interested in Alaska and the charm of a novel based on a folk tale, it is well worth reading.

Members of the book clubs very much enjoyed the book, and we had two great discussions about The Snow Child.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Bridge by Karen Kingsbury

I have a genre prejudice. I am not proud of it and I want to clarify that it is my own; I am not representing the library in this matter. I am a Christian, but I am unlikely to pick up most current Christian/Inspirational Fiction because I feel that if an author of that genre feels the need to contribute to the world of words, then that author's book should be not just good but better than. If that book is meant to glorify God, edify believers, and give seekers a glimpse of why believers believe, it should aspire to be better (at least!) than the Twihard saga, a horrible yet strangely compelling read. And most of them are not.

Yet even as I confess this, I realize my prejudice is subjective. Like many churchgoers, I've sat through some wince-worthy musical offerings and have celebrated the offerer for willingness to give. Still, those performances are gifts, and the publishers seem to have a more cynical perspective:

“We call it ‘bonnet fiction.’ You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.” said Steve Oates, marketing vice president for Bethany House in a 2010 interview in Newsweek (reported on The Daily Beast).

These thoughts and more rattle through my mind every time I shelve and re-shelve “gentle” reads.
At the same time, I realize the need to confront my prejudices and examine them, and the popularity of Karen Kingsbury (author of Life-Changing FictionTM ) made me decide to take a look at her latest title, The Bridge.
The Bridge of the title was a bookstore before the hundred-year flood hit Franklin, Tennessee. Already in a tenuous state financially with the recession and the rise of e-books, the Bartons, the owners of the bookstore, seem only to have the option of selling, and thereby losing, their livelihood and dreams.

Meanwhile, former college sweethearts Molly and Ryan are living their lives but missing each other and the moments they cherished at The Bridge. Ryan is at a crossroads in his music career when he hears about the troubles the Bartons are facing and decides to do what he can to help.

My guess is that those who are already fans of Kingsbury will like this sweet, predictable title. Readers looking for a gentle read may also like this book. I didn’t dislike it, but I did find myself wondering about a couple of plot points. If the Bartons were so strong in their faith (not billboard-like, but certainly implied) one could reasonably assume they belonged to a faith community, so where was that community? Or, leaving aside the faith community, if the Bartons and their store touched so many in their community and beyond, how did so many months go by before an outsider noticed their troubles?

The Bridge was released on October 23rd and is available for checkout. Amazon also shows an eBook prequel to the story for 99 cents.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chasing the Skip by Janci Patterson

Submitted by Brighton, teen reviewer:

The book Chasing the Skip is impossible to put down.  I could not stop reading it - I finished it in one day.  It is about a 15-year-old girl named Ricki.  Her mom runs out on her and she goes to stay with her grandmother.  Ricki's dad wasn't around when she was a kid, but after a few weeks with her grandmother she finds herself stuck going to live with her dad.  Her father is a bail enforcement officer (aka bounty hunter).  Ricki finds herself being dragged along with him to catch the "skips."  Her dad takes on a particularly sketchy skip named Ian Burnham.  Ian escapes three times and ends up kidnapping Ricki twice.  Ricki sets Ian free and attempts to escape, but he holds her at gunpoint.  Ricki's dad comes to the rescue, and Ian finally ends up in jail.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon

Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon is, according to the author note, “the product of sixteen years of research, writing, and rewriting, and a lifelong preoccupation with the story of the ‘real’ Arthur.” I’m not particularly entranced by the story of Arthur and Camelot, but I loved the book’s cover (a raven playing with a red ribbon and a heavy gold ring) and a comparison on the jacket to A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (I read an advance reader copy, so I’m not sure the cover will be the final cover.)

Finding Camlann did indeed remind me of Possession, a book I loved. However, Possession was about two scholars researching the lives of two dead poets, a topic which interests me more than Arthur. Still, I did enjoy Finding Camlann.

The book is set in and around Oxford and the Bodleian Library (another plus for me) and Wales. One of the two main characters works on the Oxford English Dictionary; that fact alone would have made me give this book a try. The romance between two of the characters is subtle and never takes center stage. The focus is on scholarly research.

Since I am not an Arthur scholar, I have no idea how much of the information in this book is true, how much is speculation, and how much was completely made up. However, I believed everything that was laid out (although I did get lost in the details). I found the plot about the Arthur research very believable. There is a bit of a twist at the end that seemed far-fetched, but not so much as to impact my enjoyment of the book. I do not know how Welsh sounds, so I did find myself stumbling over the many Welsh names, words, and phrases.

If you are a fan of Arthur and Camelot, literary detective fiction, fiction set in Wales, or A.S. Byatt’s Possession, I recommend Finding Camlann. The book is due out in January 2013.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

I own a Sony Reader, and Sony is starting an online book discussion group. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the first book that will be discussed, which is why I checked out a copy to read.

I read this book in about four hours while taking the train. It certainly made the miles fly by. I found it totally engrossing. I only stopped reading because I reached my destination and had to wait until the trip home to resume reading.

I enjoyed the snappy writing and the relationships between the characters. I liked that the main character had spine and gumption. I'm a little tired of the Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey/Discovery of Witches type relationships.

It definitely lost a little of its sparkle after the Big Reveal, and I was not happy with some turns of events at the end. However, as it "to be continued," I will withhold judgment on the ending until the series is finished.  If you like fast-paced, well-written fantasy with a strong heroine, I recommend Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Goat Song by Brad Kessler

With tensions high during the presidential political campaign, I decided to pick a decidedly nonpolitical and noncontroversial book for the library's Tuesday and Thursday book clubs to discuss in November 2012. I already had Goat Song on my list of potential books and moved it to the top.

The book’s subtitle tells a potential reader a lot about what to expect: “A seasonal life, a short history of herding, and the art of making cheese.” Author Brad Kessler and his wife left New York City for a remote farmhouse in Vermont, where they decided to raise dairy goats and make cheese.
I am not a huge reader of nonfiction, and this is not a book I would normally have chosen to read for myself. However, I enjoyed it a great deal and learned a lot about farm life and raising goats. Although the author can wax poetic, he is factual and straightforward about the challenges of farming today. (Indeed, he is very frank about the behavior of goats; don’t be put off by the graphic goat sex that takes place early in the book.)
As a writer, I particularly enjoyed Kessler’s notes on the words we use that have goat connections. For example, “A caper. A capriole. I never really saw where the words came from but now their origin was clear: capra, the goat.” (p. 11) “[T]he cry of a goat is so haunting and dramatic our word tragedy comes from it: tragōidia in Greek – the cry of the goat.” (p. 17)
Kessler also introduced me to a great word from the Kalapalo Indians of Brazil – “ifutisu, a lack of shyness, that which we share with our house pets, our dogs and cats, a physical intimacy we rarely have with other humans”.
Goat Song is a thoughtful, pastoral read that will encourage you to slow down and appreciate small, day-to-day pleasures in life. It will also make you want some goat cheese – I recommend you have some on hand to enjoy as you make your way through Kessler’s seasonal life.

Argo by Antonio J. Mendez

On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants took over the American embassy in Iran. The Americans inside the embassy when the takeover occurred were held hostage for 444 days. The drawn-out crisis made President Jimmy Carter look weak, and he lost the next presidential election to Ronald Reagan. 

A dozen or so Americans managed to exit the embassy during the siege. Most were captured and brought back, but six ended up on the run. Eventually, they were sheltered by Canadian diplomats in their homes for weeks of boredom from nothing to do and terror at the risk of being discovered. 

Antonio Mendez and others at the CIA created an outlandish scheme to explain why the six were in Iran and as cover to get them out. Even in the midst of a military crisis, Hollywood rolls on, and Hollywood execs are crazy enough to visit war-torn countries seeking places to film. Using a script for a science fiction movie project that had fallen through a few months earlier, the CIA created the elusion of a production company scouting locations in Iran. 

The logistics of such an operation seem overwhelming. The book is thorough without bogging down. Without getting lost, I understood the incredible amount of coordination and attention to detail that was required. One of the parts that struck me had to do with acquiring Canadian passports. The six Americans were to pose as Canadians, and Mendez expected getting permission from Canada to create fake Canadian passports to be a major obstacle. Instead, on arriving in the office of a Canadian official, he and a colleague were astonished to discover that the Canadians had already done the background work necessary to make that happen. 

Canada emerges from this book as a true friend of the United States, something that is always true but taken for granted by most Americans. The Canadian assistance provided in Iran was incredibly dangerous for the individuals and for diplomatic relations.  

Some of the information in Argo is recently declassified. The text is not always politically correct – one of the Americans in hiding is described as having “a small-town librarian’s wholesomeness,” for example – but this is a nonfiction book that reads like fiction. The movie version is playing in theaters now. It is an excellent movie, but it has been a bit “Hollywooded” up. If you enjoyed the movie and want to learn more about what really happened, check out the book. I recommend Argo for anyone with an interest in the Middle East, American history, and spy thrillers. This is the real thing.


Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

Friends Don’t Let Friends Date Vampires
If you have a love/hate relationship with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and a good sense of humor, I predict you will enjoy Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan.

Like the Twilight series, Team Human features a teenaged girl in love with a much older vampire. Unlike the city of Forks, however, New Whitby was founded by vampires. Vampires live in their own part of town called the Shade and work as cops and in other useful professions. The main character, Mel, is determined to keep her best friend Cathy from giving up her humanity so she can become a vampire and spend the rest of eternity with her vampire love Francis.
There are many obvious pokes at Twilight. Upon meeting Francis the vampire the first day of school, Mel reacts: “A vampire who wants to go to high school? That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” The vampire “siblings” who repeat high school over and over in the Twilight series are subjects of derision even by fans of Twilight.
Mel and another friend, Anna, decide to break into the high school and take a look at the vampire’s file, certain they will find out some secrets about him that will end his relationship with their friend Cathy. Anna is frightened; to calm her, Mel suggests, “Pretend it’s an eclipse” (Eclipse is the title of the third book in the Twilight series). When Mel convinces Francis to leave Cathy “for her own good,” Cathy sits depressed in her chair in her room for days (just like Bella in New Moon).
At one point, discussing a celebrity vampire/human couple, one of the characters says, “Their relationship is a stunt for the movie. Almost all celebrity hookups are.” Given the nonstop coverage of the recent Kristin Stewart/Robert Pattinson breakup, this seemed like a particularly prescient observation.
When Cathy goes to find Francis in the vampire neighborhood, the story moves away from satirizing Twilight and finds a plot of its own. Francis’s family has raised a human baby who was left on their doorstep. Now a teenager, Kit doesn’t know what it likes to be human. Something mysterious is going on at the high school, something involving the principal and the husband who left her for a vampire, and Kit and Mel join forces to investigate. Mel finds romance and sees her own prejudices in a fresh light along the way.
Team Human is a quick and enjoyable read, light and funny but touching in spots as well. If you’d like a fresh look at a teenage vampire romance, I recommend it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Full disclosure: I read very little mystery. I also read very few cheerleader books. It’s a testament to the muscle of Megan Abbott’s newest work of modern noir that in spite of my partisan inclinations, I couldn’t put her book down. Our narrator is Addy Hanlon, a proud ‘lieutenant’ to her best friend and cheer captain Beth, a 94-pound waif who builds her reputation on manipulation and intimidation. When a new coach claims leadership of the squad, as well as Addy’s attentions and affections, a perfect storm of surprising adolescent viciousness begins to swell. An unexpected murder provides the requisite narrative thrust, but Abbott’s exceptional development of character performs puppet master duties on our shifting allegiance as readers.

On the surface, this isn’t an overly realistic portrait of modern adolescent life or even of cheerleading culture. It is, however, an at times brutal, but welcomingly insightful and hyper-literate mystery built on the strength of its protagonist’s (antagonist’s?) voice and the collision course storyline at the novel’s core. Much like the 2006 film Brick (another high school noir), Dare Me presents an insular, stylized world populated by impossibly articulate, dangerously cunning pubescents, made all the more terrifying for their flawed understanding of consequence and overwrought psychological underpinnings. Addy, for instance, speaks and thinks with a cadence and verve foreign to youth, but the precision of Abbott’s words and observations of her chosen demographic are of such a level as to forgive such petty grievances as the authenticity of teenaged linguistic habits. In considering the combination of the natural high she gets from cheerleading and a pharmaceutical high she gets from uppers, Addy thinks:
                        That feeling, it is God’s greatest gift. Just like that adderall. Found that
                        morning in the corner of my hoodie pocket from some long ago act of
                        Beth’s generosity, it gallops through me, and I know I can do anything.
                        When you have nothing inside you, you feel everything more, and feel you
                        can control all of it. With Jesus in my heart, and with that seismic blast,
                        who could stop my ascent? Any of ours?

But don’t let the novel’s chic superficiality mislead you: these are real, recognizable teenagers, complete with equal parts insecurity and solipsism. These girls’ worlds end at the tips of their powdered noses and the apexes of their flying basket tosses, and author Abbott captures that feeling, that fleeting existence, with impeccable realism (“That was a long time,” I add, setting my arms up for another tuck. “That was last summer.”). In this way, the book smartly mirrors its characters, offering up something sleek and easily digestible on the surface, but more subtly reveling in the nitty-gritty of its dark truths. The confusion of forgotten desire; the blurred divide between social and sexual relationships; the all-consuming thrust for excellence and approval – these struggles are the hidden gems of Abbott’s mystery. Beneath its carefully cultivated facade of sur-reality, Abbott’s book captures the greater truth of teenagedom: the beating heart beneath the sheen.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Although I'm a big science fiction/fantasy fan, urban fantasy is not my favorite subgenre. Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the first in the Dresden Files series, is among the best of the urban fantasy I've read. Set in modern day Chicago, it features Harry Dresden, a wizard who advertises in the yellow pages and works as a consultant for the Chicago Police Department. Harry is courtly and old-fashioned, as well as intelligent, creative, and skilled at getting out of tight situations. I found Harry interesting, I enjoyed the insertion of magic into urban Chicago, and I especially liked Harry's cat Mister. Fans of urban fantasy who have not yet checked out the Dresden Files are likely to love this series.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s new adult book The Casual Vacancy is a brilliant and powerful novel that is incredibly difficult to read. Rowling proves in this book what a skillful writer she is. She is able to create characters so complex, so multi-faceted, that it’s hard to remember they aren’t real.

Contrary to what the publisher promised in its promotional materials, The Casual Vacancy is not a “black comedy.” It is a grim, honest, realistic slice of life, populated by troubled, deep, and interesting people. There are a lot of important characters in The Casual Vacancy. It takes determination and patience to learn about each one and keep them straight.

Despite the grim and depressing circumstances outlined for so many of the characters, I could feel myself drawn into the world of Pagford, the small town in England that serves as the book’s setting. It didn’t seem that different in many ways from the city in which I live. The themes are relevant to life in the United States as well as England. Some of the people of Pagford resent the people who live in a place referred to as the Fields. It lies between Pagford and the larger city of Yarvil. Yarvil pays for the provision of many services to the Fields, but Pagford bears part of the burden. To their dismay, this includes allowing children of the Fields to attend their school, which they feared “would be overrun and swamped by the offspring of scroungers, addicts, and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men.”

Some of the arguments are depressingly familiar. At one point two characters are discussing whether the addiction clinic does any good, and the subject turns to “principles.”

“Yes, well, principles are sometimes the problem, if you ask me,” said Miles. “Often what’s needed is a bit of common sense.”
“Which is the name people usually give to their prejudices,” rejoined Kat.

Rowling has a great talent for making her readers care for the characters she creates. In this novel, there is no main character. Instead, we are inside the heads of many people through a narrator. Rowling will introduce a character in such a way as to provoke a negative reaction, and then let us see the character’s life from a different standpoint and stir up great sympathy. She first introduces a promiscuous, ignorant, and belligerent girl through the eyes of a teenaged boy and a school administrator; later we see the girl skipping school to clean up her filthy home in desperate hopes of persuading a social worker not to take her little brother from her addict mother. Another teenaged girl is being bullied, and at one point I was reluctant to read ahead because I was afraid the bully would not be the obvious candidate but another character, and I really did not want that other character to be a bully.

The plot is relatively straightforward, but it moves steadily toward a terrific and terrible climax. Even though I wasn’t able to predict what was coming, I felt a mounting sense of dread over the last fifth of the book.

I am not easily moved to tears, but I cried at the end of The Casual Vacancy. I keep thinking about the events in the book and how they could have been changed for the better through action by some of the characters, and I marvel at how I feel real grief. I wonder how the characters are getting on; then I have to remind myself that they aren’t real people. In the end, my sadness is not only for the unfortunate characters in the book but for the many real people whose lives are just as unfortunate. I’m guessing that was one of Rowling’s objectives.

I will not say that I enjoyed this complex and heartbreaking book. It’s too grim and real. But I am very glad that I read it, and I highly recommend The Casual Vacancy to any reader who likes realistic fiction, exceptionally well-drawn characters, and excellent writing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

This book is a story about a young woman named Amina who lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She wants to get married and live in America, so she starts searching dating websites and finally finds a man named George who lives in Rochester, New York. They email back and forth, until George decides to come to Bangladesh to meet his potential bride. Amina is beautiful and smart, and doesn't play games like American women, so George falls in love. This book is really about two extremely different cultures trying to come together. Amina's parents, and Amina for that matter, assume they will be moving to America once Amina gets all of her documentation in order, so they can live with their daughter and new husband and take care of the cooking and cleaning and help raise the children. George, on the other hand, doesn't really understand this idea and trys to stall as long as possible. It is interesting to see how different these two cultures are, and fun to watch Amina learn about things in America. She makes new friends, gets different jobs and even goes to school. She also figures out a secret that George has been hiding, but she has one of her own, so they are even. This is a very well-written book about two people who are totally different in every way possible. The author does an excellent job of describing life in Bangladesh, introducing us to new foods and all the difficulties of living in this place. It is a good read.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Homesick by Kate Klise

Submitted by Amy, teen reviewer:

[Summary from the publisher] Benny’s parents are splitting up. His mom leaves home after a fight about a mysterious splinter that is rumored to be part of an important relic. Benny’s dad has always liked clutter, but now, he begins hoarding everything from pizza boxes to old motorcycle parts. As his house grows more cluttered and his father grows more distant, Benny tries to sort out whether he can change anything at all. Meanwhile, a local teacher enters their quiet Missouri town in America’s Most Charming Small Town contest, and the pressure is on to clean up the area, especially Benny’s ramshackle of a house, before the out-of-town guests arrive.

From Amy: Homesick is a great book. To say I read this book in one night isn't intending to show off, but simply to prove this book is worthy of staying up late to read. The characters are rich and realistic. I could picture them all perfectly. They always say that a book that can make you feel for the characters is a good one, and this book had my heart breaking. This book was also well written and thought out. It kept me on my toes until the last page. Just by reading the back, I could tell this book was going to be juicy. This is totally something I would recommend to my friends. I give it 4-5 stars.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rain Dragon by Jon Raymond

Nothing in this world tugs at my heart strings quite like a pretty book facade. What can I say? I’m easily charmed. Jon Raymond’s Rain Dragon just has one of those covers--it sings to my inner wannabe bohemian gypsy. Conveniently, Rain Dragon is sort of about bohemian gypsies. Damon and his lady, Amy, just recently abandoned the thriving metropolis of Los Angeles in search of a way to reconnect with the land and, by extension, each other. After touring a series of sustainable farm outfits, they stumble upon Rain Dragon, a farm in Oregon best known for its organic yogurt line. Rain Dragon is chock-full of idealistic folk from all walks of life--engineers, bankers, carpenters--looking to simplify and make greater contributions to global consciousness. At the helm of this lofty idea ship is Rain Dragon’s charisma-radiating leader Peter Hawk. With Peter as their guide, Amy quickly finds her spot among the pack while Damon slowly, painfully languishes until he finally stumbles upon a unique gift.

Quiet, somewhat strange, and emotionally dense--in the “I’m not so bright when it comes to feelings” kind of dense--Rain Dragon is as wandering and curious as its characters.

Friday, September 28, 2012

John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

The story is set in seventeenth-century England. It is a kind of poor boy up against unjust townspeople makes good plot. But it has a variety of elements and twists. The author combines history, social and religious elements, myth and food to take the title character from his small village after the death of his mother to the castle of a member of the peerage. There he becomes part of the household, successfully becoming a master chef and entangled with the willful young daughter of the manor. There is the usual cast of likeable and unlikeable, simple and scheming and downright nasty characters. The story spans several decades, from peaceful times through the English Civil War and afterward. It is a moderately enjoyable book but I did not think it lived up to the hype of the back cover blurb. I never felt drawn into the story or particularly connected to or sympathetic with the characters, except for one or two minor ones. Some years ago I read another book about this time period by a different author, complete with strong female and unexpected lover, somewhat parallel to this book, which engaged me much more.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

I seem to have a knack for choosing books from the middle of a series. I picked up Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal without spotting the bolded word return on the back cover, only noting “World War II” and “Churchill” and “code-breaking,” which were enough for me.  I hesitated at the publisher’s note inside, where I finally read closely enough to notice “brings back secret agent Maggie Hope,” but I needed a book to read that night and decided to throw caution to the wind.

I needn’t have worried, because MacNeal provides enough background in this, book two of her Maggie Hope Mystery series, for readers to be perfectly comfortable in Maggie’s world. (I did pick up the audiobook version of the first story about midway through the second just to fill in the gaps.)

Maggie is quite likeable, a thoroughly modern woman in a world not yet ready to fully embrace her. She has a degree in mathematics from Wellesley, and was set to pursue a graduate degree from M.I.T. (because Princeton would not admit women), when her life took a detour to London right as Britain entered the war. As this second volume begins, Maggie is attempting to qualify for MI-5, but is instead selected to protect Princess Elizabeth while posing as a maths tutor.

Overall, I enjoyed this story. MacNeal has a wonderful way with descriptive language and attempts to engage multiple senses. I found myself looking up perfumes the characters wore and wanting to hear the songs described. I am not terrifically fond of her use of the omniscient point-of-view. The multiple voices took me out of Maggie’s story, especially a throwaway paragraph on a minor character’s background. I would have liked a little more code-breaking and a more mysterious mystery. However, it was a fun read and I look forward to the next chapter in Maggie’s journey, due in the spring of 2013.

In the meantime, library lovers may relate to those in this picture MacNeal recently posted on her blog.

Princess Elizabeth's Spy is due out October 16th.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

Rawhide Down is a detailed account of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Since Reagan has a connection to Galesburg, I chose this book as a recent title for the Galesburg Public Library’s adult book discussion groups. Love him or loathe him, Reagan is an important figure in American history, and the assassination attempt an important historical event.

I was a University of Illinois college student when Reagan was shot and I remember the day very well. Students on my dorm floor gathered around our small black and white television to watch the unfolding drama. The fact that two of the shooting victims, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Press Secretary James Brady, graduated from the University of Illinois added interest to the story for us.

Although I keenly remember the event, I learned a lot from reading Rawhide Down. I gained a better understanding of the roles of many of Reagan’s key advisors. I learned more about Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s famous announcement of “As of now, I am in control here.” It’s amazing in hindsight to realize that the Secret Service did no screening of the spectators waiting for the President outside the hotel. The chaos inside George Washington Hospital as the four shooting victims arrived was particularly fascinating.

I was surprised at how worried government officials were that Russia might strike the United States during a perceived leadership void during the crisis. And I wondered if in today’s political climate we’d hear the well known operating room exchange in which Reagan said, “I hope you are all Republicans” and a die-hard liberal at the foot of the operating table responded, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.”

This is not a book about Ronald Reagan’s political life or legacy as president. Although it is clear that the author admires Reagan, the reporting for the most part is objective. My one complaint about the book is that the focus is almost completely on Reagan. I wanted to hear more about what happened in front of the Washington Hilton after Reagan’s limousine left the scene and about the effect of the shootings on the other victims. Still, I found Rawhide Down riveting. If you are interested in books about recent historical events or in Ronald Reagan, I recommend it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Last Dogs: The Vanishing by Christopher Holt

*This is an entry that one of our juvenile patrons here at the library did, I am just posting it for her.*

This book was about three dogs who go searching for their owners and all the other humans who have gone missing.  When I read this book, I liked how the author had the dog narrate and I also liked that even though it was narrated by a dog it still told us the colors of everything.  One of the things I disliked was that it was a cliffhanger.  I also disliked it because I thought it didn't have very many interesting parts.  But overall, it was a pretty good book.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Malice of Fotune by Michael Ennis

Art historian and author Michael Ennis' novel The Malice of Fortune deals with chaotic early 16th century Italy. Two historical figures, well-known Machiavelli and little-known Diamata, a courtesan, narrate the unfolding events surrounding the infamous Borgia family. There is Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his two sons, Juan and Valentino (Cesare Borgia.) The killing of Juan and the identity of his murderer becomes the pivotal focus of the narration. It is a complicated, labyrinthine story with elements of mystery, science, witchcraft and gruesome psychopathic behavior.

Ennis did lengthy, primary source research for his book. He deals with the psychological aspect of people and the nature of good, evil and fortuna - fortune - fate. Ennis demonstrates that Machiavelli was history's first forensic profiler, entering lives of historic figures in mental conversations to "ask them the reasons for their actions" transporting "myself into them entirely." While Machiavelli's famous book The Prince used Cesare Borgia a possible model for leadership, he was also aware of Borgia's malevolent nature and misused power. In his notes at the end of the book Ennis writes that Machiavelli preferred a more democratic, people-powered, representative approach to government which Machiavelli explored in his lesser known work Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy.

The Malice of Fortune is not light reading. While the book could be shortened, it was interesting to get a sense of the period and the history behind Machiavelli's The Prince. Ennis' book is a cautionary tale, a fictionalized interpretation of real people and events. It is filled with twists of deception, depravity and a dark sense of the ever-recurring presence of evil. Perhaps it is fitting that its publication date was 9/11/12.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Speechless by Hannah Harrington

Submitted by Brighton, teen reviewer:

Speechless is about a sophomore in high school named Chelsea, who can't keep a secret whatsoever. On New Year's Eve, Chelsea is at a party and is drunk, and runs into the master bedroom to use the bathroom in there, where she walks in on Noah and Andy making out. Noah and Andy leave, embarrassed.  Chelsea tells her friends Kristin, Warren, and Joey.  Joey and Warren leave to find Noah, and end up beating him nearly lifeless. Noah spends the rest of the book in the hospital.

Chelsea tells the cops what Warren and Joey did, causing everyone to hate her and terrorize her horribly... everyone except for Asha. Asha becomes Chelsea's best friend, and eventually introduces her to Sam (Noah's best friend). Chelsea falls for Sam, but can't tell him because she took a vow of silence when she reported Warren and Joey's crime to the cops. Chelsea visits Noah in the hospital to apologize and he even forgives her.  Later, at Winter Formal, popular guy Brendan gets voted Snow King and hands his crown over to Noah. Chelsea finally speaks, and she, Asha, Noah, Andy, and Sam all live happily ever after.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Astrid Jones' feels like life is beyond her control.  Her mother somehow manages to be both distant and wildly overbearing, her father deals with his unhappiness by disappearing into a bong, and her love life?  Let's just say it's complicated.  Astrid is falling in love for the first time, but she's keeping it a secret, primarily because the person she's falling in love with is a girl.  Astrid doesn't know for sure what that means -- is she gay?  is she just experimenting? -- but she knows she'd like the freedom to figure it out, without having to fit into one of the many boxes everyone in her life keeps trying to force her into.

I thought this was a wonderful book, perfect for teens (gay, straight, or questioning) who are struggling to figure out who they are in the midst of an onslaught of societal pressures.  A.S. King does a great job of making Astrid's sexuality a part of the complexities of her character without using it as a defining characteristic, something that I think is important to the novel's message.  A secondary storyline in which Astrid sends love up to passengers flying overhead in airplanes (yes, it is as random as it sounds) is the book's sole weakness for me.

Ask the Passengers is available in October, 2012.

Lies Beneath by Anne Greenwood Brown

Submitted by Jordan, teen reviewer:

Lies Beneath is about a guy named Calder who is a merman. He and his mermaid sisters have devoted most of their lives to hunting down the man they accuse of killing their mother.  Calder's sisters develop a plan to get this man, Jason Hancock: they want Calder to seduce Jason's teenage daughter, Lily.  But the plan goes horribly wrong because Calder and Lily fall in love.  Calder's sisters get mad and decide to try to kill Lily and her family, and the book comes to a very suspenseful climax!

This book's plot sounds weird and kind of dumb, but it's actually not.  I'd probably recommend it to anyone, because it was really interesting.

Buddy by M.H. Herlong

Submitted by Sam, teen reviewer:

Ever since he was small, "Li'l T" wanted a dog.  He told everyone that.  One day, as Li'l T and his family were on their way to church, they hit a stray dog.  Li'l T decided it was destiny.  Then, Hurricane Katrina happened and Li'l T had to leave the dog, named Buddy, behind.  When they returned home, Li'l T was working really hard to find Buddy.  To see if he finds him or not, you'll have to read the book.

My Book of Life By Angel, by Martine Leavitt

Submitted by Sam, teen reviewer:

One day Angel, the 16-year-old main character of My Book of Life By Angel, went to the mall and met a guy. He saw her break a rule there and offered to buy her food.  Eventually he convinced her to let him buy her Chinese.  Every day after that she went to the mall and he was there.  His name was Call.  He continued to buy Angel food.  Then Call began giving Angel drugs, and she got kicked out of her house. She moved in with Call.  For awhile Call got everything he wanted from Angel -- that was, until he brought a little kid home.  Then Angel decided she had to save the little girl.  To find out what happens, you'll have to read My Book of Life By Angel.

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

Submitted by Sarah, teen reviewer:

[Summary from the publisher] Radley’s parents had warned her that all hell would break loose if the American People's Party took power. And now, with the president assassinated and the government cracking down on citizens, the news is filled with images of vigilante groups, frenzied looting, and police raids. It seems as if all hell has broken loose.  Coming back from volunteering abroad, Radley just wants to get home to Vermont, and the comfort and safety of her parents. Travel restrictions and delays are worse than ever, and by the time Radley’s plane lands in New Hampshire, she’s been traveling for over twenty-four hours. Exhausted, she heads outside to find her parents—who always come, day or night, no matter when or where she lands—aren’t there. Her cell phone is dead, her credit cards are worthless, and she doesn’t have the proper travel papers to cross state lines. Out of money and options, Radley starts walking. . . .

From Sarah: Safekeeping is a good book.  The main character, Radley, is surprisingly realistic, except that she seems to be well versed in survival skills... which some people, well, weren't.  About a third of the way through the book she meets Celia, a quiet, moody person with a dark back story. Like I said, this is a good book but it has some flaws, like how it skips at random times. For example, it might jump from having a good time at a river to days ahead, when Celia reveals her dark back story.  Even with that, it is a good book and I would give it a 7 out of 10.

Safekeeping will be available in stores September 18, 2012.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth

     "Between interviews, they make us wait upstairs in a classroom.  We're left alone but we're aware that in a nearby office we are being discussed." 
     So begins Cold Light, a riveting story of a death that took place 20 years earlier, as told by the best friend of the dead girl.
     But what really happened?  Did Chloe and her boyfriend commit suicide?  If so, was it indeed for love?  Or because of something else?  Could she have been murdered?  Who was Chloe...really? What is the truth?  And who knows it?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins

Neill Bassett Jr has a very unusual job. His employer is trying to beat the Turing Test by building a computer program that can exhibit intelligent behavior.  The aim is to convince one third of a panel of judges chatting with it online that it is a human and not a computer program.

Neill, however, is not a computer programmer, or even a linguist. He is the son of the doctor who kept the twenty-year diary that has been used to build the foundation of the computer program. Neill’s job is to chat with his “father” – or rather, the computer program based on his father’s diaries – and refine the program’s answers so that it sounds more human.

To complicate Neill’s life, his father committed suicide at the age of 48. Neill’s feelings toward and about his father are conflicted and unresolved, and now he spends his days typing questions and being rewarded with answers that are actual lines from his father’s own writings. Sometimes what Neill gets back is nonsense; sometimes he is jolted by how real the conversation feels.

I thoroughly enjoyed Neill’s conversations with the program, called Dr. Bassett (drbas in chat). Intellectually I’m sure no computer program could carry on a conversation to the extent that drbas does, but the author had me convinced that it could. The conversations feel genuine and poignant. Neill has trouble separating his feelings for his father from his feelings for drbas. Also, Neill (“frnd1” in chat) keeps forgetting that the program doesn’t know Dr. Bassett is dead.

frnd1: do you think i expected too much of you?
drbas: why are you using the past tense?
frnd1: it would have been nice if you had expressed your love for us more often
drbas: why are you using the past tense? you no longer want me to express my love for you?

I am very intrigued by the Turing Test, so I liked that aspect of this book a lot. I enjoyed Neill’s corrections of the computer program, corrections designed to make it sound more human.

frnd1: what was your first memory of meeting your wife?
drbas: my memories all exist at the same time
[“first memory of meeting” = “memory of first meeting”; repeat]

Neill also interacts with his mother, who is excited about her husband’s chance at immortality through the program, his ex-wife, and two women he dates. His thoughts about his ex and the other two women get a little dizzying at times, but I understand all the emphasis on Neill’s search for love (the title of the book is after all A Working Theory of Love).

A Working Theory of Love came close to being a five star book but just didn’t quite make it. What prevents me from giving this book five stars is the sex cult that wends its way through the narrative. It seemed pointless and a drag on the story. The cult and its members quite irritated me. Also, there was a long stretch, too long, where the computer program was down and Neill was unable to chat with it. Since Neill’s relationship with drbas is the best and most intriguing part of the book, that stretch really slowed things down.

However, A Working Theory of Love has a mostly successful narrative and a strong ending. It is thoughtful and thought provoking. If you are a fan of computer science and the Turing Test, or if you like an intelligent book that makes you think, you might like this book. I read an advance reader’s copy; the book is scheduled to be for sale in October 2012.

Gold by Chris Cleave

This most recent title by Chris Cleave, author of the much-touted Little Bee, follows the lives of three aging British Cycling athletes in the race to their final Olympics. Kate (the nice one) and Zoe (the naughty one) have been friends and rivals in and outside of the sport since their teens. Kate’s husband, Jack (the loveable chump), is our third world-class cyclist. Throw in the tear jerking plot twist of a young girl with cancer, and you have the recipe for Gold.

I hate to say it, but I’m sorry that Gold was the first book that I ever read by Chris Cleave. I was amused, yes. I would even go so far as to say entertained, but I was not truly impressed. I found Cleave’s main characters (possibly excluding the rough-and-tumble, emotionally busted coach Tom) to be only somewhat unbelievable and, due to this general lack of believability, infuriating. Cleave clearly has exceptional talent as a writer. I just don’t buy that he had it fully employed here. His small glimmers of emotional insight and spot-on social commentary were too bright to ignore:

“This new species of guys paired city shoes with backwoods beards. They played in bands but they worked in offices. They hated the rich but they bought lottery tickets, they laughed at comedies about the shittiness of lives that were based quite pointedly on their own, and worst of all they were so endlessly bloody gossipy. Every single thing they did, from unboxing a phone through to sleeping with his athlete, they had this compulsion to stick it online and see what everyone else thought.”

Where is this Chris Cleave? I would like him all the time, please.

Gold by Chris Cleave had impeccable timing coinciding with the London 2012 Olympics, was clearly well-researched, and made me really excited to watch cycling in the Olympics. A solid bronze.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dearly, Beloved by Lia Habel

Dearly, Beloved is a sequel to Dearly, Departed (see my full review here: http://lookgoodifyoudie.blogspot.com/2011/10/dearly-departed-by-lia-habel.html).

Both are set in 2195. Disasters have reduced the Earth’s population to various settlements in Central and South America. One settlement, a wealthy one, has chosen the Victorian era as the perfect time period in the past, and the inhabitants follow Victorian protocols. The Victorians are in a running war with a poorer group of people called Punks. Into this mix comes the Laz, a disease that reanimates a dead body and turns the person into a zombie. Now, undead Punks and Victorians who have managed to keep their minds unite to battle it out with the mindless undead.

Nora, the living daughter of the undead doctor who had made it possible for those with the Laz to continue to exist in useful ways, has fallen in love with Bram Griswold, the handsome dead Zombie former Punk officer. The books are told by multiple narrators, and I find Bram’s the most interesting. There are so many narrators and important characters I had a hard time keeping them all straight. Also, it seems like the author feels compelled to put every character in some kind of a romance (or potentially romantic situation), and I felt the matchmaking excessive.

Dearly, Beloved did not drag quite as much as the first book, but it was still slow in parts. This book feels more violent than the first, and now that Nora and Bram are a couple, the ick factor over the lovemaking is a lot stronger. The satire of paranormal romance was more obvious in the first book, although it is still present in this one.

Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed reading both books, and I recommend Dearly, Beloved to anyone who read the first and to those who enjoy steampunk, lolita, unusual paranormal romances and dystopian stories.

I read an advanced reader copy. This book is scheduled to be published on September 25.