Monday, March 26, 2012

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

I love the Temeraire series from Naomi Novik. It is set during the time of Napoleon; in addition to naval fleets, each country has dragon fleets as well. That is the only "fantastical" element of the series. The intelligence of the dragons and their relationships to their captains and crews is captured in a fun and interesting way.

The first book in the series is a wonderful read, and I enjoyed the first few sequels as well. I was not quite as thrilled with Victory of Eagles and to a certain extent Tongues of Serpents (the fifth and sixth books in the series). Crucible of Gold seems to be getting the series back on track. We get to enjoy plenty of interaction between Temeraire and his Captain, Laurence. The plot meanders from Australia, to the open sea, to the Incan civilization and Brazil.

I find the dragon Iskierka even more annoying than Temeraire does, and there was a bit too much of her in this book for my taste. I really miss Temeraire's formation mates, especially Maximus and his Captain, Berkley. I have high hopes of seeing a lot of them in the next book in the series. Anyway, I definitely recommend the whole series if you've not yet read His Majesty's Dragon.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

After Annie by Michael Tucker

Herbie Aaron, the main character in Michael Tucker’s book After Annie, is not a likeable guy. He drinks, he smokes pot (while driving), he swears, and he fooled around on his dying wife Annie. Herbie and Annie are actors. Years ago, they starred in a hit television series together. Annie is now in the hospital, dying of cancer.

Despite the fooling around, Herbie and Annie are soul mates. Their daughter Candy thinks, “Her mom and dad have always inhabited a world unto themselves. When she was a little girl, it was like they were surrounded by a protective circle, a magic bubble that she could never penetrate.” The book opens as Herbie stops in a bar to drown his sorrows. He meets a girl – an interesting girl. Olive is an actress, bartending to make a living. When he visits Annie in the hospital, he tells her about the bartender. Annie insists that he ask Olive to come see her. Annie and Herbie have that kind of relationship.

Once Annie dies, we follow Herbie, Candy, and Olive as they deal with loss and changes in their relationships. Each struggles to find a path forward. Herbie decides to perfect his golf game. Olive gets a part in a production of Uncle Vanya. Candy works on her relationship with her boyfriend Maurice, who is the same age as her father.

After Annie is the first novel by actor Michael Tucker. They say you should write what you know, and Tucker appears to have done that. He and his wife Jill Eikenberry starred in the television show L.A. Law in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Eikenberry successfully battled breast cancer. This is an actor’s novel, and it shows. The situations feel real and the dialog rings true.

After Annie is a short book and a quick read. It’s not profound, just a brief glimpse over a few weeks into the lives of several people learning how to cope after a great loss. Readers of literary fiction are likely to enjoy this book.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Emerald City by Alicia K. Leppert

They say its darkest just before dawn. One broken girl, one mysterious guy and two worlds collide in a terrific debut novel by Alicia K. Leppert. This novel revolves around Olivia and Jude and how far they are willing to go to get through life or make it bearable to live once again. Olivia, the girl with abandonment issues finds herself numbed to the core of her being with the ones she loved (or did love) no where insight.  Jude comes to her and saves her from the black pit of a life she was leading. But to what cost to him? Can Olivia find true love with her shining rescuer?  Can they really endure life on Earth and all that is thrown in their way?

From the preface to the last page, I was hooked.  The characters came alive and I felt like I was right there in Seattle with them going through their lives with them.  The descriptions were fantastic and made it easy for me to imagine everything taking place. I was left with a need at the end. A need to know what happens next, I was  in rapture with this book.  This is definitely quite the debut novel.  I will be excited to see more from Alicia Leppert in the future.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I love her book Cold Comfort Farm (which the library book clubs will be reading in May) so I had to check this out when I saw it on the library shelf. It is a collection for stories first published in 1940 (although the stories appeared in a number of magazines).

One minor caution - there is only one story about the family from Cold Comfort Farm, and it's one of the least impressive in the collection. Still, I forgive whoever named the book after that story because I would probably not have noticed the book otherwise.

Romance plays a large part in many of the stories, and yet they are more than love stories. There are stories with twist endings, but many end up right where you expect them to end. The people in the stories feel like real people that you know, and the small snippets of their lives feel like real things that did, or could have, happened. There are characters I disliked, and characters I cheered for. There are characters who learn something, and I learned something at the same time.

These are not epic stories about earth shattering events, but they are well written and utterly charming. I'm still thinking about many of them! I highly recommend Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm to anyone who likes good stories about everyday people going about their everyday lives (and who is willing to read stories written 70 years ago).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bridge of Time by Lewis Buzbee

In Bridge of Time, two eighth graders each receive the same news - their parents are getting divorced. The two are best friends with opposite names; one is Lee Jones and the other Joan Lee. The next day on a class field trip, they climb into the lighthouse at Fort Point in San Francisco, fall asleep, and wake up in 1864 with a young Sam Clemens. The book follows their adventures as they move through time, visiting San Francisco in many eras, and learn more about each other and themselves.

This book is aimed at middle schoolers. Having both a male and a female main character is a strength. Historical information is presented in a meaningful manner that adds to the story without getting in the way. Aside from being "unstuck" in time, the kids have problems that other middle schoolers will relate to.

I do have an issue with the cover. Joan Lee is Chinese, and one of the themes in the book is the prejudice the Chinese faced in 1864 San Francisco. However, the girl on the cover, seen from the back, has light brown hair and does not look Chinese. It's too bad the cover could not be honest about the fact that one of the main characters is Chinese. [NOTE 3/17: I'm happy to report that I heard from the author, who said "the final cover does not present any confusion over Joan's background." I'm happy to hear it, and a big thank you to the author for the clarification.]

In any event, I enjoyed reading an advance release copy of Bridge of Time. It is scheduled to be published in May 2012.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

As a librarian, I like to read books that readers are talking about. As the leader of the library’s Movie of the Book club, I also keep an eye on books being made into movies. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins falls into both of these categories.

The Hunger Games has a horrific premise. A future version of the United States, Panem, damaged by war and climate change, hosts a yearly event called the Hunger Games. To punish its twelve Districts for rising up against the Capitol (and losing) decades earlier, two young adults from each District are chosen by lottery every year and sent to the Capitol to fight to the death in an arena while the whole country watches on television. One victor emerges.

Because of the depressing plot, I dragged my feet on reading the series. However, once I started I found it hard to stop. The three books in the trilogy are difficult to take. They are grim, violent, and disturbing. However, they are also exciting, full of unexpected plot twists, and told by a flawed and compelling narrator.

The first book in the series is The Hunger Games. It is the strongest book in the series. It grips your imagination and won’t let go. It begins with an introduction to Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old who lives in District 12 with her mother, her little sister, and her sister’s pet Buttercup, “the world’s ugliest cat.” Katniss’s life is a hard one: never having enough to eat, hunting illegally to get food, scrambling to survive. Still, she has family and good friends.

But it’s reaping day, the day two youths in each District are chosen as “tributes” and sent to the Capitol to entertain its citizens by fighting to the death in punishment for rebellion. When her sister’s name is chosen, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Then the boy for District 12 is chosen. He is Peeta Mellark, a boy in her class at school, a boy she is not friends with but owes a debt to all the same. And from that point on, their fates are intertwined as they head to the Capitol and the Hunger Games.

The similarity to our own reality television shows is obvious and no doubt intentional. The 24 contestants are polished and prepped, then presented to the viewers to choose favorites. While the cameras roll there are breathless interviews, the revealing of secrets, and prurient interest in the lives of the contestants. And then the Games begin.

Most of the first book takes place during the Games. The author makes you feel the narrator’s desperate desire to live. She also makes you feel the moral dilemma Katniss faces in knowing that to survive, every other contestant, including her fellow tribute from District 12, must die. The book made my heart race and gave me nightmares, but it also made me desperate to know what happened next. Although it concludes in a satisfactory manner, it is clearly a Book One that urges you to continue on to Book Two, Catching Fire.

As so often happens with a series, Catching Fire is not as good as the first book in the series. The novelty of the plot has worn off, but the pain and horror of the situation in Panem for the citizens of the Districts has not. That’s not to say it’s not a good book. It is, and it continued to take plot turns I did not expect. There was no doubt I felt compelled at the end to forge on to Mockingjay, the final book in the series. Katniss continues to grow and change, as do the people and the situations around her, leading to a difficult but acceptable series conclusion that left me thinking about conditions in our own world. The themes of this series will stick with me for a long time.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

I wished I’d loved it more, but I did enjoy The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones. Set in England in the early 1920s, it features a mother, her three children, and their “Step” – her second husband. They live at Sterne, an aging manor house that they are in danger of losing. The Step is off to London to try to borrow enough money to save the house.

Charlotte, the mother, nearing the age of 50, is still a beauty although not a particularly nice person; her husband Edward (who I found the most sympathetic character in the book) loves her so much he will do just about anything for her. The two eldest children, Emerald and Clovis, are also not particularly likeable but can be forgiven some of their faults for their youth. The youngest child, named Imogen but called Smudge, is largely neglected by the rest of her family and spends most of her time in her room in a remote corner of the house drawing pictures of the family animals on the wall. The house is full of animals and servants who play significant parts in the story.

The story takes place on Emerald’s 20th birthday. As the household prepares for the big event, news of a railroad crash comes to them. They are told to expect a number of passengers from the crash who’ll need a place to wait while the railroad sorts things out. Among the guests who arrive is a mysterious man from Charlotte’s past.

The Uninvited Guests starts out as one thing – a Noel-Coward-like comedy of manners – morphs into something else, and then returns to what it was originally. I found it at times very dull and others very entertaining. The author has a droll writing style that struck me a number of times. For example, she describes Clovis at breakfast: “Clovis Torrington balanced the pearl-handled butter knife on his middle finger and narrowed his eyes at his mother. His eyes were dramatic, and he very often narrowed them at people to great effect.”

Unfortunately the author also fills her work with implausible events, some of which don’t quite come off. (An attraction between two of the characters late in the book was particularly difficult to believe.) I certainly did not find the plot predictable, although the final resolution regarding the house does not come as a surprise.

I imagine an audience of readers who will love this book and an audience that just won’t get it. If you enjoy unusual literary fiction, you might fit into the first group and delight in The Uninvited Guests. The Uninvited Guests is scheduled to be published in May 2012.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bond Girl by Erin Duffy

Bond Girl wants to be The Devil Wears Prada on Wall Street. Even the black/white/red cover art evokes the other novel. For me, this is more problem than positive. I did not enjoy the story of working with/for the self-crowned entitled editor in Prada, and even less do I appreciate the men-will-be-boys atmosphere of the fictional brokerage firm Cromwell Pierce. Look at these guys at the top of their game! They joke around! They play pranks! Guffaw, guffaw. Because $1000 wheels of cheese are innately funny.

Maybe it's just me, though. So Prada fans should know that Alex, the first-person narrator, is learning "The Business" while on a Journey of life, love and being twenty-something. I might find it disheartening to read of another young person's dream being confronted with the reality of unprofessionalism, but perhaps I'm missing something. I can't say I didn't laugh, but every laugh was followed by a wince at the level of baloney "Girlie" was willing to tolerate in her quest to have a career in finance. Oh, and did I mention this is set in 2008? Because financial collapse is also funny.

I am once again behind on my "Advance" reading, so this book has already been released. For alternate opinions, try Amazon.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Death of a Kingfisher by M.C. Beaton

M.C. Beaton seems to have gotten her second wind with the Hamish Macbeth series. I liked Hamish's new constable Dick. The circumstances around the mystery were far-fetched as usual, but amusingly so. There was less romantic angst from Hamish than in some of the recent entries in the series. I would have liked to have seen more of Priscilla, but on the whole, as a loyal reader of this long-running series, I enjoyed Death of a Kingfisher.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Of Poseidon, by Anna Banks

Submitted by Abbie, teen reviewer:

Of Poseidon, by Anna Banks, is a fantastic book about a girl who finds out secrets of her past and about who she is. With unexpected twists and turns in the story, you can either love a character, or hate them profusely. It isn't a book one would expect to be so addicting, but once started, it is hard to put down. Anna Banks leaves things that you would want to know until the end, which keeps you on edge and makes you want to keep reading. The plot is thick and the storyline addicting. I would recommend this to any who want a story that is full of mystery and romance. It really is a fantastic book!

Of Poseidon is in stores on May 22, 2012.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

In The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, Timothy Egan reports on the fires that destroyed the forests of the American west in 1910 and on Theodore Roosevelt's determination to set aside the great national forests as a public trust. Egan also introduces us to Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester, and Ed Pulaski, another important name in the history of American forests and fires. He gives us background on the first forest rangers and describes how overmatched they were against a forest fire unlike any that had been seen before.

The Big Burn contains enough detail to tell the story but not so much as to become tedious. I generally prefer fiction over nonfiction since I find it more diverting, but The Big Burn kept me interested. The descriptions of the people caught in the fires are particularly well written. The book was thoroughly researched and contains not only big facts but also the little personal notes about the people involved that bring history alive.

Many of the forest rangers were recent immigrants, and Egan touches on the prejudice and challenges that they faced. He notes that the Italians had a saying: "I came to America beause I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things. First, the streets weren't paved with gold. Second, they weren't paved at all. And third, I was expected to pave them."

If you enjoy historical nonfiction or are a fan of Theodore Roosevelt, I recommend The Big Burn.