Monday, January 28, 2008

I Just Can't Stop!

Sorry to totally monopolize the blog lately! I read two more kids' books (I love reading below my grade level--it goes so fast) that I can heartily recommend.

Flush by Carl Hiaasen: I really enjoyed Hiaasen's first YA novel, Hoot, and I suggest that if you enjoyed Hoot (and if you haven't read it, go find a used copy), you will also enjoy Flush. Hiaasen brings his trademark zany humor and Florida settings to YA novels quite well, so if you've enjoyed his adult novels, give his YA ones a try. I felt the environmental message was handled well, not too preachy. What the bad guys are doing is so heinous that even people who wouldn't describe themselves as "green" will cheer when they get what's coming to them. Noah and his younger sister Abbey (a former biter, which comes in handy) become drawn into their father's passion for protecting nature. Their father is in jail for destroying a casino boat--Dad insists that the owner is dumping his sewage into the water instead of paying for it to be properly contained and treated (ew), but there's no proof. Noah overhears his mother discussing divorce and he and Abbey set out to prove Dad right. A number of encounters with an entertaining cast of adult and junior bad guys (the casino owner's son is a bully) lead to Noah's hilarious idea for proving the illegal (and very gross) dumping. An unlikely alliance with Shelly, the scary ex-girlfriend of a worker on the casino boat, makes the kids' success more believable. A funny, fast-paced juvenile novel with a message.

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson: I've been on an Ibbotson kick lately. I really enjoy her fantasy novels, which are funny and warm. I summed up the book for Matt--there's a secret entrance to a magical world through a platform in King's Cross station--and he laughed and thought it was a Harry Potter rip-off. But this book was written in 1994. Anyway, the King and Queen of the magical world have an infant son. His nurses take him through the gump (the gateway between worlds that opens every nine years) and he is kidnapped by the horrible Mrs. Trottle who has no child of her own. She decides to go away and return with the baby, pretending he is her own. The gump closes before a rescue can be mounted. For nine years, the King and Queen mourn and plan a rescue at the next opening. A motley crew of magical folk go through the gump to recover the lost prince. They find a charming, wonderful boy at the Trottle home, but he turns out to be a servant. The prince is a spoiled, horrid boy, but they have to bring him back, anyway, as he is the prince. His mother learns of the plan and whisks him away. The rescuers have to track him down (with Ben's help). The plot twist is glaringly obvious, but I think the story is a lot of fun, anyway, and it ends very happily. Ibbotson's books are easily found used on amazon or for basically the price of shipping, and are usually in the amazon 4-for-3 promotion, in case you want to start collecting them.

I've bounced around between books, trying to find the right one, and I've settled on Once a Thief by Suzann Ledbetter for now. It's not grabbing me the way her Hannah Garvey series did (the one that starts with East of Peculiar), but it's mildly entertaining. I've read so much YA lately, but that may just be what I feel like right now. I've been working down the stack of books in my room. I have stacks of books everywhere. I have a shelf of books I haven't read yet up in the guest room, then I have another in the closet. And I have the books I think I'll read soon stacked in our bedroom by my nightstand. Matt's really nice about all this, and every once in a while will request that maybe I could relocate some books when they begin to take over the floor :) After this book, I may hit the literature shelf upstairs for something more substantial.

Friday, January 25, 2008

And again with the kids' books!

So, I read two more kids' fantasy books and enjoyed both:

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress: At first, I wasn't sure what I thought of this book. I blame the publisher, who chose a rather misleading (though very cool) title and cover, which implied that this was a pirate adventure. We learn very early in the story that the Ironic Gentleman is a pirate ship, but much of the book is Alex *getting to* the pirate ship. So, because I was assuming it was a pirate adventure, the side stories on the way seemed meandering and off-topic. But what a fun journey! Kress's voice is enjoyable, earnest and adding fun asides in the Dear Reader tradition. The story seems timeless and placeless, and whimsy added to even the mundane aspects (Alex's interrogation at the police station, for instance) make the story move along easily and encourage suspension of disbelief. I had a lot of fun reading this. In a nutshell, it's the story of Alex, a 10 and a half year old girl (often mistaken for a boy due to her bowl haircut and name) who sets out to rescue her sixth grade teacher, a descendent of pirates who has been kidnapped by the descendent of rival pirates (still with me?). Along the way, she encounters a number of original and funny obstacles and meets truly memorable characters, like the Extremely Ginormous Octopus, who is a frustrated actor, Giggles the cat, and a quintet of scary old ladies. I had a lot of fun reading this. The pirate Steele is a complex villain and Alex is a fun heroine who manages very well on her own against all these obstacles.

Iris, Messenger by Sarah Deming: Holly brought this book to my attention. It's another Greek god juvenile fantasy, but is really completely different from the Percy Jackson series. For one thing, I could be wrong, but I don't think it's the start of a series. All the loose ends were tied up at the end and it seemed like a self-contained story. We'll see. Deming is a very good writer and Iris is an engaging girl. (By the way, here's another publisher-related annoyance--the cover shows Irish being held by a boy--it looks like he's rescuing her or something, but that NEVER happens in the book. What? There's actually a girl who can stand on her own as the hero of a book, and the publisher has to make it look like a boy is actually the hero?) Iris is a dreamer who doesn't have friends at her middle school. She is sent a mysterious birthday gift, a copy of Bulfinch's mythology, with directions on how to find the Greek gods (who now live incognito in suburban Pennsylvania), who need her help. Each god she meets tells her a story (an actual myth from Bulfinch, but with funny asides and dialogue) that leads her to an unexpected truth. This was a fun, well-written fantasy and really enjoyable.

I also read a romance series by Susan Mallery. It's the Buchanans series, four books, each one about one of the Buchanan siblings (if you've read trilogies by Nora Roberts or the like, you know the drill). The Buchanans own restaurants, which is an interesting milieu. They're pretty good, with some wildly unbelievable plot twists, but hey, they're romance novels, so whatever. They're not laugh-out-loud funny like Janet Evanovich, but there are some chuckles. The first one is Delicious, then Irresistible, then Sizzling, then Tempting. (Holly, I'll be sending these your way along with knitting mysteries.)

I'm reading Flush, Carl Hiassen's second YA novel right now and enjoying it. His first, Hoot, was a Newbery Honor Book, and I really liked it. I'll put up a review when I'm done.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A few short reviews

Not Just a Witch by Eva Ibbotson: Heckie can turn anyone into an animal and Dora can turn anyone into stone. The two are best friends until a falling-out over a hat. They end up each getting duped by a furrier looking for a cheap and easy way to get exotic pelts, but join together to make everything right in the end. Not her best effort, but a cute story nonetheless.

Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson. Tired of waiting for the next dark wizard to take his place, Arriman the Awful decides to marry. He auditions all the local witches with a contest--whoever performs the darkest magic wins. Belladonna desperately wants to win, but flowers and fluffy bunny rabbits tend to spring up all around her and she finds dark magic impossible to perform. With the help of an orphan named Terrence, she comes up with a plan. This one is really cute and charming. Terrence is adorable, and Belladonna's inadvertent white magic is very funny. Arriman is a hoot. This is one of my favorite Ibbotsons, and that's really saying something.

Books 2 and 3 in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. The first is The Lightning Thief (the author is Rick Riordan), and 2 and 3 are NOT a disappointment. If anything, they're even better than the first. I really don't want to say too much and give anything away, so go read them!

I also read Plum Lucky by Janet Evanovich. Everyone says the between-the-numbers Plum books are not as good, and they're right. But this was still fun. Grandma Mazur at the slots, Lula modeling underwear, a guy who thinks he's a leprechaun...what's not to like? And it's a fun diversion while waiting for Fearless Fourteen to come out.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult

This is the third Picoult book I've read. As with the others (Salem Falls and My Sister's Keeper), it was a quick, easy, and engaging read. A young Amish girl has a baby in the middle of the night without anyone knowing she was pregnant. The next morning, the baby is discovered dead in the barn and not hidden very well. The girl is the main suspect and put on trial for murdering her baby. In the middle of all of this, a high powered attorney from Philadelphia goes to her aunt's house in the country to relax and reevaluate her life. She ends up wrapped up in the Amish girl's life as her friend and attorney. Forced by the court to live with the Amish family, she spends months getting used to their beliefs and way of life, while building her case to defend the Amish girl.

The book is strong in character development. I felt the story was good, but did slow down in a couple sections. Maybe it was a little longer than it needed to be. And the ending was not too earthshattering. But I found learning about the Amish way of life interesting. And even though this is a fiction book, I take to heart that the author did her research and is protraying their world accurately.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

More kids' books

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan: Holly reviewed this book extremely well here. I had such a great time reading this book. And I took one of my Christmas B&N gift cards and ordered 2&3 right away. And probably I'll be pre-ordering #4. This was such a fresh take on juvenile fantasy. And such a sneaky way to get kids interested in learning about Greek mythology. There are two ways to go with this sort of story; either put the hero into a magical world or bring the magic into this world. Harry Potter goes the first way, and the Percy Jackson books go the other. Matt asked what I was reading and I told him "post-Harry Potter juvenile fantasy." He laughed and asked if we were already at the post-Harry Potter age of literature. I guess I just think of juvenile fantasy written since Harry Potter became an unstoppable force as inevitably influenced by it (at least authors publishing new books, especially series--authors who were already writing don't really have this problem). And Riordan really could have pitched this to his publisher as "Harry Potter, but in New York and with Greek gods." But his writing is crisp and witty, Percy is an immensely likable hero with whom kids will love to identify (especially kids who tend to not like reading, those with dyslexia and ADHD, both of which Percy has as a result of being half-blood), and the book was just plain fun and action-packed to the hilt. He's charting Percy's hero journey, and the necessary archetypal elements make comparisons to Harry Potter inevitable. It didn't bother me, though, because Riordan's story is original and inventive, and the ways he finds to bring Greek gods into modern-day America are endlessly creative. I can't wait to read the next installment.

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson: Madlyn and Rollo go to spend the summer with distant relatives who live in Clawstone Castle, a crumbling money pit opened to the public to raise funds to preserve a herd of white cattle. The children audition ghosts to help bring in more visitors, but a terrible fate befalls the cattle, leading to their quest (together with the memorable collection of ghosts) to save them. Ibbotson has written several ghost stories with a twist. In the tradition of Dial-a-Ghost and The Great Ghost Rescue, the ghosts are good guys and the bad guys are very human. She has subtle anti-animal-cruelty and environmental messages in the text, but nothing preachy or extreme. Madlyn and Rollo are good kids who want to help out their great-aunt and great-uncle as well as the cattle. Ibbotson, as always, is very, very funny in a dry, witty way that I really enjoy. I would definitely recommend this, as well as her other books.


I read Died in the Wool and Knit Fast, Die Young by Mary Kruger. I thought these were fun mysteries, not the best, but enjoyable reads. I'd pick up #3 once it's in paperback, but I wouldn't rush out to buy the hardback. In Died in the Wool, Ari discovers the body of tightwad customer Edith Perry in her shop, and she sets out to help the police solve the murder. In the second, Ari is at a wool festival when she stumbles into the well-hated knitting magazine editor as she's dying (stabbed by a knitting needle). With yarn an important clue, Ari is in a better position than the police to find the culprit. Ari is likable enough and Josh, the cop in charge of the case, tries to keep her in the real world. I have a few gripes: there's almost no comic relief (except some extremely bad puns), in each book, there is a second murder that seems really unnecessary (almost as though Kruger got halfway through the first book and thought the death count was too low and so threw in another), and in each, Ari confronts the killer Jessica Fletcher-style. However, unlike a lot of cozy mysteries these days, the writing is very good, the book is well-edited, and I thought the character development was well-done. If you enjoy cozies and/or knitting, chances are you'll like these. I thought they were better written and the characters more fleshed out than in the Maggie Sefton knitting mysteries.

I also read The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood, the third Beatrix Potter mystery by Susan Wittig Albert. These have all been utterly charming. As a bonus, you could easily read these to kids, as there's no adult content of any kind. The first is The Tale of Hill Top Farm in case you're looking to start these. Talking animals, nosy villagers, charming children looking for fairies--if that sounds saccharine and cheesy to you, well, you might not like these. They're gentle tales that evoke Miss Potter's own charming tales for children, and the mysteries take a back seat to the intrigue of the village and of the animal communities. If you're looking for pulse-pounding suspense, this is not the mystery for you. But if spending a couple of hours in the company of a cast of charming characters, both human and otherwise, then light a fire in the fireplace, make some tea, and sit down with one of these novels.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Vacation Reading

I was recently in the Florida Keys on vacation and had ample time to read. In fact, I finished the three books I brought with me and picked up four more while I was down there. The three I brought with me were books recommended by the bloggers - Not a girl detective by Susan Kandel, The Penguin who knew too much by Donna Andrews and Peter and the Secret of Rundoon by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. I read I dreamed I married Perry Mason before I left so knew Not a girl detective would be an easy read. I've also read the other Meg Lansdowne novels, so enjoyed this one, too. And, yes, I've read the previous two books of the Peter trilogy, so really looked forward to reading it.
I have to admit I'm not that enthralled with the leading character in Susan Kandel's books. She's just too involved in clothes for me to identify with her. Ask my sister about that. I also think the plots are just a bit far fetched, but then they're based on a biographer of mystery writers, so what would one expect.
The Penguin who Knew too much was similar to the rest of Andrew's Meg series - crazy family members and I loved the medical examiner and his claustrophobia! It's not laugh out loud like Evanovich's books, but you do chuckle from time to time.
I loved Peter and the Secret of Rundoon and hate the fact that it is the last book of the trilogy - although there are enough loose ends that I can see a new Peter adventure on the horizon.
I've also read Inkspell and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke - another recommendation by Alison which were terrific reads.
So, after I ran through the above and still had a week of our vacation, we went to the discount book store and I purchased four action thriller books and, of course, I can only remember two of them. The first book I read was The Lions of Lucerne by Brad Thor. I hadn't read anything by him before and picked it up because it was at least 400 pages. I like long books when I'm on vacation. It was extremely action packed and I actually had a hard time putting it down. I've since requested a few of his books from the library and will let you know if they're as good as his first.
I then read Icon by Frederick Forsyth (best known for The Day of the Jackal). This started out very slowly as there were a ton of Russian names to deal with in the beginning. It always scares me when you have a list of all of the characters in the book and it's longer than three pages. And yes, I did refer to it in the beginning. Thankfully, after the first 100 pages, it was limited to ten to fifteen characters. Also, after the first 100 pages, it really got interesting. I'm a sucker for a good spy novel and this was one of them.
I can't remember the last two books other than they were also of the action spy thriller genre and were at least 400 pages. For some reason this year I was into the action genre on vacation.
So, when I returned home last weekend, I went to the library and picked up books by Frederick Forsyth, Patricia Cornwall, Ken Follett and James Patterson.
I just finished Cross by Patterson and other than the very grisly murder scenes (which I started skipping after the first five or so), it was an interesting read that finally identified Alex Cross's wife's killer.
Here's to a Happy New Year of many new and old books to read! Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell. Wow. After I finished it, I sort of sat for a few minutes, then decided I needed to read something fluffy (Died in the Wool by Mary Kruger--thank you, Holly!!!). This is a rather slim (under 250 pages), poetic novel about family secrets and betrayal. It was literally relentless, with no chapter breaks, which made it even more difficult to put down. Three voices are balanced (ambitious for such a short book): Iris, a young woman who discovers she has a great-aunt in an institution (for whom she is now responsible), Esme, a woman committed to an asylum over 60 years ago as a young woman for being difficult and inconvenient for her family, and Kitty, Esme's sister who is now afflicted with Alzheimer's, and always spoke of being an only child. This could easily have been a mess of a book in less capable hands. O'Farrell's writing is stunning and she handles the three voices brilliantly. The book doesn't so much have plot twists as revelations that gradually tease out family secrets to reveal the betrayals of Iris's family. The pacing is flawless. I wanted to find out what had happened, but I didn't really want the book to end. It's haunting and horrifying and beautiful. I can't recommend it enough. To my delight, O'Farrell has written three previous novels, which I will have to look into.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

End of the Year Reading

I finished up two books in the last couple weeks. The first, Momzillas by Jill Kargman was a quick entertaining read. Hannah moves from California to New York City with her husband and young daughter. She is thrown into the rich, socialite world of NYC Park Avenue stay-at-home-moms. It's a typical fish-out-of-water tale about how Hannah doesn't feel like she fits in anywhere in her new location and the ups and downs of that. It all comes together in the end. Nothing too profound. The rich moms are very annoying, but I think there is probably a small amount of truth to their behaviors just from my experience being a stay at home mom. At least, I can see how some of these characters could exist in real life. I would compare this book to The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada in terms of the type of story and flow of the book. Typical chick lit. I signed up to receive emails from my library with a few chapters of a different book each week. I found Momzillas through one of those emails.

The last book of 2007 for me is The Woods by Harlan Coben. Again, another quick and easy read. This book is typical Bestseller fare. The story is not incredibly profound, but interesting and entertaining so worth the read. Twenty years ago, four murders take place at a summer camp. The main character's sister is one of the victims. He becomes a county prosecutor and things begin to pop up involving his sister's case that bring that summer back to him and a few others who were involved. Secrets are revealed. The truth of what really happened that summer comes out. This would be a great book to read on vacation or at the beach. It's very popular right now. I requested it from the library in August and I was #414 on the list at the time.

Happy reading in the New Year!