Monday, June 30, 2008

Two out of three ain't bad...

Two good reviews and one not-so-good, all in the juvenile fantasy genre...

The Sisters Grimm: The Problem Child by Michael Buckley: Ah, more Sisters Grimm! At the end of Book 2, Sabrina was on the trail of her parents' kidnapper. Book 3 opens right when Book 2 ended. Puck is injured for much of the book (he cracks me up, so I missed him), the Jabberwocky is rampaging and the sword that can kill him has been destroyed, and Uncle Jake shows up, with a penchant for doing things the easy, magical way. Anyone who made it through season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will not be excited about a "magic is addictive" theme, but the nuances here are really well done. Granny Relda says there is always a price for magic, and also that there is value in doing things the hard way (Sabrina's arm healing in a cast is a reminder of her mistake; magically healing it erases that lesson). Uncle Jake laughs off these concerns and continues to point his wand for the littlest thing. The resolution is breathtaking, but leaves plenty to explore in future books. A fun subplot is Mayor Charming running for re-election. An excellent entry in the series.

The Sisters Grimm: Once Upon A Crime by Michael Buckley: For the first time since moving in with Granny Relda, the girls return to New York City to search for Faerie, a community of Everafters. They need to take an injured Puck to his own people for healing. They find a scattered, hostile group of Everafters, led by King Oberon (kind of a jerk) and Queen Titania (erratic and crazy). Oberon is murdered, throwing the community into chaos and roping the Grimms into investigating. Sabrina, who had decided to quit the family business, is shocked to learn that her mother was involved with the Everafters. I thought the Wall Street Pirates and the Fairy Godfathers were hilarious, and I'll have to pick up #5 and #6!

A couple of notes on the Sisters Grimm series: First, I've read complaints that Sabrina is annoying. Well, yeah, but she's also a completely believable pubescent girl, so she doesn't bother me that much. Second, I read a negative review that complained about the portrayal of the orphanage, the foster families, and the social worker assigned to the girls. Okay, this one I can see. In the world of fairy tales, step-parents, orphanages, foster parents--they all get short shrift because kids surviving difficult situations are more heroic, and if they had a nice foster family, they might never have gotten into adventures worth documenting. Sabrina got herself and her sister out of numerous awful situations, which explains her resourcefulness, her mistrust of Granny, then the Everafters, and her strong desire to get her parents back and her life back to normal. I guess I see the negative portrayal here as part of the story, I just wanted to mention the issue. Here's my review of Book One and Book Two.

Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles: The Nixies Song by Holly Black and Tony diTerlizzi: I zipped through The Spiderwick Chronicles ages ago. I loved the beautiful little hardbacks with lovely illustrations, old-fashioned chapter titles, and the premise of kids coming across a book called A Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You and then exploring a world of fairies. There were a couple of sections that still stand out in my mind as such disturbing examples of cruel treatment of animals (the cat, the nursing cow) that I might well excise those pages with a razor blade before letting Lilah read them. Or before I re-read them, for that matter. I also felt they could easily have been a single book, but the beautiful little books have an old-fashioned feel and it didn't bother me that much. I picked up The Nixie's Song at Target, and boy, do I feel I was tricked out of that $10.95. The production values are the same; gorgeous, gorgeous little book. But there is NO story here. It took me less than an hour to read. The book is 162 pages long. 24 of those pages are full-page illustrations, and many more pages have smaller pictures that cut the text by up to 2/3. That would be fine if there were a compelling story told, but there's not. Laurie comes to live with Nick's family when her mom marries Nick's dad. Nick resents losing his room (he has to share his brother's room to give Laurie her own space) and thinks Laurie is weird, which she is. She's like a two-dimensional Luna Lovegood, without any of the nuances of that character. She loves her copy of Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide, and goes out looking for fairies. Nick is just angry, then for no apparent reason, trails after Laurie. They find an injured Nixie, then a rampaging giant. They have to figure out how to stop the giant. I ordinarily love meta-stories and self-referential touches, but a trip to a reading by Holly Black and Tony diTerlizzi just felt like it was taking up space. This book is the first of three, and the whole thing smacked of the publisher or the authors saying, "Hey! Let's see how many books that take 10 minutes to write we can get people to buy by throwing the name "Spiderwick" on them and making them pretty!" One more note to parents is that the language in this seems inappropriate for the 9-12 crowd it targets. One character calls another "lard-a**" and "cr*p" and "a**" are prevalent. Maybe I'm more prudish than I thought, but I found it a bit much, and completely unnecessary.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichs

Deadly Decisions is the third installment of the Temperance Brennen (Tempe) series about a forensic anthropologist and her cases set in Quebec. The television series Bones (one of my favorites!) is based on this series of books. I found the first two books to be only mediocre. The stories in the first two books were a little slow and very dry with the forensic descriptions. I found this book to be a little better. I think Reichs is starting to find her groove with the series here in number 3.

In this novel, Tempe gets involved with several murder cases linked to motorcycle gangs in Canada. A young girl gets caught in the cross-fire between rival gangs and Tempe is determined to bring her killer to justice. A set of bike gang twins are killed as well and seem to be linked to the girl's murder. Another female victim is found and also linked to the previous murders. Tempe learns all about the outlaw motorcycle gangs and their evil as a member of a special team focused on these cases. Meanwhile, her 19 year old nephew visits her and she has a friend trying to fix her up with a local news broadcaster. After a while, it appears her nephew has become mixed up in bike gang culture. Her would-be boyfriend Ryan only makes a brief appearance in this novel and leaves you to the next installment for any further romance. But it appears he has gone undercover in a bike gang throughout the course of the book. By the end, most of the murders are solved and killers get their just desserts.

As you can probably guess, you learn quite a bit about Canadian motorcycle gangs as well as just bike gangs in general and their history. There is a great deal of back history explained in the first half of the book. I found this part to be a bit dry and my eyelids growing heavy during these sections. However, I enjoyed the book overall and found it to be better than the previous two books. I enjoyed the forensic explanations and liked that Tempe herself wasn't really in much danger (except for one brief episode during her visit to a biker gang bar). I liked that it was just her trying to solve the case versus her worrying about her life (the 2nd book, Death du Jour was more about her and her best friend being threatened). Reichs did a nice job of moving the story along and not giving anything away too soon. She also did a nice job with developing the witty sarcastic personality of Tempe. My rating: 3.75 to 4 stars.

My brief review of Death du Jour.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Two more!

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall: If you think that taking the Penderwicks out of their idyllic vacation home and plopping them back in the real world with school and after-school sports would squelch the magic and fun from the first book, well, you're wrong. I wondered how sending the Penderwicks home would affect this sequel, but Birdsall has kept the magic going. The girls have their most exciting adventures yet: saving their father from dating, dealing with conflicts with boys, and starring in the school play are just a few components of their busy lives. Jane, the writer in the family, trades homework assignments with Skye, the math and science genius, only to have her play performed for the school and stage fright-stricken Skye the star. Rosalind's friend Tommy starts acting very strange and dating another girl. Aunt Claire comes to visit with a letter from their dead mother, insisting that their father start dating. The girls react to this news with the Save Daddy Plan, in which they vow to find him horrible blind dates so he can stop dating and they won't have a stepmother. Meanwhile, a lovely young widow has moved next door with her small son. I don't want to spoil any of the plot for you, though the ending is fairly telegraphed. I still brushed away a tear :) Charming, nostalgic, lovely children's book. (I had read a review complaining that there's nothing new here, that Birdsall is no different from Elizabeth Enright and Eleanor Estes (if you haven't read them, go get the books now! I'll wait.) and it's true that there are similarities. But they're deliberate, and Birdsall has done some updating.)

The Sisters Grimm: The Unusual Suspects by Michael Buckley: In Book Two (following The Fairy Tale Detectives), the sisters are finally enrolled in school. Daphne adores her teacher (Snow White) and all the kids in her class, but things aren't so great in Sabrina's sixth grade class. The kids are all sleepy, their teacher is horrible until he's killed by a giant spider, and the gym teacher thinks dodgeball is the only game there is. The kids (and Granny, of course) must solve the murder and other mysterious goings-on at Ferryport Elementary. This was an excellent follow-up with lots of action and plot development. The jaded Sabrina is going to have to overcome her suspicious of all Everafters, the girls will have to get Puck to help them, and Sabrina is still searching for a way to save their parents. A lovely entry in a lovely series, but it ends on a cliffhanger, so have #3 ready!

My reviews of the first books in each series are here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Laugh a Minute

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz begins with a car chase. The narrator evades the car and comes screeching to a halt, approaches her pursuers and says, "Mom. Dad. This has to stop." This is a clue that we're about to see new levels of family dysfunction. The Spellman clan are in the private investigator business, and our narrator is Isabel, the middle "child," now 28. Her older brother has escaped the family business and is a successful lawyer. Her sister is only 14, but already engrossed in recreational surveillance. The first part of the book is Isabel's explanation of her family and how she's changed, told through a series of lists, sections of dialogue, and scenes from childhood through today. Lutz's writing is smart and funny, and I laughed out loud in many parts. The mystery, when we finally get to it, is utterly absorbing. If this were just a book about how crazy the Spellman clan is, I'd give it five stars. If I were only grading on sheer entertainment value, I'd give it five stars. But I'm grading it as a novel, so it's three and a half, despite my utter enjoyment of Isabel and her crazy family, not to mention Lutz's fast and furious writing. As a novel, it's a total disaster. It reads like a screenplay (light dawned when I finally read Lutz's bio on the flyleaf...she wrote the screenplay for Plan B, a mob comedy that I'll have to check out), not a novel. The framing device she uses, after the introductory car chase, makes no sense. In a different font, so we know it's a different part of the book (can I just say that I HATE "clever" font changes?), we have a scene in which Isabel is interviewed by a cop. We learn that her sister (Rae) is missing. The sort of lame device for launching into Isabel's life story (and even before, with how her parents met) is the cop asking her to "Start at the beginning." After about 200 pages (okay, maybe only 180), we finally get to the "one last job" Isabel agrees to do in order to leave the family business. After page 300, Rae finally goes missing (the book is only 350 pages long). So framing the entire novel through the event of Rae's disappearance is a bizarre choice, and I found myself wondering (in the midst of enjoying learning the Spellman family history) when the heck we were going to get to the kidnapping, or running away, or whatever. It was distracting and pulled me out of the story. If she had scrapped that device, I would have been free to just laugh out loud at Izzy and her family's escapades. That said, I definitely recommend this book. I had read that it was similar to the Stephanie Plum books, and I'd say that's warranted to an extent. Of course, any book with mystery, romance, and humor with a female protagonist is compared to Stephanie Plum. Izzy is a little edgier, and her family more disturbing, but there are similarities. If you like Stephanie, I would give this a try.

Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich: Speaking of the devil! I've been reading Stephanie Plum for a long time. My mom was reading Hot Six when I was home from college, and she kept laughing hysterically and I thought, "I've got to read that." I did, and we picked up the first five books as well. There's a formula here that works. It's a long series and has its ups and downs, but there are usually good laughs, and I like Stephanie, her family, and the other secondary characters. I found this one to be funny, though light on the skip tracing. The focus is on protecting Joe's house from treasure hunters more than Stephanie doing her actual job. I was also not very happy with the treatment of Lula. The subplot involving Lula this time made her look desperate and a little pathetic, and I didn't think it was in keeping at all with the character, who has been through a lot. Even if she doesn't bother much with filing, she's always strong and larger than life, and this was bizarre. That subplot wasn't wrapped up yet, so I'll withhold judgment until I see where it goes in 15 (which I believe I read will be the last one?). There's definitely a sense of winding things down, but there were still some laugh-out-loud moments in Fourteen, and I enjoyed it.

Fablehaven Book Three

I did it, I went out and got Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague, and it was every bit as good as the previous two books, although things are getting a bit darker. On the preserve, a mysterious plague is turning light creatures dark, threatening the survival of the Sorenson family and the preserve. Still reeling from the possibility of betrayal suggested in the previous book, Kendra and Seth try to find out the source of the problem and stop it. Meanwhile, Kendra is asked to join a secret society devoted to protecting the preserves. This book was hard to put down. The action was nonstop and character development believable. Fablehaven is a new favorite series of mine. Mull's writing is excellent, the kids are funny and brave, and the plot and mythology really sweep the reader up in the action. Definitely start with the first one.

My review of Fablehaven
My review of Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star

A Plethora of Reviews

I was trying to decide whether it was more annoying to post a half dozen reviews in one entry, or to post six entries one after the other. Any thoughts? I've decided to compromise by doing a separate review for the juvenile fantasy, a separate review for the chick lit/Stephanie Plum-ish book, and then group the mysteries, but put the titles in bold to make it easier to tell when one ends and the next begins. Here are the mysteries:

Carrot Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke: I like the Hannah Swenson series, which starts with Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. I recently re-read them from the beginning, then picked up where I left off. This is how publishers hook you: after years of releasing a series in paperback, they suddenly switch to hardback, knowing how difficult it is for a die-hard series fan to wait a year for the new book to come out in cheaper paperback form. I generally balk at paying hardback prices, but for my very favorites, I sometimes cave. Carrot Cake Murder is #10 in the series. Although there's still no resolution of the Mike-Norman-Hannah love triangle, we do find out Mrs. Swenson's secret project (I guessed right!), and we have some mystery concerning Moishe behaving oddly again (I love that cat). Carrot Cake Murder is set at a family reunion for Lisa and Herb's family. Lisa's long-lost uncle (? Seriously, I lost track of how everyone was related, much as one does at an actual family reunion) Gus shows up. He had disappeared in the middle of the night a couple of decades before. The unlikeable Gus (who refuses to explain his long absence, and flashes money around) turns up dead, with Hannah's carrot cake on the floor beside him. It will surprise no one that Hannah decides to investigate. I have a good time visiting the folks in Lake Eden, so I always enjoy a new Hannah Swenson. There are always concerns this late in a series as to whether it's getting stale, and especially with a love triangle that's been dragged out this long. It didn't bother me, because I like Fluke's formula. The love triangle is a little silly (Norman and Mike are pretty darn nice to each other, considering they've both proposed to Hannah), and the chaste relationship she has with each man stretches credibility a bit. But whatever. It doesn't intrude on the fun for me! I recommend starting this series from the beginning if it sounds like it might be up your alley. And cozy fans who like a rich small town setting with a well-drawn cast of secondary characters will probably enjoy this one. Here's my review of Key Lime Pie Murder, #9 in the series.

Goodbye, Ms. Chips by Dorothy Cannell: Yes, another hardback mystery. Sigh. I waited and waited patiently for Withering Heights to come out in paperback (and it was a long wait between the previous novel and WH), but once I'd read it, I couldn't wait any longer for Goodbye, Ms. Chips, which takes place at a girls' boarding school--Ellie's alma mater, as a matter of fact, and the school Ariel (from WH) attends, AND the school where Dorcas is the new games mistress. As Withering Heights gently parodies gothic novels, Goodbye, Ms. Chips takes on the boarding school novel. Dorcas asks Ellie to investigate when the Loverly Cup (awarded to the winning lacrosse team) disappears. Ellie stays at an alumnae retreat house with three other women, one the bully from her own school days, another the girl who lost the chance at the Head Girl spot when Ellie failed to speak up to clear her name. One girl seems the likely culprit, but Ellie doesn't believe it. A full cast of vaguely suspicious characters (alumnae, staff, students, and more) makes this a fun read, with some entertaining twists. The first in this series is The Thin Woman, possibly my favorite all-time mystery novel. I always enjoy seeing what Ellie & co. are up to.

Paint by Murder and Berried Alive by Kate Kingsbury: These are #5 and 6 of the Manor House mystery series. The first is A Bicycle Built for Murder, and they take place in the village of Sitting Marsh during WWII, where Lady Elizabeth keeps her tenants happy while hosting a contingent of American soldiers. The mysteries are always fine, but the real fun is in the village life. In Paint by Murder, one of Lady Elizabeth's tenants is murdered amidst talk of a spy in Sitting Marsh, and in Berried Alive, three American soldiers have mysteriously died. Both were fun entries in the series.
Here's my review of A Bicycle Built for Murder

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Do you need more cheap books?

I don't, but never mind, I shopped the clearance sale of bargain books at Barnes and Noble anyway. The best part is that four of these were books that were on my to-buy list anyway, not entirely superfluous purchases. Seven books, $26.88! Pretty good. In case you're curious, I got:

Diary of a Fairy Godmother, recommended by Holly
Igraine the Brave, by Cornelia Funke (whose The Thief Lord and Inkheart series I've enjoyed)
The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera (which just sounded cute)
The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz (supposed to be Stephanie Plum-ish)
The Akhenaten Adventure by P.B. Kerr (juvenile fantasy)
Book of Lies by James Moloney (another juvenile fantasy)
If Looks Could Kill by Kate White (this is a long shot, the first Bailey Weggins mystery about a crime writer for a women's magazine who solves mysteries--written by the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More New Books!

So I think we have all established that I like to receive free books if I can. :-) I received more fun mail the other day. My Bookmarks Magazine arrived, as well as a copy of Lauren Weisberger's Everyone Worth Knowing. Today, I received Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. A little bit ago, I was sent a chain letter of sorts from a friend of mine. The instructions said to pass the letter on to 6 more people and send one paperback book to the previous person. You then have the potential to receive up to 36 books from various people. Now, I usually scoff at chain letters. I would typically ignore it, throw it in the recycling or delete it from my email. But this one A) had me intrigued and B) gave me the potential to receive free books! Okay, you got me! I've received 2 books so far and that's far better than receiving zero!

I thought I'd also mention a few giveaways that are currently going on:

Heather over at Book Addiction is giving away 5 different Jodi Picoult books!
Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf is giving away an entire BOX of 14 books!!
Amanda at A Patchwork of Books is giving away 5 copies of The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson.

Happy Reading!

Monday, June 16, 2008

For Kids of All Ages

I picked up The Penderwicks (A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy) by Jeanne Birdsall probably a year ago, on the 4-for-3 table at Borders, and I hadn't gotten around to reading it, likely because I choose fantasy when I read kids' books. But I noticed a sequel in Borders recently, and decided to dig out the first one. What a charming story! Reviews everywhere call it the kind of book you read when you were a child, and it's true. It's very familiar, but updated as well. It reminds me a bit of the Peggy Parish Jed, Liza, and Bill books that I recently reread (starting with Key to the Treasure), but a bit more sophisticated, and solidly in the 9-12 age group. The Penderwicks, Dad (their mother is dead), Rosalind (the oldest), hot-tempered Skye, Jane (a budding writer), Batty (the youngest, at only 4), and Hound, their dog, head to a cottage for their vacation, their usual spot having been taken off the market. The cottage is on the property of Mrs. Tifton, a snooty woman preparing to host a Garden Club competition. She has a lovely son, Jeffrey, and a less-lovely boyfriend who wants to send Jeffrey off to military school as soon as possible. Jeffrey and the girls strike up a friendship, and the result is utterly charming, with a few disasters thrown in. It's a fun summer vacation story, with new friendships, ominous grown-ups, wholesome adventures, and slightly harrowing situations. And lots of humor--perhaps because I was an only child until age 7 I always loved books about siblings and their struggles. Definitely a cute read for kids of all ages!

I somehow missed The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, but came across it by chance. I picked up the first, The Fairy Tale Detectives, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sabrina and Daphne Grimm are presumed orphans and shuffled among orphanages and foster homes until a grandmother they had thought dead claims them. It turns out the girls are descendants of the Brothers Grimm, who brought fairy tale creatures (Everafters) to live in safety in Ferryport. When Granny and her companion, Canis, are kidnapped by a giant, the girls must find a way to save them. This starts out pretty dark; Sabrina, the almost-twelve-year-old, plans on running away from Granny's as soon as possible since she can't believe Granny has good intentions. Seven-year-old Daphne warms up to Granny right away, though. The fairy tale characters are fun, and the adventures entertaining. Sabrina and Daphne are engaging kids, and the situation in Ferryport is rich and complex, with some characters supporting the Grimms, while others want their freedom (while they're safe in Ferryport, they also can't leave). I really enjoyed this one, and I'll be getting the others that are out in paperback on amazon's 4-for-3 promotion. A nice combination of mystery and fantasy elements.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster

The full title of this book is: Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag into the Unemployment Office. It was our book club pick for June. We have yet to meet and discuss but several members had already read or started it at our last meeting and they overwhelming felt it was hysterical and a fun read.

This memoir describes about two years of Jen Lancaster's life in Chicago. We open with her in a Vice President position in business sales something or other. (I am sort of lost in the business world myself, since I was in the non-profit world when I did work outside the home.) She was young, cute, and very successful at her job, but ended up laid off after a corporate merger and 9/11. This left her VERY bitter. She tried for nearly 2 years to get a job with progressively less standards. She saw her opportunities, money and friends dwindle. She started a blog to entertain herself during the day (currently known as jennsylvania). Then her husband lost his job as well and they REALLY were in DIRE straits (according to her). She had to move to a non-penthouse apartment in a less desirable neighborhood, work for a temp agency (once). Eventually, her husband found a job and Lancaster tried her hand at writing (hence this book). They got back on their feet and there you have it.

Although, all of this sounds really depressing, it's not at all. Lancaster writes with a fun sarcastic tone and has absolutely no filter when it comes to anything. While her style of writing is entertaining, knowing this is a real person's life and that she actually thinks this way, annoyed me a little. I mean really, she was surprised when people looked at her Prada bag at the unemployment office and then rolled their eyes? Come on. Lancaster just seemed like such a snob to me. I think I would have thought this was more funny if I read it as a fiction book instead of constantly thinking, "Wow! She's really like this?!"

I guess I think of myself as a fairly practical person so it was hard for me to take in some of her shopping obsessions and her "need" for really expensive things. It just seemed so stupid to me that they didn't move out of their super expensive apartment long before they did and she just frittered her unemployment checks away. I just had no sympathy for her at all. So I say again, if you're a practical, hard-working, money-saving person, read this as a fiction book and you'll probably be very entertained (ala Confessions of a Shopaholic) and not annoyed.

I actually feel like I'm being a bit hard on the book and maybe I'm taking it a bit too serious. Normally, I wouldn't even think to second guess my feelings on a book, I would just write what I feel and be done with it, but I'd heard so many things about it being sooo funny. Maybe I had too high of expectations. I guess I'll be curious to hear what other book club members thought of it at our meeting next week. :-)

The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley

The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley is the first book I've received through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Oddly, I received the book on June 11, about six weeks after the book was available in paperback, and the copy I received was an actual trade paperback, not an ARC. At any rate, I selected several books and received this one, possibly the one book I was unsure I even wanted to read. The synopsis was intriguing, but in a Jerry Springer/train wreck sort of way: Bored Kate Flynn leaves her London academic job and returns to her childhood home to care for her mother. While she is there, a married childhood friend and his seventeen-year-old son "set about their parallel courtships" and "Kate cannot quite resist either man." This all sounds rather seamy, in (I am happy to say) a completely inaccurate way, and I was delighted at the whim that led me to request this book. Tessa Hadley is a gifted writer of lyrical, evocative prose who has crafted a novel (her third) that is touching, funny, and complex.

Kate is both sympathetic and infuriating in her midlife crisis. Hadley has drawn her as a woman who has come untethered; though she has taken a one-year leave of absence instead of quitting her job and let her flat instead of giving it up completely, there is a sense that these steps are just delaying the inevitable. Speaking to David, a public health doctor, she calls her academic life "a kind of dream, a mistake. A life lost in books. What an abyss of difference, between your usefulness and mine. How did I choose it: this play life? I should have been a nurse. We carelessly make one choice after another and our lives pile up." She is not always nice, to put it bluntly, and there were times I didn't like her. Though her purported reason for moving home to Wales is her aging mother, it's clear that her mother is a means of escape from a life she had thought she wanted. When she first comes home, she finds her mother asleep and nearly decides to drive back to London without waking her, and she can be sharp with her mother. She takes her childhood friend Carol (who should be nominated for sainthood) for granted. She throws a lavish party purely to spite the practical David and his wife, Suzie. She tells seventeen-year-old Jamie, who has fallen in love with her, that he's too young to be her friend. But despite all these flaws, or perhaps because they make her real, I hoped that she would find what she was looking for by the end. I was expecting, rather dejectedly, for the story to end without any meaning found, without the hollows of life being filled, and I was both surprised and satisfied by the ending. Kate remakes her life, but not in any trite way, nor in the way I had expected.

This is a quiet book, with many small movements rather than a single dramatic action. Hadley's prose is well-suited to the story (or rather, stories, as the subplots share a dance floor with Kate's midlife crisis, even if they don't cut in), with simple, accurate language, like this description of her reunion with David: "They were falling into a pattern of friendship that had been, before Kate came back to live in Cardiff, exactly her idea of the sort of thing that would evolve in a place like this between grown-up cultured people" and elegant description, as when she first arrives at home: "The falling rain was blotted up overhead by the tall monkey puzzle tree or pattered onto the evergreen bushes. Below, on the lake, an invisible duck blundered splashily. A cold perfume of pines and bitter garden mulch seemed to her like the smell of the past itself." I marked dozens of pages where I found beautiful, lyrical prose or turns of phrase so elegant and perfect they made me smile. Hadley is funny, too. David's wife has fallen in with new hippie friends, and this is his parenthetical description of Menna and Neil's old van when they come to take Suzie camping: "its puttering filthy exhaust more polluting, surely, than anything they could make up for with their puritanical veganism." After Jamie cuts the grass, she tells him, "I think it looked better with the grass long. That grass was beautiful, it blew in the wind, it was blond like hair, the sound it made was like the sea. Now what does it look like? Stubbled and ugly, a poor cropped head." When Jamie looks crestfallen, she laughs.

The word "hollow" and variations on it appear too many times to count, and this is no coincidence. At forty-three, Kate feels hollow, that her life is empty. She doesn't take care of herself; she smokes and drinks, but rarely eats. The return to Wales doesn't immediately help; she reflects that "She had screwed up her own professional life as if it didn't matter and stepped outside it into where she was no one." She talks of being unmoored, of longing to be broken down and remade. Even literature is hollow: "Nothing written now has enough in it. I have to swap about, as soon as I get the hang of what they're up to; they're only ever up to one thing at a time." This is certainly not the case with this novel. In addition to Kate's search for meaning, we have glimpses into David and Suzie's failing marriage, Billie's failing health, Jamie's youthful search for meaning in his life (which makes for an interesting contrast to Kate's). This is the sort of book that I would have loved writing papers on in college. The story is unbelievably rich, and I could easily make this review pages and pages long, but I'll stop here. I'd recommend this book to anyone who looking for a rich, complex novel about the human experience, written in gorgeous, decadent prose.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Cedar Rapids Flooding

I know this is a book blog, but I just had to post a picture of the main branch of the library in my childhood hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It is the low rectangular building in the center of the picture.
It only has two floors with most of the books housed on the first floor and the children's section on part of the second floor. I read an article somewhere that library workers and volunteers were working hard so I'm hoping they were able to get most, if not all the books to a safe location before the flood water destroyed them all. But the building does not look like it will be in very good shape when the water recedes (whenever that may be). I spent so many hours here in high school studying. It makes me so sad.

Luckily for my family, they are fine. Their house is on the highest point in the city so no worries there. But if you have any extra thoughts and prayers, the people of Cedar Rapids sure could use them right now. The river was supposed to crest today and now it looks like that won't happen until tomorrow.

If you are interested in more flood images, check out the Cedar Rapids Gazette's website.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More Bobbie Faye!

I finished Bobbie Faye's (kinda, sorta, not exactly) Family Jewels by Toni McGee Causey. It can be hard to review the sequel to a fresh, surprising, laugh-out-loud book like Bobbie Faye's (very, very, very) Bad Day. It was easy to rate the first one: it was a five on a scale of five, filled with humor, action, romance, and the unique character of Bobbie Faye, who attracts disaster like nobody's business. And when I finished it, I thought, "There's no way she can top this." But I was dying to read the sequel anyway. The sequel is flawed; the humor is a bit more forced, there are too many bad guys, and the plot is neglected a bit to make way for an expanded role for the Love Triangle. Does this mean I don't recommend this book and I won't be first in line to buy Bobbie Faye #3? Absolutely not. The first book was so good that the second pales in comparison, but it was still a fun ride.

Bobbie Faye is having another Bad Day. This one begins with a weird dream in which she shoots a man, and then she wakes up with blood in her hair. Uh oh. Cousin Francesca brings her a huge problem: Bobbie Faye's Aunt Marie has run off with some diamonds and Marie's husband has put a hit out on her. Bobbie Faye JUST HAS TO find those diamonds. Unfortunately for Bobbie Faye (and the state of Louisiana) Francesca isn't the only one looking for the gems. There are THREE groups of bad guys, and to be honest, I didn't always bother with keeping them straight. Which group has the sniper on the roof? Whatever. Who's using which tracking device? I don't care. Bobbie Faye sets off to find the diamonds/escape from the three groups of nutcases trying to kill her, and becomes the main suspect in the murder of a jeweler along the way. This is fun stuff, and if there weren't as many laugh-out-loud moments as in the first, that's understandable. More time is devoted to her evolving relationship with Trevor and some realizations about her past relationship with Cam. Bobbie Faye is so likeable that I just want her to be happy!

A revelation at the end suggests that book #3 is probably in the works. I personally hope it involves retrieving that one thing from book #1 and going on the adventure it would suggest, because that sounds really fun. I expect that future books will be even more involved with the relationship stuff, but as long as Causey keeps up the smart, funny writing, I'll keep reading.

Holly's Review Here
My review of the first book here.

Mystery Sequel Round-Up

I've accumulated a few mystery reads, and thought I'd group them. I'm never exactly sure how to handle reviews of series books: do I treat each book as an individual or do I review the series as a whole? Do I judge the book based on its context in the series or as a stand-alone? Certainly, if I'm reading #2 in a series (and particularly later books), I consider the series worth reading, and that's going to color my review. I think I tend toward reviewing the series and I try to avoid revealing anything about subsequent books (in terms of larger plot and character developments) that might spoil things for someone who decides to start with the first. Anyway, onto the books:

Murder at the Murder at the Mimosa Inn by Joan Hess: The title is not mistyped! This, the second entry in Joan Hess's Claire Malloy series (the first is Strangled Prose), takes place at a murder mystery weekend held at the Mimosa Inn. Farber College's theater troupe stages several disagreements, clues are planted, and Claire is excited to show off her investigative skills. Things change abruptly when the murder victim turns out to have been actually murdered. Claire must sift through the fake motives and alibis provided for entertainment to unmask the unscripted killer. I find Joan Hess to be really funny in a dry, erudite sort of way (I hope that's not off-putting--she seriously cracks me up!). Sometimes if I'm skimming a bit, I realize I almost missed a funny wordplay joke. Claire is likeable and her trials with her fourteen-year-old daughter, Caron, are entertaining. Her competitive streak with regard to investigating murders manifests itself in funny ways, too. I thought this was an excellent entry in the series--the confusion of the murder mystery weekend was an enjoyable venue, and the supporting characters are a lot of fun. Caron, annoyed at having been dragged on this trip with her mother, is particularly overdramatic. I've enjoyed the first few in the series and am re-reading them after a few years (I think I read 1-4 or something). The first novel was published in 1986 or so, I believe, so they might seem a bit dated. I think of them as historical :)

Dear Miss Demeanor by Joan Hess: In #3 of the Claire Malloy series, Caron begs her mother to investigate the allegations that Miss Parchester, Journalism teacher at Farber High, has embezzled funds. Caron's interest in the matter is entirely self-serving; the senior who pens the Dear Miss Demeanor etiquette column in the school newspaper has mono and Caron is up for her job as long as Miss Parchester can return to work. Claire goes undercover as Miss Parchester's replacement. Her total apathy for what the students learn under her wing is hilarious, as are her descriptions of the other teachers. Not surprisingly, scandals abound and the stakes are raised when the principal's last meal turns out to be poisoned compote left in the teacher's lounge by Miss Parchester herself. I really thought the high school setting and supporting characters were fun; the overworked/underpaid teachers, the vice principal obsessed with rules and regulations, Caron's desperation to make her mark as Miss Demeanor, all make for good entertainment. There are enough red herrings that I was guessing until the end.

Here's my review of Strangled Prose.

Dig Deep For Murder by Kate Kingsbury: This is #4 in the Manor House series, and I enjoyed my visit with Lady Elizabeth and the tenants at Sitting Marsh during WWII. The solution to the mystery in this one was rather obvious to me early on, but no matter. The real entertainment here is the soap opera. Will Lady Elizabeth and her American Major get together this time? What's up with the ghosts the butler keeps seeing--is he just barmy or is something more sinister at work? Will Rita finally lead the Housewives Brigades to invade Germany (kidding!)? I've read that her Pennyfoot Hotel series (set in Edwardian London, I believe) is better, so I started with this one. The first is A Bicycle Built for Murder, and I think this series is a wonderful guilty pleasure. You can pretend it's historical and therefore weightier than it is :)

Here's my review of A Bicycle Built for Murder.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

New Book Stash!!!

I recently went a little crazy and took advantage of Amazon's 4-for-3 promotion and bought several books. I haven't bought any books in awhile so I splurged a bit. They all came in the mail today!! Oh, what fun!

I got a couple chapter books that looked fun for when my daughter is ready to move on from Easy Readers. I've been on a Harlan Coben kick lately so there are a few of those. A friend recommended Steve Berry's books to me so I picked up a couple of those. I've always been curious about Sue Grafton's Alphabet series, but I'm anal and like to start at the beginning of the series, so I got A is for Alibi. Kathy Reichs 3rd Temperance Brennen installment, Deadly Decisions, because I enjoyed the first two. I like Sarah Strohmeyer's writing with the Bubbles books so I thought I'd try one of her fairy tale books with The Sleeping Beauty Proposal. Someone reviewed The Chatham School Affair on one of the book blogs I read and I thought it sounded interesting. And Shadow Catcher sounded good to me when I read about it as a Tournament of Books selection so I threw that one in the cart as well. Whew!

And as if those are not enough new additions to my overflowing bookshelves, I received a box from Allison in the mail last Saturday! Thanks so much Allison!

I'm so excited to read Jodi Picoult's Change of Heart (Thanks again Gwyneth!!), and Allison has been waiting forever for me to read the rest of the Bubbles books. (Allison, admittedly, you have me very intrigued now!) She also threw in the Pauline Sokol series as well as a Jennifer Crusie and Joan Duett. Oh, and Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know, which sounds right up my alley as well!

Oh, what fun it will be for me to go in search of a new book on my shelves! So many choices, so little time! :-)

Monday, June 09, 2008

Diary of a Fairy Godmother by Esme Raji Codell

In sticking with Allison's current theme of reading youth novels, I picked up Diary of a Fairy Godmother off my shelf. I was in the mood for something light, fun and easy to read after America America. I bought Diary of a Fairy Godmother a while back during Barnes and Noble's Bargain sale. It looked like a fun book my daughters might like someday. I read it extremely quickly and enjoyed it very much.

It's the story of Hunky Dory who according to her mother will be "the wickedest witch wherever the four winds blow". But Hunky Dory discovers she might be more inclined toward wishcraft than witchcraft. Once this is known, she is ostracized by her family and friends and cast out on her own. She comes up with a very successful idea to make a living granting wishes; the wishing well. She finds that she is very satisfied with granting others' wishes and becomes a bona fide Fairy Godmother. In the end her old family and friends accept her for who she is and everyone appears to live happily ever after.

This is a very cute story with retellings of Sleeping Beauty (Aurora), Rumpelstiltskin, and Cinderella, and also mentions Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, among others. It's fun to see how the author puts these fairy tales into Hunky Dory's world. This is listed as a book for ages 9-12. I'd say that's right for actual reading level, but I think kids as young as 6 or 7 could enjoy having this book read to them. There are some larger vocabulary words that are defined in the same sentence or the next one. Younger readers might find the actual reading of it a bit difficult, but they would probably know the fairy tales well and think it was fun to listen to the story. There are entertaining illustrations throughout the book as well.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Fablehaven Book Two

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star by Brandon Mull. I so enjoyed Fablehaven that I took my $5 in Borders bucks and dragged Lilah to pick up the sequel! And having finished it fairly quickly, I'm ready to take my 30% off coupon to Borders to get #3. Book Two does not disappoint. The story starts off with a bang. A new boy shows up in Kendra's class at the end of the school year. Her friends all have crushes on the handsome boy, but Kendra realizes that he isn't human. When she and Seth are approached by Errol, who knows all sorts of things about the two kids, they agree to help him get rid of the boy. They are soon taken back to Fablehaven, where it will be safer for them. Their grandparents have assembled a potions master, a magical creatures expert, and a magical objects expert to help protect Fablehaven by recovering a lost artifact. When strange occurrences suggest a traitor is in their midst, Kendra and Seth once again become key to saving Fablehaven. We end on a big huge cliffhanger, so have Book Three ready!

The story was compelling right from the start. Kendra and Seth are believable kids and have the affection and rivalry of real siblings. ("What are you doing?" "I'm thinking. It's what some of us do before we talk.") They care deeply about each other, but still snipe and tease. We see even more of Fablehaven, and I enjoyed seeing the familiar characters as well as the new ones brought in for this story. Mull's writing is simple, clear, and often funny. The plot and character developments move along at a brisk pace, and the suspense is very well carried throughout the sequel. I thought this book might have been even better than the first, but at any rate, I recommend both to those who enjoy Harry Potter and the like and are looking for an imaginative, fun journey to a well-drawn, magical place!

Read my review of Fablehaven here.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo by Obert Skye

Reading kids' books rarely makes me feel old. I *get* them. I've always wanted to go to Hogwarts. I can't wait for the final book in the Inkheart series. I pre-ordered Percy Jackson. But after reading glowing review after glowing review of Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo, I have to say...I just don't get it. Don't get me wrong--it's not completely unlikeable (more on that later). But one of the characters has the special gift of turning things to ice, which I thought appropriate, as this book moves at a glacial pace. In case you're like me and would expect to get to Foo sometime during this book, let me tell you right now: You're not going to get there in the first 340+ pages, except in glimpses of the super-annoying and one-dimensional bad guy. We spent the ENTIRE book trying to get to Foo, in the most methodical way possible. Skye (is it just me, or does Obert Skye sound like one of those names you create using your first pet's name and the street you grew up on or something?) has obviously taken a lot of time developing Foo (to a Tolkien-like level of detail, complete with an unnecessary map at the end and a glossary of the types of beings found in Foo), but we never get to SEE it. Presumably, the next book takes place in Foo, but I'm not sure I'm going to get there.

The writing is not great, but with some really funny bits ("I'm sorry, I think even if you're going to be sinister you can take five minutes a day to floss and brush"--hahaha!), but there is far too much overwritten prose like "The hot windy sky quickly became a thick sticky trap" and "Weaved together like a rug that humanity was about to unknowingly wipe its feet on." Is there a quota on adverbs and adjectives that Skye is trying to meet? Speaking of adverbs, rarely does a character just "say" anything. They "shiver" or "smile" or "sigh" their words, and if they do "say" anything, it's modified by an adverb. In fact, within six sentences, Geth says two different things "strongly." But enough grammar/style nitpicking; after all, JK Rowling herself is guilty of over-modifying dialogue tags, and I try to ignore it with the Harry Potter books. Overall, I felt this book read more like the first chapter or two of a more exciting book, and since it is the first in the series, maybe subsequent books move along a bit better. This one went back and forth between the several points-of-view so that we learn all past and present events in excruciating detail, and all the back stories of all the characters. Seriously, I felt a little like I would be quizzed on Foo trivia at the end. It lacked the joy of fantasy reading that I found in Fablehaven, and I was really slogging through for the first 80 or so pages until Leven and Winter finally meet and the Fellowship sets out to destroy the ring...oops, I mean portal. Skye seems to feel that if you can tell it, why bother showing it? This is a constant source of reader-frustration in the book. The bad guy is bad, I'm told over and over and over and over, primarily through his long, megalomaniacal speeches (in which he italicizes all references to himself, which drove me nuts).

An important note: If you're plowing through this book thinking that Leven's poor eyesight (I didn't count the number of references, but I believe it exceeded a dozen) is somehow important to the plot, I can save you some annoyance at the end: it has no impact on anything. At all.

Harry Potter checklist:
Parents dead? Check!
Raised by mean aunt? Check!
Distinguishing mark? Check!
Unusual gift? Check!
Told about otherworldly nature by strange creature? Check!

I almost did a Lord of the Rings checklist, too, and this Harry Potter one could be much longer, but that would be really self-indulgent of me. Okay, moving to the positive. The idea of Foo, a world that exists so we on earth can dream, is really cool and clever. Winter and Leven are funny together (when Leven isn't whining about how he isn't good enough, smart enough, etc.), and the glimpses of Foo we get through Clover's candy collection are pretty funny. I guess I would recommend this to very patient fantasy readers who need a Harry Potter fix and are willing to make it through this book in the hopes that the sequels are better.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

America America by Ethan Canin

This was another Advanced Reader Copy from the Early Reviewers Group on LibraryThing. In America America, a young man, Corey Sifter is swept up into the lives of a small town’s most wealthy and powerful family. Corey comes from a working class home and accepts a job on the Metarey Family’s estate in the late 1960’s. Before he knows it, the family patriarch takes him under his wing offering him advice about succeeding in life and the chance to further himself by attending a prestigious private boarding school. The story is told through alternating chapters in at least three different time periods (all at once!); Corey in high school, Corey in college, and Corey as a middle-age adult. The tale is told mostly through Corey’s eyes, but every now and then strays to one of the lesser characters’ point of view.

The book centers on a political campaign (of Senator Bonwiller) run during Nixon’s second presidential campaign and focuses on the Metarey family’s and therefore Corey’s involvement with the campaign.

There are many facets to this book. It is modern historical fiction and contains a portrait of the proverbial American Dream. A Scottish man (Eoghan Metarey) coming to America and rising from nothing to become wealthy and powerful through hard work (and perhaps some questionable decisions). And then the legacy he leaves behind for his family. The book centers a great deal on what one generation can learn from the next and how each generation affects another. It also portrays the political world of the late 1960’s, early 70’s before the world of the computer age when newspapers and reporters were an integral part of the campaign. Also, the lengths politicians will go during a campaign (not that any of this has changed much, just the medium through which the information is disseminated has). The American Dream is also shown through Corey’s family where he has the opportunity to learn more and have more of an education than his father did. There is an interesting storyline about the relationship with Corey and his father toward the end of the book.

It’s hard for me to decide if I liked this book or not. I think it is very well written and I think many of the characters are developed well. I like the way Canin creates the relationships in the book between Corey and his father, Corey and Liam Metarey, and Corey and the Metarey daughters. A good section of the book deals with the political campaign and I found some of these parts to be very boring and I wondered if I would actually be able to get to the end of the book. Through much of the book, Corey refers to his spouse as “my wife” and not by name, so we’re not entirely sure which character he has chosen to marry until quite close to the end of the book. There is also an “incident” that is talked about in much of the book that really has too much of a build up. I wasn’t that into the Senator’s character or his affair with a young woman and the ensuing incident.

The timing of the book is good (it comes out June 24th) with this being an election year and with as close as the primaries are, its sort of fun to read a bit about politics. I think overall this book is probably 4 out of 5 if I’m impartial about it. But for my personal tastes, I think it was a bit long and not quite as gripping as I might like (I’m also usually not very engrossed by politics) so it could be a 3.5. If you like the author, Richard Russo, I would recommend this one. It reminded me a great deal of Bridge of Sighs and Empire Falls.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

I'm taking a little break from mysteries to work my way through my juvenile fiction pile. I didn't have extremely high hopes for Fablehaven, to be honest. It sounded like a Harry Potter knockoff, and I was only expecting a reasonably competent one. I was very glad to be wrong! Thirteen-year-old Kendra and her eleven-year-old brother, Seth, are dropped off at their seldom-seen grandparents' house (can you tell that seldom-seen modifies 'grandparents' instead of 'house'? I might re-write that sentence if I have time) when their parents can't find other child care during their upcoming 17-day cruise. No one is happy with the arrangement at first, but Kendra and Seth soon learn that her grandfather is caretaker of Fablehaven, a preserve for mystical creatures that is guided by ancient laws. When Seth breaks one of the laws, chaos ensues, and after Midsummer Night's Eve, a crazy time at Fablehaven under normal circumstances, the kids awake to find their grandfather missing and the house in ruins. They must save their grandfather and Fablehaven itself from the evil trapped within the preserve. There are some minor annoyances that (for me) were overcome by exuberant storytelling, believable characters, and imaginative plotting. Kendra never breaks rules, and it's pretty obvious that she'll have to learn to judiciously break some rules in order to help save Fablehaven. Seth ignores rules (and the insistence of Kendra that he follow them), causing mayhem. With fewer than a hundred pages left, the action stops for some pretty heavy exposition. I also found the buying and selling of fairies, characterized as human-like (at least in appearance) and the treatment of the cow a bit disturbing. But these are minor quibbles with a magical story told by a capable, earnest storyteller. I'm looking forward to reading the next in the series, and I may not be able to hold out for #3 to come out in paperback.

I started Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo immediately following Fablehaven, and it's suffering in comparison. While Fablehaven is a fun story of siblings, family, and the otherworldly told by an enthusiastic author, Leven Thumps is methodical and overwritten, more a Lord of the Rings style of fantasy (and I love Lord of the Rings) where every aspect of the world has been planned out. It's slow going after the exuberance and sheer joy of Fablehaven, but I hope I get into it and enjoy it.