Monday, June 28, 2010

Mystery Monday - Laura Levine

Killer Cruise by Laura Levine is the eighth book in the Jaine Austen (Writer-for-Hire) mystery series. This is excellent beach reading. Levine has a great sense of humor, and she doesn't take herself too seriously. Instead, she infuses each entry with tongue-in-cheek observations, snappy dialogue, and Jaine getting herself into ridiculous situations...again. Jaine is a freelance writer, and she pretty much takes any job that will help keep Prozac in expensive kitty kibble. This time, she's thrilled to be offered a free Mexican cruise to fill in for the writing teacher who had cancelled. Her illusions are shattered when she's shoehorned into a closet on the Dungeon Deck with the other employees and meets her "students," one obsessed with Mary Higgins Clark (and she's the most normal). One writing exercise splits up a couple on the cruise to celebrate a milestone anniversary. And Prozac has ended up on board. To keep him quiet, Jaine agrees to read the porter's dreadful manuscript. It's the usual fun, wild ride until Jaine uncovers a murderer.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Mystery Monday - Lisa Lutz

Still in Paris! I read the newest Isabel Spellman book over a month ago, though, so I wanted to schedule a Mystery Monday post for the series, which has become one of my go-to rereading series. For fluffy, fun re-reading, I still go to Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum books, but Izzy Spellman is fresh and funny, but with a more serious edge. And she's good at her job. A little TOO good...

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz (Book One): At twenty-eight, Izzy Spellman is comfortable in the family business, a detective agency, where she enjoys surveillance a little too much. And she's not the only one. The Spellmans can't seem to leave their work at the office, spying on each other with every professional resource they have, except for David, the "black sheep" of the family, who has chosen a respectable job as a lawyer. When Izzy's mother hires fourteen-year-old Rae Spellman to follow her sister to find out about Izzy's new boyfriend, Izzy decides she wants out. Her parents agree to let her go...after one more case. An impossible-to-solve fifteen-year-old missing persons case. They're banking on her insatiable curiosity keeping her in the business after the required hours have been put in. Rae, whose hobby of recreational surveillance is more than a little dangerous, disappears, presenting Izzy with the most important case of her life. The dialogue is snappy, the dysfunctional family outrageous, yet believable, and the cast of characters rich and quirky. This is pure fun.

Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz (Book Two): Izzy is obsessed with the Spellmans' neighbor, who seems just a bit 'off.' She can't seem to leave him alone...despite the restraining order. She's arrested four times in three months, which she writes off as a hazard of the job. It all started when the friend from whom she'd been subletting an apartment showed up in the middle of the night. He's happy to be roomies, but she quickly moves back home. Rae, now fifteen, befriends a cop and great guy, Henry Stone. He really doesn't deserve to be saddled with the Spellmans, but he's so good for them, the reader hopes that he and Izzy will get together. But Izzy is preoccupied with that suspicious neighbor and with her brother David's problems. This is a worthy follow-up to a fantastic debut mystery.

Revenge of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz (Book Three): This series just gets better and better. Izzy is in court-ordered therapy, Rae is accused of cheating on the PSAT, and a new case seizes Izzy's attention. Ernie Black's wife is probably not having an affair...but something odd is going on. Even after Ernie is satisfied, Izzy can't let go until she uncovers the secret. The transcripts of Izzy's therapy sessions are hilarious - she's a terrible client, but a funny one. Her preoccupation with Henry's annoyingly perfect new girlfriend adds another subplot. Another fun read.

The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz (Book Four): I was delighted when Lutz released a fourth book in this series. I can't get enough of Izzy and her crazy family. Unfortunately, this looks like the final entry, but what an entry! Izzy has finally agreed to take over the family business. Her first task is to gather dirt on Rick Harkey, the competition, one she enjoys a bit too much. A mysterious disappearance convinces her to hire an actor friend to play butler in a mansion, a role he can't leave at the end of the day, driving his partner crazy. Rae, now interning by researching pro bono cases, becomes obsessed with freeing a prisoner. And what on earth does Henry Stone mean by hanging around again? A funny, delightful conclusion to a fantastically fun series.

Source disclosure: I purchased all these books.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

YA Weekend - series grab bag edition

I am in Paris, not thinking about book reviews even a little bit. I love the scheduled posts feature, which lets me review books for future posts! It also allows me to catch up on the book blog without posting eleven posts in one day...

The 39 Clues: I have not been great about reviewing this series, and it took me a bit of pondering to figure out why. I think I haven't been taking it seriously because each book takes me less than an hour to read, and it has a definite whiff of the potboiler about it. There's also the feeling of being manipulated by a marketing department - the books are released every couple of months and tell a tiny part of the story, stretching it out into ten books AND the books are complemented by a slick website, collector's cards, and a sweepstakes. I was skeptical for the first few books, but really, this series is growing on me. I think it may be the ideal way to coax reluctant readers into picking up a book or ten. And face it, the books are fun! Not high literature by any means, but enjoyable and entertaining and even...educational. But not in an overt way. Each book takes Amy and Dan (and Nellie, their au pair) to a different part of the world, where they delve into local history and biography to solve the next Clue. The improbable villains and unlikely adventures distract the reluctant reader from the fact that he's learning something along the way. I can see a child getting sucked into the story and looking to read more about one of the historical figures he found most intriguing. The books are easier to read than, say, Harry Potter and its descendants, but high-interest to be sure. The interactive component with the cards promotes involvement for children who are more into games than reading. Each book ends with a cliffhanger that would make it difficult to avoid picking up the next book. There is definitely a place for this series, and I think it serves its purpose well.

That said, my "reviews" are going to be more reports of which location the books focus on. Too much information about the plot would ruin the suspense. The overarching plot: Amy and Dan Cahill, orphaned at a young age, find out at the reading of their grandmother's will that they are part of the powerful Cahill clan, a collection of four family branches, each with its own strengths, including most of the famous/influential figures in history. Grace Cahill's will offers each member of her family a choice: one million dollars, or a chance to join the race to uncover the 39 clues of the Cahill family - clues that will make the winner all-powerful. Amy and Dan choose the clue hunt and travel the world with their au pair, Nellie, and Grace's cat, Saladin, searching for clues and uncovering more about their own past.

Book 7: The Viper's Nest by Peter Lerangis: In this book, Amy and Dan travel to South Africa, where they learn about apartheid and finally discover which branch of the Cahill family they belong to. Amy and Dan also become suspicious of Nellie's motives in helping them. South African history was integrated quite nicely into the story, and the family factions continue to be unclear. Whom to trust is a constant theme in this series, with Amy and Dan forging alliances when they must, but agonizing over those decisions. The different families continue to evolve, growing in complexity from the caricatures they were in the early books to fairly interesting characters.

Book 8: The Emperor's Code by Gordon Korman: The hunt moves to China, where the children travel to the Forbidden City and boy-band sensation Jonas Wizard befriends Dan. Or does he? I enjoyed this one, but I find myself not having much to say about it. The children are separated for a while, and I missed the banter between Amy and Dan, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Chinese history is fascinating, and well-integrated into the plot.

Book 9: Storm Warning by Linda Sue Park: The penultimate book in the series is a blast...and made me pre-order Book 10 immediately. Pirates. Really, that's all I need to say. Pirates are fun, and this book is a wild ride. There's a moment when Nellie muses that the clues in this adventure all have to do with "women kicking butt," and I realized that I enjoyed that element as well. This book is more revelatory with regard to the family and the Clue hunt; we learn more about Nellie, about the Man in Black, and about Amy and Dan's family branch. Linda Sue Park really did a fantastic job on this one. The history of Jamaica and of pirates like Calico Jack and Mary Bonny is fascinating. There's a very serious plot twist that I think is handled extremely well. I sometimes think of this series as superficial, but Park really delves into one consequence of the Clue hunt, giving it the weight it deserves. An excellent entry, and a fantastic set-up for the conclusion (Into the Gauntlet, August 31).

Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison by Brandon Mull: I've really enjoyed this series, but the last book was a bit of a slog. I could easily put this book down for long stretches, and I almost dreaded picking it back up again. Things are getting very dark and serious, and I missed the lighthearted fun elements that were more prevalent in the early books. On top of that, Kendra and Seth are separated for most of the book, and their sibling interaction is one of my favorite parts of the series. Plot twists like "a shocking betrayal!" were becoming stale for me. A reader can only take so many shocking betrayals before he can't be shocked anymore. This one is the most plot-driven of the series. As the characters race from danger to danger, there's little time for character development or reflection. It was rather exhausting, and while Book 5 tied up all the loose ends, making it a must-read for fans of the series, it had a perfunctory feel, as if Mull were checking off dangling threads from a list. I read this for closure, and so will anyone who read the first four books, but I was disappointed in the execution. The joy I found in the rest of the series was missing.

The rest of my Fablehaven reviews here.

Source disclosure: I purchased all these books.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Whip Smart by Melissa Febos

Whip Smart by Melissa Febos: When I heard about this memoir of a professional dominatrix, I was skeptical. I could see a publisher hearing the pitch "It's a memoir that gives a rare look into the world of dominatrices!" and falling all over themselves to sign it, blinded by the potential dollar signs such a sensationalist memoir could bring. I was relieved that Melissa Febos is actually an excellent writer in addition to having a fascinating story. Memoir is not necessarily my favorite genre, particularly memoirs written by young people, who tend not to have the perspective and distance to tell their story in the most insightful way. (Yes, Elizabeth Gilbert, I mean YOU!) Febos is smart, but drops out of high school, moves to New York City, and pursues a degree at the New School. Intrigued by a neighbor who is a professional dominatrix, Febos decides to give it a go; after all, $75 an hour plus tips can buy a lot of heroin and cocaine. I thought she did an excellent job of easing the neophyte into the world of professional domming. Her early sessions are pretty tame, and she doesn't get to the really disturbing stuff until late in the book, at which point it seems almost normal. Febos loves to shock people by telling them what she does for a living and breezily says she has the best acting gig in the city. She constantly distinguishes herself from the other dommes and from other sex workers (she looks down on prostitutes and is quick to draw distinctions between her work and theirs). She's smart, we're reminded. She chose this because she's smart and edgy and cool. But she gets through her sessions high on heroin and cocaine, and though her grades are high, her life is a mess. It becomes clear that while she's dominating men for money, she's the one being dominated; by drugs, by depression, by a growing addiction to domming and being desired by men.

This was a fascinating look at a lifestyle most people never glimpse, and, to a certain extent, it's an interesting look at addiction and recovery. Some of the passages in which Febos discusses her addictions and growing awareness of her problems resonate with truth. However, these are numerous, and her constant justification, sense of entitlement, and navel-gazing got a bit tiresome. A person in therapy is always fascinated by her psyche and the dawning understanding of her thought/emotional processes, but to an outsider who is not being paid to listen, the self-analysis becomes tedious. I also didn't find her particularly likable. She seems to fall into drug use and domming because she's bored. She has a great childhood, no trauma to send her spiraling, a family and friends who care about her, but she's rebelling against something unknown. I kept reading along and thinking that I had a revelation of abuse or trauma coming up, something so horrible I should brace myself, but it eventually dawned on me that there was no precipitating event to her downward spiral. It's almost as though she decided to try everything a person as smart as she is (and we are told often that she is smart) should known better. I could have used a little less self-analysis of her growth and a little more backstory about her emotional state. Really, I didn't put the book down knowing why a perfectly nice girl ends up a heroin addict without any apparent reason.

As a glimpse into the world of professional domming, this book is fascinating. As a journey from depression and addiction to self-awareness, it has its moments of clarity and inspiration. As a memoir...If she had waited ten more years, she might have had the perspective to make this a really great book, but she's too recently healed (and I suspect she's still in the midst of the process, or was at the time she wrote this) to tell her story - at least the triumphant rise from addiction and self-destructive behavior part. Still, it's worth reading if you're curious about professional dommes and their clients, and the moments of insight in her journey back to herself are lovely and thought-provoking.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Teaser Tuesdays - Fall Asleep Forgetting

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

I'm reading Fall Asleep Forgetting by Georgeann Packard, a review copy from The Permanent Press. It's taking me a long time to read, simply because the language is so rich and the reading experience so intense. I started marking pages with beautiful passages, but gave up, as nearly every page was dog-eared. Utterly gorgeous, riveting, filled to the brim with truth and beauty. Practically any page would be perfect for Teaser Tuesdays, but I'm delighted to have randomly turned to this lovely passage:

Now I sit with her absence in my small, cold cell. Her absence seems more tangible and real than her presence was. I can almost touch the watery empty space she inhabited that followed me here. (page 185, galley)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Alison Dare, Little Miss Adventures

Alison Dare is not your average twelve-year-old. She's the daughter of a world-famous archaeologist...and a superhero called the Blue Scarab. On top of that, her uncle is an international superspy. So the three adventures in this delightful graphic novel are going to be over-the-top. The first adventure is Alison Dare and the Arabian Knights, in which a bored Alison traveling with her mother finds a genie. Her first wish? To bring her friends/sidekicks Wendy and Dot to liven up the dull desert. As things always go with genies, the girls' wishes don't end up exactly as they had planned. In the second, Alison Dare and the Secret of the Blue Scarab, we learn more about Alison's family, including how her parents met and how a mild-mannered librarian becomes the Blue Scarab. In the third, Alison Dare and the Mummy Child, Alison helps her mother when her arch-nemesis Baron von Baron comes to steal a mummy child from the museum.

These stories were a quick read, but so much fun, I'd look for more. In fact, a second volume, Alison Dare, The Heart of the Maiden, is available, and sounds like a fun summer read. I'd recommend Alison's adventures to graphic novel fans, fans of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, and to reluctant readers who would be drawn in by a spunky heroine in over-the-top adventures.

Source disclosure (hi, FTC!): I received a copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is part fairy-tale, part coming-of-age story, part mystery, and each component is captivating. I kicked the habit of biting my nails decades ago, but I found myself nibbling ever so slightly as the events unfolded to their conclusion. Though the story takes place in 1998, there is a timeless atmosphere that makes the disappearance of girls from a tiny German village all the more creepy. One could almost sense the gingerbread house witch lurking just outside the narrative. Pia, the daughter of a German man and his English wife, is eleven as the story begins, a social outcast because of her status as "the girl whose grandmother exploded," which is well-known through the village of Bad Munstereifel. Her best friend by default is StinkStefan, the only child who doesn't inch away from her as though spontaneous combustion were contagious, and the two spend time with the elderly Herr Schiller, who tells the most delightfully creepy tales and knows everything about the town's history. After Katharina Linden disappears during Karneval, the town is ready to lynch Herr Duster, Herr Schiller's brother, who had been suspected in disappearances of girls many years before. Pia and StinkStefan begin to investigate Herr Schiller and the disappearances (Katharina is only the first). The town busybody Frau Kessel is more than happy to fill them in on past scandals. Herr Schiller's fantastic tales wind together with the grim reality of a kidnapper on the loose in a tiny village. The reader is taken on a journey gradually deeper and darker and more tangled, like Hansel and Gretel walking into the woods.

In the midst of the fables and unfolding mystery as the disappearances mount, Pia is undertaking far more pedestrian struggles. Her mother, long yearning for England, sees the disappearances as a good excuse to remove Pia from the only home she has ever known. A miserable visit with the cousins who mock her English interrupts her investigation with StinkStefan, of whom she becomes rather fond by necessity.

This book is like nothing else I've ever read. It was one of those rare stories that doesn't leave your thoughts when you've set the book aside. The atmosphere, the storytelling, the rich characters came together into a meeting of realism and fable.

Source disclosure: I received an advance proof of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program.