Friday, December 16, 2011

Burnout: Adrienne Maria Vrettos

Burnout is the story of Nan, a teenage girl who wakes up the morning after Halloween with no recollection of the night before. She wakes up on subway train wearing make up and a costume she doesn't remember. The problem is, while this would not have been unusual for Nan six months ago, she has since been through rehab, confronting her demons and leaving blackouts in the past. I was instantly intrigued by the idea of this mystery, so I was very excited when I won this book from GoodReads FirstReads.

At the heart of this novel is a girl who, I think, just wants to be good. Her home life is kind of a mess, so when she meets outrageous Seemy, Nan desparately wants to be her friend. Where Nan is big boned and amazon-esque, Seemy is petite and lithe. Nan is grounded and steady; Seemy is flighty and spontaneous. Nan falls in love with Seemy who prefers to avoid complex emotions in favor of one-night-stands with losers. Friendship with Seemy means skipping school to get drunk in the movie theater, or stand guard while she hooks up with a random guy in their sacred Carriage House. Despite it being a damaging friendship, Nan hangs on tightly to the lively girl who makes her feel special. Nan is a relatable character--most people, at one time or another, have been willing to forego rationality for the sake of affection from someone they love. For this reason, I care about Nan and how she came to wake up from a blackout after so many months in recovery.

I don't want to ruin the mystery, but I will say that not every question is answered...much like real life. There is some real terror in this story, inducing a heartwrenching kind of ache for these girls who are making choices that will impact their lives in significant ways. It's a fast read with memorable characters. Vrettos deserves the many accolades she has received this year for her stellar writing.

Rating: $$.5

Received courtesy of GoodReads FirstReads.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The It Girl: Cecily von Ziegesar

I am pretty far away from high school popularity. I attended high school in a very small town were popularity was incredibly relative. I don't recall any one particular girl whom everyone wanted to be or be with, and if that girl existed, she certainly wasn't me. My high school experience was such a unique one that I'm intrigued by girls who are willing to do and say and wear things outside their comfort zone for the sake of popularity. I suppose that curiousity is what led me to The It Girl.

Jenny --a spin-off character from the Gossip Girl series--has transferred to Waverly Boarding School where she hopes to shed her good-girl image, and earn some popularity with her new risk-taking attitude. Thanks to a series of mishaps and little white lies, Jenny fast becomes the most talked about girl on campus. The best-looking guys are all vying for her attention, and her pretty, popular roommates Brett and Callie are fawning over her. Mission....accomplished?

The It Girl is one of those books that I couldn't put down, but I couldn't tell you why. This isn't a page turner, full of adventure and action, nor is it a breathless romance. Truth be told, it's a droll little tale of drivel about unreal characters. So I suppose that's a testament to von Ziegesar's writing that she can keep my attention even when the subject is as trivial as high school popularity. The characters are flat and uninteresting, the plot is thin at best, and my interest in the outcome steadily waned from the very beginning. And yet, I couldn't put it down!

Rating: $.5

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ash: Malinda Lo

Ash is the Cinderella fairy tale for the queer set. Instead of being the pauper girl chosen by the prince, this story features an orphan who is caught in a love triangle between a handsome fairy and a beautiful huntress. Malinda Lo challenges the social norms we receive as children and sheds light on the magic of love.

The role of Cinderella is played by Aisling, nicknamed Ash. The story begins pretty much the way we remember it--her mother is dead, her father remarries (enter the evil stepmother and two ugly stepsisters), and then her poor papa dies, and Ash is left in the care of her conniving stepmother. The twist is that this story takes place in a time when the fairy kingdom was a part of not-so-distant lore. Ash dreams about what life with the fairies would be like, and in her youth she commits herself to a future with Sidhean-- a handsome fairy she meets one night while wandering in the Wood. As she grows up, Ash takes on the role of servant in her stepmother's household, and has limited exposure to the outside world. When stepsister Ana sets her sights on winning the prince's favor, Ash is taken into the City for the Yule celebration. On that fateful night, Ash meets Kaisa, the King's huntress. Kaisa is strong and powerful, yet beautiful. Ash and Kaisa become intrigued by one another and their friendship blossoms over the Spring and Summer months when Ash is able to escape for a few hours to herself.. As the renowned ball approaches, Ash realizes that her love for Kaisa has outgrown the commitment she once made to Sidhean, but she cannot back out of her promise to the fairy. Knowing that the ball may be her last chance to see Kaisa, Ash asks Sidhean for the favor of a gown and carriage to take her to the ball. In traditional fairy tale fashion, Ash catches the eye of the prince, who asks her to dance, and spends the rest of the evening looking for the belle of the ball. In not-so-typical fairy tale fashion, after her dance with the prince, Ash runs to find Kaisa and share a moment with her. Realizing that she could never be fully happy with Sidhean, Ash must ask the fairy to release her so that she may have a life of love.

A friend of mine read and adored this book, and said that I had to read it because I would absolutely love it. While I didn't absolutely love it, I did really enjoy it. I love how Lo bravely knits together the classic Cinderella story with relevant themes of homosexuality and commitment. To my inner child, this story represents hope that true love will always win. It is also refreshing to read a novel that features a strong and competent female, as well as a love-lorn male. This "role reversal" is rare in young adult fiction these days, though it is desperately needed. Young women need strong and capable role models to counteract the simpering, vapid starlets of today's media.

While Lo is a great storyteller, I'm not a huge fan of her writing. Unlike her creative plot, her writing lacks inventiveness. While her descriptions are detailed, they weren't quite eloquent enough to take me to the scene. And though her characters are mostly borrowed from a well known storybook, she has done little to add dimension. That said, I am a sucker for a good story, and I am happy to recommend this novel based on its merit as a well-told fairy tale.

Rating: $$.5

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Heart Specialist: Claire Holden Rothman

By far one of the most engrossing novels I've read this year, The Heart Specialist is a groundbreaking debut by Claire Holden Rothman who is sure to gain notoriety with her eloquent writing and colorful story-telling. Inspired by one of Montreal's first woman doctors, this novel is a beautiful depiction of the battles fought by women to gain entry into the male-dominated medical field.

Agnes White is a strange child who grows up to be a strange adult. Rather than playing with dolls, she prefers to dissect bugs and animals to study their biology. Agnes and her sister Laure are abandoned by their widower father, left to be raised by their stern grandmother who doesn't know what to do with outrageous Agnes. When Miss Georgiana Skerry is hired to be the girls' governess, Agnes expects opposition, but instead finds an ally in her educated governess. With Miss Skerry's encouragement, Agnes attends school and goes on to earn a college degree, which is no small feat at the turn of the 20th century. Her life becomes a battle of wills as Agnes tries to make a place for herself in the medical community, aligning herself with open-minded allies, fighting every day to prove herself worthy of her degree. While earning herself a reputation as an intelligent heart specialist, Agnes is also conducting her own research into the disappearance of her father who was once a well-respected doctor at McGill College, where Agnes now works as museum curator. Focused on her career and father, Agnes watches as so many of the societal norms for women her age pass by: courtship, marriage, children. Though she meets many eligible bachelors along the way, Agnes has fought so hard to be considered one of them that they hardly see her as feminine at all. It is only after she has been able to lay the mystery of her father to rest that Agnes is finally able to open her heart to the man who has been standing before her all along.

This book feels so much like Little Women. It's sort of angsty and the character of Agnes is so much like Jo March that they could easily be friends. Agnes and Jo are both so determined to have a career that they nearly miss out on love. I felt so breathless throughout this novel, hoping desperately that Agnes would finally open her eyes and let herself love the man who has so obviously adored her from day one. At times it was downright frustrating to watch as the pair stood so close to romance, but unable to close the gap because of social standards that kept either party from being too forward.

There are a lot of layers to this book. Honestly, I couldn't possibly give a proper description of this novel without giving away half the story, and yet, it doesn't feel bogged down. Rothman has woven together a lifetime of intricate details and pulled them together into a tight epic novel that exposes the harsh realities of gender roles while also telling a touching love story. She is a superb story-teller and skilled writer you don't want to miss.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Soho Press

The Throne of Fire: Rick Riordan

The Throne of Fire is Book Two in Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles series, featuring a brother and sister team who are trying to protect the world from the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. In this second installment, Carter and Sadie are on a mission to awaken the sun god, Ra, before Apophis is freed from the Duat (think of it as the underworld).

After the adventure of The Red Pyramid, Carter and Sadie have returned to Brooklyn to start a school for magicians, knowing that they will need to raise an army before Set returns to make his claim on the world. The school introduces readers to some new characters, most importantly Jaz--a feisty healer, and Walt--a good-looking charm maker. Having had a dream in which Horus directed Carter to obtain the three scrolls of Ra, The Throne of Fire opens with a heist to steal the first scroll from a museum. When things go a little sideways, the heat is on to stay one step ahead of Set and his plans to free Apophis. Of course awaking Ra and returning him to his path through the sky is no easy task, and Carter and Sadie will face new demons and monsters, as well as some ancient sibling rivalry on their path to Ra's new morning.

I think it's fair to say that I was disappointed with this book. The story is interesting enough, but it seemed slow-paced. I kept waiting for the action to pick up, which only happened at the very end. I also notice that Riordan's writing doesn't seem to be improving. There is little difference between the Percy Jackson narration and the Kane narration. The siblings are supposedly very different, having been raised separately--Carter is the darker of the two and was raised on the road by his archaeologist father, Sadie is the sassy girl raised by her grandparents in England-- and yet I don't notice when they switch narrators; Carter and Sadie have essentially the same voice.

Which is not to say it was all bad. My favorite part of Riordan's stories is the history. Ancient Egypt literally comes alive in this book, educating readers about so many Egyptian gods and their fables. The gods are colorful characters who add dimension to Riordan's world.

I have hope that the final book in this trilogy will offer more of the excitement and adventure that Riordan has taught me to expect.

Rating: $.5

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Great And Terrible Beauty: Libba Bray

Don't you hate it when you pick up a book and only after getting involved in the story, find out that it's the first in a trilogy? Because now I'm totally hooked and I will not be able to sleep until I find the other two books in this series and devour them.

It's the late 19th century in India and sixteen year old Gemma Doyle has started having visions--visions that quickly become reality. After witnessing her mother's strange death, Gemma is sent to an all girls boarding school in England where she encounters an unusual gypsy named Kartik who warns her against using her new-found powers. As a social parriah, Gemma befriends Ann, "the scholarship girl", who is the victim of ceaseless bullying from the most popular girls. When Gemma finds leader-of-the-pack Felicity in a compromising situation, she enters into a manipulative friendship with Felicity and her cohort, the beautiful Pippa. After Gemma finds the secret diary of Mary Dowd--a former student-- that explains the powers that Gemma has uncovered, life takes a turn for the wonderful. Gemma, Ann, Felicity, and Pippa form a kind of coven in which they wield powers beyond mortal recognition. Gemma acts as a conduit for the "great and terrible" powers, making her very popular while honing her skills. It doesn't take long for the power-hungry Felicity to get carried away, and soon Gemma is forced into making a decision that may cost her everything.

This review is difficult to write because there is SO much happening. The cast is wide and diverse and the story is complicated. I loved it! I'm just not sure how to tell you readers what I loved about it. Gemma is awesome, I like her as a person. I loved the Realms and the possibilities they offered. The scenes of magic are technicolor in their descriptions and creativity. The prose isn't stunning, but Bray is a wonderful storyteller. I don't know what else to tell you about this book except, go get it!

Rating: $$$

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Lake: Banana Yoshimoto, Translated by Michael Emmerich

Oh B, you've done it again! Banana Yoshimoto is such a compelling author that I chose to read The Lake without knowing anything about the book. I now believe that Yoshimoto's real gift is in relaying a story by putting the plot into emotional sequences rather than words.

Here's what I mean. The Lake is told as a story about a young woman, Chihiro, and a young man, Nakajima who begin as neighbors and move through the murky waters of friendship and into relationship. They are both slightly broken people, so their relationship faces challenges and hurdles that not everyone experiences. While reading The Lake I wasn't sure if the story was about Chihiro or Nakajima, and I had no idea to which lake the title refers to. Now that I'm finished reading it, I understand that The Lake isn't about one person; it's a story of healing. So much of what we experience as individuals can't be faced alone--we need a partner to go through life with who can help dissipate the burden of our worst moments and share in the joy of our best.

Since this is such an emotional drama, I can't comment on characterization or plot devices. Yoshimoto's novellas consistently push the boundaries of writing and urge readers to look beyond plot and character to see the deeper underlying philosophies. She is a master of the big picture, evoking emotion with sparse words set against the stark landscape of Japan's countryside.

One of the things I can comment on and will do so freely, is the translation. The Lake was translated by Michael Emmerich, who is either a genius story teller or a master translator. Quite possibly both. It is my understanding that translation can take one of two paths--true to the words, or true to their meaning. Many translations in modern fiction rely heavily on the translation of meaning, giving the translator a bit of creative license with the vocabulary. When I read Banana Yoshimoto's work, I can hear her reading the words aloud. I don't hear the voice of a translator, but the honest and concise narration of a deeply intuitive author. This is a huge props to both the author and the translator.

I doubt this novella will go over with the strictly linear crowd who want to read a story with minutiae, but for anyone who has ever had a trauma in their life and had to continue living the day to day life on their own, this book will be a revelation.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Melville House Publishing

Monday, May 16, 2011

Between Two Ends: David Ward

Some books are so good that you want to get lost in them. You want to wander the streets of Revolution's France, smell the salty Sea Wolf's air, and wish upon Pinocchio's stars. What story would you choose to wake up in?

Yeats is a smart kid. He knows that his dad, William, has been depressed for a very long time and that his parents are on the verge of divorce. He also knows that for some reason, this trip to his grandmothers house is a last ditch effort to save his father's sanity and marriage. Gran's house is old and kind of creepy, filled with strange and timeless wonders. Gran has one house guest, Mr. Sutcliff, who is the grandfather of a girl that William knew when he was a kid. As children, Shari and William played together and read through the books in the magical library. When Shari disappeared, William was devastated. He couldn't remember anything about her disappearance, leading him to believe he had gone insane. Shortly after arriving at Gran's house, while the adults talk about magic and history, Yeats wanders into the garden where he finds a bronze pirate bookend. When he replaces the bronze pirate in the library, he unknowingly reunites a pair of magical bookends that make him an offer. The pirates, known as Skin and Bones, have the ability to take Yeats into any story he wants. Having heard that William and Shari once got lost in the story of 1001 Arabian Nights, Yeats decides to go into the story where he believes Shari has been living for the last twenty years. What seems like a simple plan to find Shari and bring her home turns into a wild adventure that threatens to cost Yeats his life.

Yeats is kind of an average kid. There's nothing spectacular about him, which might be his appeal. However, he does seem incredibly courageous, which is kind of a necessary quality for a young hero. I really enjoyed the characters of Skin and Bones but I had a hard time finding the differences between them--I guess pirates are all one and the same. I was okay with that, though, because after all, they're only bookends so they don't have to be multi-dimensional characters. Shari was the weakest character in my opinion. Her transition from the role of Shaharazad back to her Shari self was a little too tidy for me. She strikes me as a somewhat typical ingénue, showing sparks of bravery and gumption, but never really filling out her character. Also, I would have liked to see more of Gran. She seems like a spunky old lady who could have so much more to say. The way the book left off, I can't help but think that there's another one (or two) in the works, so maybe we'll see the characters evolve a bit in the future.

It seems like magic is a common theme in young adult books these days. I suppose that's because magic offers so many limitless possibilities. I admit that I enjoy a good magical story, but I especially love the combination of magic and books. The magic that I see in real life can always be explained in some way, but in a story magic doesn't have to have logic. No science required. David Ward has created a delightfully magical story in which characters boat through the sea of words to get to the living lands of a book, and fight for their life to return to reality.

ARC received courtesy of Abrams Books

Rating: $$

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Good Night, Little Sea Otter: Janet Halfmann & Wish Williams

I don't think it will come as a surprise that I am a fan of children's books that star critters as the main characters. If that critter happens to be a cute, furry baby, I am in love. Needless to say, Good Night, Little Sea Otter captured my otter-lovin' heart.

It's bedtime and Little Sea Otter is putting off sleep, as so many children do, by taking time to say goodnight to every living creature he can find. Patient Mama Otter helps Little Sea Otter say goodnight to all the animals in the sea: the harbor seals and sea lions, the seagulls, the fish and crustaceans, and finally, the moon and stars.

Wish Williams illustrates this darling storybook with a combination of adorable cartoon-esque creatures, and beautiful, abstract skies and landscapes. The undersea details and colors are bright and entertaining--it's easy to imagine any kid searching the artworks for details.

I just love this book! It's so cute and so rhythmically written. What a great bedtime story!

ARC received courtesy of Star Bright Books.

Rating: $$$

The Midwife's Confession: Diane Chamberlain

It took me awhile to get into The Midwife's Confession. I can't explain why though, because once I did get into it, I was riveted. Before you get too bored with the details, let me excite your interest by telling you that this book is one big bag of secrets. Some of them shocking, some of them not so much, but all of them interesting.

Noelle is a midwife and has been since her youth. Bringing new life into the world is what Noelle was born to do. Single and childless, Noelle has spent her life reveling in the lives of her best friends, Emerson and Tara. When Noelle kills herself without any explanation, Tara and Emerson jump into the messy secrets that made up Noelle's life. Some of her secrets are juicy--like her love affairs--and some were startling--like the death of a baby on her watch. Emerson and Tara unravel the real life of Noelle and find that they never really knew her at all.

This is a twisty-turny book. Just when I thought I had something figured out, I was surprised again with some new revelation. In my mind, that indicates good writing. I might even compare the writing to Jodi Picoult, in that same dark, twisty sense. While reading, I was torn between feeling that the characters were very real, and praying that they weren't, because the kind of pain that comes out in this story is just plain ugly.

I really enjoyed some of the characters, but I struggled with the narration a bit. The book is told in chapters, each narrated by either Noelle, Emerson, or Tara. The narration shift wasn't confusing, but I was a little disappointed in the lack of narrative voice that Chamberlain created with each character. Noelle has a distinct narration, but Emerson and Tara have almost identical narratives even though they are supposedly very different types of people. Fortunately the descriptions were written well enough that I was able to identify who was who.

Honestly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. It's very chick-lit-y, but it's really good chick lit. There are no helpless or whiny women in The Midwife's Confession; just very strong, competent individuals who share a strange and complicated past.

Rating: $$.5

ARC received courtesy of MIRA.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Persuasion: Jane Austen

Persuasion is like a tween movie. Very little happens, and what little action the book does contain, is reserved to longing sideways glances and bated breath. Someone takes a bad fall. Some folks fall in love. In the typical Victorian ways, many people go calling on other people. One gentleman is exposed as a cad. In the end, they all live happily ever after. It's not a complicated plot, and it's certainly not unique. It is, however, like every Austen novel I've read, simply charming.

Anne Elliot is an old maid. She's 27 years old and unmarried. She may as well be dead (I can relate!). What makes her situation so much worse is that she had a suitor in her younger years, but was persuaded to forego the attachment because of Mister Frederick Wentworth's lower standing. The poor girl is now alone and heart-crushed, watching as her friends and sisters marry (I can relate!). Then things take an interesting turn when, down on his luck, Anne's father, Sir Walter, must rent out their estate at Kellynch because they have fallen so far in debt. And wonder of wonders, who should be the new renters, but The Crofts--sister and brother-in-law of the newly Captained Frederick Wentworth! Now that Wentworth is a Captain, he is welcomed into the neighborhood and the two sisters of Anne's brother-in-law, Louisa and Henrietta, begin vying for his attention, hoping to make a fortuitous match. A chain of events follows that ultimately shows Captain Wentworth that he never stopped loving Anne--who, of course, has never stopped loving Wentworth. There is a bit of manipulation in which William Elliot--Anne's cousin--makes a few overtures in her direction, but she sees through him, and has no trouble shutting him down. And they all live happily ever after.

Maybe I've been blind to it before, but I have never heard Austen write with such sexism before. I felt like throwing the book across the room on multiple occasions. While Anne is a lovely character, she is so stifled. She is surrounded by people, all telling her what to do, who to marry, what to think. And she does it! The insipid characters of Louisa and Henrietta are no better. Anne's elder sister, Elizabeth is a pushy broad, and the younger sister, Mary, is a hypochondriac. The only female character I can respect is Lady Russell, who also happens to be the woman who persuaded Anne not to marry Wentworth. Where are the Elizabeth Bennets? The Emmas? Austen, you have failed me with this one.

Aside from the characters, the plot was just too played out for me. There is so little romance in this romance novel, that I lost interest multiple times. Of course Miss Austen regales us with plenty of sweeping landscapes and rich tapestries of conversation, but there's very little to get excited about. The biggest event in Persuasion comes when a young lady takes a fall and gains a concussion.

An interesting tidbit about this novel; Jane Austen once played the role of Lady Russell in the life of her own niece. It is commonly believed that Jane Austen later regretted having such an influence over her niece, wishing instead that the young lady had made her own decision. This, her last completed novel, examines the many ways in which we can be persuaded, and how we may be effected. It is with my dearest wishes that I choose believe that Jane Austen wrote a novel full of weakly women as an illustration of what kind of person can be so easily swayed. Surely it is a farce--an encouragement to women everywhere to avoid being an Anne by making their own decisions and choosing happiness before it's too late.

Rating: $$

Thursday, April 7, 2011

S'Mother: Adam Chester

As a person with a slightly crazed mother, I was drawn to Adam Chester's book, S'Mother, which is basically just a collection of his mother's crazed letters. What's that? Humor? Crazy Mother? Count me in! Adam Chester is, like myself, the only child of a single parent. We are a special group of people who know the realities of overprotective mothers and the complete inability to shrug off some of mom's nuttiness onto someone else. We are often victims of complete and utter public humiliation. We are frequently leaned upon, forcing us into responsibilities beyond our age. We are undoubtedly loved in the very best ways that our cuckoo mothers are able. Chester just happens to have kept all of the panicked little notes and letters that his mother sent him, so that we now have them here in a lovely collection of neuroses.

S'Mother begins with an introduction to Adam's Mother in a seemingly harmless tale about the day she brought his sweater to him at school. Except Adam's Mother isn't like any normal mother. Adam's Mother marches herself into the boys locker room while Adam is in gym class and embarrasses him in front of the entire Junior High by handing over his sweater and loudly stating "You forgot to bring your sweater. It's going to rain today!" I mean really, Junior High? Into the locker room? The woman has no boundaries. And so begins the saga of an overprotective mother constantly intruding on her son's life--mostly with regards to her Will, should she suddenly pass away.

Here's my hesitation. The letters are sort of funny, in an oddball kind of way. Chester's narration is kind of funny. There are a few formatting things that distracted me (for example, not everything in parentheses needs to be italicized), but that was minor. So why didn't I laugh? I kind of expected to find some truly humiliating stories that would make me laugh out loud. Or at least chuckle a little. I was certainly captivated by the narrative, and I enjoyed the stories about Chester's life experiences (a bear hug from Barry White! Christmas cards from Elton John!), but the letters from his mother were just...letters from his mother. Sure she's a little wacky. Of course there's no need for an adult man to be reminded to wear a coat in the snow. But she's a little old lady with practically nothing else do, given she has no husband or children. Her uber-involvement in his life is to be expected. Then again, considering my own mother-daughter situation, I may be biased???

I'd like to know what "normal" people think of this book. Is it funny if it isn't quite so familiar?

Rating: $$

ARC provided courtesy of Abrams

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Goddess Test: Aimee Carter

I'm not sure what I expected to find when I chose to read The Goddess Test, but I somehow didn't think I'd be reading about the Greek gods again. However, this is not another Percy Jackson story.

Kate's mother is dying of cancer. Her last wish is that Kate take her to the little town of Eden, where she can end her days peacefully. While trying to care for her ailing mother and spend as much time with her as possible, Kate also has to battle the challenges of being a new student at a new school. Ava, the pretty, popular girl, takes an almost immediate disliking to Kate, making her life in Eden hellish. Kate's one friend is an outcast named James. However, Eden is not what it appears to be, and when Ava plays a sickening trick on Kate, things get really strange. A man appears from out of nowhere to bring Ava back to life and make Kate an offer of immortality. Henry is dark, handsome, and mysterious...oh yeah, and he also happens to be the god of the underworld, Hades. He has the power to offer Kate more time with her dying mother, but only if Kate agrees to spend 6 months of the year with him in Eden, attempting to pass seven tests of character to determine if she is fit to rule the underworld with him. Initially Kate shrugs him off as a crazy person, no more powerful than a rich eccentric. But when her mother falls into a coma and Ava's miracle of life is revoked, Kate is willing to try anything, including moving in to Henry'd home. Life in Eden manor is exquisite, and Kate finds herself falling in love with Henry. The only problem is that Henry is still heartbroken over Persephone--the woman he loved, who loved a mortal, causing her to give up her immortality and leaving Mount Olympus forever. Kate continues to learn her Greek mythology (except in Eden it's history and not mythology), and as she grows more determined to stay with Henry, he softens towards her, anxious to make her his wife and thereby saving his job as god of the underworld. Unfortunately someone is trying to prevent Kate from passing the Goddess Test and if she fails the test, she may lose Henry and her life.

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this book. I admit, I was confused at first. Hades appearing in the middle of a small town was so incongruent that I spent the first few chapters trying to wrap my head around the basic idea. But then Henry became a central character and I was so in love with the god of the underworld that I didn't care that the story was implausible. Aimee Carter is a creative writer with new ideas about the Greek gods--fresh ideas about a cast of characters that have nearly become as passé as vampires and werewolves. Carter shifts the focus off of Zeus and Hera, to highlight some of the lesser known gods and their myths. The cast of characters--including the mortals and the undead--is fresh-faced and fascinating. Kate is endearingly flawed and self-conscious, with just enough courage and strength to make her a goddess candidate.

The only thing I didn't like about this book is that it appears to be the first in a series, which means I have to wait to find out what happens next!

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Harlequin Teen

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Kiss Goodbye: Audrey Penn & Barbara L. Gibson

Another volume in the Chester Raccoon series, A Kiss Goodbye illustrates the challenges of moving to a new home. Any kid who has had to leave their home, friends, and school, knows how hard it is to get comfortable with change.

Chester announces that he's not moving. He wants to stay in his tree with his friends, where he's always lived. When Chester's mother encourages him to think of it as an adventure, Chester recounts the many adventures he's had that did not go well. When Chester continues to resist, his mother points out that their home tree and many of the surrounding trees have been marked to be cut down for wood, and if Chester stays, he will be all alone because the other animals are leaving, too. When Chester begrudgingly agrees to move with his mother and Ronny, he spends some time saying goodbye to his home. At their new home, Chester meets someone new to befriend, proving that moving really can be an adventure.

I was so hopeful for this story. Penn dances around the issue of clear-cutting and the devastation that deforestation leaves behind. I know that this story is about the adventure of leaving home, and not a social criticism, but I felt like there was so much potential for this lovable forest animal to do a little more teaching.

I was also disappointed in Gibson's art this time. The illustrations felt a little more cartoonish than the other Chester books. They're still very bright and colorful, but I just wasn't in love with the art this time.

Rating: $$

ARC received courtesy of Tanglewood

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Frères: Marie Le Tourneau with Danielle Reed Baty

I have a love of all things French, so when I had the chance to read about a family of mice who run a French Bistro, I didn't have to think twice. Besides--just look at the illustrations!

Perfectly translated, Marie Le Tourneau's storybook is about the mice of the Seven Brothers Bistro. Among bright, full-page illustrations, the story of a family of mice unravels, describing the role of each mouse. Chef Marcel is renowned for his Award-Winning cheese soup, which he makes with the assistance of his seven sons. When it comes time to make the award-winning soup for the annual competition again, Chef Marcel must run an errand to purchase the Secret Ingredient, leaving his sons in the kitchen to start cooking the cheese soup without him. When Marcel doesn't make it back in time, the youngest mouse--and only girl--Michelle, quietly walks to the stove and finishes the soup with her own ingredients. The result is a Happy Ending and the renaming of the bistro to Le Bistrot des Sept Frères et une Sœur (The Seven Brothers and One Sister Bistro).

The story of these minuscule chefs is darling, but the real joy in this book comes from the illustrations. Inspired by the French Art Nouveau, The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Frères is filled with beautifully detailed line drawings. It's also incredibly charming to come across bilingual children's books. Le Tourneau has included a glossary of French pronunciations for her young readers.

Whether your little ones can read or not, they will enjoy searching through the illustrations to find the details. This would be a great picture book for early readers.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Tanglewood

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Kissing Hand: Audrey Penn & Ruth E. Harper & Nancy M. Leak

Having read the sequel, I was compelled to go back and read the first book in the Chester series, The Kissing Hand. This is the book that started it all...

Chester the raccoon is nervous. He has never been to school and he's scared. He would much rather stay home with his mother. Chester's kind, compassionate, and understanding mother gently encourages him, telling Chester that he will love school once he gets started. She gives Chester something very special to take with him so that he never forgets how much he's loved. Chester's mother gives him a kiss right in the middle of his palm, and tells him that when he puts it to his cheek, he will be able to hear her whisper "Mommy loves you." Chester is so happy to have his mother's reassurance that he is able to dance off to school.

Penn's storybooks about Chester are so sweet! Chester is such a sweet little raccoon with such human emotions that we can all relate to. Everyone has had to face something new that they may have been nervous or scared about, and children are no exception. Chester is an example of the kind of love and support that every child needs, but unfortunately, not every child receives. Something as simply magical as a kiss on the palm can instill confidence and encourage a child to face their day, knowing they are loved.

I have to say, having read the sequel, A Pocketful of Kisses first, I am sorry to report that the illustrations in The Kissing Hand are nice, but not quite as wonderful. Chester and his mother make for very tender drawings, but the forest didn't seem as vibrant as it is in Pocketful.

Rating: $$.5

ARC received courtesy of Tanglewood

A Pocket Full of Kisses: Audrey Penn & Barbara Leonard Gibson

This is only one in a series of books about a raccoon named Chester that I will read and review. A Pocketful of Kisses is the sequel to The Kissing Hand, which I haven't had the pleasure of reading, however, I see no reason why this tale can't stand on its own.

Chester is a very very good little raccoon whose family has just expanded to include a baby brother. Chester asks his mother if they can send him back, but his mother says it's simply not possible to send a baby back. To reassure him, Chester's mother gives him a special kiss on the palm of his hand that lights up his heart. Chester is filled with his mother's love, until he watches mother give the same kind of kiss to his baby brother, Ronny. What a racket Chester makes! In his saddest voice, he asks if his mother doesn't love him anymore. Mother quickly seizes her opportunity to teach both of her children about how much love a mother has. She tells the story of the sun, that touches every star with it's rays, lighting up each and every star, even when we can't see them. Chester's mom let's him know that she has enough love for him and his brother, but she also acknowledges that maybe he deserves a little something extra for being the big brother. So Chester receives a special kiss that he can put in his pocket, to carry with him.

I absolutely loved this storybook! It is so true that mothers have a special kind of love that seems bottomless. A mother can give her love to all of her children and never run out. And dear Chester is a familiar character to anyone with siblings--or anyone who has ever felt jealousy! We so often want to feel that the love we receive is special and more meaningful. I am sure that children learning how to be a big brother or sister would benefit from hearing this story.

As for the illustrations, I am in love. Gibson has such a talented hand, and has brought this little raccoon family alive. Except she doesn't just draw the raccoons, she also illustrates the wilderness they live in, with other animals, trees, and plants. The picture of the night sky over the valley, with the geese flying across the sunset is absolutely breathtaking. I would own this book as adult, if only for the illustrations!

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Tanglewood

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lost Hero: Rick Riordan

I am convinced that everything Rick Riordan touches, turns to gold. Which is a funny sentiment to start off this review, considering King Midas makes an appearance in Riordan's newest series, The Heroes of Olympus. The first book in this series, The Lost Hero, picks up where the Percy Jackson series left off, and takes us to a whole new side of mythology--Rome.

Jason wakes up on a school field trip, but has no idea what school, where he's headed, or even who he is. A kid named Leo claims to be his friend, and the pretty girl holding his hand, Piper, claims to be his girlfriend. When the bus arrives at the Grand Canyon, field trip leader Coach Gleeson keeps a careful watch on Jason, which comes in handy when they group is attacked by wind spirits--also known as venti. It turns out that Coach Gleeson is a satyr who has been watching Leo and Piper, demigods not unlike Percy and Annabeth. When Jason's arrival attracts the venti, all three kids are whisked away to Camp Half-Blood to learn about their parents. It turns out that Leo is a fiery son of Hephaestus, Piper a smooth-talking daughter of Aphrodite, and Jason... Well, Jason is a son of Jupiter, which is the confusing basis for the Heroes of Olympus series in which Greek and Roman mythology begin to mingle.

With his usual enigmatic writing style, Riordan throws Percy Jackson fans a curve ball by introducing a new cast of characters who have ties to the Roman gods, offering brand new gods, myths, and monsters to navigate. However, while the Heroes of Olympus series is based on new characters, there are some familiar faces, including Annabeth and Chiron. Fans will find the story familiar; a little touch of magic, some daring battles, and some really terrifying monsters, as well as some lustful teenage glances. While some might find Riordan formulaic, I think he's still got a few tricks up his sleeve to surprise us.

I am easily hooked and looking forward to joining Jason, Leo, and Piper on their adventures. I love how Riordan manages to take his readers on wild adventures, and still manage to sneak in some education.

Rating: $$$

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Desperation: Rock Mofina

As much as I love crime-fighting movies and television shows, I am rarely intrigued by books of the same genre. I suppose that's because visual entertainment still pales in comparison to an active imagination. However, for whatever reason, Rick Mofina's action-packed novel caught my attention and demanded I give it my time.

Single mother Cora and her daughter Tilly are spending a quiet evening at home when two men posing as police officers arrive and kidnap Tilly. Cora is left with the daunting message that if her boyfriend, Lyle Galviera doesn't return the five million dollars he stole from Norte Cartel--the largest Mexican drug cartel--then Tilly will die. Of course Lyle is nowhere to be found, and with the threat of her daughter's life on the line, Cora calls her reporter brother, Jack, rather than contacting the police. Cora and Jack have been estranged for twenty years, causing layers of guilt and doubt to complicate their situation. Once Jack convinces Cora to involve the police, things start unfolding. In Desperation takes place over five excruciating days, while Tilly's life hangs in the balance. The Norte Cartel are closing in on Lyle Galviera and have dispatched a notorious assassin to get rid of him as well as Tilly. Meanwhile, Cora is holding back a secret that may explain how the cartel became involved with the Gannon family in the first place.

I dragged my feet through this novel. I was interested in the storyline, but Cora frustrated me to no end. I had the feeling that if I were faced with her, I'd slap her. It's a fairly graphic novel, detailing the ways that drug cartels handle vengeance, but that also makes it an exciting story, filled with action and heart-pounding chapters, making this a page-turner.

Rating: $$

ARC received courtesy of MIRA Imprint

Monday, March 21, 2011

Head Over Heel: Chris Harrison

I love to travel. I'm not sure when it started, but for as long as I can remember, I have felt the urge to wander the world. While I have seen a great many wonderful places, there is always somewhere new to experience for the first time. Since I can't actually afford to spend my money on travel, I read about it instead. Head Over Heel: Seduced By Southern Italy took me to one of the places I have longed to see, and am now more eager than ever to visit.

Chris Harrison met Daniela in a pub while both were vacationing in Ireland. It seems ludicrous to imagine that such a meeting could result in true love, but Head Over Heel is Harrison's love story. It's hard to say whether Italy is the backdrop for this romance, or if the romance is the setting for Italy. Chris does the unimaginable by leaving his Australian life to be with Daniela in Italy. What seems like a doomed idea from the very beginning, turns out to be a wild adventure filled with colorful landscapes and characters. Chris narrates his adventures in Italy, from the exciting newness of the small, seaside town of Andrano, to the dull days spent working in Milan. As Chris learns the complicated processes of becoming an Australian living in Italy, his love for the country waxes and wans, while his love for Daniela pushes him to pursue a future with her.

Having moved to another country for a short time, I am well acquainted with the challenges of learning a new country, trying to make it your own. Something as simple as buying a loaf of bread or finding an ATM can be exhausting and result in a complete meltdown. Harrison easily describes the challenges without reserve, illustrating the often humorous situations that foreigners find themselves in. There is so much comedy in error that the humor of this story is inherent. Even if you've never left your hometown, it's hard to deny a giggle when Chris describes his future mother-in-law, scolding him for owning underpants in any color other than white. The absurdity of Italy's many law keepers and their failure to protect Italy's many ridiculous laws, are described as a joke to Italians, and by the end of this book, I sympathized. 

Harrison brought his story to life in such a way that I also fell in and out of love with Italy. The foods, the people, the climate, the silly laws and superstitions, the dirty politicians, the helpful communities... Everything that Harrison describes is stimulating and exciting. I can't imagine reading this book and not wanting to see Southern Italy.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Happy Birthday, Book Blog!

The Reader's Book Blog is 2 years old today! I've had ups and downs over the last year, not only in my personal life, but also in my reading and blogging life. This book blogging thing comes with it's own life lessons; Thank you for learning with me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Daisy Miller: Henry James

Ahhh, Henry James, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways... I couldn't possibly name all the things I love about James' works. Each has its own place in my heart for all different reasons. It's so hard to find writing that good anymore. And yet, I had somehow missed Daisy Miller. The young American girl for whom the book is named is one of the most alluded-to characters in fiction. On a bit of a whim I decided to pick up the slim novella that I purchased at a book sale some months back.

Henry James is a master at saying things without saying things, if you know what I mean. In Daisy Miller, James tells the short story of a young American woman who makes the acquaintance of a fellow American traveler, while in Vevey, Switzerland. The gentleman is Winterbourne who is introduced to Daisy by her young brother, Randolph. Winterbourne seems to be immediately taken with the beautiful young lady, despite his aunt. Winterbourne's aunt is one of a staple type of character in these old social commentary stories; Old, stolid, and wealthy, believing that the caste system is alive and well and ought to remain so. Winterbourne's aunt calls Daisy and her family every impoverished name in the book, thereby discouraging Winterbourne from making any advancements. And if that were the entire story, it would be a dull and predictable one without any real moral ending. However, we learn that it's not just dear old Aunty who is influencing Winterbourne, but Daisy herself. The innocent American girl turns out to be quite a flirt, balking at all the societally accepted norms regarding courtships. Daisy's brash dating habits and overt flirtatiousness give Winterbourne pause. And now I have to tell you  ***SPOILER***  that Henry James rarely ends a short story with "...and they all lived happily ever after" and this one is no different. Ultimately, Daisy stays out one evening while in Rome with a charming Roman man, who makes Winterbourne a tad bit jealous. Daisy falls ill and dies before Winterbourne can make his move. She dies unmarried, and he never gets to tell her how much he loves her. Lose-lose.

This novella is fully titled Daisy Miller: A Study which is an appropriate title, no matter how you look at it. It is a study of the outgoing nature of innocent American Daisy Miller who gets herself into all kinds of trouble. She is the epitome of innocence in every description, but Daisy's actions are those of a woman loosing her wiles on every man in the vicinity. She makes for a perfect study of the American girl, caught between the stuffy, wealth-centric European society and the poor, working class American culture. I imagine my favorite ol' college English professor would have asked the obvious question--is Daisy truly innocent?

Daisy Miller may also be a study of romance. Things would have ended so differently if Winterbourne had only been a man of action. He lusted after her, but since it wasn't "proper", he attempted to court her in the traditional way. Courting Daisy seems like a waste of time. She's a fun-time kind of gal who just wants all the attention one can possibly lavish upon her. Winterbourne was either a weak man for listening to his aunt's advice, or he was a smart man who saw a flirt and chose not to engage her. Henry James doesn't give Witnerbourne any tags like "innocent", so it's hard to know what exactly we're supposed to think about him. For my two cents, I wanted him to take Daisy in his arms, tell her to stop behaving foolishly, and make her his wife. That probably says more about me than the book...

Bottom line? I still love love love Henry James. I do not, however, love these characters. I didn't find myself giving a fig about what happened to Daisy, and Winterbourne was such a milquetoast that I couldn't care about his future, either. I could write about all the things Henry James did right, but in light of this singular novel, I will simply say that I enjoyed Daisy Miller, but don't feel compelled to read it again.

Rating: $$

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Help: Kathryn Stockett

I lost count of how many people recommended this book to me. It was a best-seller and every book blogger was reading it. I bought it, and then let it collect some dust on my bookshelf while I read some other things. I finally decided to pick up The Help and see what all the fuss was about. Now that I've finished reading, I can safely say that it was worth all the hype.

The Help is narrated by three women-- Skeeter, the liberal white woman who doesn't quite fit the conservative mold that her mother is pushing; Aibileen, the backbone of the black maid community who has raised more white children than black; and Minny, the sassy young maid who has had the most trouble with the privileged white ladies of Jackson, Mississippi. Each of the narrators takes their turn moving the story forward, from the beginning when we learn that Aibileen is a servant in the home of Miss Leefolt, through to the publication of Miss Skeeter's controversial book. The Help is the story of Skeeter's efforts to interview working black women to write a book about the servants who create the homes of her friends. She is inspired to write their stories because of her curiosity about the mysterious disappearance of her own maid, Constantine. With the assistance of Aibileen, Skeeter gathers the heartwarming--and sometimes heart-wrenching--stories of black servants in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. Through the narrations we learn about the women as individuals as well as the culture and society they live in.

To deduce this novel's characters to just three women is misleading. There are dozens of characters in this novel, each with his or her own personality, and a few fantastic one-liners. Each woman that Skeeter interviews is an important individual with an enlightening story to tell. Even the husbands of the affluent women that the maids serve, play an important role to illustrate the make up of the average home. The very servants who were considered less than human, were the people who kept the children dressed and fed, and the house running smoothly.

Writing this review was daunting because there is no easy way to describe it; The Help is harsh, emotional, uplifting, hopeful, frightening, sweet, and politically charged. It is a contemporary novel, but it's also a very important piece of historical fiction, well-suited to any American History classroom. There are things I could nitpick over, but it would be a disservice to this well-crafted debut from Kathryn Stockett.

Rating: $$$

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mudkin: Stephen Gammell

My love of picture books started at a very young age.  I love a story that can be told without words. The child of artists, my first books were colorful works of art, filled with illustrations worth framing. It is the very artful cover of Mudkin that drew me to it.

Mud and imagination are two of a child's more prized possessions. When there's a pause in the rain, a young girl is greeted by a cute mud creature called Mudkin. Mudkin takes the girl as his queen and introduces her to the whole mud population. When the rain returns, her new kingdom is washed away, but her mud crown will remain forever.

The story, like so many imaginative games that children play, is magical and whimsical. The total number of words in Gammell's book number less than two dozen, but the illustrations communicate volumes about playtime. Mudkin is reminiscent of childhood, not only because of the story, but also because of the beautiful watercolor pictures. I found myself staring at a couple of the pictures, awed by the detail. Stephen Gammell is one of those rare artists who is not only an illustrator, but a story-teller as well.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Lerner Publishing Group.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

No Place Like Holmes: Jason Lethcoe

What do you get when you introduce Encyclopedia Brown to Sherlock Holmes? You get Griffin Sharpe--a genius with a knack for observation.

Griffin Sharpe is a very observant boy. His keen eye and mathematical mind have caused him a bit of trouble in his short life, but Griffin knows that his skills will serve a purpose. In 1903 he is sent to his uncle's for the summer. On his journey to London, England, Griffin learns about the great detective, Sherlock Holmes. Inaccurately believing that the uncle he has never met is Mr. Holmes, Griffin is surprised to find that his uncle is actually Rupert Snodgrass: a lesser-known detective who happens to live in the same building as Sherlock Holmes--literally in his shadow. Griffin proves to be an invaluable asset to his grumpy uncle as they set out to unravel the mystery of a man believed to have been eaten by the Lochness Monster.

Jason Lethcoe has brought a classical fiction character to new light, as seen through the eyes of an intelligent young detective. What a wonderful way for a new generation to fall in love with Sherlock Holmes! All the old fellas are there, including Watson and Moriarty. The adventure and excitement of this novel may seem predictable to adult readers, but to the young audience, it is a maze of intrigue that every young sleuth will enjoy unraveling.

No Place Like Holmes wraps up in such a way that leads me to believe--to hope!--that we haven't seen the last of Griffin Sharpe and his eccentric uncle.

Rating: $$

ARC received courtesy of Tommy Nelson.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Young Adult vs Young Reader

I have been contemplating a topic for awhile, and I would like to post some clarification about it. The topic is young readers.

Where does a young reader stop and a young adult begin? Where do the middle readers fit in? How old is a young reader? How old is a young adult? When does a young adult stop being a young adult and simply become an adult? And how does it all relate to books?!

Here's my thought; I like binaries. I know that the world is full of grays, but black and white is so much easier to handle. So for the sake of my blog and my references, I will whittle it down to two categories: Young Readers and Young Adult.

A Young Reader is anyone old enough to read, through approximately middle school. Young Readers books are frequently fanciful and magical. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Young Reader stories should be about other kids, overcoming obstacles and encountering new and wondrous things in the world. As an adult, I like Young Reader novels immensely.

A Young Adult is usually a high school or young college student. Their books are less about fantasy and more grounded in reality, dealing with the things that teenagers face: drugs, sex, self-image, etc. A Young Adult novel could also be of the paranormal persuasion--think Twilight, City of Glass, etc.

What do you think? Do you agree with my definitions? Do you have any categories not listed here?

Shine: Lauren Myracle

I don't know what drew me to this book. It's about a hate crime against a gay teenager. Stories like this infuriate me, so I usually avoid them. But something about this one caught my interest, and I'm so glad it did. Shine is an incredibly intense story that literally left me breathless. The last twenty pages had my heart racing and my blood pumping.

Cat is a sixteen year old loner in her tiny Southern town of Black Rock. She is one of only three students who passed 11th grade. Poverty and drug abuse are rampant. They aren't quite the hill people of Appalachia, but very nearly. When a hate crime is committed against Cat's childhood friend, Patrick, she breaks out of her comfort zone to track down the attacker. Her first suspects are a group of boys, including her own brother, who taunted Patrick for being gay, but simultaneously offered him protection from others who might have hurt him. Cat interrogates each member of the Redneck Posse but comes up empty handed. While trying to find Patrick's attacker, Cat is forced to face the people she shut out of her life after a disturbing experience when she was just 13. After enlisting the help of several people who knew and loved Patrick, Cat makes a shocking discovery that may risk her life.

Wow. That's the only word to describe this book. It is intense and emotional and dramatic and painful and hopeful. It is about Truth and Justice and Poverty and Drug Abuse and Secrets and Friendship and Family. The characters are dimensional. The story is real. The mystery is intriguing. The ending is...breathless. I have read books by Lauren Myracle, always thinking that she's an average young adult writer: relatable teen characters, modern conflicts, happily-ever-after endings. Shine proves me to be wrong on so many levels. Which isn't to say that the characters in this book aren't relatable or that the conflict isn't modern, because they are. Cat is a very real heroine with very real faults and very admirable strengths, and unfortunately Hate Crimes are a part of daily life for people all over the world. However, this book doesn't have a happily ever after. Because it's a realistic story with a realistic ending, and the reality of Meth abuse is usually death.

A word of warning to my sensitive readers; this book is emotional and intense, at times even painful to read. If you have ever encountered sex abuse, drug abuse, or hate crimes, this book will hit very close to home and could be triggering.

On the other hand, Shine serves as an incredible piece of social criticism art, reminding readers of a forgotten region in America and forcing us to acknowledge that the battle against prejudice is ongoing.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Abrams Books. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Reservoir: John Milliken Thompson

I'm not usually a fan of mystery novels. Not for any particular reason other than they don't usually grab my attention. However, something about The Reservoir intrigued me. Maybe it was because the story is set in 1885. Maybe it was because the mystery revolves around a pregnant dead girl found floating in the town reservoir. Maybe it was because Thompson based his novel on a true story.

There are three characters at the heart of Thompson's novel: Tommie, his brother Willie, and their cousin Lillie. On March 14,1885 a body is found floating in the reservoir in Richmond, Virginia. The body turns out to be a pregnant Lillie. The rest of the book is the story of Tommie's trial for the murder of his cousin, interspersed with Tommie's flashbacks that fill out the narration. Tommie files a not guilty plea, but his private narration alludes to his struggle regarding "the truth". Here is the truth; Thompson has written a novel based on an actual court case that is riddled with holes and unanswered questions. I warn you now, this book doesn't tell you outright if Tommie was guilty or innocent. Which makes The Reservoir a very well constructed character study, because while there is a plot line in this novel, I feel like the plot isn't as important as the people.

Though Tommie is the narrator, this story really belongs to Lillie. Sweet, young, naive Lillie who caught the attention of her Cluverius cousins at a young age, practiced seducing them both, but fell in love with Tommie. When she becomes pregnant, Lillie begs Tommie to marry her, knowing that having a baby out of wedlock will ruin her for marriage with anyone else. But is it actually Tommie's baby? When Tommie--who is on the verge of a bright future in law--rebuffs Lillie, she is devastated. Is it enough for her to take her own life?

The Reservoir is a classic example of excellent storytelling. Thompson has taken a few rusty court case notes and expanded them into a fully dimensional novel. I was slow getting through this one, but the story kept me interested.

Rating: $$

ARC received courtesy of Other Press.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Ingram Interview: KB Dixon

It is always a great honor when an author or publicist approaches me for a review, so when K.B. Dixon emailed me, asking if I would like to read and review his book The Ingram Interview, I was anxious to say yes. Further research into who K.B. Dixon is led me to his website where I found out that he is a local, published by a Portland press. I eagerly delved into his interrogative novel.

The Ingram Interview is not a novel so much as a recorded conversation. There is no distinct plot line in the usual sense (beginning, middle, end). Instead it is a series of questions and answers directed at Daniel Ingram, a retired English professor who, after having a heart attack, was placed at an assisted care facility where the interview begins. The interview follows Daniel through his leaving the facility and moving in with a former student, Michael, who is now a film-maker.

Dixon's adventure with storytelling reminded me of something my sophomore fiction professor told me, "A good writer never puts a gun on the table unless they're going to use it." There are moments when the interview meanders off in odd directions and I kept expecting those meanderings to lead somewhere. Finally, after finishing the book, I realized the purpose of all those seemingly side notes; The Ingram Interview is a character study. It's not a story so much as it is a close-up look of the character of Daniel Ingram, who is, as it turns out, fairly entertaining. Daniel reminded me of the beloved curmudgeons in my life, who never seem truly happy, and have opinions about nearly everything.

K.B. Dixon promised me "an unrepentantly quirkly novel" and he delivered. I didn't know what to expect, so I was open to the experimental story-telling at work in The Ingram Interview.

Rating: $$

Friday, January 21, 2011

Revolution: Jennifer Donnelly

Last year the book blog world was flooded with rave reviews about Jennifer Donnelly's historical fiction novel, Revolution. I was intrigued by this story about the French Revolution, but couldn't justify the hardcover price. Then the downtown Borders closed and offered me this beautiful hardcover at a 30% discount, much to my excitement. Now that I have read it I am so glad I didn't wait for it to come out in paperback.

Since witnessing her brother's death, Andi Alpers has lived in state of depression, lifted only by two things: music and her antidepressant medication. When her estranged father rolls into town, Andi's life is turned upside down. Her father has Andi's mother admitted to an asylum to help her get past her grief after losing her only son, and then he takes Andi to Paris with him on his next Genetics project. Angry, sullen Andi has no interest in anything except her music and doesn't want to be stuck in Paris with her father for two weeks. Her love of music quickly draws Andi to the discovery of a diary, written by Alexandrine Paradis during the French Revolution and stored in the secret compartment of an old guitar case. While writing her senior thesis on Amadé Malherbeau, Andi reads Alexandrine's diary and gets a very personal view of life during the Revolution. Alexandrine Paradis was hired by the Queen of France to entertain the Dauphin, Louis-Charles. Alex became deeply attached to the prince and found herself at the epicenter of the revolution that sees the royal family beheaded. Alex and Andi's stories are further entwined due the nature of the project that has brought Andi's father to France. A preserved human heart has been discovered and it is believed to be the heart of the Dauphin. Andi's father is in France to sample the heart and run genetic testing against hairs from Marie Antoinette which will prove if the heart shares the queen's DNA. Andi becomes emotionally invested in the results of the genetic testing because of what she reads in Alex's diary. In an interesting plot twist, Andi awakes in the year 1795 as Alex and not only witnesses life during the Revolution, but also meets Amadé Malherbeau.

I struggled a bit with the character of Andi. Being rather familiar with depressed and grieving teenage girls, I had a hard time believing all of her motivations. No matter how angry I may have been in my own teenage years, I would have looked upon a free trip to Paris with total and utter glee! Andi, on the other hand, doesn't want to go, and is eager to leave as soon as she arrives. However there are other aspects of her character that I really appreciate--namely her love of music and her survival skills. Donnelly has created a modern young woman who is intelligent and capable, if not altogether plausible. Conversely, the character of Alex is easily admired. She is a very real heroine; initially attracted to a job with the royals for the money and prestige, she finds herself truly caring about the Dauphin and his family.

Donnelly has obviously done a lot of research, sprinkling interesting facts throughout her novel that enrich her excellent storytelling. It seems as if every detail has been considered, which brings the scenery to life. The scenes in the Catacombs in 1795 made my stomach roll in disgust at the incredibly detailed descriptions of rotting corpses and the smells with which they filled the tunnels.  Donnelly's study of the French Revolution allows her to relate the story of how the people of  France threw off the Royal Robes in exchange for Emperor Bonaparte, but without sounding like a dry text book.

I have tremendous respect for Jennifer Donnelly. She has taken on the task of bringing history into context for today's modern young readers, and done it exquisitely. Revolution is filled with emotional layers of content that draw you in to both Andi and Alex's unforgettable stories.

Rating: $$$

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hey Look Up There! ^

I have long debated how best to share the links for those inspiring reviews I come across. I have had a "gadget" on my sidebar for a long time, but unless I want to to stretch my blog page on for eternities, I am limited by the number of Inspiring Reviews by Other Bloggers that I can share.

But Aha! Google has solved my problem! Thanks to the Pages function, now there's a whole second page on my blog, created just so I can share awesome reviews! Are you on the list? Do you need a book suggestion? Want to read more about a book? Check out the list!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

This Girl Is Different: JJ Johnson

I requested This Girl Is Different from Peachtree Publishers because the storyline caught my attention. A home-schooled girl transitions to public high school for her senior year, and confronts the "normal" firsts all at once--romance, friendship, responsibility. I'm always fascinated by stories that reflect our culture back at us, which is exactly what JJ Johnson does in this novel.

Evie isn't like other girls. This girl is different. She has been home-schooled by a counter-culture hippie mom--Martha-- who has dedicated Evie's education to challenging the social standards. Evie decides that for her final year of high school, she wants to enter into the public high school as a kind of social experiment. With plans of going to Cornell to study urban design, Evie is curious to know how the reality of high school will live up to the movies she's seen. However, Evie is still just a teenage girl, and after her run-in with Rajas and Jacinda she is swept up in what it means to be an average teenager, with a boyfriend and a best friend. In the first weeks of school, Jacinda and Rajas are by her side, helping her adjust to a whole new set of rules. It doesn't take long for Evie to recognize that injustices are rampant at the Institution of School. The trio of friends devise a plan to give students a voice to speak out against their oppressive teachers, citing their First Amendment right to free speech. As you can probably guess, things quickly spiral out of control and Evie is soon faced with possibly the largest lesson she never would have learned without her high school experience; free speech has no value if the speaker doesn't take responsibility for the things they say.

My favorite thing about this novel was the use of quotes at the heading of every chapter. Emma Goldman, Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Bryson, and many many more lend thoughtful statements to help guide the reader to ideals and theories highlighted in Johnson's novel. This Girl Is Different focuses on very relevant issues regarding American freedoms and how our educational system exposes our young citizens to their rights. In a time when bullying has become deadly, Johnson has written a novel about how harshly the First Amendment can hurt our peers.

My second favorite thing is Evie. Evie is a wonderful character. She is so smart, independent, and caring that I want to be her friend. I love that she's this brilliant home-schooled kid who goes through the transition to become a (somewhat) typical high school teen with raging hormones and a sense of righteousness. She isn't perfect, and that's what makes her so great. Evie makes mistakes and she learns life lessons so that the reader can actually watch her grow as an individual. The characters of Rajas and Jacinda aren't quite as developed, but this isn't their story, so it's kind of okay. The story isn't even really about Evie; she's an illustration of millions of people all over the world. Because aside from just being a story about a smart teenager, angry about the enforced authority of high school, This Girl Is Different also takes on the very heavy topic of bullying. Johnson dates this novel with references to Glee and Avatar, but the theme of high school bullying is--unfortunately-- timeless.

Rating: $$.5

Friday, January 7, 2011

Pure Drivel: Steve Martin

If you are at all acquainted with Steve Martin, you most likely know him as a funny man. He has had a very long and successful career in film as a leading man of comedy. If you are at all familiar with the world of celebrity writing, then you most likely know that Martin is also a tremendously humorous writer. His novella, Shopgirl, went on to become a delightful movie. So when I had the opportunity to pick up Pure Drivel at a deep discount, I jumped on it.

Pure Drivel is a collection of miniature essays. There are 26 essays in all, most of which have been previously published in magazine media. They are more like vignettes than essays, running the gambit between poignant and absurd. Some of them, like "Dear Amanda", which is written in the form of a series of letters from an ex-boyfriend who starts nearly every letter with the phrase "this is the last letter I'm going to write to you", are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Especially if you are able to read them and hear Martin's voice with his droll wit. Some, like "Michael Jackson's Old Face" are narrated with a dry kind of humor that is actually a bit sad and retrospective. I take a private, snobbish appreciation of the essays titled "The Nature of Matter and Its Antecedents", "The Paparazzi of Plato", "How I Joined Mensa", and "Lolita At Fifty", simply because they make it clear that Martin and I share a useless knowledge of over-played literature.

Steve Martin's writing is thoroughly enjoyable. He is simultaneously erudite and pedestrian, humorous and depressing. I read this slim collection in a single day, but I can see the great value of reading each essay individually, on it's own time, so that it fully sinks in.

Rating: $$$

Thursday, January 6, 2011

SLAM: Nick Hornby

I like Nick Hornby. I picked up About A Boy years ago at the airport and I was thoroughly entertained. It was a novel that even translated well to cinema, though I'm not sure I'd have chosen Hugh Grant to play Will. I've come to respect Hornby for his multi-dimensional characters and great story lines. I mean, he's not Homer writing the Illead or anything, but he's a good storyteller. When I see a Hornby novel with a cover like the one above, I don't really have to think twice.

SLAM is an epistle to the reader. Sam narrates the book as though he were writing to a friend to tell them about the things going on in his life. Sam is 16 years old and things are going along well. His single mum has finally quit seeing her rubbish boyfriend, making him an EX-boyfriend. School is actually going well for once; his art teacher even suggested he might consider going to college for arts and design. His skateboarding is good--he's getting to be a little better than some of the other blokes at the skate park. And Sam's poster of skateboarding legend Tony Hawk has begun talking to him, offering advice about life. All in all, things are good--and yes, perhaps a little strange. Things are even better when Sam's mum drags him to a boring party where he meets the only other teenager there, Alicia. Alicia is beautiful. Like, take-your-breath-away beautiful. Like, make-you-stammer-nonsensical-sentences beautiful. And Alicia-the-beautiful is about to make Sam's life even better when she begins to date him. Sam is officially on top of the world! The relationship with Alicia goes on for a bit, with lots and lots of snogging and the usual teenage relationship patterns: never home, stops skating, spends all his time with Alicia. Then of course comes the boredom. I mean, when you've essentially given up your life to spend every waking moment with a beautiful girl, that girl starts to get dull and boring once her beauty becomes ordinary. Suddenly Sam's life isn't going so well. His skateboarding isn't so good anymore because he never practices. His mum has a new boyfriend. His girlfriend isn't interesting anymore. And then everything takes a decidedly downward turn. Alicia is pregnant. What's worse is that Tony Hawk doesn't seem to have any sage words of wisdom about this situation.

First of all, let's address the obvious; there have been many books written about teenage pregnancy. This isn't exactly ground-breaking fiction. However, Nick Hornby manages to write from the male teenage perspective so well that I never once thought "Ah, no dude would say/think/do that!" In fact, throughout the reading of this novel I was frequently reminded of my 16 year old cousin and her baby's daddy. I'm not familiar with Nick Hornby's biographical context, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn that he had been a teenage father.

My only complaint about SLAM is that it loses steam once Alicia gets pregnant, which is just barely more than halfway through. Once Sam and Alicia know they're going to be parents, things get very real and a bit uncomfortable with the soon-to-be grandparents. There's an interesting bit when Tony Hawk whizzes Sam into the future to see how it's all going to work out, but after that the novel borders on the mundane. Alicia has the baby. Sam and Alicia try to make a go of being parents together. Things get a bit sticky and the relationship ultimately comes to an end, with both kids promising to be dedicated parents for their baby's sake.

In short, SLAM is a great story written by a good contemporary writer who knows how to relate to his characters. It's not the best thing I've ever read in my life, but it is enjoyable and even worth an LOL at times. Had the laughs continued into the second half of the book, I could have given it a full $$$.

Rating: $$.5