Friday, January 5, 2018

breadth not depth

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review:  In 1969, the four Gold siblings visit a supposedly mystical woman who can tell the date on which someone will die.  The oldest sibling, Varya, is 13 when they receive the prophecy, and learns that she will live to 88.  Simon, the youngest sibling at 7, learns that he will die at 20.

Benjamin chooses to tell the siblings' stories consecutively, in order of their death, which took a lot of the suspense out of the question of whether the prophecies were ultimately true, leading me to understand that the driving questions of this book is actually, "Does knowing the date of your death become a self-fulfilling prophecy?"  Benjamin seems to take it for granted that we can accept the legitimacy of the prophecy but is so heavy-handed in answering the question of self-fulfillment that the stories of what happen to the siblings seems very shallow.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Old Friends

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I spent the first 2/3 or so of this book just hoping that when the big reveal(s) came I wouldn't be too disappointed.  It becomes clear early on that something, probably something tragic, happened to Kit at some point, and that something shady is going on with Sunny's family, but for quite some time there really aren't any clues as to what.  In Kit's case, I wasn't disappointed at all.  What happened to her is sufficiently dramatic to make her current circumstances realistic, but not overblown.  Not only that, but the course of learning her backstory side-by-side with her ongoing story made her a more sympathetic character.

Sunny's story isn't as well done, unfortunately.  After being half revealed, the mystery is left to lie fallow until nearly the end of book, at which point it is hastily revealed and even more hastily resolved.  In Sunny's case, though, the mystery has more to do with her parents, and it's really her journey of learning who her parents really are and figuring out how to deal with that knowledge that makes for compelling reading.

None of the characters in this book are particularly three-dimensional, but Halpern writes so well about how they fit together, that it almost doesn't matter.  Every time I opened this book a felt like I was walking into the grand old library in washed-up Riverton, NH, about to meet my own good friends.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

tastes like cardboard

Rosie Colored Glasses by Brianna Wolfson
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review:  Willow's parents are complete opposites.  Rosie is a free-spirit who believes in the power of colors, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and not keeping to a schedule, and seems to exist solely on Pixie Stix, cream soda, and pizza.  Rex is firm and regimented and believes in balanced dinners and to-do lists.  Opposites may attract, but they can also explode.  And what happens to the kids when the attraction ends?  Willow can tell you, but it's not pretty.

This book had the potential to be an interesting exploration of a child's experience of navigating divorced parents. Unfortunately, Rex and Rosie are both such complete caricatures of their types that it felt like reading about cardboard cut-outs.  They are almost exclusively written to type, except when they do something so wholly out of character that it's nearly inexplicable.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

something for everyone

Your Maryland: Little-Known Histories from the Shores of the Chesapeake to the Foothills of the Allegheny Mountains by Ric Cottom
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction, history
Review: I grew up in Maryland, and had Maryland history in 4th grade, so a few of these stories, such as Frederick Douglass's early life and the battle that prompted Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner, were already familiar to me.  But Cottom really delves deeply into Maryland history to justify the "little-known" part of his title.  For example, who knew that John Wilkes Booth was present at John Brown's execution?  Or the story behind the grant for the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins?  Who's ever even heard of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, or knew that the very last man to die in battle in WWI was from Maryland?  Or, my personal favorite, who knew that Cab Calloway and Thurgood Marshall went to high school together?

Well, obviously somebody knew, and I'm glad that Ric Cottom put so many little gems together in this volume.  With tales ranging in time from the exploration of the New World though the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, these stories cover a wide variety of topics, from battles to baseball.  Although originally written for radio, these pieces have been well-adapted for print, and if some are too short for your taste, there's plenty of source material given for further reading.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this e-book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Monday, November 13, 2017

couldn't care less

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction
Review: Imagine that we have allowed the Internet to literally take over our brains, so that we don't even need to think about wanting information or remembering anything.  Everything we could ever want to know or remember is simply available with the hint of a thought question.  But what happens when "the Feed" collapses?  Supposedly, that's the question behind this book, but the real story takes place 6 years after "the Collapse" and we only see glimpses of the immediate aftermath.  We're to understand, though, that many people were so completely undone by the lack of the Feed that they couldn't function and died.  This premise is believable, since the Feed stored everyone's memories of everything and had even supplanted most verbal language.  So fine, population decimated, cities ruined, everyone left majorly traumatized, ok.  But Tom and Kate have found a haven, though a tenuous one, with a few other survivors.  That's all background.

The story really begins, or at least I think it's supposed to really begin when Tom and Kate's daughter is kidnapped and they go off in search of her.  Except that all that really happens is that they walk.  A lot.  Don't get me wrong, things do happen, some of them fairly dramatic, except the drama feels like mere blips in a boring landscape, and is so disconnected from everything else that I couldn't bring myself to care much about what was going on.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

wholly holey

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction
Review: I love a good generation-ship story.  The sociological (and technological) possibilities are endless when a self-contained group of people is left on their own for hundred or thousands of years.  There is so much room for an author to use their imagination on the fate of human society.  But there are rules.  To me, the most fundamental rule of world-building of any kind is that all the pieces have to hang together.  An author can't just throw in an arbitrary bit of the world just for the heck of it; it has to matter to the plot.  Otherwise it just hangs there like a vestigial organ.

Unfortunately, this book seems to have a lot of that.  Vestigial organs include:
  • gender identity - Solomon creates a structure where children on one deck are all referred to as girls (until they did something to indicate that they weren't actually a girl) and on another deck all children are referred to gender neutrally.  This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, except that it doesn't seem to matter in terms of the plot, or anything else in the book.  It just sits there, like the proverbial gun that is introduced in Act One, but fails to go off by Act Three.
  • religion - Solomon seems to be trying to set up the system on the ship as being driven by a very strict theocracy, except aside from mentioning that leaders of the ship are supposed to given their power and authority by their god, religion doesn't actually seem to play much of a part of the story.  Except one character engages in some ritual self-flagellation.  There was that.
  • neuroatypicality - Our main character, Aster, is an interesting person, who displays symptoms of something along the lines of Asperger's Syndrome.  Whether that's the diagnosis Solomon intended Aster to have is neither nor there, because the question is why Aster is portrayed in this at all.  The only plot point for which her symptoms seem relevant is to create tension when she can't understand the motivations of the Surgeon, and to therefore create wholly unnecessary and artificial tension between them.
To say that all of this detracted from the story as a whole is an understatement.  If only the plot were strong enough to bear the weight of all that, but it's not.  I could never quite figure out what was supposed to be driving the plot.  Was it the plight of the people on the ship altogether, or specifically Aster's search for answers about her mother?  Or was the latter supposed to inform the former in the task of pushing the story forward?  I don't know, and by the time the book wrapped up, I didn't much care.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

can she move on?

George & Lizzie by Nancy Pearl
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: As a public librarian, Nancy Pearl is, of course, my hero (yes, I have the Nancy Pearl action figure).  Nobody does reader's advisory like Nancy Pearl does reader's advisory!  So when I heard she wrote a book, I naturally wanted to read it right away.  At the same, I was a little apprehensive, because knowing what goes into a good book doesn't necessarily mean that you can write a good book.  I needn't have worried.

Although the book is called George & Lizzie, this is really Lizzie's story.  One is tempted to say that she was raised by wolves, but of course that's not true.  She was really raised by behavioral psychologists, who treated her every action as an idea for further research.  Predictably, she acts out by doing some, shall we say, less-than-socially-acceptable things.  These things have repercussions, of course, in her later relationships, but we can't help loving Lizzie, even while she does everything possible to sabotage her own life and happiness.

Then comes George.  We learn enough about George's childhood and family to make him a believable character, but since the book still focuses more on Lizzie, the real question is whether she can get over herself long enough to actually make a positive long-lasting relationship with George.  There were a few plot points that I couldn't quite suss out (including the somewhat important point of why Lizzie agreed to marry George in the first place when she was still obsessed (yes, obsessed) with someone else), but those confusions were easily overcome in the excellent writing that continued to pull me forward.

And pulled forward I was, right up until the very natural and well-done ending.  Pearl never takes the easy road with her characters, and the whole book moves along without ever giving the reader the feeling that the whole thing is just one big contrivance.  Brava to Mrs. Pearl for making the leap from reader to author.  I look forward to reading more.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.