Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

making preparations

Me, Myself and Ike by K.L. Denman
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: At first, this book seems to be about two teenage boys embarking on one of the stupidest plans ever. Inspired by a documentary on the Ice Man, one has convinced the other to climb up into the Canadian Rockies and freeze himself, along with examples of modern technology and culture, as evidence for posterity. The book is largely taken up with Kit's preparations for doing so.

Fortunately, for both Kit and the reader, the book is really about much more than this moronic scheme. As we follow Kit through his preparations, we begin to see that perhaps all is not what it seems. Through his interactions with others, we learn that Kit used to be a good kid - he had friends, got along well with his family, did reasonably well in school. But a few months before the start of the action, everything changes. We get a sense of this only in the way that others react to Kit, but this is a startlingly effective method of portraying this change. Throughout the book, we also get a feel for what others noticed in Kit that caused them to change their perceptions, although, in a first-person narrative, the changes are only subtly observable to the reader. It isn't until almost the end of the book that we begin to understand what is really going on with Kit, and how dangerous it potentially is.

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

among the Righteous

Victor Kugler: The Man Who Hid Anne Frank by Rick Kardonne and Eda Shapiro
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: biography
Review: Almost everyone knows the story of Anne Frank. Far fewer people know the story of one of the men who hid her and her family from the Gestapo for 2 years. The mere fact of having his story of bravery be told makes this book worthwhile.

Victor Kugler's story shines brightest when told in his own voice. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often. Large portions of the book are taken from the notes of Eda Shapiro, who interviewed Kugler late in his life. This is fine, as far as it goes, but Shapiro's words are also used to give us historical background information on topics such as WWII and the history of Jews in Holland. Surely a more authoritative source could have been found for these subjects.

At least this historical background is interesting. Not so the rest of the book's padding, including descriptions of various dramatic and musical productions of Anne Frank's story that Kugler attended and his reaction to them, and descriptions awards and honors that Kugler was given, including his inclusion among the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, all well-deserved. I could have lived with a lot less of this extraneous material, especially since Kugler's story stands so well on its own.

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

couldn't keep them straight

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: With Louise Erdrich as the author of this book, it pretty much goes without saying that the writing is excellent. But I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I'd been able to keep the characters straight. The book jumps from narrator to narrator and generation to generation, and I just didn't have a chance. Often the new narrator is someone only distantly connected (by relationship, all the action takes place in the same general area) to a previous narrator, and I kept asking Who is this person? Am I supposed to have any prior knowledge of this person's relationships with anyone I've already met? Although each character and each narrative section was very well done, it became very frustrating to try to read this as a cohesive story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

not enough substance

The Return by Victoria Hislop
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Review: There are some moments in this book where the writing feels fluid, but those moments are few and far between. Mostly the writing felt forced and stilted. Which is a shame because the narrative idea has a lot of potential, if only it were executed better. There are some good dramatic moments, and parts of the story could even be described as compelling. But the connection between the present-day (more or less) frame and the historical story set in the Spanish Civil War is too predictable (and not quite believable), and many characters lack a motivational back-story. Overall, there just wasn't enough to this book to hold it together.

Friday, November 6, 2009

have your cake and eat it too

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Reading this book is a bit like taking a really big bite of something really chewy. Taffy maybe, and not your favorite flavor, either, although definitely one you like. It's good, but you might feel like you have to work too hard.

Shriver takes her cue from the multiple universe idea that there exists a separate reality that has sprung from each decision. There's a universe in which you did X, and a universe in which you didn't do X (or did Y). Fortunately, she doesn't try to examine this theory to its fullest, but takes a single decision made a single person, and expands her universes from there. What drives this book, then, is not "did she or didn't she" (she both did and didn't, in alternate chapters), but what is the result of both decisions.

Shriver employs some very clever techniques to help her explore this theme. As the parallel chapters progress along the same time line, we see how similar the two universes are, but also how wildly different, as sometimes identical dialogue is spoken, but in vastly different contexts, or even by different characters. Shriver even gives her reader occasional anchors in time (helping to tie parallel chapters in time) by relating how the characters in each universe respond to international news events, such as the death of Princess Diana and the September 11th attacks.

Shriver also does a great job of keeping her main character consistent through both story-lines. It's easy (easier, at least) to write a character who responds to a single set of events, than it is to write a character who must respond to two parallel sets of events and yet remain believable as a single character. Shriver absolutely gets this part right. But that is also part of what makes reading this book seem like hard work - every time you get somewhere in the narrative, you are instantly sent back to the beginning of the timeframe and must go through it all again, with the same mindset, if different details. Even the best of characters might get a little tiresome through all that. The real triumph is perhaps that we care about what happens in both realities, and can't easily say which choice was the right one.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

awkward

Ostrich Feathers by Miriam Romm
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Review: When reading a book in translation, it's always hard to tell whether any awkwardness in the text comes from the original or the translation. And there's a lot of awkwardness in this story, though not all of it can be attributed to problems in translation. Some of the awkwardness could go either way, such as the stilted dialogue (I understand that recreating dialogue in a memoir can be problematic, but I think most readers would agree that ease of reading trumps efforts to be strictly faithful to events, as long as gist and meaning are maintained).

Other kinds of awkwardness are easier to pinpoint, such as when the author tells us that she wishes she had broached the subject of her father earlier so that she would have had an opportunity to talk to his friends who are now either dead or past the point where she can talk to them about their memories of her father. This would indeed be unfortunate, except that throughout the book we are repeatedly given the memories of several of her father's friends, given, we are told, directly from them to her.

This extensive awkwardness is a very unfortunate factor in what otherwise could have been a very good read. The author's quest to find her father, lost during the Holocaust, is a very interesting subject, but this book would have benefited greatly from either a ghost writer, or a better editor, or both.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

it's all a matter of perspective

The Girls by Lori Lansens
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Imagine writing a book with two characters that must inevitably share every experience, and yet giving each character a unique and vivid perspective. That is what Lansens has done with her novel of conjoined twins Ruby and Rose, the oldest surviving (they are approaching their 30th birthday) craniopagus (joined at the head) twins.

Lansens demonstrates that her twins have different perspectives on life by having them by joined such that they face at angles to each other (as Rose says, "I have never looked into my sister's eyes."), a neat literary trick. And of course they sometimes remember the same events differently as any two people, real or imagined, will. In some ways, Lansens ability to create two such different characters is not very remarkable, since most authors do it in every book. But we must return to the fact that Lansens' characters are not the same as any other two characters in a different book. And yet, they are. And it is Lansens ability to make them so normal, and so real, to her readers that is just a part of what makes this book so good.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

no easy virture

The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America by Jeffrey Rosen
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: Here’s an interesting technique of historiography: match up pairs of historical figures, making sure that in each pair you agree with one, and disagree with the other. Then praise the one in almost every way, while denigrating the other. Lastly, declare that the first was on the side of truth and justice, while the other was merely self-serving. Rosen applies this rubric to pairs of Supreme Court Justices through the ages (although, oddly, he pairs John Marshall with Thomas Jefferson, who of course was never on the Court). Rosen is somewhat ambivalent about the actual role of truth and justice on the Court, but he pulls no punches in proclaiming his thesis that a jurist who looks only to his own legacy will, in the end, have a very poor legacy indeed. He holds in high regard those Justices who essentially play along to get along, and work toward consensus and unity on the Court (he includes Marshall, Harlan, Black, and Rehnquist as the more collegial Justices), rather than those Justices who carve their own jurisprudential path and stick to it (Jefferson, Holmes, Douglas, and Scalia get labeled as “ideologues” under this rubric). Rosen’s thesis may seem unbiased, but he doesn’t give us enough of a reason to believe that consensus is a virtue in its own right. As hard as it is to come down on the same side of any issue as Justice Scalia, I find myself wondering if developing a clear and consistent legal theory, and then applying it fairly, isn’t more important than trying to get people to agree with you.

Having dispensed with the basic premise of Rosen’s book, I did quite enjoy the book itself. It’s very well written, and the anecdotes about both current and historical figures are very interesting. Any student of the Court, or even those with a more cursory interest, will find this book a valuable and enjoyable read.

Friday, October 2, 2009

another challenge complete - Banned Books Week 2009

I completed my Banned Books Week 2009 Challenge!

Here's the official ALA Banned Books Week page.

A fun tongue-in-cheek look at banning books: Ban the Dictionary.

Lastly, just in case you thought that challenges to books don't really happen any more... Here's a post from Laurie Halse Anderson from just last week. Incidentally, Speak is one of the most powerful books about surviving rape that I've ever read.

too subtle for me

Vegan Virgin Valentine by Carolyn Mackler
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Challenge: Banned Books 2009
Review: First, an article about a challenge to this book by parents in a school in Jacksonville, FL.

My response: Honestly, I didn't much notice the word that the parents were complaining about. I had a much bigger problem with the names the girls in the book call each other, but obviously, not a big enough problem to think that I had the right to control what other people can or can't read.

Overall, I think this book might have been too subtle for me. Mara and V don't get along, can't stand each other, etc. until suddenly they can. I felt like there was a little bit of character development that I missed. Otherwise, this is a good story about how the "good girl" can have a positive influence on the "bad girl" and (more importantly?) vice versa, without being too heavy-handed.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

7 down and more on the way

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: I really hope that Diana Gabaldon is already at work on the 8th book in this wonderful series. I certainly think she left too many cliffhangers at the end of this installment not to be. I'm not entirely sure that this book is quite up to the standard set by the first 6 in the series, but anyone as taken with Jamie and Claire (and their various compatriots) will be left as breathless as ever.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

through a different lens

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Challenge: Banned Books 2009
Review: This book has faced challenges in many schools and communities. Here is an interview with the author about some of the challenges.

My response: What's more important - a few things you don't agree with, or a powerful story about a teenage boy learning to deal the world around him? I know, what a silly question.

I'll be honest, I had a hard time with this book at first. I spent the first part of the book wondering whether Charlie was supposed to have emotional problems or whether the writing was just awkward. When it became clear that Charlie did have emotional problems, I started to wonder why nobody but me seemed to notice. But then comes the big reveal... And Chbosky does it so well that it made the whole rest of the book shift into focus, and I could see why this is such a powerful book for so many teenagers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

a broader view

The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Challenge: Banned Books 2009
Review: First, an article about an effort to ban this book in Oklahoma.

My response: I can't claim to be shocked that this book was challenged, since it does deal with teenage girls questioning and discovering their sexuality, but as always I'm disappointed when people choose to bury their heads in the sand rather than accepting that people are different, and choosing to recognize a book that deals with real issues in a sensitive and realistic manner.

I thought that Johnson approached her subject matter in an interesting way. Rather than just focusing on the one character who winds up coming out, and her struggle to come to terms with her own sexuality, Johnson sets her story within a group of 3 girls. When one of the girls goes away for the summer before their senior year of high school, the other two find themselves in a "more than friends" situation. Johnson sympathetically relates the story of any two people who try to negotiate going from being friends to having a romantic relationship, and possibly back again. Teenagers can definitely relate to this story, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Added to that well-drawn story, Johnson also gives us the third girl in the triangle, who comes home from her summer away and finds herself in the middle of the complicated relationship of her two best friends, while at the same time dealing with issues surrounding her own new long-distance relationship.

One criticism I have is that the characters weren't all that well-drawn. I had trouble at the beginning distinguishing the three main characters, and even after I could remember who was who, they all seemed a little fuzzy around the edges. None of the secondary characters were particularly clear either. In a book that is largely character driven, I wanted to get a better sense of the characters outside of the particular conflicts they were facing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

not black and white

The Fighting Ground by Avi
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, children's
Challenge: Banned Books 2009
Review: First, a brief article about why this book was challenged and subsequently banned in a school district in Florida.

My response: Attempting to ban any book that has even one instance of a word that could even vaguely be construed as "profanity" is just silly.

In this book, Avi ably portrays the hopes and then fears of Jonathan, a young boy who suddenly finds himself fighting in the Revolutionary War. Even more interesting, after the battle is over, Jonathan is thrust into a morally complex situation where he must question which side he's on. Students will be able to sympathize with Jonathan's dilemma and will take away valuable lessons about how the world is not always drawn in black and white.

Friday, September 11, 2009

reading banned books

It's been a while since I did a reading challenge, and I think it's time to jump back into it. And where better to start than with the Banned Books Week Challenge. This year, Banned Books Week is from September 26-October 3, and the BiblioRat is hosting a challenge for everyone to read at least one banned (or challenged) book, or even as many as four, during the month of September. Of course I am aiming for 4!

1) The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
2) Vegan Virgin Valentine by Carolyn Mackler
3) The Fighting Ground by Avi
4) The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson

For more books that have been banned or challenged, look here.
ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom has also put together an interesting map of which books have been banned or challenged in which communities.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

back to back home runs!

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction, YA
Review: With the second installment in The Hunger Games trilogy, Collins has totally defied the unfortunate truth that a sequel rarely lives up to the promise of the first book. Not only does this one not disappoint, it's a truly good book. No "middle book syndrome" here! Once again, Collins has turned in a page-turner of a story, that, while it revisits some of the themes from The Hunger Games, is also fresh and new.

What happened after the dramatic finale of Katniss's Hunger Games? Collins relates the effects of Katniss's actions in her personal world, throughout the 12 Districts, and even in the Capitol. In doing so, Collins has given fuller flesh to the world her characters inhabit. In Catching Fire, she not only ratchets up the tension, but sets the stage for a thoughtful, insightful, and exciting final book in the trilogy. If expectations were high for the second book, they're that much higher for the third.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

beautiful but soooo sllooooow

Oystercatchers by Susan Fletcher
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is a beautifully written, lyrical book. Unfortunately, the writing is also so slow and deliberate that I almost couldn't stand it. What little drama or action there was in the book was almost completely overwhelmed by the ponderous writing.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

no tension at all

Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I found this book oddly lacking in tension. Not all books have to have tension, but I got the feeling that this book was supposed to. The main character (whose name we never learn) is supposed to decide between two factions in a small town that have different ideas about how or whether to rename the town. The tension between these two opposing parties should be at the heart of this book, but I just couldn't bring myself to care (possibly because the alternative to the town's current name is just silly). The lack of tension is especially ironic when you consider the name of the town that the main character finally decides on, which I think is supposed to summarize the overall theme of the book: Struggle.

Monday, August 24, 2009

just a little unbalanced

Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction
Review: Good science fiction is more about the characters than the science. And this is good science fiction. Unfortunately, Kress goes a little overboard in weighting the book toward the characters (sometimes less human drama is more), but this is still a very interesting story. Kress presents a familiar question (what comes after death) and answers it in a unique way, without taking any of the various moralistic routes a less skilled author might have.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

the river and the people

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: Great story with great, believable characters. The language occasionally faltered into too-modern speech, but overall the setting is well-constructed. The conflicts are realistic, as are the resolutions. The black and white period photos are a great addition. A very enjoyable read.

Monday, August 10, 2009

reptition repitition

The Gate House by Nelson DeMille
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is the most repetitive book I've ever read. Not only does it repeat the entire plot of The Gold Coast, but every single point is made over and over again. And over and over and over. To top it all off, the writing is beyond trite. I'm sure it's very difficult to edit a book by such a prominent author, but if ever a book needed a rigorous editing, this book is it. And unfortunately, no matter how interested I might have been in finding out what happened to the characters of The Gold Coast (admittedly, not very much), the lack of editing, not to mention the ridiculously convenient ending, made me care even less.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

nothing new

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: mystery
Review: If you like police dramas, you will like this book. If you're looking for something new and exciting in the genre, you won't find it here, nor is this book destined to be a classic. But the writing is strong, and the drama fairly compelling, so it's enjoyable for what it is.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

too mean to be fun

Playing with Fire: Whining & Dining on the Gold Coast by Thomas G. Schaudel
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: It's always fun to read about the bizarre things people do and say in public, because people really can be crazy. And certainly Schaudel's dry telling of some of the stories had me laughing out loud. Unfortunately, his snarky voice becomes downright mean in too many of the stories for me to really enjoy the book as a whole.

Friday, July 24, 2009

agenda-driven

Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town by Kelly McMasters
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Review: Told in the form of a personal narrative, this book contains a lot of interesting information about Long Island local history, especially the East End. There's also a lot of interesting information about nuclear pollution, which might make anyone question the water they drink. Unfortunately, much of this book also reads as an indictment of Brookhaven National Laboratory, which may or may not be justified. To be fair, McMasters credits BNL for having improved their practices in recent years, but the book still comes across as being agenda-driven and biased, which undercuts the message more than a little bit.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

running away to join the circus

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: I spent most of this book wondering why Gruen chose to intersperse her primary story of a young man who found himself thrust into the circus life in 1931 with the musings of that same man at the age of 93. The story of how Jacob came to be in the circus and what happened to him there seemed like enough to me, and Jacob's aged voice seemed unnecessary. At the end of the book, though, I realized why she gave us both perspectives, and could hardly argue with her narrative device, as the closure it provides works so well.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

bland all over

More Than it Hurts You by Darin Strauss
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: A different book about Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy would be, perhaps, an outside-looking-in story, where people outside the family try to figure out why any parent, and specifically the parent in question would inflict harm on their own child. In contrast, Strauss puts the why up-front; it’s clear to the reader, and even clearer to mother who bleeds her child twice to induce anemia, why she does it.

So the rest of the book is more of a “how” or a “what” than a “why”. How do the doctors and Child Protective Services go about proving a case of Munchausen’s? How does the father, who in unaware of his wife’s activities, deal with the situation. What is the motivation of the accusing doctor? And in the end, of course, is the question of what will happen to the baby. At least it should be, but in the end even the answers to those questions are disappointing, as the whole matter is dropped over a trumped-up plot device.

Still, this could have been a good book, since it is engagingly written. Unfortunately, not a single character in this book is sympathetic (except the baby, of course). The mother obviously, is beyond unsympathetic, being so smug about her actions as to be entirely unlikeable. Even the father, a good father by most standards, is just bland to the point that I couldn’t really bring myself to care about him. Although we are shown bits of the doctor’s personal life (her interactions with her own young son, her efforts to relate to a father she’s only just met), none of these are enough to put any flesh on the character that might allow the reader to care about her, and are clearly just set pieces that try (and fail) to create some tension.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

puzzle pieces

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: An interesting study on identity and identity theft, reading this book is kind of like putting together a puzzle. At the beginning, you're reading three separate (and interesting) stories. Slowly, it becomes clear that the stories all fit together, although it takes a bit longer for the connections to emerge. To complicate things, we are not given the story entirely in chronological order, making it sort of like putting together a 3-D puzzle. Unfortunately, the same effort put into drawing the puzzle pieces was not put into the actual resolution of the book, but a little bit of imagination on the reader's part takes care of that.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

second sisterhood

3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows by Ann Brasheres
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: It's impossible to evaluate this book without reference to Brashere's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Not only is the "Sisterhood" referenced in the title, but the Sisterhood itself figures in the story. In some ways, that's a good thing, serving to establish a setting with which readers are already familiar. In other ways, it's a bad thing, setting up expectations that aren't really fulfilled.

The first book of the Sisterhood is the story of a group of girls who have been friends since babyhood, and must learn how to continue their friendship as they spend their first summer apart. In 3 Willows, by contrast, the friendship among the three girls has started to unravel. Knowing what we know about the Sisterhood, the theme and resolution of this book, that old friendships are important even as we grow up, is somewhat predictable. Still, it's a good book, with each of the three girls well-drawn, sympathetic, and realistically written.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

what's your point?

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Review: I think I would have liked this book better if I'd known what the message was supposed to be. That successive generations are bound by an ancestor's acts, either to repeat it or react against it? Or the opposite, as seems to be what happens here: just because your mother/grandmother/great-grandmother/great-great-grandmother (as we move through the generations) starved herself in the name of suffrage, that has absolutely no bearing on your own tendency toward activism. As vignettes of the lives of 5 individual women, these stories are good, compellingly written, and all that. As a thesis, this book doesn't quite hold together.

Monday, June 22, 2009

don't go there

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction, history
Review: Some books that describe a particular place in vivid detail make you really want to visit that place. This is not one of those books. The lush descriptions of the deadly flora and fauna of the rainforest made me perfectly happy to enjoy it all from a distance. But the same descriptions make Roosevelt and his fellow explorers very real, and gave me a good appreciation for the dangers they faced and the risks they took.

very subtle

The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is a very subtle book. Told in the first person, DeMille's protagonist draws conclusions from what looks at first like very little evidence, but explanations later in the book always had me nodding my head and agreeing that it all makes perfect sense when you put it that way. In the hands of a less-skilled author, I would have found this very technique very annoying, but DeMille made it all work very well. I was very impressed.

Add to that overall good writing, including a narrator who tells his story in a very likable chatty voice (even if said narrator isn't himself always a likable character), a really interesting take on the Mafia, and a story that has some interesting twists and turns, and it all comes out to quite a good book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

not just what happened

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, YA
Review: One good thing about this book is the particular aptness of its title. The book is not just about what happened, but about what Evie saw (or what she allowed herself to see), and yes, how she lied about both what happened and what she saw.

Not to worry, though, there are plenty of other good things about this book. It’s a good story, for one thing, and engagingly told. Evie is a well-written character. Her level of denial in parts of the book is a bit frustrating, but Blundell writes this aspect of her character, as well as how it changes, very realistically.

I have two fairly small criticisms: first, I'm not sure why Blundell chose to set this book in the early fall. Maybe so the timing of the hurricane would be more realistic? The problem is that by having Evie's family's sudden jaunt to Florida take place at the beginning of September, Evie misses the start of school, which nobody seems to care very much about (although there are a few mentions of how she's supposed to be studying on her own in Florida). Second, post-WWII slang is dispensed so judiciously as to seem forced. Either people use slang, or they don't. But even I must admit that these are nitpicky criticisms, and fade in comparison to the story itself.

Monday, May 25, 2009

downright uplifting

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: Greg Mortenson has unquestionably achieved something great in his quest to build schools for children in poor and remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. And this book is unquestionably a great way to learn about Mortenson and his efforts. David Oliver Relin is to be credited with making not just Greg and his work accessible to readers, but also the myriad people and some of the complex politics of central Asia. Relin meshes anecdotes about mountain climbing, fundraising, and actually building schools into a seamless story. This story, dealing as it does with poverty, war, and serious lack of opportunity, could have been very depressing, but Mortenson's goal, coupled with Relin's writing, make it actually a very hopeful one that is enjoyable to read.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

not as effective as it should have been

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: Doctorow had all the right ideas in writing this book. Through his fictionalized account of a terrorist attack on San Francisco's Bay Bridge and BART system, and the resultant crackdown on the city by the Department of Homeland Security, Doctorow tries to paint a picture of what can happen when the zeal for security bests protection for civil liberties.

Unfortunately, his excellent point is drowned out by his heavy-handed sermonizing. Anyone reading this book will probably already understand the danger of protecting America by taking away civil liberties, so Doctorow is preaching to the choir to begin with. To hammer in his message so emphatically is somewhat insulting to his readers' intelligence. More subtlety would have made this both a better book as well as a more effective one.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

un(trust)worthy

The Gemma Doyle Trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing) by Libba Bray
Genre: fantasy, YA
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Review: Gemma Doyle is the worst kind of unreliable narrator. It's not that she herself is untrustworthy, but that throughout this trilogy, she can't figure out who to trust. As a result, the reader never knows who to trust, or what the rules are for "realms" or for the magic that inhabits them. This is problematic if one agrees (which I do) with the general rule for fantasy writing that the rules for the world that the author has created must be clear and consistent. If neither the reader nor the narrator know the rules or who to trust, the story doesn't hang together very well. At least, it doesn't in this case. Some of the people we initially think are friends become enemies, and then some become friends again, and it is never through actual shifting loyalties, but because Gemma doesn't ask the right questions and rarely takes the time to think things through the reader is never quite sure who's on what side. So although she's the only clearly identified "good guy" in the story, I couldn't help but wish she acted more like the heroine she's supposed to be.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

beyond her years

Looking After Pigeon by Maud Carol Markson
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Judging from the title of this book, Pigeon needs looking after. Unfortunately, although Pigeon is 5 years old when the events of the book take place, far too much of the adult Pigeon who's telling the story creeps in. The result is a somewhat unevenly precocious 5 year old, who hardly seems to need any looking after. Far too often, I found myself saying "there's no way a 5 year old would understand that!" but then saying "if she understood that so easily, why can't she understand this?" Not only did this interfere with my reading of the book, but it made it hard to develop any sympathy for Pigeon.

Monday, May 4, 2009

seeking royalty

Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess by Jerramy Fine
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Review: It must be kind of strange to read a book about how someone organized their entire early life around the idea of meeting and marrying you. But I doubt that Peter Phillips (currently eleventh in line for the British throne) has read this book anyway. And Jerramy Fine has written this book with such grace and humor that if he did read it, he would probably find himself captivated by her adventures rather than embarrassed by being the focus of them.

The one flaw of this book is that the end comes too soon! Once Jerramy is able to find closure on her royal aspirations, we jump straight to her current successful relationship. But how did she find her wonderful boyfriend? I wanted more of the success story after hearing all of the woes.

Overall, though, this was a highly enjoyable and fun read.

Friday, May 1, 2009

predictable and repetitive

Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Jodi Picoult has once again written a book in response to which there are no easy answers. It's a great story, well-told, and both heart-wrenching and thought-provoking in a way that only Picoult can pull off. Unfortunately, it's also more than a little predictable and way too similar to her earlier book, My Sister's Keeper.

Monday, April 27, 2009

good combination

City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, YA
Review: I continue to be impressed with Clare's ability to combine material from other stories into something quite different. She's still borrowing heavily from the Buffy and Star Wars canon, but Clare has brought her trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The background behind Jace and Clary's supposed siblinghood is revealed, and some explanation is given for the startling abilities Clary exhibits in previous books. Although some of the explanations and resolutions are fairly predictable, the process of getting to them is enjoyable.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

shadow people

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: All the characters in this book seem somewhat shadowy and unformed. This may have been intentional, and done as a metaphor for Lilia's inability to connect with people and places throughout her life, but it made it hard for me to feel engaged with the action. I could almost feel why Lilia felt she couldn't stay in one place for very long, but I couldn't quite get a handle on why Christopher became obsessed with her, why Michaela did what she did, or why Eli took it all so hard.

What saved this book from its somewhat lacking characterization was very compelling writing. I was swept through this book from one short chapter to the other. The action moves easily from present to past and among characters to flesh out the story of what happened to Lilia and what its consequences were.

Friday, April 17, 2009

more Catcher than not

King Dork by Frank Portman
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: This is the story of what Holden Caulfield would have been like if he hadn't been kicked out out of school, and had gone to public school in California. Despite his protestations about how much he doesn't get the whole Catcher in the Rye thing, Tom is made very much in Holden's image. Tom has a few things going for him over Holden, though. He is willing to interact with some parts of society, and gives more people than just his younger sister the benefit of the doubt, all of which make him a much more tolerable narrator. The other big difference between this book and Catcher is that in this book there's an actual plot. Said plot ranges all over the place, and includes excessive foreshadowing, but at least it's there.

Monday, April 13, 2009

a lot going on

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Caelum Quirk is not a very sympathetic character. He drinks too much and is generally not very nice to his wife. That's all before his wife survives the Columbine shootings. Unfortunately, his attitude doesn't improve a whole lot afterward. Without giving away too many of the details, it's not until she winds up in jail and he's in the midst of learning about 5 generations worth of family secrets that he starts to act in a more sympathetic manner. It was a bit too late for me, though.

Despite my difficulties with Caelum, I found the book itself to be very readable. Lamb weaves a lot of threads into his story which might have become overwhelming, but in his capable hands everything is resolved very naturally, and with a refreshing lack of pat answers. Lamb might have left a few plot points out of this long book without actually depriving the narrative of anything, but on the whole I was impressed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

interesting take

Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: Thirteen people are included in Hannah's taped narrative of the events leading up to her suicide. The book is told from the perspective of one of the recipients of her message. However, Asher made an interesting choice in writing this book. Rather than writing the book from the perspective of one of the people who arguably drove Hannah to commit suicide, Asher puts the narrative in the hands of Clay, the one person who Hannah says bears no responsibility at all, but is just incidental to her story. But it makes for an interesting meditation on the repercussions of suicide, which typically focus on the guilt of those left behind. But Hannah herself makes it clear that Clay doesn't really have anything to feel guilty about. The depth of his feelings for her are what drive this book; unfortunately, although I did enjoy the book, this isn't quite enough to pull it off.

Monday, April 6, 2009

not so dark

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy
Review: Yes, this book is kind of dark, but I'm not sure why anyone reading a book about a kid being raised by a cemetery full of ghosts would expect otherwise. But Gaiman's characters are more people than ghosts, which helps lighten things up considerably. In particular, Bod, the child in question, is a very engaging character, and since he seemed ok with his circumstances, I found it hard to argue.

My only complaint about this book is that there's too much going on in the background that is clearly significant to the plot, but is never really explained. In fact, the denouement of the story makes little sense because so little is explained. Some of it becomes clear later, but I would have liked to see some of the explanation given as it occurred, rather than just being hinted at a couple of times.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Jews in the Civil War

All Other Nights by Dara Horn
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: Horn is not subtle about making a point about the irony of Jews in the Confederacy during the Civil War. One of the opening scenes is of a Passover seder celebrating the liberation of Jews from bondage in Egypt being served by black slaves. And although I certainly know more now than I did before about Jews in the Civil War, what I really took from this book was just a good, well-told story.

Monday, March 30, 2009

applied inconsistently

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: The premise of this book is that when we die, we go to Elsewhere where we age backwards until we reach babyhood, at which point we are returned to Earth to live another life. It's an interesting idea that is unfortunately applied inconsistently here, to the detriment of the story. In some cases, the aging backward is portrayed as being only physical level, with emotional maturity at least staying constant, if not increasing as the years go on. As the main characters return to young childhood, though, they are portrayed as both looking and acting their "age." This discrepancy wouldn't have bothered me so much except that relative age becomes an issue in the relationships between some of the characters.

Friday, March 27, 2009

lacking motivation

American Rust by Philipp Meyer
Rating: 0.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: We get inside the head of a lot of characters in this book. However, despite spending a lot of time inside their head, we rarely get any insight into their decision-making processes, which is unfortunate, since many of the characters make fairly dramatic decisions in the course of the narrative. Also, most of the characters seem somewhat mentally unstable, which is fine, if they're supposed to be, but I don't think they were. So overall it's just a bunch of unpleasant people running around making life-altering decisions without any apparent reason.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

depressing conscience

Mercury Under My Tongue by Sylvain Trudel
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: When I was a teenager, I was very into depressing books about depressing things. And perhaps if I was still a teenager, I would have liked this book too. But I'm not, and I didn't. Not only is this book horribly depressing (it's about a 17-year old boy in the hospital dying from bone cancer), but it uses one of my least favorite literary techniques: stream of consciousness. He's already come to terms with his own death, so there's not a lot of existential wrangling going on, just imaginary conversations with his family and a few glimpses of life in the hospital. And teenage angsty poetry. If you're interesting in knowing what's going on in the head of this particular fictional dying teenager, this is the book for you. But if you're actually looking for a good book or compelling writing, skip it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

two for the price of one

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Review: I liked this book. Really, I did. The writing is wonderful. But I was a little confused about what kind of book it wanted to be. Was it a mystery? Or the story of Maisie's experiences as a nurse in WWI? Either one would have been great, but to start the mystery and then have an extended flashback to her childhood and experiences leading up to where the book started was, for me, too big a break in the narrative. But I liked each part, so I read on. And both parts finished in an unexpected way, which I couldn't help but like.