Friday, November 7, 2014

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Main character:  Amanda Palmer, musician and performance artist
Location: around the world, though mostly the Boston area
Time period: Contemporary
Genre:  Nonfiction, Memoir, Sociology

Dear Amanda,

You wrote such a personal book that I feel the need to be personal as well.  You have built a devoted following by being so open and generous and trusting--and maybe naive--that your fans respond in kind.  You have suffered a few betrayals, but that has not diminished your trust.  I have a feeling that you are the kind of person that considers everyone who spend some time with your friend.

I was fascinated when you talked about being the Eight-Foot Bride.  (You didn't have to get permission to be a living statue?  Really?  Who knew!)  I like the thought of setting up the limitations for yourself, and then trying to make a connection with individuals within those limitations.  (And my bone and joints ache in sympathy for standing still for such long periods of time..)  It made me think of when I go to a farmer's market or an arts and crafts fair--the stall holder who strikes up a conversation and talks to me--about their product, the weather, my t-shirt, anything--is the one I will buy from, even if it's something I did not intend to buy.  Yes, making a connection makes someone want to return that connection.

If there are degrees of fandom, I would have to say that I am a casual fan of yours.  I have not been to any of your concerts and I'm not familiar with much of your past work, but I enjoy your music videos.  The Bed Song is heartbreaking, and there are segments of Want It Back that I find absolutely terrifying.  But I follow you on tumblr and facebook, and will sometimes click through to read your blog.  When you started referring to certain incidents in your book that I was already familiar with, I started trying to remember when and how I first became aware of you.  I think it was on a Doctor Who special where you were one of several "celebrity Whovians" and I wasn't sure what to make of this person in a lovely white gown, very blue eyeshadow, and high penciled Joan Fontaine/Bette Davis eyebrows.  (I was a little obsessed with your eyebrows for a while--I'm glad you explained them in a footnote.)  I heard about your Kickstarter campaign, but since I wasn't yet familiar with your music I didn't contribute anything.  Sorry.  (However, since I missed out on that, I have contributed to Jason Webley's "Margaret" purely on your recommendation.  Pay it forward.)  Then Neil Gaiman posted a link to the video for Want It Back on his blog, and I was just blown away.  Later I saw a link to The Killing Type.  After that I started seeking out your videos.  Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn is astonishingly creative.  I am amazed at the work it takes to plan and execute something like that. When I listen to The Killing Type and Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic, I am reminded of Tom Lehrer ["and it don't matter if you put a couple of extra syllables into a line."]  This doesn't really relate to anything in your the book, but I wanted to say it.

I was glad to read more fully about your relationship with Anthony--hearing about what he has meant to you for so much of your life made your facebook postings about his health make a little more sense to me.

I am delighted by the thought of you and Neil Gaiman as a couple and am grateful that you shared as much as you did--even though many things were deeply personal and not really any of my business.  I was worried about you two because you spend so much time apart touring and working, but it sounds like you have crafted a friendship/marriage/relationship strong enough and understanding enough to withstand the separations.  For all that your books reads like it just spilled out in a stream of consciousness, the way you crafted the story of the tomato, schedule and banana was lovely.  When you had those items taken to Neil during his signing when he learned his father had died just brought tears to my eyes.

I am so glad that you included the conversation that you had with your mother about her computer programming--that story works on so many levels.  Who among us hasn't as a teenager thoughtlessly flung something hurtful at our mothers?

Obviously this book is a very personal book--for you the author, but also for the reader.  As I read it, it was easy to imagine us sitting in a living room drinking wine and sharing stories about our lives and our beliefs.  Nearly every anecdote resonated with me--not because I shared the same experience but because an experience I had somehow related to it.  If you're ever in my town, I would be honored to lend you a spare bedroom.

Thank you, Amanda.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mary: The Summoning by Hillary Monahan

Main characters:  Teenagers Shauna, Jess, Kitty, and Anna
Location: Solomon's Folly, Massachusetts
Time period: Contemporary
Genre:  YA Fiction, Horror, Supernatural, Ghost Story
Series: Bloody Mary, bk. 1

Jess has become obsessed with the legend of Bloody Mary, and has decided to research the historical Mary. She learns enough to convince (or some might say browbeat) her friends into performing the summoning ritual.  What they don't know is that Jess doesn't just want to play the game for a few scares--she wants to set Mary free.

When Mary is able to reach through the mirror, she claims Shauna by scratching her.  Now she is able to attack Shauna and those with her through any reflective surface--not just mirrors, but bathroom fixtures, shiny picture frames, car windshields and sunglasses.  There is nowhere that she cannot reach.

I'm not necessarily a fan of current horror films--which influence this book a great deal--but there were some things I really liked about this book.  One is the way the author revealed Mary's history through letters that showed how Mary's abuse at the hands of a powerful preacher led to her mental and emotional breakdown and turned her into the vengeful ghost of legend.  This is not a restless spirit who wants to be laid to rest--in life Mary was tormented and bullied and now she wants to make others suffer the way she suffered.  In this, she reminds me of the ghost in Susan Hill's The Woman in Black.  The other thing that caught my imagination is this thought that Mary haunts a victim until she becomes fixated on another.  Once Shauna is marked, she meets Cordelia, the woman who had previously been Mary's victim and only now knows peace.  By visiting Cordelia in her house, Shauna is given a look into what her life will become--a solitary life trapped in a dark house with no light and no reflections.  Cordelia also gives her the awful news that Mary torments her victims by going after those close to them, forcing them to retreat from the comfort of friends and family. 

Shauna is a very nice, empathetic character.  Jess, however, is despicable.  She withholds information from her friends when not outright lying to them.  Her obsession with Mary blinds her to the danger that she puts her them in, and then she is cold-blooded enough to try to trick other girls into performing the ritual in order to save Shauna.  As much as I would hate to have her as a friend, she is a crucial catalyst to the story.  I can't wait to see what will happen to her in the next book.

I read Mary: The Summoning  as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Blackhouse by Peter May

Main character: Fin McLeod, a police detective
Location: Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides
Time period: Contemporary, with flashbacks to Fin's childhood
Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Fin McLeod thinks that he's escaped his childhood home in a isolated village on the Isle of Lewis.  He went to university, and though he didn't finish he did become a cop, got married, had a son.  But now his son is dead and his life is crumbling.  And because a particularly gruesome murder back on the island matches the MO of a case he had been working on, he is sent back to his childhood home to help with the investigation.

An interesting choice by the author is to write the contemporary sections in third person, but the flashbacks to Fin's childhood in the first person.  It took a little while to get used to this, but it does mean that we don't have to depend on chapter titles with time and location listed to know what takes place in the present and what is in the past. (Peter May must know readers like me who don't always pay attention to those headings.)  It also makes sure that we don't have any information that Fin doesn't have--for this murder has more connection to Fin than just a similar MO to a crime he's been investigating.

As the book went along, I was so much wrapped up in Fin's story that I often forgot about the murder that brought him there.  The real mystery was what happened to him.  Was it his experiences with the town bully, the bane of every boy's life and the murder victim? Or the romantic triangle between him, his best friend Artair, and Marsaili?  Or maybe that one time that he joined the traditional guga cull on a small rocky island.  (The guga is a bird that can only be hunted for 2 weeks a year and is considered a particular delicacy.)  Somewhere in his past the seeds were sown that lead us to the present crime.

This is a richly drawn picture of life in a bleak and desolate place and the people who stay there.  The wind, the scent of the sea, the smells of the boats and the guga hunt--reading this was a totally immersive experience.  It drew me in and I did not want to leave.  I highly recommend this book.

I read The Black House  as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

Main characters:  Melanie, a gifted 10-year-old; teacher Miss Helen Justineau; Sergeant Eddie Parks; Dr. Caroline Caldwell;  and Pvt. Gallgher
Location:  England
Time period:  sometime in the not too distant future
Genre:  Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Horror

I quite enjoy stories that take a classic horror monster--in this case, zombies--and plays with the traditional tropes.  One of my favorites of this type of story is Scott Westerfeld's Peeps, which draws a comparison between vampirism and parasites and includes details of some real-world parasites and their effects of their hosts as illustration.

In this book, a fungus has infected most of the population and turned them into canabalistic "hungries."  Certain children though, like Melanie, seem to be unaffected.  While the hungries are brain-dead and mostly immobile unless they scent prey, these children of the hungries seem almost super-normal, with high intelligence, speed, and strength.  A group of them have been captured and taken to a research facility where they are taught a traditional school curriculum but are strapped in wheelchairs or locked in cells for the protection of the scientists, soldiers, and teachers who work at the facility.

When they are overrun by hungries, Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau, lead scientist Dr. Caldwell, Sgt. Parks and Pvt. Gallagher are the only survivors and begin a journey south to try to join up with another facility. 

Though there are some good action scenes, the main thrust of the story is a character study of these five survivors.  We are already primed to like Melanie--it is mostly her POV that we experience for the first part of the book--and we like Miss Justineau because Melanie loves and trusts her.  But Sgt. Parks and Dr. Caldwell start as Melanie's enemies--Dr. Caldwell because she has dissected the children to study them (and is about to dissect Melanie's brain when the hungries attack) and Sgt. Parks because he is the guard who enforces Melanie's captivity.  As they travel together and become more acquainted, Sgt. Parks becomes more sympathetic; he and Melanie never quite trust each other but they do gain a certain amount of respect for each other.  Dr. Caldwell never becomes sympathetic, but she does become more understandable.

It did take me a while to get into this book and I had to re-start a few times before I got acclimated to this new world.  By the time the hungries attacked, I was invested and really enjoyed the journey these five characters took.  I would recommend this to zombie fans who are not averse to re-interpretation of the zombie genre.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I Am the Mission by Allen Zadoff

Main character:  a teenage assassin whose real name is unknown; this time he's going by Daniel
Location: New Hampshire
Time period: contemporary
Genre:  YA Fiction, Action Adventure, Thriller
Series:  The Unknown Assassin
Sequel to: I Am the Weapon

After the events of the previous book, Daniel needs to take a break.  He goes off-grid, hiding in a summer camp.  But even with all his training and precautions, the Program finds him and he is extracted.  Mother and Father are unsure whether or not he is still loyal, so they subject him to a number of tests before being sent on another mission.  (Or is this mission just another loyalty test?)

This time, his target is Eugene Moore, leader of the survivalist Camp Liberty where he is indoctrinating teenagers to perform terroristic acts with an ultimate aim to bring down the government.  Following his regular MO, Daniel will use Moore's own children to get close enough to eliminate his target.  But of course things don't go according to plan; Daniel is cut off from the Program's resources and forced to improvise.  He is able to handle Moore's son, Lee, with little trouble but the daughter, Miranda, is another story.  Daniel's training in the Program apparently did not cover teenage girls and he is totally blindsided by her actions at the climax.

Again, I am reminded of the Alex Ryder series by Anthony Horowitz, but this series is much darker and more violent.  My sympathies are mostly with Daniel, though he does some things in this book that seriously shake those sympathies.  We do learn a little bit more about the Program, and how many other assassins like Daniel there are.  As Daniel becomes more isolated and less sure of who he can trust, he turns to Howard--the high school computer geek that he met in the first book.  I was so happy to see Howard again; he is refreshingly uncomplicated and totally loyal to Daniel.  However, that loyalty also winds up putting him in danger and Daniel is forced to choose between their friendship and Howard's safety.

If Howard is a recurring character that appeals to Daniel's lighter side, fellow assassin Mike is the recurring character of Daniel's nightmares.  Mike was instrumental in recruiting and training Daniel, but what is his true role in the Program?

I will be looking out for the next book in this series.

I read I Am the Mission as an e-galley from NetGallery.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Battle of the Bridges by Frank Van Lunteren

Main characters:  The men of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Location:  Nijmegen, Holland
Time period: World War II, 1944
Genre:  History, Nonfiction, World War II

I do realize that it is strange to say that I have affection for Operation Market Garden, but I do.  When I was a history major in college, I did my senior research paper on the battle of Arnhem which was just one part of the Operation.  I did tons of reading on the battle and even had a Dutch classmate whose parents answered some of my questions in a series of letters.

Operation Market Garden was a huge operation, conceived of by Field Marshall Montgomery, that--if successful--could have allowed the Allies to invade Germany and end the war by Christmas of 1944.  It consisted of 3 parachute zones and a tank corps that tied them all together.  Unfortunately, it was too ambitious and failed at the farthest point--the bridge at Arnhem, which became know as the "bridge too far" of Cornelius Ryan's book.

As I said, my own research paper focused on the battle of Arnhem, so I was interested to read this book with its focus on the 504th regiment of the US 82nd Airborne Division.  This was the middle of the 3 zones and is notable for the daring river crossing that allowed the paratroopers to take the Nijmegen bridge by capturing both ends at once.  I had a broad understanding of this battle, and this book filled in details.  A lot of details.

It is obvious that Van Lunteren did extensive research for this book.  Besides the written record of military reports, there are also the memories of a number of the men who participated in this battle.  In addition to his own interviews, he had access to the interviews that Ryan conducted--information that did not make it in to Ryan's book.  There is even information that shows the German side of the experience.  I found it interesting that some of the stories cited here show the same events from different points of view.  One man may talk about how he witnessed a certain officer perform heroic acts, only to be cut down by enemy gunfire.  Right after would be another man's memory of how he helped to carry that officer back to behind the lines for medical aid.  This helps to tie together what might otherwise be a fragmented narrative.

Even after the supposed end of the Operation--the retreat and escape of the British from Arnhem--these men had to continue to hold their territory they had won.  The battle may have been over and done with in September, but the occupation lingered.  Fortunately, they had a lot of assistance from the Dutch citizens, who housed and fed them, and in some cases formed relationships that lasted for years after.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I do wonder how wide its appeal will be.  I won't be recommending it for my relatively small library.  But I could see it in large public libraries, academic libraries where there is a strong history program, and libraries with a specialized military collection.

I received this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

Main characters:  Marines Pete Donovan and Lester Pleasant, and Iraqui interpreter Dodge
Location: New Orleans and Iraq
Time period:  2006
Genre:  Adult Fiction, War Fiction

Fives and Twenty-Fives follows three men who were brought together by the war in Iraq, focusing not just on their time of service, but afterwards as they struggle to fit back in to civilian life.

Lieutenant Pete Donovan was a college man from Alabama before the war.  As a lieutenant, he seemed easy-going and content to allow his sergeants to handle the day to day running of his command.  Their role was road repair, which sounds a bit boring--filling potholes out in the brutal desert heat--but each pothole could, and often did, hide a bomb or trigger an ambush.  Pete has been awarded a bronze star for heroism, but he is uncomfortable with the label "hero" or even "sir."

Lester "Doc" Pleasant was from Cajun country in Louisiana before joining the Marines and becoming a corpsman, the first to administer aid in case any in his squad are wounded or injury.  He is deeply affected when he is prevented from running out to help a marine that badly wounded in an ambush.  The Lieutenant tells him that the man is already dead, but Doc is convinced that he saw him roll over.  Soon Doc is heading down a spiral of drug abuse which leads to him being discharged from the Marines.

Dodge is the Iraqui interpreter.  Dodge is, obviously, not his real name, which the military hides to protect him and his family from reprisals.  What Dodge does not tell anyone is that his father and his brother are much more likely to be the ones performing reprisals.  He wants to run from Iraq, from his family, and head to Syria, or Jordan, or anywhere there isn't war and he can resume his studies.  After his time with the Marines, he makes his way to Tunisia where he becomes a witness to the birth of the Arab Spring.

The author is a former Marine captain who served in Iraq and there is a strong feeling of authenticity through the book.  While reading it, I was reminded of the great World War II novels of Jim Jones, like From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, or of movies like The Best Years of Their Lives and The Big Red One.  The emphasis is not on the battles but on the men and their relationships.  The structure of the novel--using current events to frame flashbacks--keeps propelling the story forward.  You keep getting hints that something big happened and you have to keep turning the pages to discover what that was.  (I was reading while waiting for a doctor's appointment and actually resented being called in because I wanted to keep reading.)

There is a well-crafted section where Pete is in a group of other officers and trying to have a serious conversation with one person while another man in the background is telling a story.  The way Pitre writes this section lets you clearly follow both conversations.  It's the sort of scene that would be so easy to do in a movie or TV but is very difficult in writing.

Pitre says in his forward that one of the things he wanted to do in this book was to show the suffering of the Iraqui people.  I think one of the saddest sections was where Dodge was talking about how he didn't have friends.  If you have friends, you have people.  And if you have people then there is a weapon that can be used against you.  So he denies himself from forming relations.  But though this is what he might say and what he might believe, he can't help getting entangled with others.

I very much enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly to everyone, even if you don't think you like stories about war.

I received this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander

Main character: 17-year-old Calumny Spinks
Location: London, England
Time period:  Late 1600's
Genre: Historical Fiction

"I was born to a raging Frenchy slugabed mother, sired by a sulking silk-weaver with a battered box of secrets under his floorboards. From her I got my flaming hair, so red that the scabfaced villagers of Salstead spoke of the evil's seed, spitting in the dust for salvation when I walked past. From my father came my sharp tongue, the quick wits to talk above my station, and the shoulders to take the blows that followed."

Everything is stacked against young Calumny Spinks--despised and rejected by the villagers of Salstead for having a foreign mother, seemingly rejected even by his father, Peter, who refuses to enter Calumny's name in the guild book so that he can be apprenticed and possibly make something of his life. Peter refuses to even tell Calumny why. He's almost 17, and already his life is almost over.

Then calamity strikes, and Calumny's mother is killed by the villagers who accuse her of witchcraft. Though it is the last thing he wants to do, Peter takes Calumny to London and finds a home with others in the silk-weaver's guild. London opens a whole world up to Calumny and he soon finds himself in over his head.

This time period, well after the English Civil War and the Restoration of the Monarchy, and after the Great Fire of London, is one that I'm not all that familiar with, and I did have to periodically check Wikipedia to get my bearings. Peter was a fighter in Cromwell's army during the Civil War and his secret--one that makes him fear for his own life and for Calumny's--dates from that time. The strife between the Catholics and the Protestants is still high almost a century after Henry VIII brought the Reformation to England, with power between the two groups shifting back and forth. Peter is a staunch anti-Papist, as are many of the guild members, and chafes under the rule of a Catholic king. Religion is not the only reason to oppose the king--there are also reasons of commerce and trade. Since Calumny cannot be apprenticed as a weaver, he becomes entangled with people trying to build a coffee trade, and who therefore are seeking to overthrow King James in favor of William of Orange.

All of this scheming and politicking is complicated when read in a history book, but seen narrowly through the eyes of Calumny (who is, by the way, a very lusty young man) it flows in a way that makes sense. Everything is new to him, and he is not one to examine the morality of what he is told to do. All he wants is to become a man of position, to be called "Mister" or "Master," and so he does what he's told and adds a bit of scheming of his own.

With a vividly depicted backdrop that manages to encompass the beauty and the ugliness of its time period, I would recommend The Bitter Trade to fans of unromanticized, unsanitized historical fiction.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

Main character: 17-year-old Lia, First Daughter of the house of Morrighan
Location: Morrighan and neighboring lands
Time period: Fantasy Middle Ages
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy

Lia is being prepared for her wedding--a wedding she does not want to a man she has never met or even seen. The arranged marriage between her and the Prince of Dalbeck will bring peace to their two countries, but Lia sees the relationship between her parents, whose own marriage was an arranged, political one, and she knows that she could not bear that.  So, with the help of her maid, Pauline, she escapes the palace and, disguised as a commoner, heads to a town far enough away that no one will recognize her.  There she cheerfully gets a job as a  barmaid and for the first time in her life feels free.

Not too long after her arrival, two young men come into the inn where Lia is working.  What we, readers, know that Lia does not is that one of them is the jilted prince of Dalbeck, come to retireve the princess to restore his country's honor.  The other is an assassin from Venda, tasked with killing the princess to destroy any chance of peace between Morrighan and Dalbeck.  But even we do not know which one is which.

This is a very cleverly written novel with a trio of likeable characters at its core--yes, even the assassin.  In many ways, it reminded me of The False Prince trilogy by Jennifer Nieman. Though Lia has a power--a type of foresight--there is not a lot of magic in this fantasy (though that may change in the upcoming books), and there is a similar theme of young people being used as playing pieces in a political game.

The Kiss of Deception also has its share of romance, as Lia finds herself attracted to both men, and they certainly seem to be competing for her attention. The inevitable revelation of all the hidden identities is almost a disappointment, but it does shift the tone of the book from a pastoral interlude to an action cliffhanger (this is the first of a series, after all.)  I quite enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the future volumes.

I read The Kiss of Deception as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Outshine by Nola Decker

Main characters:  Gabe, who is allergic to lies, and Jessa, whose entire life is a lie
Location:  Galtonville, a college town
Time period:  Conteporary, or possibly near future
Genre: YA Fiction, Science Fiction, Bio-engineering Speculative Fiction

When he is told that his younger brother has disappeared, Gabe is relieved and hopes that his brother never comes back.  Though Gabe is the older by two years, Watts is an aggressive alpha male and has made Gabe's life a torment.  But Gabe's mother is devastated by Watts' absence.

When she hears that Watts has disappeared, Jessa is disappointed since now all her planning to get Watts to take her to the Valentine's Day dance is now worthless.

Sounds like a typical teen angst style YA novel, doesn't it?  But both Gabe and Jessa have super human powers that they have kept secret for years.  Gabe is literally allergic to lies--when someone lies to him, he gets a migraine and a rusty taste in his mouth, and he can hear the truth in the liar's mind.  This does not mean that he can read minds generally--only when someone lies.  As you might imagine, just being in high school bombards him with lies all day long.

Jessa has incredible strength.  She has to be careful when she opens a door that she doesn't destroy the doorknob.  When she hugs her friends she has to hold back so she doesn't break bones.  She has never even kissed a boy because she's afraid of what might happen if she loses control.

Reluctantly, Gabe agrees to help Jessa look for Watts, and they eventually uncover a secret genetic experiment begun by Deacon, a mad man trying to create an army of superior humans.  Gabe is a Spotter, part of an attempt to create human lie detectors that is considered a failure since the Spotters are also compulsive about telling the truth.  Jessa is a Nuke, genetically manipulated before birth and enhanced with nanobots after.  It's not too much of a surprise to discover that Watts is also a Nuke, and that he and Jessa are meant to mate and create the next generation of Nukes.  The Spotters, however, are to be exterminated.

On the run from Deacon and his henchmen, Jessa and Gabe soon learn that they can trust no one but each other.  But as they become more comfortable with each other, an attraction begins to build.  They influence and change each other, as Jessa becomes a bit kinder and gentler, and Gabe begins to stand up for himself and for her.

I found this a very intriguing and exciting novel--it was very hard to put it down, especially once we began to learn about Jessa and Gabe's origins and how far-reaching the conspiracy goes.  I did feel that the ending was a bit abrupt, and a solution was a little too pat.  Still, it did not ruin my enjoyment of the book as a whole.  As far as I can tell, this is a stand-alone novel, but I would welcome a sequel to see what happens next.

I read Outshine as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Inspector Hobbes and the Curse by Wilkie Martin

Main character:  Andy Caplet, a 30-something out of work journalist; Inspector Hobbes, unhuman policeman 
Location:  Sorenchester, a small village in England 
Time period:  contemporary 
Genre:  Humorous supernatural British cozy mystery 

What a mash-up this is! A British cozy mystery with a supernatural element and a lot of word play.  I found it delightful, but I'll admit it won't necessarily appeal to every taste. 

From the beginning, there is a definite call-back to the Sherlock Holmes template.  You have your all-knowing yet unknowable detective, the biographer side-kick, and the incomparable housekeeper.  In this case, the detective in Inspector Hobbes, a large man who is an excellent Inspector, incredibly long-lived (he fought in the First World War) and definitely unhuman, though we don't know exactly what he is.  We do know that he's not a werewolf, however.  The sidekick is Andy Caplet, a 30-something out-of-work journalist who was has been welcomed into Hobbes' household.  Andy is terribly klutzy, socially awkward, and not always very sure of Hobbes.  But he's got a good heart.  And in the Mrs. Hudson role, we have Mrs. Goodfellow--an excellent cook who teaches karate and collects teeth as a hobby. 

I missed the first book in this series, so I don't know if we learned anything more about Hobbes there.  I suspect that there will be slow hints parceled out over the entire series, however long it lasts. 

The peaceful village of Sorenchester is being threatened.  The wealthy London businessman Felix King has his eye on certain properties and he doesn't take no for an answer.  At the same time, people begin reporting two large cats--panthers, maybe--attacking livestock on the edges of town.  The mystery is not that challenging, but this is the kind of mystery book where the mystery is not the most important thing--the characters and the humor is.  

I quite enjoyed Inspector Hobbes and the Curse; it was just what I was in the mood for at the time.  I read it as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Annaliese Carr: How I Conquered Lake Ontario to Help Kids Battling Cancer by Annaliese Carr as told to Deborah Ellis

Main character: Annaleise Carr, a 14-year-old swimmer
Location: Lake Ontario, Canada
Time period:  August 2012
Genre:  Juvenile Nonfiction, Inspirational Story

On August 18, 2012, Annaleise Carr became the youngest person to swim across Lake Ontario.  Even better than her achievement is the story of why she undertook the challenge.

Annaliese is an avid swimmer who belonged to both a pool swimming club and an open-water swimming club.  Every year, her open-water swimming club put together a 10K swim on Lake Erie as a fundraiser.  One year, a teammate suggested they raise money for Camp Trillium, a camp for kids who have been diagnosed with cancer.  When they visited the camp, Annaliese was so impressed with it that she wanted to volunteer.  Unfortunately, she was told that the minimum age for volunteering there was 18.  Not wanting to wait years before she could help out, she came up with the idea of swimming across Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, to raise money for the camp. Her family was supportive of the idea, and she got to work.

Annaliese had to find a trainer, and discovered that there was a governing body who controlled these long distance lake swims.  There were many rules to follow and a hefty registration fee, but Annaliese wanted to do this right.  Of course since the reason for the swim was to raise money for Camp Trillium, she had to overcome her natural shyness and start asking companies to help sponsor her.  Eventually, she began to get noticed by the media who publicized her cause.  She hoped to raise $30,000 for the camp.  By the time she was through, she had raised $90,000.

There were a number of things I liked about this book.  Even though written with a professional co-writer, Annaliese's voice shines through.  She is a smart, good-hearted teen with a great family.  She acknowledges that she did not go through this alone--even when she was alone in the water she was surrounded by family, friends, and well-wishers. She meets some of the families whose kids went to Camp Trillium and realizes that they, too, were not alone--they had the support of their families and health care workers.  These kids never gave up, and that gives her the spur to not give up.  She admits that she was scared, she was tired, and at points had doubts, but she could not let everyone down.

This is not a long book.  It tells her story very simply without a lot of embellishment.  And yet I became unexpectedly emotional when she made it across and was greeted by her sister.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Then and Always by Dani Atlins

Main character:  20-something year old Rachel
Location:  London and Great Bishopsford, England
Time period:  Contemporary
Genre:  Fiction, Romance, Fantasy

The day before heading off to university, a group of friends meet for dinner. There's  Rachel, her boyfriend Matt, and her two best friends, Sarah and Jimmy, among others.  As they are enjoying themselves, a car goes out of control and careens into the restaurant.  Rachel is trapped between the table and the wall and will surely be killed, but Jimmy wrenches her free and saves her life--at the cost of his own. 

Five years later, Rachel is a virtual recluse, the scar on her face echoing the one in her soul.  Only Sarah's wedding has brought her back to her hometown.  The rehearsal dinner is stressful, and Rachel leaves early because of a painful headache.  Seeking solitude, she visits the Jimmy's grave where her headache becomes so intense that she collapses in the road just outside the cemetery. 

Or maybe she was mugged on her way to the wedding--when she wakes up in the hospital, she finds that everyone else remembers the last five years differently.  For one thing, Jimmy isn't dead, and she didn't break up with Matt after the ill-fated dinner.  In fact, she and Matt are engaged to be married, and they believe that she was mugged for her engagement ring--which is no longer on her hand.   

This is the kind of romance novel that is really about so much more than romance.  It is about relationships and regrets and what ifs.  Rachel is close to her father--it has been only the two of them since her mother died--and she worries about his health since he was diagnosed with cancer.  Unless he's really in remission.  Her friendship with Sarah is close enough to bring Rachel out of her self-imposed seclusion.  Or to finally take a break from her high-powered journalism job in London.  These two lives can be very confusing.  Is it only relief that Jimmy is not dead that leads her to spend so much time with him? Or is there some deeply buried ambivalence about her upcoming marriage to Matt? 

The mystery of Rachel's memory, and of her two pasts, is not cleared up until the very end but there are clues as to what is happening.  The ending, then, doesn't come as a shock to the reader but instead is very sweet and moving and perfectly lovely.   

I read Then and Always as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Main characters:  Tris and Tobias
Location: Chicago and surrounding area
Time period:  sometime in the future
Genre: YA Fiction, Dystopian Fantasy
Series: Divergent trilogy, Vol. 3

Back when I was a YA librarian, I snatched up and read the first two books in this series, Divergent and Insurgent, as fast as they came out.  This one wasn't published until after I changed jobs, so I am coming late to the party in reading it.  I'm also coming to it with the ending already spoiled for me. Did that affect my enjoyment of it? I honestly don't know.

I did have a harder time getting into this volume to begin with.  Jeanine, the Erudite villain of the first two books, has been defeated and the faction system is teetering.  The factionless, the group of unwanted people who always reminded me of India's untouchables, have finally decided to throw off their shackles, so to speak, and try to take some power for themselves.  They are led by Evelyn, Tobias' mother who abandoned him when he was a child.

At first, the conflict seems to be the one between the factionless and the Allegiant--the remnants of the remaining factions brought together in a common purpose at last.  But then there is also the Edith Prior video, with the enticing hint of others living outside of Chicago.  Tris wants to go outside, following the directions left by her previously unknown ancestor.  Tobias (I still want to call him Four) is torn by the desire to stay with his mother.  But Caleb's life is in danger because of his association with Jeanine and, despite his betrayal, Tris wants to help him.  So they escape to the outside and discover the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, housed in what used to be Chicago's O'Hare airport.  There they learn that they have been unwitting parts of a massive genetic experiment.

The previous books had such sharp focus that this one seemed to me to be a little diffuse, and that made it hard for me to get into it.  A new location and a new collection of characters have to be dealt with and there was a lot of exposition before we find that we have to fight the same fight yet again.  Tris and Tobias are both distracted by unexpected revelations--Tris learns that her mother came from here, from the Bureau, and was inserted into Chicago before her Choosing Day and continued to send reports back to the Bureau, and Tobias is shattered to learn that he is not really Divergent.

I was a little surprised at how hard Tobias took the news that he was, in the parlance of the Bureau, genetically damaged.  Then I remembered that he had spent his childhood abused, both physically and mentally, by his father.  (Marcus' abuse of Tobias and Evelyn also colors her motives in leading the factionless back in Chicago.)  Joining Dauntless was his first act of defiance against Marcus and he had slowly built up an independent and strong life, but he never quite shook the belief that he was not good enough--and now his genes seem to be confirming that.

The book finally picks up in the latter part when Tris and Tobias learn that the Bureau, believing that the experiment in Chicago has failed, is going to reset it--by erasing everyone's memory.  Finally the focus sharpens again as they come up with a plan to save their family members back home, but to do it in a way that avoids a violent revolt.

It's always difficult to end a series, especially when it has built an enthusiastic fanbase.  Expectations are riding high and how a reader wants it to end may not match the author's vision.  I heard a lot of reaction from people who did not like the ending of Allegiant, but I did.  The groundwork was laid out so that it wasn't a complete surprise (but I had been spoiled ahead of time so that also reduced the shock), and I think it showed how both Tris and Tobias had grown and developed through the series.

I checked out Allegiant from my library collection.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexander by Helen Rappaport

Main characters: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov
Time period: Late 19th, early 20th century
Location: Imperial Russia
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography

The story of the family of Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, is well known - the opulent lifestyle, the personal heartbreak of the son and heir's illness, the influence of the mad monk Rasputin, the revolution that resulted in the abdication, the imprisonment, and finally the shocking murder.  And always in the background are the four pretty girls in their pretty white dresses.

In The Romanov Sisters, author Helen Raapaport brings those four girls--Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia--to the foreground.  She paints a picture of a loving, closely knit family that was also very sheltered from the outside world.  Partly because of their mother's crippling shyness--a trait shared by Olga--the girls do not mingle with outsiders.  Their closest friendships beyond the immediate family are with members of the household and the sailors that man the imperial yacht.

Because of the events happening while I was reading this, I found the description of their summer vacations in the Crimea very moving.  They loved going to this beautiful land well removed from court and official duties.

I did find the center section of the book lagging a bit, with so much attention being paid to Alexei's hemophilia and Alexandra's growing dependence on Rasputin as the only person who could relieve her son's pain.  Fortunately, Rappaport avoids sensationalizing Rasputin.  As she does through the whole book, she depends on her extensive research of surviving letters, diaries and memoirs.  There were plenty of people who disapproved of Rasputin and his dissolute ways, while others, closer to Alexandra, swore by his healing abilities.

Once Would War I begins, the focus shifts back to the sisters and their contributions to the war effort.  Olga and Tatiana found their own hospital and are trained to nurse the wounded--and sometimes developing close (too close?) relationships with their patients.  Maria and Anastasia also have their own hospital; though they are too young to be nurses, they do spend a lot of time visiting and playing games with their charges.

Following the Revolution, the family is forced to leave their home and sent first to Tobolsk and then to their final home in Ekaterinburg.  Their household shrinks as does their living space, but they are together after the long separations the war caused.  The girls try to be cheerful and make the best of things, not wanting to add to their parents' worry.

Rappaport does not dwell on the murder, but in a fascinating epilogue, she follows what happened to members of the Romanov household--many of whom also fell victim to the revolutionary forces.

Rappaport has done a great deal of research, as the footnotes and bibliography attest.  Her use of personal diaries and letters makes the scenes where Alexandra burns her own letters and journals--how much more could we could have known if she hadn't felt the need to do that.

The e-ARC that I read did not include the index or illustrations--I am looking forward to the published book to come out so I can see the illustrations--but it did include a helpful glossary of names.  I read The Romanov Sisters as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

I Am the Weapon by Allen Zadoff

Main character:  16-year-old Ben (or is it Zach?)
Location: Manhattan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre:  YA Fiction, Thriller, Action/Adventure

Ben is a trained killer, an assassin.  His age is his advantage--who would suspect a teenager?  When he is assigned a target, he gets to the target through a son or a daughter (preferably a son--girls are difficult to predict), infiltrating the school, spending months becoming close enough to the family to strike.  His preferred weapon is a pen that delivers a toxin that mimics a heart attack. Assignment done, he slips away, to emerge in another place with another name, enrolling in another school to befriend another child of a powerful, possibly traitorous man.

Now Ben is given a new assignment, but this one is very different.  He doesn't have months, he has five days to get close to the daughter of the mayor of New York so he can kill her father.  Trouble is, he likes her.  And he likes her dad.  When he misses two perfect opportunities, his handlers have to ask--is Ben losing his touch?  Can he still be trusted to complete his job?

In a lot of ways this book, the first of a series, reminded me of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Ryder books.  Those, of course, were based on the James Bond series, and Alex knew that what he was doing was in service of his country and rarely was his assignment specifically to kill someone.  Ben has been trained to kill, though he, too, thinks that he is serving his country.  He is told that his targets are either about to betray the United States or through their actions cause harm to the U.S.

Throughout this assignment, Ben is reminded of his own father and his own grief on learning of his father's "questionable loyalties" and subsequent death.  The organization became his new family, with his handlers being referred to as Mother and Dad.  But is what he remembers really the truth, or part of the indoctrination he was put through?

I really enjoyed this book.  On one level there is all the clandestine details--the drop points, the coded messages on the smart phone.  On another level is using Ben's memories to fill in his history.  Then there is Ben himself who is likeable (for a killer.)  He is not a cold-blooded killing machine, but a smart, introspective kid.  It's easy to see how both the mayor's daughter and her best friend are attracted to him.  Okay, there are times when I question whether a teenager, or an adult for that matter, can think as fast, move as fast, or fight as hard, as Ben does, but that's what makes a thriller a nice piece of escapism.   

I read I Am the Weapon as a e-ARC from Net Galley.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn

Main character: 17 year old Marni
Location: unnamed fairytale land
Time period: Medieval-ish
Genre: YA fiction, fantasy

Marni, the flower girl, lives with her Gramps at the edge of the forest.  People from the village and lords and ladies from the castle come to buy their flowers and visit with Gramps, but Marni does not feel a part of either group.  There is something in the forest that calls to her, especially a pretty lady with glowing eyes who teaches Marni to knit magic with pine needles.  But Marni never goes too far into the forest and she always stays close to her home, her garden, and her Gramps.

Every once in a while, the forest will call to other girls who walk in and are never seen again.  Marni’s mother was one of these girls, but she was the only one to come back out—with a baby.  But Marni’s mother was the daughter of the king and the king’s son is enraged at what he sees as his sister’s betrayal.  He chases her to the ends of the kingdom and kills her, crippling his father when he tries to protect her.  He would have killed Marni as well, but the king promises to give up his throne and raise her apart from the court.

This is pure fairy tale.  It’s not a retelling or re-imagining of a familiar tale, or a fractured tale, or a mash-up of fairy tale characters.  Instead, it’s more like Gail Carson Levine’s original fairy tales, such as Ever or Fairest.  It is so steeped in fairy tale traditions that it feels real.  That can set up expectations in the reader--when Marni winds up at the castle, her uncle’s wife, the queen, welcomes her.  I was expecting a stepmother variation and worried that the queen’s welcoming words hid a darker purpose, but no.  She is perfectly sincere in offering friendship to Marni.

I also really enjoyed that when faced with a choice--go into the forest and become a wild creature or marry Lord Edgar who can protect her from the king--Marni chooses her own path.  

I read A Creature of Moonlight as an e-ARC from Net Galley.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt

Main character: High school freshman Nell Golden
Location: San Francisco
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA fiction, Relationships, Sisters

Nell Golden is so excited to be going into high school where her older sister is already the star of the soccer team.  Nell and Layla have always been close, and the last two years of going to separate schools has been hard on Nell.  Now finally, the sisters will be back together and life will be back to normal--except, of course, that it won't.

There is an ominous tone throughout this book, a feeling that things are not going well and will not end well.  Layla is sometimes distant, not talking to Nell and not wanting to do things with her.  When Nell finds out why, she feels compelled to keep Layla's secret from her parents, to keep the peace, just as she has always done.

It doesn't help that Nell sometimes refers to the Creed bothers, family friends who were as close as Nell and Layla were--until one brother died in an accident (possibly because of drugs) and the other commits suicide because he cannot live without his brother.  Nell even has imaginary conversations with the Creeds.  I was really dreading a very tragic end. 

The book is written as if from Nell to Layla, putting the reader in the position of Layla but without knowing everything that Layla does.  (Is this a long letter to a dead sister, perhaps?)  This choice does really draw the reader in and makes this a hard book to put down.

Layla isn't the only one with a secret.  Nell develops a crush on a good-looking junior boy, Sam.  She even tries out for the school play to get close to him.  When Layla tries to warn Nell about him--that he has a cruelness about him--the sisters' relationship has already been damaged to the point that Nell ignores her.  There is a discretely written scene that takes place at the closing night party, when Nell learns that Layla was right about Sam's cruelness.  (The scene is so discrete that it is open to interpretation--when Nell denies the rumors that Sam himself starts, I was surprised.  Is she telling the truth? Or has she turned into a unreliable narrator?)

I did like this book, though I recognize it may not be to everyone's taste.  It does not have a lot of action, but it is an in-depth look at families, sisterhood, and all the different ways of love.  Though one cannot say that it has a happy ending, it certainly is a better one that I had foreseen.

I read this as an advanced ebook from NetGalley.  We Are the Goldens is scheduled to be published on May 27, 2014.