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.