Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading: November 13, 2013

Lately, I’ve been more apt to binge watch television shows than read. This doesn’t mean that I don’t still love to read, I do, it just means that I have been lazy, and also a little obsessive compulsive when it comes to American Horror Story and, surprisingly Modern Family (can’t get enough of either right now). That being said, on October 22nd I did take the time to dive right into Allegiant, Veronica Roth’s conclusion to the Divergent trilogy, and I was able to finish and start a couple of other novels as well. So here goes nothing.

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Where to start with this one? I’ve let my thoughts on this gestate for the last few weeks. All the reviews on this one are out, so my thoughts as any type of reviewer are irrelevant, therefore I’m writing this purely as a fan. Back in 2011 I wrote a piece entitled “Dystopic Tellings” in which I took a moment to put the spotlight on a debut book called Divergent. This was one of those books I read long before it was released to the public, and loved immediately and whole-heartedly. I called it a glittering debut with a whopper of an ending. It was love at first read. One year later I wrote about its sequel Insurgent; calling it a brilliant sequel, a must read, guaranteed to keep you glued to the page. Suffice it to say I was very eager (even more so with the movie coming out in 2014) to voyage back into this world and learn the fates of the characters I had so grown to love. I also just wanted to know how this journey, started in Divergent, would end and so began my wrestling match with Allegiant.

There is no other way to say this, so I’ll just put it out there; I was very disappointed. I refuse to spoil the ending, it’s not fair for people who have yet to read it and develop their own opinions, but this book was a mess, particularly the conclusion. Characters die off in unworthy ways, after having survived ludicrous odds—we are talking surviving something guaranteed to kill—only to be put out Jesse James style; or making it through the war only to die by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, I understand that this is what happens in “real life”, but to do it so callously with characters your audience cares about doesn’t make a statement, it just frustrates your readers. There is no grief when your reader truly doesn’t believe the words on the page. I certainly didn’t believe what I read. Even after finishing the book, I went back to make sure I read it right and then just sat on my couch mystified by the slap hazard treatment. I’m not one to balk at characters being killed off, it can actually make for a stronger piece of work (Breaking Bad, great finale), but when the events are scattered, and the plot line becomes irrelevant and maudlin, the work isn’t stronger; it’s just trying too hard to be something it is not. A lot of people hate Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games finale Mockingjay, I happen to love it; because it feels real, deaths matter, they aren’t just devices. In Allegiant, it’s just maddening—not in a good and thought-provoking way, but in a “why did I spend three years on this series” and “do I really want to see the movie now” sort of way. It’s just not respectable. How I long for a series that is capable of beginning and ending a truly captivating story—unfortunately he Divergent trilogy is not it. If you haven’t yet read it, stay away for this trilogy, it is just not worth the poorly crafted finale. And as a fan, that statement just depresses me.

The Quick by Lauren Owen (releases June 17, 2014)
This debut starts out very well; with a pair of siblings living on an out of the way country estate in 19th century England. Their mother is dead, and their father, a man of mystery who has not been present in their lives is dying of something horrible. Add in a priest’s hole, secretive servants, a vividly gothic background, and good writing and you have all the makings of an excellent novel. Unfortunately, for the reader, the novel jumps ahead to the 1890’s, following the weaker of the two sibling characters, younger brother James (by far the least interesting of the two—he’s actually insipidly annoying) as he slogs through London, as a wannabe writer, and I mean slogs! The next hundred or so pages are boring, unexpectedly outrageous, and might I say a bit generic? I actually put the book down at this point in the text for a couple of months because I was so disappointed, and so irritated that a book with such a promising start could jump so far off track. I did pick it up again after being promised by a rep for the publisher that the book does pick-up—adding a supernatural track and veering in favor of the much more interesting Charlotte, older sister to James. Yes, the book did pick-up. Yes, the supernatural flavor added a spark of interest. No, it didn’t make the book better. Instead it made its flaws—edits that should have been made, underdeveloped characters, a rapidly thinning plotline—all the more noticeable. If the author, who is clearly a good writer, could have followed the first part of her book more closely, but as an alternative, fleshed out Charlotte more, and focused a little bit on their family background, and then blended that into the plot involving the supernatural, this would have been a really good book. Instead, it meanders, slogs, and bounces far too much to be more than a mediocre attempt at another **SPOILER**vampire story.

Citadel by Kate Mosse (releases March 18, 2014)
So as not to end on a negative note, I want to mention one more book that has captured my attention, and that is Kate Mosse’s Citadel. I really enjoyed her book Labyrinth, a book that combined epic storytelling with a touch of fantasy, without it becoming an actual fantasy genre novel. Now, with Citadel, Mosse takes the very real occupation of France, and the atrocities suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s and Vichy during World War II, and adds a touch of religious mysticism to create a thoroughly engrossing novel that follows the efforts of a group of men and women in the French resistance. This is a really great book. It’s one of those novels that make you shudder at the very real crimes against humanity that took place during this time, but also has adventure, spying, politics, and scenes that would have fit right in with the Indiana Jones flick Raiders of the Lost Ark. I am really appreciating this one, and think it will have legs across a few different genres including women’s fiction, historical fiction, WWII, and fantasy. It’s a good blend of Ken Follett, Dan Brown, Katherine Neville, and Diana Gabaldon—a wonderful blend for a variety of readers.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

What’s I’ve (been) Reading: October 11, 2013

 Get ready for 2014—I sure am, and just to prove it, I’ve spent my time delving through the pages of winter and spring 2014 book releases. Yes, reading a book not released until April of 2014 might not be the best pastime in October of 2013—there are certainly enough good books out right now, but call me forward thinking, because that is exactly what I have been doing. So as not to completely lose the 2013 reads, I’ve also thrown in a couple of current releases, giving my two cents on their worthiness and readability.

Nil by Lynne Matson (releases March 4, 2014)
On the island of Nil the rules are clear: you have 365 to escape, if you don’t, you die. When Charley Nil provides a refreshing science fiction plot. Unfortunately, despite the appealing concept, the story goes a bit flat in places, and the ending is a little too contrived. An adequate read, Nil provides a nice break from vampires and dystopian futures, but doesn’t quite come up to snuff.
disappears from a parking lot only to awaken naked, on a mysterious and decidedly dangerous island, the only thing she knows for sure is that survival means everything. When she comes across Thad, and a group of other teens; all magically transported to Nil, she learns that her stay on the island has a time limit; find a way back in a year, or die trying. This was an interesting premise and a nice departure from the loads of dystopian teen fiction crowding the shelves. Full of adventure, romance, a unique depiction of teen angst,

The Lost Sun: Book 1 of United States of Asgard by Tessa Gratton (out now)
What if the Norse Gods were real? What if those same Norse Gods were an active part of society with their own followers and fan bases? In this alternative history, America doesn’t exist; instead it is the United States of Asgard, where Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya, and all the other well-known figures from Norse Mythology are very real, and very important. Within this country is Soren Bearskin, a berserker hiding from his heritage and Astrid Glyn, daughter of a famous seer with her own crosses to bear. When Balder, the beloved son of Odin disappears, Astrid and Soren must team up to find him before panic can overtake their country.

I love mythology, and the integration of Norse gods into this alternative USA society was very well done. It made me want to revisit my old high school myth books (Marvel has rotted my brain, so I can only remember their versions of the stories). I’ll be curious to see how the rest of the series pans out, based on the fairly tidy (in myth story terms) ending of The Lost Son. I think that in general they can only get better. At this point author Gratton has painted a decent, if not fantastic portrait of this world; hopefully she takes a bit more time to flesh out the details, it will certainly add an extra layer to her storytelling, and benefit the books greatly. If the author is able to more fully develop her world (the books are really dependent on that), and move beyond some of the obvious plot contrivances, she could have a fun and unique series on her hand. It will take the next book The Strange Maid: Book 2 of United States of Asgard (out June 2014) for me to make a firm decision on whether to stick with this series of not.

In the Blood by Lisa Unger (releases January 7, 2014)
Lisa Unger returns to The Hollows (Fragile and Darkness, My Old Friend) in her latest psychological thriller In the Blood. I was a really big Unger fan after her Beautiful Lies books, and subsequent suspense novels Black Out and Die for You. Her stories are just the right amount of twisted to make you hang on and enjoy the ride. I also like her forays into The Hollows, primarily because I enjoy the familiarity of murder/mystery series, but for me, they have been some of her weaker narratives. The same could be said about In the Blood. A story that follows college student Lana Granger, a girl with a dark past and a string of lies that make up her present. When her best friend disappears she is soon drawn into a game of cat and mouse, where the awful truth of her life just might be her ending. There is a major twist in this book—one that did not take me by surprise, and ultimately worked against the book. It’s too much of a plot devise and is a little too unbelievable—especially for a first person narrative. In all, it’s not a bad book; it’s still riveting in its own way, but just not up to par with her standalones.

The Intern's Handbook by Shane Kuhn (releases April 8, 2014)
Fans of Max Barry and Christopher Moore will love this brilliant satirical suspense. Told as though it were an actual handbook for would be assassins The Intern’s Handbook follows the last mission, of uber-assassin John Lago as he lays out the laws of the land (and his corrupt agency HR, Inc.) for interning. Granted in this world interns are assassins—the perfect killers really, because who pays attention to the intern—no one. Witty, with plenty of action The Intern’s Handbook is a remarkably fun and entertaining read.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield (releases November 5, 2013)
Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale was a gothic suspense filled with tension, mystery, and strangeness. It was an intriguing story that stayed on the bestsellers list for some time. Now, after seven years Setterfield is back with her sophomore effort Bellman and Black. Billed as a ghost story, Bellman and Black follows the triumphant life of William Bellman after he kills a rook with a slingshot as a young boy. Blessed with good looks, intelligence, and a general likeability, William excels in life, until a set of tragedies lures him into a new and unusually dark pact. I don’t want to give away the twist, but if you are at all a comprehensive reader you will guess it rather quickly. This book was a big disappointment. The writing is very good, but the plot is very bland. It is not a ghost story, rather a gothic life story that tries to pull in the supernatural, but doesn’t quite succeed. I so wanted to love it. I did enjoy the story initially, but after I was about three quarters of the way through, I realized exactly where the narrative was going, and was letdown by the lack of originality. Setterfield is a wonderful prose writer. Her words flow effortlessly, with obvious talent, but Bellman and Black just didn’t have the brilliance of plot manipulation that was displayed in The Thirteenth Tale. Some may enjoy this, but it won’t reach any of the peaks as her debut.

The Innocent Sleep by Karen Gillece (releases February 18, 2014)
This book was just plain bad. Manufactured plot, unlikeable characters, a predictability that exceeded ridiculous—The Innocent Sleep was all of these things and more. There was no real suspense, although it claims to be a part of that genre, and the contrived, pseudointellectual characters are neither intelligent nor interesting. A bad book and a waste of my time.

Balthazar by Claudia Gray (out now)
Gray’s Evernight series started off great, but progressively lost its steam as it went on. Fans will enjoy this spin-off, featuring the beloved character, tortured vampire Balthazar, but newcomers to the Evernight world will be slightly confused, and not very enthusiastic. This is primarily a book for fans, one that will delight them, but not bowl them over.

The Clockwork Scarab by Coleen Gleason (out now)
The Clockwork Scarab is a great alternative history (steam punk) novel for teens. Following Mina Holmes (niece of Sherlock) and Evaline Stoker (sister of Bram), The Clockwork Scarab traverses all over a steam punk Victorian England as the two girls team up under the remarkable Irene Adler to solve a series of murders. Time travel, alternate history, deduction, Egyptian mythology and vampire hunters are all jam packed into this smart and highly entertaining new novel. This one is going to be a series that I will happily follow. Good for fans of mystery (female driven), I would whole heartedly recommend this. Also, for fans of Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes, look for some decided similarities in some of the plot points, just enough to give you a little fun if you’ve seen the movie (I can only imagine the author drew something from it, but if not, it’s still fun).

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Rosie Project

Genetics professor Don Tillman is a remarkable man. He’s a master martial artist, wonderful cook, an associate professor at a prestigious university, and can literally accomplish anything he programs his mind to do. So, when this paper perfect man sets out to find the perfect wife, success is inevitable—right? The thing about Don is, that well, he’s a bit different. He lives according to a rigid schedule, has a brain like a computer, and doesn’t quite see the world like the rest of us do. In fact, though it’s never outright stated, Don most likely has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. So when Don, a man who thinks a computer survey, aka The Wife Project, can produce for him the perfect match, things are bound to go a bit awry, especially when you throw in a girl like Rosie. Rosie is everything Don is not looking for—she smokes, is a vegetarian, arrives late, and completely throws out Don’s schedules. She upheaves his entire life, drawing him into a search for her biological father using genetic testing, and showing him things he’s never taken the time to process before. In short, Rosie is nothing that Don wants, but everything he needs. Thus begins The Rosie Project.

I love an unreliable narrator, and Don is just that. Don truly doesn’t realize his own syndrome, he sees the world is such a different way—everything is black or white, fact oriented, very ‘face-value”— that his observations of the world and people around him are so far-off, so oddly naïve, that his reliability as a narrator is not there. On the flip-side, as a reader, we see the things that Don is oblivious of—social cues, sexual advances, friendship—and it is those misreads that make Don loveable and really quite fascinating. Don’s relationship with the spontaneous and emotional Rosie is a joy to read about. In some ways it’s like reading two books at once. We have Don’s story, as told by him, and then we have the story that Don doesn’t see, the world beyond Don’s social comprehensions. Author Graeme Simsion does a brilliant job of creating these layers of nuance. He capably draws in the reader by allowing us to see the world in these two ways—the innocence of Don and our own more worldly vision. It is this that first won me over as a reader, and then there’s Rosie.

If Don is like a wonderful computer, picking up information, processing it, and regurgitating it in his own language, then Rosie is a bundle of energy and passion. She is almost Don’s complete opposite; compulsive and emotional, yet she is also quietly brilliant, a perfect match for Don’s own intelligence. The two characters blend in ways that draw out their best qualities, creating an interesting and oddly compelling dynamic. Rosie and Don’s relationship is this quirky, beautiful thing, a unique and wonderful treat for the reader.

I have to admit that I don’t quite know how to properly recommend this book. It’s such a fantastic read, wrapped in a light and airy package that is it easy to dismiss as another romantic comedy. The thing is, The Rosie Project is not just another romance, it’s a character study, a story told both through the words of the narrator, and through the eyes of the observant reader unmasking the concepts not realized by that narrator; Don doesn’t even realize he’s the star of his own love story, or that love can even exist for him. It is also a coming-of-age tale, as both Don and Rosie struggle to find their places in the world, becoming the people they were meant to be, but could never see. The Rosie Project is an absolutely compulsive read. It’s layered, remarkable, and sweet; one of those books that just draws the reader into its distinctive world and thoroughly captivates until the end. This is a book that you read, and then want to read again. It makes you feel good, and it makes you want to know these characters. I can’t praise it enough, and I can’t wait to read it again. Read The Rosie Project and you too will fall in love.

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Friday, August 30, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading: August 30, 2013

I’ve continued my slow reading slump this week, with a couple of okay teen reads and an almost promising start to a new novel from a popular author.

Tumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts (Releases September 17th)
An asteroid is heading to Earth in one week, there is no stopping it.
Sounds like every other science fiction/dystopian/apocalyptic teen novel out on today’s book shelves, right? Like a breath of fresh air, Alexandra Coutts Tumble & Fall veers away from the doomed world, survival theme that is so prevalent in teen fiction, and uses the premise to instead set-up a character study and coming-of-age story that has less to do with survival and everything to do with finding a place. The story follows three teens on Martha’s Vineyard, all facing vastly different issues; a missing sister and dead boyfriend, a drunk mother and absent father, and a stint in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt; as they stumble through their last week (presumably) on Earth. The teens are very loosely connected so the narrative moves smoothly between their stories, alternating between each character on every day of the “last week”. Taking such an overworked genre, and turning it on its head was a smart move by author Coutts. Instead of the tired old “sky is falling” story, Coutts manages to turn it into a sincere look at a week in the life of a teenager, or in this case three teens, as they try to figure out just how they fit in this world and in their families. While the ultimate result was a bit stale, and slightly boring, I still need to applaud the attempt, as this book easily could have fallen into the pile of novels with very similar premises collecting dust on the floor; instead, I’m sure it will get picked out of the slush and given a chance. It might not be a great read—the storylines are a little clichéd, and the plot is a bit plodding—but I think it will get a little bit of action, if only for its stalwart attempt to be different.

The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble (available now)
"I found out two things today: One, I think I'm dying. And two, my brother is a perv." The Sweet Dead Life is a fun, wise-cracking book aimed at the 12 thru 15 year old bracket. The book follows Jenna Samuels, 8th grader with a wicked tongue, a vivid imagination, a love of boots, and who is quite possibly dying. The book, while witty and definitely laugh worthy—it’s told as entries in Jenna’s highly amusing journal—also deals with some deeper issues. Jenna’s father left them mysteriously years before, her mother had fallen into a dark depression that has taken her out of this world, and her brother Casey, once a promising football player, has turned into a stoner, who spends his days stoned, and his nights working multiple jobs trying to keep his family fed. While these issues definitely are at the root of the story, they get pushed back a little in favor of Jenna’s biting sarcasm, and the bigger plot point of the story which is Casey’s death, and immediate return as Jenna’s guardian angel. Convoluted, yes. Ridiculous, absolutely. Oddly humorous and decidedly not cheesy, indubitably. Yes, Casey becomes an angel rather quickly in this book. Granted he still has a craving for pot and he lusts after his ex-girlfriend, but he’s still an angel, if a slightly misguided one. This plot point might drive people away, but I hope it doesn’t. It is not nearly as silly as it sounds, in fact it does a great job of emphasizing the deep connection between the two siblings in the face of their world literally falling apart around them. Instead of a paranormal book, The Sweet Dead Life is more of a fun mystery and a sibling adventure that brushes the edges of serious. I like this book for younger teens, although I do warn that Jenna has a bit of a mouth on her, so if language is an issue take a pass, but overall it is a pretty tame, and often funny little mystery. The sequel, The A-Word comes out in May of 2014, and I hope it’s as engaging as its predecessor.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve (Releases November 12th)
I’m not a huge fan of bestselling author Anita Shreve, but I did think her novel Strange Fits of Passion was haunting and very well-written, and should be discussed more by book groups, but sadly it is bypassed by her more famous novels The Pilot’s Wife and The Weight of Water. I’ve only just begun to read her latest, Stella Bain (I’m about 100 pages in), and I’m not quite sure yet how I feel. It started off strong, sucking me into the life of Stella, an amnesiac nurse’s aid in World War I France, sifting through the horrors around her as she struggles to recover her own identity, but it started to lose me as Stella travels to England and is taken in by a cranial doctor and his wife. From there, chapters of Freudian psychobabble, and awkward encounters between the doctor and Stella really began to deter me. I’m not reading the flashback portion, where the reader discovers what brought Stella to the front in the first place, but thus far it has drifted into a very clichéd narrative, lacking the oomph and charisma of the first chapters. I’ll add a note with my final thoughts after I’ve finished. I certainly hope Stella Bain is able to dig itself out of its middle page lull and into the promise that I first glimpsed.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

And the Dead Shall Rise...

What would you do if someone you loved, someone who meant the world to you, who made your life complete…died?

What would you do if fifty years later that person showed up on your doorstep—never having aged, without any recollection of where they had been?

That is the very dilemma facing Harold and Lucille Hargrave, who lost their son Jacob to drowning in 1966 when he was eight years old. When Jacob appears on their doorstep fifty years later with an FBI Agent, “returned” from the dead, the elderly couple find themselves unearthing old hurts, long since patched over with the trappings of everyday life as they struggle to deal with the phenomena. Is this Jacob really their son? How has he come back? Is it a sign from God? As more and more of the dead return, the entire world finds itself asking the same questions, with devastating results.

The Returned is part science fiction, part family drama, part philosophical treatise on human nature. DelvingThe Returned such an engrossing read, one you can’t help but discuss and mull over for hours after the final paragraphs.
deep into groupthink and the human psyche without forsaking a genuinely riveting story, Pushcart Prize-winning author Jason Mott creates a narrative that is compelling and heart-wrenching. As the story unfolds readers are literally held captive by the questions that arise with a plot of this nature. You find yourself wondering how such an series of events could occur—is it God, Satan, is this the rapture—but in reverse of what we’ve always thought, has the world gone mad? As the people of the world break into groups both for and against the Returned dead, family members turn against once dead loved ones, and the Returned are relegated to internment camp-like facilities, it is nearly impossible to figure out how a book like this could possibly end. The sad revelations regarding human warmth and understanding, and our capacity to cause harm to others out of fear is remarkably present here, but Mott also manages to show our great ability for compassion—a Jewish family risks all to hide a group of young Nazi soldiers killed in World War II only to Return to a new world, a townswoman hiding an entire Returned family in order to save them from the camp, a son who watches over his Returned dementia-ridden mother—all examples of our capability of showing love, even when the rest of the world is descending into a manic paranoia. It is this dichotomy that helps to make

As a reader I love sharing books, and discussing them, but I can honestly say that I have yet to have a book discussion quite like the ones I’ve had following The Returned. From concepts of faith, to morality, philosophy, and the frightening actions that arise out of fear; The Returned keeps you on your toes, and further, stimulates in a way that goes beyond the intellectual, touching your heart and moral soul. This is one book that is guaranteed to get you thinking and talking, and will leave your breathless in the end.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Night Film: Creepy, Intriguing--This Summer's Must Read

Have you ever been scared when reading a book? I’m not talking boogie man scared, not Freddy is going to get you in your sleep afraid, or hiding under the bed from the creepy clown in Stephen King’s It; I’m talking chills up your arms, tense back, and a definite notice of any and every noise in the house. No? Well get ready for it, because Night Film is coming and it is one book you do not want to miss this summer.

Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel (after 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics) is a gunshot of a book, firing from page one and blasting right through to the end. Told in the first person by disgraced investigative reporter Scott McGrath, Night Film follows Scott’s obsessive search for answers as he delves into the apparent suicide of twenty-four year old Ashley Cordova, the daughter of famously reclusive horror film genius Stanislas Cordova, the man responsible for McGrath’s downfall. As Scott follows Ashley’s trail into the rabbit hole, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the Cordova world, where the lines of reality are blurred, and the term “things that go bump in the night” has a far greater meaning than ever before.

What a book. Night Film was like a particularly addictive drug, easy to pick up and put down, but with each successive visit more and more difficult to let go of. Pessl’s world is frightening; not in the sense of the brutal and bloody horror that is so common today, but in the psychological pit she drops her readers in, making even the most skeptical of readers start to believe in the impossible. The illusive and enigmatic Kubrick-esque Stanilas Cordova is an odd mixture of 1960’s and 70’s horror directors like Polanski and De Palma with a collection of films similar to Sisters, Repulsion, and Seth Holt’s Scream of Fear. He has his own cult-like following of Cordovites, complete with a secret website called The Blackboards, conspiracy theories, and underground film showings. Cordova is an unseen enigma, leaving a path of destruction, death, and disappearances behind him, and a society begging for more, but too scared, or too sheltered to embrace him with open arms. McGrath’s compulsive investigation of Cordova borders on the fanatical as he races up and down the state of New York trying to deconstruct the life of Ashley Cordova, desperate to find answers to her haunted existence, answers that tie back to the mythical Cordova, the occult, murder, and abduction. New York ceases to become New York in Night Film, it instead becomes an extension of Cordova’s world, the inane taking on a sinister sheen, where nothing is normal, and everything and everyone is suspect.

I am almost at a loss at how to describe my reactions to this book and why I think it is one of those must reads for the summer. I can explain how I stayed up half the night to finish it, both out of a need to see where it would go, but also because I was so disturbed and fascinated by what was happening that I couldn’t stop myself. I was on the edge while reading this, and truth be told, Pessl’s writing was so good that I honestly didn’t think I could sleep unless I finished it, and once I did reach the conclusion I couldn’t let go. My racing heart, ensnared brain, and astonished emotions just needed to process what they had been through. Night Film was a juggernaut, destroying my piece of mind and preconceived notions of what a psychological thriller could and should be; it was just that horrifyingly good. I should also take a moment to note that Pessl quite brilliantly uses multimedia screen shots, pictures, and interviews interspersed throughout the text, so readers get to read and see what Scott McGrath does; we see his interviews, the scraps of paper he finds, photos of Ashley Cordova, and the chilling images of the Blackboards and it’s zealous occupants. Actually, I tried out the URL’s, sadly they didn’t work, but if they did, wow, what a mind blowing move by the author and publisher. A fully interactive site that ties directly to the book—a wasted chance to capitalize on the blending of text and tech (although I did read this in galley form, so perhaps the sites will be up at time of publication, I could only dream). This is a clever trick, utilized very capably, a perfect way to blend our tech savvy world with the literary prowess of Pessl’s written word. Another note, this is not a horror novel. It is horrifying, yes, but it is a thriller, a literary mystery, meaning it’s well-written and smart. Pessl is a talented writer, creating a unique world that sucks its readers in and holds onto them for dear life, kind of a black hole of literary virtuosity. This may sound like an overabundance of praise, but I finished the book a few days ago, and have since (reluctantly) read another book, and still find myself lingering over the details of Night Film, revisiting it helplessly. In truth, I haven’t wanted to read a new book, I just want to savor the terror of Night Film, but if I want to escape the psychological stronghold of Night Film, there’s no choice but to move on—with much lighter fare, and look toward revisiting the dark and mesmerizing abyss that is the world of Cordova in the near future. This one is a definite “read again”—the only way to really maneuver the nooks and crannies, the shadows and mysteries that make up Night Film.

Why should you read Night Film? Because it’s good. It’s chilling, it’s mysterious, it’s sad, it’s sweet, and it’s brilliant. This is not a book you want to bypass—unless you have no nerves at all—there’s too much to it, and it is too well constructed to miss out on. Get scared. Get sucked into this world. When you get out you will gulp for fresh air, and then dive right back into the muck for more. An addictive psychological thriller that has a death grip on anyone who picks it up, Night Film is one hell of a read.

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Friday, August 9, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading: August 8, 2013

I’m all over the board this week. From teen fiction, to a classic Hollywood bio, to picture books—I’m in full ADD reader mode and in desperate need of a really good book. Maybe one of the legions of books on my desk will lift my reading spirits next week, but for now here is what has been gracing my nightstand as of late.

Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang (available now)
This is a first for me, a picture book review. I don’t often have occasion to read picture books (unless my younger nephews are around, and then hello!), but I came across this one and had to mention it. Mustache Baby is a crack-up, perfect for kids ages 2-5, mostly boys. It follows the creative antics of a little baby born with a mustache. Is it a good mustache, and bad one, the mustache of a hero or villain? All will be explored in this delightfully entertaining book. It’s a quick one, and will give the parents reading it a nice chuckle. This is a really great new book for toddlers.

Lucid by Adrienne Stoltz and Ron Bass (available now)
Screenwriters Stoltz and Bass (he’s an Academy Award Winner) teamed up to create Lucid, a YA novel that runs the gamut of psychological study, coming-of-age, romance, and flirts with the paranormal. Here’s the publisher description:
“What if you could dream your way into a different life? What if you could choose to live that life forever? Sloane and Maggie have never met. Sloane is a straight-A student with a big and loving family. Maggie lives a glamorously independent life as an up-and-coming actress in New York. The two girls couldn't be more different--except for one thing. They share a secret that they can't tell a soul. At night, they dream that they're each other. The deeper they're pulled into the promise of their own lives, the more their worlds begin to blur dangerously together. Before long, Sloane and Maggie can no longer tell which life is real and which is just a dream. They realize that eventually they will have to choose one life to wake up to, or risk spiraling into insanity. But that means giving up one world, one love, and one self, forever…”

The plot was interesting to me. Which girl was real? Was there a parallel universe? Was it all a demented dream from someone confined in an institution? Those questions alone had me picking this one up (that, and I was cleaning off my desk and noticed the book had been there over a year –came out October 2012). Sadly, the book just doesn’t deliver. It’s primarily a look at each girl’s life, alternating each chapter between them. Each girl has suffered a severe loss; Maggie her father and Sloane her best friend, and each girl is dealing with a potential new relationship; so as a coming-of-age type book it’s not too bad, if a little cliché. The added element of the dreams should spruce up the otherwise bland tale, but instead it is miss-handled. The first three-quarters of the book deal with the issue subtly, with each girl mentioning the issue or the other girl’s day (Maggie is in therapy), but there is no real urgency. Then all of a sudden, in the last 30 pages or so there is this deep psychological breakdown. A sudden drop into madness that might work in a visual presentation (the book is loftily compared to Inception—balderdash), but in a written medium, does not work. The girls’ worlds start to collide and infiltrate each other. A cool idea, but it happens too late, and is difficult to convey effectively with words. Instead, I kept rereading to try and figure out where I was, and who’s voice I was listening too (not a bad effect, but the writing isn’t good enough to fully commit). It was too jumbled, trying too hard to be cool and edgy. The ending was also irritating. It is one of those ambiguous endings (Inception again), but instead of the enjoyment of actually using my brain to process the book, I was a little disgusted by the lack of finesse. This is a screenwriter’s book—maybe it would make a better movie, but the visual cuts that are implied are a filmmaker’s tools, and don’t translate into a teen book. This was an unstructured mess that tried to be hip, but failed miserably.

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner (available now)
There was a time when I exclusively read classic Hollywood biographies. Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations many months ago I was intrigued. Fast forward about 6 months, to when I actually picked the book up of my shelf and started reading. The writing was candid, the book really exactly what it says is it; conversations between Ava Gardner and Peter Evans; and despite the fact that I’m not a huge Gardner fan; I was quickly drawn to the language (foul) and the seductress that was Ava Gardner. Originally, Evans was supposed to have been writing Gardner’s autobiography, which is how these conversations got to be recorded and how Evans very personal and insightful notes were put together, but Gardner pulled out suddenly and Evans moved on to other projects. Years after her death and a rather innocuous autobiography that Gardner did with another author (oddly enough, one I actually own), Evans decided to put together these really interesting interviews and publish them. Sadly, Peter Evans died before they could be published, but what has been culled together is unbelievably readable, and really fascinating. Gardner comes across as both brash, and unsure; seductive, and yet conscious of her partially paralyzed face (she suffered a massive stroke). She was a blazing alcoholic, manipulative, cursed like a trucker, and yet in the brief and somewhat scattered conversations, she still displays the glamour and cunning that appealed to moviegoers in the golden age of Hollywood. The book certainly put a new spin on the actress, causing me to see her in a very different light; but most of all it entertained me because it was like no other biography I had ever read before. Candid and (seemingly) unedited, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations is a fresh style of biography, lacking chronology or structure for sure, but mesmerizing in its ability to so perfectly capture its subject. A great read for movie fans.
Natalie Wood, Ginger Rogers, Esther Williams, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth; I’ve read more than I can’t count, and for the most part enjoyed them. I still have all those bios, but haven’t picked one up in quite some time. Yet, when I came across

The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown (available now)
The Longings of Wayward Girls is a novel that follows a woman named Sadie Watkins. Switching back and forth between 1979 and the early 2000’s, the book focuses on a precocious 12-year-old Sadie coping with a troubled mother and a mean streak that leads her to play a harmful prank on another young girl, and her thirty-something self as she struggles with emotional instability and adultery. The book is supposed to be a novel of suspense, as it slowly delves into a 1974 disappearance of a little girl Sadie’s mean girl antics with another girl who also goes missing, and her modern day affair with a man from her childhood; but in reality it is a slow moving portrait of a girl whose fragile and tragically flawed mother shaped her into her current psychological state. I’m not yet done with this book, but I am well over half way through, and am still waiting for something of substance to happen. It is slow going. Author Brown capably paints a portrait to small town New England, complete with the types of subplots that must occur in every seemingly idyllic community (straying husbands, alcoholism, neighborhood events and barbecues, precocious woman-child’s on the prowl), but the appeal of the novel ends there. I know that there is this big upheaval currently in regards to character likeability. Some critics have been outraged that bad reviews are given because a character is unlikeable, but I’m going to go there with this book. Sadie is downright unlikeable. Yes, she has had her tragedies, but she pushed on through life with selfish and narcissistic abandon, using her personal tragedies as an excuse to act without thought or caution. The novel is about Sadies and I can’t stand the woman. I don’t think that you have to love or even like a character for a novel to be good. I didn’t love Holden Caulfield, or at times Katniss Everdeen, but Catcher in the Rye and The Hunger Games are still great books. Sadie Watkins and The Longings of Wayward Girls are just not that compelling; and Sadie’s actions are despicable. This has been a disappointing and boring read, one I wish hadn’t started.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading, July 26, 2013

It’s been a slow week of reading for me (you try reading when you’re only a month away from your wedding…it’s difficult), but fortunately, while the numbers were low the quality was exceptionally high. So, here’s my brief, but rich list of reads this week.

Cress by Marissa Meyer (releases 2/4/14)
Don’t you just hate me for starting with a book that isn’t going to be released until next year?! Yeah, I know, I kind of hate me too, especially since I’m itching to read the next book in the series…so there, I have to wait even longer than you dear reader. But, I digress; Cress, which is the third book in the stellar Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer (behind Cinder and Scarlet), is a brilliant and action filled twist on the Rapunzel story. As with the first two books, Meyer cleverly works pieces of the popular fairy tale into her science fiction/fantasy series. Cress, who has spent the formative years of her life imprisoned on a satellite floating above Earth teams up with Cinder and her fellow rebels to save the world from the manipulative and sociopathic Lunar Queen Levana. This third installment is edge of your seat fun, a perfect lead-in for the fifth and final book Winter. I literally cannot wait to finish this series; it’s deceptively fantastic, and sure to appeal to genre fans young and old. It’s my hope that people will go out now, pick up Cinder and Scarlet, and then swarm to their local independent book store to pick-up Cress come February.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (releases 10/1/13)
The Rosie Project, already an international sensation, comes to the US in October and you should be ready. A novel that takes the romantic comedy and spins it on its head, The Rosie Project is a book that I dare you to not fall in love with. I loved this book so much that there will be a full review of it on this blog come Sept. 26th, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my own brief description of the plot (a sneak from my full review):

 Genetics professor Don Tillman is a remarkable man. He’s a master martial artist, wonderful cook, an associate professor at a prestigious university, and can literally accomplish anything he programs his mind to do. So, when this paper perfect man sets out to find the perfect wife, success is inevitable—right? The thing about Don is, that well, he’s a bit different. He lives according to a rigid schedule, has a brain like a computer, and doesn’t quite see the world like the rest of us do. In fact, though it’s never outright stated, Don most likely has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. So when Don, a man who thinks a computer survey, aka The Wife Project, can produce for him the perfect match, things are bound to go a bit awry, especially when your throw in a girl like Rosie. Rosie is everything Don is not looking for—she smokes, is a vegetarian, arrives late, and completely throws out Don’s schedules. She upheaves his entire life, drawing him into a search for her biological father using genetic testing, and showing him things he’s never taken the time to process before. In short, Rosie is nothing that Don wants, but everything he needs. Thus begins The Rosie Project.

How to Love by Katie Cotugno (releases 10/1/13)
My fall release teasers continue with debut author Katie Cotugno’s How to Love. This teen love story is compulsively readable. With each chapter switching back and forth from present day to 2 years prior, How to Love follows the story of Reena and Sawyer, two teens inextricably tied together, first through their parents’ friendship/business partnership, and then through a mess of a relationship. When Sawyer suddenly disappears he leaves 16-year-old Reena pregnant and alone, only to resurface 2 years later, ready to make amends and rekindle their tenuous romance. Maybe I was in a mood, but I just blew through this book. It’s an easy and absorbing book, perfect for cozy read in bed. I enjoyed it like one enjoys an Adam Sandler comedy, it turns your brain off and entertains, but once I put it down I was able to let it sit, and came to the realization that really, this was just a glorified Harlequin Super Romance, albeit published by HarperCollins and aimed at teens. I do have a slight issue with the ages they put on this book—14 & up—maybe I’m a prude, but the writing and the way the plot is laid out is a bit mature, more of an adult chick-lit that appeals to college age women than young high schoolers/8th graders. It just doesn’t read as a teen or “young adult” novel for me. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a 14-year-old, but that’s just me. Overall, this is eminently readable brain candy, with just enough of an emotional stake to get you a little weepy. Nothing literary here, and the writing is just so-so, but if you want a little break from reality, take it with How to Love.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (out now)
I’m a little late to this game. It’s an international bestseller and soon to be a film, but hey—unless I’m on it first, I just hate to read the book that everyone is talking about. Seriously, it took me until well after book four was out to read Harry Potter; I even started it and put it down for a year. The Hunger Games—yeah, I had Advanced Reading Copies of both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but didn’t start them until Mockingjay came out. Thank God I started reading Twilight well before anyone knew who Stephenie Meyer was, and Divergent—I read that months before it was released; otherwise I never would have touched those books (please, no Twilight jokes…yes the movies sucked, but I liked the books a lot, they were fun). So, it’s with no real surprise that I have only just finished John Green’s much touted YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. Green is a capable writer, and main character Hazel’s voice is fresh and invigorating. Yet, it’s not the book as a whole that captured my attention, it’s the moments, much like our lives are made of moments, coming together to create a narrative that in the end, had my attention, and my appreciation. I could go on, fumbling about with my own psychoanalysis on life, and how it’s made up, not of grand gestures, but small, seemingly unimportant actions (and I actually did that, but deleted it—who needs my pseudointellectual ramblings?), but I think we all know that already. Instead I will say, read The Fault in Our Stars, not because it will be the best book you have ever read—it is not—but because there are enough of those quietly poignant moments to make it a time well spent..

Happy reading everyone.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

The Best (and Worst) Books Thus Far: 2013 Mid-Year Edition

I know that it’s really past mid-year, but I decided July was close enough to do a sort of mid-year review of some of my favorite books of 2013, as well as some of my personal disappointments. A lot of this will be a reiteration of previous reviews (I will provide links), but I’ll also have a few books not yet mentioned, and some that have moved categories as time has passed.

Best thus far (kind of in order):

Night Film by Marisha Pessl
This is a total cheat as it is not actually released until the end of August, but I’ve read it, was enthralled, and can easily say that it is my hands-down favorite of 2013 thus far. I’m fairly certain that won’t change, but we shall certainly see, after all Veronica Roth’s Allegiant is still awaiting its Fall release. To get my full take on this brilliant psychological suspense read my full review, to be posted on this Blog on August 15, 2013.

Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman
I can’t say enough about Beth Hoffman’s abilities as a storyteller; she sucks you in with her charm and keeps you with her intelligence and depth. Looking for Me is the perfect sophomore effort from this talented author. Click here for my in depth review.

Lexicon by Max Barry
Max Barry’s last book, Machine Man was awful—I do have to mention that it was a book put out on serial form via emails from Barry prior to publication as a paperback original, but this has no bearing on its quality—it had all the earmarks of a great Barry satire, but was unrestrained to the point of not just ridiculousness, but bad storytelling as well. I’m a huge Max Barry fan (please, please read Jennifer Government or Company), so this was said with difficulty, but Machine Man sucked. That being said, Barry is back to his roots in his brilliantly satirical, and as usual, insightful new novel Lexicon. Barry is a fantastic writer, and as a rule his characters are both unlovable idiots, and oddly compelling heroes, whose characteristics beautifully touch on what is wrong (and occasionally right) with our world. Lexicon has made this list not just because Max Barry is hands-down one of my favorite authors, but because it completely redeems him from the mess that was Machine Man.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

For this one, I will let my brief in-store review speak for itself:
The Passage meets The Road meets I Am Legend, The 5th Wave is almost a genre in itself. Cassie Sullivan might be the last person left on Earth, or at least the last human. When The Others came, some thought they might be gentle aliens, something out of a movie, but instead they unleashed terrors that quickly decimated the human race. Now alone, desperate to find her five-year-old brother, and determined to stay alive no matter what she has to do, Cassie must fight, hide, and kill her way into the heart of The Others stronghold. This is one intense ride. From page one readers are sucked into Cassie’s frightening world. Science fiction, warfare, coming-of-age, and even romance are all themes that find their way into this multi-dimensional novel. Beware that there is quite a bit of violence, some of it disturbing; and I would only recommend this for adults or older teens, but recommend it I do, it’s one heck of a fast-paced, entertaining read.

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
Scarlet, Book 2 in The Lunar Chronicles is one of the few YA books I really enjoyed this year. In the midst of fairy tale madness, this sci-fi twist to the age old stories is fresh and exciting. I highly recommend both Scarlet (Red Riding Hood) and its predecessor Cinder (Cinderella) for fans of science fiction, fantasy, and fairy tales. I can’t wait for Book 3, Cress which will grace bookstore in February of 2014.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
I loved this quirky, dark mystery/drama involving two troubled Scottish sisters and the lengths they go to cover the deaths of their neglectful parents. O’Donnell does a magnificent job of vividly recreating the Glaswegian slums for her readers, sucking them into a multi-layered world where everyone has something to hide.

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
This epistolary novel will probably not make my top 10 list for the year, but I feel the need to mention it because it has largely gone unnoticed. Frances and Bernard is the not so simple story of a friendship told via letter over the course of many years. Deeply philosophical and introspective, author Carlene Bauer creates two fascinating and highly intelligent characters. I have to admit that it took me a little longer to get into this book, but once I discovered its rhythm, found myself drawn to both the flawed characters, and the intellectually stimulating prose. It’s my hope to see more readers discover this little gem of a novel.

The next several books are ones that while not the worst books of the year (I just won’t read those), were disappointing to me in some way. Whether it was a weak part of a series or a book by a well-liked author that just didn’t quite make the cut, these books just weren’t as good as they should have been.

The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls
I just wrote about The Silver Star, so I won’t pontificate too much, but this one was a disappointment. Coming off of her two previous bestselling works (The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses) it would be expected that Walls could competently tell a story in its entirety, however the lack of cohesiveness and conclusion really detracts from what is, in the beginning a very good coming-of-age narrative. This story just ends, the world is still crazy, the periphery problems are solved, but the deeper issues are left hanging out like yesterday’s laundry. I’m fine with open-ended stories, but this one just didn’t work, and for that it gets to reside on the negative list.

Just One Day by Gayle Forman
Forman’s first two novels, If I Stay and Where She Went were unbelievably good (reviews here). They were tear jerkers with heart and a tremendous amount of soul. Because of this, I was expecting much the same from Just One Day, but instead found characters that were stereotypical, and a plot that ended up falling right into the realm of every other teen angst book I’ve ever read. Perhaps the story will redeem itself when the other side of the story is told in Forman’s upcoming Just One Year, but for now, the almost unlikeable characters, and ho-hum plot of Just One Day make it one of my 2013 disappointments.

Prodigy by Marie Lu **SPOILER BELOW**
Legend was great!(see my review here) Its sequel, Prodigy falls a little short. I think the main reason I was disappointed with this one was that it had a very “middle book in the series” ending that left the readers frustrated with a bit of the same old, same old. Romantic triangles and a surprise terminal illness make for uninteresting reading. We’ve been there; done that too many times to count—give us something new! Most middle books in a trilogy fall a little short and are redeemed by the conclusion, but this past year has been a disappointing one for series ends (Sapphire Blue, Reached, Shades of Earth), let’s hope Lu pulls out some of that magic she produced for Legend in Champion the final book of the trilogy (out 11/13).

Always Watching by Chevy Stevens
In her first two books Stevens used this really brilliant plot devise, the story is told to the reader via conversations her protagonists have with their psychiatrist, Dr. Nadine Lavoie. Now, the readers get to hear Nadine’s story. Unfortunately, Nadine’s story is just not that great. It lacks the deeply disturbing psychological tones of Still Missing and Never Knowing (see my Still Missing review here). Instead, you get a quasi-interesting look at a creepy cult, and the not so interesting story of a sexually abused drug addict daughter (for such an innovative author, this was just too clichéd) that just doesn’t make the cut. This is a passable suspense, but I expected more from this author.

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack
From the publisher: “JJ O' Malley, adopted from a Romanian orphanage by a single father in the west of Ireland, grows up a permanent outsider, and yet he finds his place in the community. At least until his world is shaken by the death of his best friend, and he volunteers for the "Somnos Project," an experimental program testing deep coma as a potential option in the EU penal system. In a prison ship docked in Killary Harbour, JJ is hooked up to monitoring devices that feed out to the Internet, and he and his fellow guinea pigs become global celebrities. “
This one had all the elements that usually work for me; multiple narratives, satire, science fiction, a timeline that swerves back and forth, but instead of hooking me, this highly stylized novel bored me to tears. It was just too odd and too slow; so, after about 90 pages (pretty much half-way through the book) I put it down, and then gave it away. I don’t often stop reading books, but I couldn’t find a reason to stay with this one.

Shades of Earth by Beth Revis
The entire Across the Universe series has its problems, but overall it held up as a space travel dystopian series (say that five times fast). It had moments of violence; a suicide, rape attempt, murder; which seems like a lot, yet it wasn’t enough to turn me off, or stop me from recommending it. With the final book, Shades of Earth the series goes off the deep end with some horrific and meaningful deaths, and a plot that is jagged and reckless. This is one of those books that leaves a bad taste in your mouth—and it’s the final book in a trilogy—it should be doing the exact opposite. Trilogies can have darker endings, just look at The Hunger Games, but it has to have some underlying intent, and a glimmer of hope. Shades of Earth might have a glimmer at its conclusion, but if there is some hidden meaning in it all, it is lost amidst the violence and jerkiness of its narrative. I just hate spending time with a series to see it end in such a poorly contrived and dark place.

And to top it off…

Sequels I’ve put off reading. These two books make the list because they belong to two books that frustrated me, The Twelve by Justin Cronin and Angelopolis by Danielle Trussoni.

Cronin’s tomb of a book The Passage was a really great read…until you got to the end, all 784 pages in, and realize that nothing has been tied up, and the story is left hanging over the edge of a precipice with no clues to a conclusion. This was one of those “throw the book across the room” reads upon finish. I’ve been told The Twelve is good, but the three years in between books did two things a) made me forget the details of The Passage and b) reminded me of my previous frustrations—who wants to pick up the second book in a trilogy when it takes the author three years to write a book and said writer left you on an anger inducing cliffhanger?! So, I’ve yet to read this one and, based on sales, a lot of other people are holding off too.

As for Tussoni’s Angelopolis, this is another book that was three years in the making. Book one, Angelology, was interesting, if a little slow and even more predictable—perhaps if the market hadn’t been inundated with Angel themed books in the interim people would have locked on to Angelopolis, but the time in between, and the over-used genre made it timeworn and an afterthought. I won’t be reading this one, I’ve just lost interest.

So, here we are the end of my mid-year musings. I’ve pondered, remembered, and scraped together thoughts on what is out there for public consumption and can only hope readers will find something new, or avoid something mediocre as a result.

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Monday, July 8, 2013

Sarah Butler's "Ten Things I've Learnt About Love"

Alice is a bit of a mess. She’s a chronic runner—restless in school as a child, flitting from job to job, escaping to far off places when things get tough— Alice isn’t one to face life’s problems head on, or even in the same country.

Daniel is a wanderer. Some might call him a tramp, a vagabond, others a bum or vagrant, but Daniel is searching; walking the streets searching the faces of Londoners for a glimpse of the daughter he’s never met.

When Alice’s father’s health takes a turn for the worst she must return to the home she fled. Thrown back into the midst of family and relationship problems; seeking answers to her mother’s death over two decades before, her father’s seeming distance, and the complicated lives of her older sisters, Alice must find the strength to face not only the issues of her life, but her future.

An encounter between Daniel and Alice has the possibility of opening both of their eyes to a world that’s
beyond their private fears and lives.

Told in first person, with chapters alternating between the perspectives of both Daniel and Alice, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is a beautifully inventive story. Unfolding slowly, with only snippets of the past being revealed through both the narrative and top ten lists that appear at the beginning of each chapter, author Sarah Butler is able to take a small piece of a much larger story and make it seem whole and perfect. Her two main characters are infinitely flawed, but they are also endearing in their total humanness—failings and triumphs—as they meander their ways through life, both running in some way from the hurts that life can dole out. I loved how this novel is really just a glimpse into their life stories. The reader only gets pieces of the larger past, and to an extent, not everything is tied up neatly at the story’s conclusion, but nonetheless there is still a sense of satisfaction in what the reader does get from the narrators, and the eventual end, which signifies that while this part of the story has concluded, it is in fact not the end. As in reality; life goes on when a chapter closes, and anything is possible.

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is a wonderful glimpse at two lives. It shows how all of our choices have an impact somewhere and on someone, but that in the end they are our choices to make. It’s about love and its many incarnations; familial, paternal, romantic, friendly, and how it can change our lives in an infinite number of ways. A layered, well-written debut, I can’t recommend it enough for book clubs or those who enjoy an intimate look into the age old question “where do I belong”. If you read carefully, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love just might give you a lesson or two.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading, July 5, 2013

I’m a little more rounded this go around, having read a blend of fiction, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, satire, and a couple of teen series installments. So here we go:

Lexicon by Max Barry (out now)
Long a fan of Max Barry (see another short review here), I’m always eager to get one of his books into someone else’s hands, and Lexicon is no exception. Following two individuals, Emily and Will, whose lives are inextricably entwined by their involvement with a powerful group called The Poets, Lexicon is able to take a look at the power of the spoken word and take it to places it has never been before. Barry uses his genius for marketing, and extraordinary insight into the human psyche to build a world where a secret society uses personality tests to single out powerful individuals, and where a single word—one that doesn’t even need to be spoken—can bring about the destruction of everything and everyone. Barry is a master of combining satire, social commentary, and a touch of science fiction to create a realm that is both so far from being possible and utterly believable at the same time. He’s an author who makes the impossible seem plausible, and can keep you enthralled for hours. Lexicon is a brilliant, imaginative new novel from one of the smartest fiction writer’s around.

The Heist Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg (out now)
The Heist was my first foray into a Janet Evanovich (best known for the Stephanie Plum series) book and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Following the escapades of FBI Agent Kate O'Hare, who is forced to pair with her nemesis, con man extraordinaire Nicholas Fox in order to bring down a corrupt investment banker, The Heist is a delightfully entertaining novel of espionage and crime-fighting that oozes just enough humor and sex appeal to keep you entertained through the end. This is strictly a light and amusing piece of work, so if you’re expecting grit or edge, look away—this is no masterpiece, The Heist is for kicks only. Great fun to read, The Heist is sure to bring you enjoyment and fun.

Longbourn by Jo Baker (releases 10/8/13)
Longbourn, so named for the Bennet estate in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is a reverse look, or in today’s terms a “Downton Abbey look”, at the world of the Bennet family, as seen from the point of view of the servants. I’m not the biggest Austen fan (see my reasons here), but I’ve been in this weird Pride and Prejudice mood that I just can’t explain. So, while it’s not a natural thing for me to read an Austen spin-off novel, I was oddly eager to give this one a try. It’s always interesting to see behind the curtain—whether it’s the same story told from two different points of view like Gayle Forman’s Just One Day/Just One Year or, as in the case of Longbourn, seeing the backside of a famous family from the point of view of the people who literally clean-up there messes—I find it a generally intriguing, and for the most part, enjoyable venture. With Longbourn, the reader is only given brief glimpses of the family and their story; we see Jane’s beauty and warmth, Elizabeth’s intelligence, Mrs. Bennet’s histrionics, and Lydia’s recklessness, but Longbourn is not their story; it instead follows young maid Sarah, new footman James, and housekeeper Mrs. Hill. Young Sarah is the primary protagonist, struggling against her place in life and the conflicting feelings of love and confusion regarding the mysterious James, as she navigates her way behind the scenes of the actual Pride and Prejudice narrative. As a reader I liked Sarah, and found both Mrs. Hill and James’ stories to be of interest, but the author adds her own brand of twenty-first century plot devices that tended to take me out of the story. Adding secret affairs and closeted homosexuality to characters created (if not fully fleshed out) over a century ago has become incredibly clichéd, and detracted from the overall enjoyment of the narrative. The writing itself is decent, if not brilliant; there are a few too many hazy, dream-like scenes that lack cohesiveness, and the overall story, is good, if not compelling, but in all I kept hoping for a better look at the Bennet sisters and their story. I think this is a reasonable fault for me as a reader to find in the book, primarily because I’m not a big fan of Pride and Prejudice, and yet I still cared more about the Bennets, than I did their servants. So, good enough book, enjoyable for fans of Austen, but no real gem that will be remembered for years on end.

Charming by Elliott James (Releases 9/24/13)
This is not a romance novel!
John Charming is not your mother’s Prince Charming—that is unless you are looking for a part Knight Templar, part Werewolf, holy water-toting, man on the run—then of course he’s “that” Charming. In Charming, author Elliott James creates an exciting paranormal world where Knights have been sworn to uphold a centuries long duty to protect the Pax Arcana—the magical shield that protects humans from knowing the supernatural exists—from exposure. His tainted hero is sarcastic and wounded; making for an intriguing blend of wit, strength, and humility. I liked what James did with these characters and this world, creating a new twist on the ever present, oft recreated vampire/werewolf genre. Not a home run—it gets a little predicable, and the martial arts descriptions get old and redundant (and that’s from someone who practiced martial arts for years)—but an admirable start to a new series, with memorable new characters. I will beg you to please excuse the horrible cover—it’s bad, and could really turn some readers off—just close your eyes and pretend it’s something different.

Of Triton by Anna Banks (out now)
The sequel to Of Poseidon, is a fun young adult novel following half mermaid (called Syrena in this series) Emma as she seeks to reunite family, and save the Syrena people from a potential internal threat that could change the way they live and rule forever. I don’t want to give much more detail than that for fear of ruining the first book in the series—but I can say it’s a solid fantasy/love story for teen readers. Also, it’s the only mermaid book (outside of the Emily Windsnap series for 8-11 year olds—that is really great fun) I’ve genuinely enjoyed.

Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger (Releases 11/5/13)
I’m a Carriger fan, love the Parasol Protectorate books and am actually even more enamored of her Finishing School series featuring the intrepid young Sophronia Temminnick. This sequel to Carriger’s debut into the young adult word, Etiquette & Espionage, is delightful. The series, which follows the adventures of Sophronia as she is educated aboard Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, a floating school, that just happens to teach young ladies the art of espionage, is fun, clever, and unique. Playing off the world created in her previous series (the aforementioned Parasol Protectorate), Carriger continues to create rich characters, and inventive steampunk gadgets. Sophronia is headstrong and smart, a real joy to read and root for. This is a great book, and series for both young adults and adult fans of Carriger’s other works.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading, June 14, 2013

I’ve been a bit busy, and despite the fact that I have been reading, I haven’t had the time to share what I’ve been reading each week. So, instead of a short list of my week’s reads, here are the books I’ve been reading since May 17th (that date of my last “What I’m Reading” Blog).

The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White (Releases 9/10/13)
This teen paranormal/mythological novel revolves around the human daughter of Isis and Horace, Isadora, who in rebellion against her parent’s moves to San Diego, Ca to live with her older brother. The premise of this one was good, but the book got a little silly at points, just missing the mark with me. There was proper teen angst, amplified by the parents being gods, and some fun insight into Egyptian mythology, something I always enjoyed, but in the end this one just didn’t quite do it for me. Although, as a San Diegan it was fun to see the city I love so much on display, but for non-San Diegan’s the tour guide-like view of our famous Balboa Park, and other attractions would get a bit wearing, and a little to kitschy. The Chaos of Stars wasParanormalcy (the sequels of which were also a bit disappointing), which was so fresh and fun.

just an okay book, but a little disappointing after White’s

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Releases 8/20/13)
Loved it, loved it, loved it. My hands down favorite of the summer, possibly the year. Watch for an in-depth review on August 15th.

Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst (Releases 9/3/13)
I’ll start by saying that I really loved Sarah Beth Durst’s book Ice. It’s a great story that blends fairytale and cultural mythology together, and I would recommend it for teen fans of that genre. Conjured, has a very creative premise; Eve is an amnesiac with fainting spells that cause short term memory loss, she is in the protective custody of a government agency (a form of witness protection), and she had magic powers. Eve doesn’t know who she is, but she knows there is a killer on the loose and she is the key to stopping him. Filled with intrigue, magic, and glimpses of horror, Conjured should have been a pleasant blending of the mystery, paranormal, and horror genres, unfortunately, despite having all the elements of success, Conjured loses its momentum mind-book, and instead of a tight and interesting story, falls apart. This is going to be a common statement in this particular blog, having read four YA books in the last few weeks, all but one, fell into the teen trap of great start, messy and rushed ending. There is this great build up, the introduction of remarkable characters with interesting problems, but when it comes to the meat and potatoes of the story, the author just doesn’t quite pull it together. Things get rushed; character development gets thrown out the door and so does the promise of the book. I stuck with this one, but the hasty conclusion detracted too much from the interesting premise.

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg (out now)
Here’s another one of those books that started off on the right foot, but really lost it in the end. For years I’ve noticed how poorly some authors do with endings. It’s time to step it up ladies and gentleman, learn how to end a book smoothly and intelligently, don’t just throw it all on the page and wait for something to stick, and worse, don’t just end the book because you’ve reached your page count. Teens are more than capable of reading long books; look at the Harry Potter Series, Twilight, The Mortal Instruments series; all huge bestsellers and all quite lengthy. All readers enjoy good character development and actually resolution of conflict; and yet some many of these authors fail to grasp that concept; which is why they are not the go to authors for booksellers, and will never be bestsellers. I digress, apparently this is tangent week. So, the plot of Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality is one we’ve seen before; Lexi, a funny, average girl with beautiful talented sister who is doted upon by the mother, decides to beautify and take the world (or high school and family) by storm. Here’s where it’s different; the sister is only seven, and a beauty queen, the father is absent, the mother is obese and obsessive to the point of bankruptcy about the beauty pageant scene. The story actually has heart; the m other is truly atrocious (she steals from her oldest daughter and generally neglects her), and actually needs psychiatric help, the father is a limp noodle, and Lexi is really struggling to hold it together in a way that does in fact tug at the heartstrings. I liked this part of the book. The problem is that nothing is really resolved in the end. So all that righteous indignation that occurs during the reading of the first three-quarters of this book has nowhere to go, there is not catharsis, no purging of that reader anger, so the ending is deflating and frustrating instead of affirming. Elizabeth Eulberg had something, but she let it go in the creation of her hodgepodge ending, not to mention a few really clichéd characters who really don’t add to the heart of the story, which is Lexi’s dysfunctional family. Another let-down.

Elizabeth the First Wife by Lian Dolan (out now)
Light, chick-lit fair with a nice touch of Shakespeare, Elizabeth the First Wife is a fun, easy read for the summer. The plot follows Elizabeth, a Community College Professor who jumps to her superstar ex-husband’s rescue at a Shakespeare festival. Meddling siblings, controlling mothers, and a handsome intelligent newcomer all make for a fun time.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (out now)
The Silver Star follows sisters Bean and Liz as they deal with their unreliable mother, a cross country move, small town prejudices, and adults who manipulate children. Let me start off by saying that Jeannette Walls is a fantastic writer. In The Silver Star she creates a compelling and immensely loveable heroine in twelve year old Bean. In some ways, Bean’s spirit, and sense of justice evokes memories of young Scout Finch. She is strong, full of righteous indignation, but also sweet, loving, and aching to live a normal life. For her character alone, this book was worth reading. Unfortunately, a clichéd ending, that is not quite an ending, and an even more two-dimensional villain, make for a weaker fair. This is one of my big disappointments this year—namely because the book is so good, the characters of Liz and Bean (more so Bean) so life-like in their depictions, but Walls just can’t quite keep the story together in the end. Really, the book seems unfinished—it just ends—that’s it, nothing else. Yes, the villain is taken care of, but in a mundane and completely unoriginal way, but the girls, particularly Liz are left hanging in the wind. I would have easily sat through one hundred more pages to just get a little bit more about these two girls’ futures, to see if they make it, but alas Walls leaves readers unsatisfactorily drifting in the wind. I think this one is worth it for the first half of the book, particularly for book clubs, but after that it just leaves you wanting, and not in a good way.

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Cater (out now)
The second book in Carter’s Heist Society series is great fun. Following a group of wily and elite teen thieves, Uncommon Criminals is both smart and funny. I’m a big fan of this series (who doesn’t love a “good thief”), and can’t recommend it enough. Perfect for younger teens, as the material is not too adult, it will also entertain the older ones with its witty heroine Kat Bishop and her sort of romance with urbane mega-rich boy Hale. Both this and its predecessor are in paperback, with the third book just out in hardcover, making it a great one to take to the beach or on vacation.

So in all, a lot of let downs these last couple of weeks--here's hoping for an author to really hit it out of the park on the next go round.

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