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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