Sunday, March 31, 2013

End of March books (and Whitney YA Speculative)

I think I'm currently reading three books, which might explain why I didn't finish very many books this week!

44. Demons, by Heather Frost. I have to admit upfront that I have not read Seers (which is book 1 in this series)--however, I felt like the book did a reasonable job catching up readers who may not have read the first book, so I never felt too lost. The story tracks Kate, a seer who can read people's emotions in their auras, and her boyfriend Patrick, an immortal guardian who's assigned to protect Kate. Patrick's job is complicated by the fact that the Demon Lord wants Kate--although neither Patrick nor Kate know why. The two are just settling into their new relationship when they discover a disturbing rumor: Guardians are beginning to die of some mysterious disease. When Patrick contracts the disease, he and Kate struggle to find a cure before it's too late. I wanted to like this book more than I did--I think the premise is reasonably interesting, but I had a hard time getting into it. For me, a little more editing would have helped: the action lags in the middle and I felt like there were a few too many scenes describing Patrick's agony as his disease progressed (one or two would have been plenty for me). I would have also liked to see a more distinct voice for each character--the POV shifts between Patrick and Kate, but often the only distinction I could see was the name change at the head of the chapter; both their voices were pretty similar to me.

This makes the last of the Whitney YA Speculative books for me. (I read Endlessly, Everneath, and Feedback before the finalists were announced). This is a difficult year to judge, I think, because all the books except for Everneath were sequels--and I have to admit that I rarely like sequels more than I do the first book (some exceptions are Megan Whalen Turner's Thief Series and Cinda Williams Chima's Seven Realms book). Second books, in particular, are notoriously difficult because the writer has to set up the final book in the trilogy but still maintain the storyline. With this series, I wasn't particularly wowed by any of the sequels (most of them were good, but not great). That said, I'd have to say that Everneath is my favorite of the set.

45. My other book for the week is an unusual one: Jokai Mor's The Hungarian Nabob, originally written in Hungarian in 1853. The tone of the book is similar to a lot of English Victorian books, by turns humorous, whimsical, and tragic. (This may be because it was translated at the end of the 19th century). Jokai was one of the premier Hungarian writers of his day--and I read this b/c it helps me establish the setting for a novel I'm currently working on. Interesting look at 19th century Hungarian aristocracy.

Monday, March 25, 2013

More March Books

40. Josi Kilpack, Banana Split. (Whitney, Mystery). I'll admit that I've only read a couple of the Sadie Hoffmiller culinary mysteries prior to reading this one. However, I enjoyed this one quite a bit. I think that was due not only to the cozy-style mystery (I love a good cozy!), but the fact that we actually see Sadie stretching quite a bit out of her comfort zone here. In this novel, Sadie is nearing the end of a long vacation in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, where she's trying to recover from the recurrent panic attacks after the resolution of her last case. At this point in her life, every little thing feels like a success: going out during the day, cooking her own food, etc. But when Sadie finds herself literally entangled with a body during a snorkeling outing, she finds herself struggling to maintain what little progress she's made. At first determined to have nothing to do with this case, Sadie becomes increasingly drawn in: first, when the victim's young son Charlie contacts her trying to find out more about his mother, and second, as she learns more about the victim (Noelani Pouha) and realizes that the police's easy dismissal of the case as that of a lapsed druggie may not be the full story. There were a few parts in the middle--as Sadie begins to recover and turns more toward the mystery--that were a little slow. But the opening chapters that showed Sadie as fragile and the closing chapters that wrapped up the mystery were all very good. There's even a recipe or two that I want to try . . .

41. Katherine Applegate, The One and Only Ivan. I am not, in general, a fan of animal books. I don't mind stories where one of the protagonists is an animal (like Bobbie Pryor's A Dogs Way Home), but generally speaking, these aren't the books I seek out. This one, however, I'd heard great things about even before it won the Newbery for 2013. The story is loosely based on a true story of a gorilla, Ivan, who spent nearly 3 decades in a small zoo that was part of a strip mall. Ivan seems mostly content to live out his days being admired by guests, drawing pictures, eating food, and hanging with his friends: Bob the dog, Stella the elephant, and Julia, the daughter of the janitor. All this changes when a baby elephant, Ruby, arrives to help boost tourist numbers. I think what I loved most about this novel is the voice: Applegate was able to write convincingly as a gorilla, with little observations and details that seemed true to Ivan and his way of life. The writing, too, was lovely--simple and beautiful. Probably not a book I'm looking to re-read, but it was lovely.

42. Aprilynne Pike, Destined (Whitney, YA Speculative). Confession: I read the first novel of this four-book series some time ago; I haven't read the others. As a result, it was hard for me to get into this final novel of the series because Pike assumes that readers have followed along for the whole series and takes little time to catch up readers who may have forgotten (or missed) previous story lines. I'll admit I prefer this to novels that hit you over the head with back story, but I wasn't as emotionally connected to this story because it starts out in the middle of action, with Lauren and her friends trying to save Avalon (the home of the faeries) from Yuki and Klea, two powerful fairies on a mission to overthrow the kingdom. Pike does a nice job moving the action along and I appreciated the fact that in this war there are definite casualties (something that some fantasy novels fail to show). However, ultimately I didn't care about the characters as much as I should have.

43. Lana Krumwiede, Freakling (Whitney Middle Grade). I enjoyed this debut novel from Krumwiede, about twelve-year-old Taemon's experience living in a dystopian city where everyone has some form of psi, a psychic ability that allows them to manipulate things with their minds, rather than their hands. Those who don't possess psi are cast out of the City and called "freaklings." Taemon himself possesses some unusual psi abilities that he's usually quiet about; however, when an accident robs him of his ability to use psi, he's deported to the colony to live with the other freaklings. Surprisingly, he enjoys life outside of the City, but when he hears reports of mysterious disappearances and finds other evidence that life inside the City is not what he once believed, Taemon decides to take action. A quick, fast-paced, well-written read. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The ides of March

Not as many books this week; I was busy writing (fiction and academic) and reading up for my writer's group meeting this week. 

37. Stacy Henrie, Lady Outlaw. (Whitney, Romance) Pretty, red-headed Jennie Jones owns a ranch in Southern Utah--it's the only thing she inherited from her father, and she'll do just about anything to keep it. After the bank threatens to foreclose on her ranch if she doesn't pay her remaining debt, Jennie discovers just what her limits are: after a chance encounter with some stage robbers, Jennie comes up with a daring plan to save her ranch--by stealing money from thieves. After all, she reasons, it's for a good cause, and the thieves would only buy booze and women with the money. Jennie's plans are complicated when she hires Caleb Johnson, a novice cowboy with a tragic past, to help her on the ranch. Soon her feelings for Caleb conflict with her means of getting money for the ranch, and Jennie has to decide how far she's willing to go to save what matters to her. I thought the premise for this was cute--and unusual. I liked Jennie and Caleb as characters; I particularly liked that Jennie was feisty and not willing to play the victim (and if people say that red-heads in fiction are a little cliche, well, as a natural red-head myself, I have to admit that I like them). I also enjoyed seeing a glimpse of the history of Southern Utah, as I happen to live in the area. That said, I had a hard time with Jennie's decision to steal money--this may be a particular quirk of my generally law-abiding personality, but it made it hard for me to relate to Jennie for a while. I also would have liked to see a little more focus on the romance, and less on the banditry (but here, again, this is a personal preference). Generally speaking, it was a nice, clean romance--the writing wasn't particularly memorable, but it was clear and moved quickly.

38. Maureen Johnson, The Madness Underneath (sequel to The Name of the Star). I enjoyed the first novel in Johnson's The Shades of London series, about Rory Devereaux's encounter with a Jack-the-Ripper type serial killer while she attended Wexford Academy. The sequel begins with Rory struggling to put her life back together. The first few chapters are understandably slow, as Rory tries to care about anything. When her therapist suggests Rory return to Wexford, the story picks up. Rory picks up the threads of her old life, including her involvement with the Shades (an elite and secret ghost hunting arm of the police). A new set of murders suggest the possibility of another serial killer, so Rory and the gang set out to investigate and uncover something much more unusual, and unsettling. For the first two thirds of the book, I was interested but not especially overwhelmed. The last 1/3 of the book takes a drastic turn (one I sort of saw coming), but left me pretty frustrated with the story. I realize this is the problem with second books in a series--usually the first book wraps up at least one plot (think Harry Potter or the Hunger Games); the second book struggles because it has to set up the third story and so it often feels less finished. I didn't feel like the first part of the book set up the ending as well as it could have; there was also a plot twist at the end that made me extremely unhappy. I won't say what it is because I don't want to spoil it--suffice it to say that Johnson will have to do some pretty incredible word magic in the last book to make me okay with the ending. (That said, I will undoubtedly read the third book just to find out what happens, so maybe the frustrating ending actually achieved what it set out to do.)

39. (I almost forgot to add this one!) Alethia Kontis, Enchanted. This came recommended by my sister so I was looking forward to reading it--but my feelings for it are ultimately mixed. The writing at times was spectacularly lovely, but somehow the overall story just didn't do it for me. Sunday Woodcutter is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, but she's still coming into her powers. One day, on a ramble through the woods, she meets and befriends an enchanted frog. When she releases him (unintentionally) from his curse, the prince returns home and orders a series of three balls so that he can woo Sunday (her family holds a grudge against him, for good reason). Things get complicated after that, partly because Kontis seems determined to weave part of half a dozen fairy tales into the story (The Frog Prince, Cinderella, Jack and the Giant Killer, etc.). I liked many of the allusions--and I liked the complex back story for many of the characters and I liked the characters themselves, but ultimately I didn't love it. Ironically, I think I would have liked it better if the story was pared down a bit so that the lyrical language didn't get swallowed in the plot.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Whitney speculative wrap-up, Clockwork Prince

32. Dan Wells, The Hollow City.  This was my favorite of the Whitney speculative finalists. In a city haunted by a serial killer (the Red Line Killer) who leaves his victims faceless, Michael Shipman sees things that other people don't. He sees men without faces and fears electronics (cell phones in particular) because he believes a government conspiracy is using the phones to monitor him. When his visions land him in a psychiatric ward, Michael is told he has schizophrenia--that his brain interprets stimuli that don't actually exist. He's also given reason to believe that he's the Red Line Killer: the people targeted are all associated with the cult that killed his mother, and Michael has unexplained gaps in his memory that cover the times of the murder. Michael isn't convinced--not about his diagnosis, not about the murders. But Michael has to figure out the truth of what's going on before the secrets from his past catch up with him . . . For the most part, I enjoyed this one. The writing was compelling, the plot quick moving, and Michael's narration was fascinating, as the book plays with the question of what is ultimately real. The ending, I felt, wrapped things up a little too quickly without answering all of my questions, but aside from that, it was a good read.

33. Jacob Gowans, Flight from Blithmore (Whitney speculative). Henry and Isabel have been in love since they were children, though he is the son of a successful carpenter and she's the scion of a noble house that's fallen on rough times. But when Isabel's mother dies and her father refuses to acknowledge her engagement, Henry and Isabel feel they have no choice but to start their lives together somewhere else. However, Isabel's cruel father fights them--he sells Isabel (illegally) to the emperor of a neighboring country. When Henry stands up to the emperor to save Isabel, the emperor launches a revenge man-hunt that endangers not only Henry and Isabel, but Henry's sister Maggie, Isabel's brother James, Henry's journeyman, and Henry's childhood friend Ruther (a master storyteller). The premise was a little far-fetched to me, but that's not something I mind when the story is well told. Here, the story-telling was mixed. The writing itself tended to be clear and smooth-flowing (there were even some parts that glimmered of brilliance). But I struggled getting into this--after the excitement of their initial escape, the characters seem to wander without much real danger until almost the end of the book. I also struggled to relate to the characters.  Over at "The Dawning of a Brigher Day" (The Association of Mormon Letters blog), Jessie Christensen talks about Mormon lit that feels "bland"--that lacks a distinct voice--and I think that sums up some of my difficulty with the book. Henry and Isabel had so many virtues that they didn't feel real; the other characters seemed to be pretty one-note: Ruther was the dissolute with an occasional good conscience moment; James was the soldier; Maggie was---I'm not entirely sure what her distinction was supposed to be, except as another female for the group; and the journeyman was a coward.  Oddly enough, my favorite chapter was one between two minor characters--the King of Blithmore and the emperor's retired general--I think because the two both had distinct, unusual characters and their interaction was refreshing. This book does have a lot of good star reviews at Amazon and Goodreads, so perhaps I'm in the minority in my opinion here.

34. Ally Condie, Reached. One of the things I love about Condie's books is how she makes classic literature more accessible for teen readers. Reached is no exception. Reached begins with the Rising's revolution: a nation-wide plague for which only the Rising has the cure. But when a plague-resistent strain breaks out, Cassia, Ky, and Xander must do their part to fight the plague and figure out their places in the newly evolving society. This novel wasn't as action-packed as I had anticipated for the third volume of a trilogy that includes an uprising, but I liked it despite that. I liked that the novel raised interesting questions about the shape of a revolution--how do we really change society? Are the changes superficial or can we enact real change? What are the costs of that change? I also liked Condie's thoughtful and lyrical prose. My only real complaint was that the resolution of the love triangle between Cassia, Ky, and Xander wasn't quite as complicated as I'd hoped it would be--I felt like the question of who she would end up with was answered fairly quickly.

35. Josie S. Kilpack, Daisy. Daisy is a 46 year-old-mother of two (almost a grandmother), who's looking forward to having an empty nest in a few months when her youngest graduates from high school. That is, until she finds herself with an unexpected diagnosis and has to revisit all of her plans for the future. (I can't say much more without giving away too much of the plot). I've read two of the other novels in the Newport Ladies book club, and, while I like the concept (the way four different women's lives are altered over the course of their interaction in a book club), it does introduce one difficulty that this book drives home: the shared parts of the novel start to feel repetitive by the second or third reading. Otherwise, I liked reading about how Daisy begins to change her perspective on life through the events of the novel, and I liked Daisy herself, although the final resolution left me feeling a little incomplete.

36. Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince. It's rare that I like the sequel to a book better than the original, but that was definitely the case with this book. The series already has a lot of elements I like: setting in Victorian England (complete with references to literature and art that I actually get! I felt unreasonably smug when I realized that I'd actually read one of Tessa's favorite novels, The Hidden Hand, for a graduate course--I'm guessing most readers have never even heard of the book). A love triangle that actually interests me (I was amazed by how my loyalties kept shifting between Will and Jem--usually I have a clear-cut favorite in a love triangle that doesn't waver, but here I find my loyalties almost as divided as Tessa's). Lovely writing and a compelling plot. I'm looking forward to reading the conclusion to the series when it gets released shortly.

Monday, March 4, 2013

More Whitneys--with Enthusiasm!

I sort of forgot to number my books last week. Numbers aren't my strongest suit, but I think I'm up to . . .

29. Polly Shulman, Enthusiasm. I'll admit--I picked up this book at the library because it had a cover blurb from Stephenie Meyer, and I was curious about the premise. It more than met my expectations; it was a darling story. For years, Julie's been dragged along by her best friend Ashleigh's wild enthusiasms. She's more or less used to it by now. But, just before their sophomore year begins, Julie's dismayed to find that Ashleigh has glommed onto what has always been Julie's private enthusiasm: a love for all things Jane Austen. Ashleigh decides that they must find suitable Mr. Darcys--and since they are unlikely to find such a creature at their public high school, Ashleigh convinces Julie to help her crash a dance at a local all-boys prep school. There, they meet a real candidate for Darcy-hood in the form of Parr, a tall, handsome, sensitive student (and one whom Julie has long admired in town without knowing his name.) Problem is, Ashleigh thinks he's pretty great too, and Julie doesn't have it in her to fight Ashleigh's newest enthusiasm, even if she wanted to . . . I thought the story was a lot of fun, and I loved the strong relationship Julie and Ashleigh had. I liked, too, that while there were the resident evil girls from school, those girls were pretty much just a minor backdrop: the real story focuses on Julie and Ashleigh's friendship, Julie's troubles understanding boys (and her fear of a lack-luster first kiss) and their growing friendship with Parr (who really is pretty great).

30. Ka Hancock, Dancing on Broken Glass (Whitney General). I thought this book was lovely. On her 21st birthday, Lucy Hancock falls hard for Mickey Chandler, a boy several years her senior with a history of bipolar disorder. Although Mickey does what he can to discourage Lucy (experience has taught him the hard way that long-term romantic relationships don't often work with his disorder), he can't help falling for her as well. And so they marry. Lucy, however, has her own complicated history: her parents both died while she was young--her mother of breast cancer. At 26, Lucy fights her own (successful) battle with breast cancer, but the she and Mickey make the difficult decision not to have children. Eight years later, a routine doctor's exam reveals something unexpected (and I don't really think this is a spoiler, because you can see it coming): she's pregnant. Suddenly, she and Mickey have to reconfigure their entire relationship. There were a lot of things I loved about this book, from the beautiful language (some sentences I had to reread just to absorb them) to the engrossing characters. I loved Lucy and the close bonds she has with her sisters; I also loved Mickey, who was broken, but who loved Lucy as much as he could. I liked how the novel dealt so positively with difficult things--not that the author glossed over the difficulties or made light of them, but that she showed how the characters weathered difficult things because they loved each other, and that love was sustaining and ultimately redemptive. There were a few moments that were just a little too "precious," but I think that's hard to avoid in women's lit, given certain genre expectations--and any novel dealing with a baby is bound to have a few of those moments, I think.

31. David Butler, City of Saints (Whitney Speculative). The author describes this as a "gonzo steampunk adventure" and I think that description is pretty accurate. The story takes place in an alternate 1850s U.S.--one where the Mormons have established a separate Kingdom of Deseret, Russians own the Northeast, and Harriet Tubman (I presume she's the "President Tubman") has established a community of African Americans in Mexico. I was intrigued by the story from the opening scene, which has several different factions racing to Salt Lake to try to recruit the Mormons (and their rumored air ships and phlogistan guns--whatever those might be--developed by Madman Pratt) for their side as the North and South inch towards war. Captain Richard Burton, a world explorer, drags along his foppish side-kick, Absalom Fearnley-Standish, in behalf of her Majesty, Queen Victoria. Samuel Clemens leads a delegation for the Northern States. And Edgar Allan Poe, disguised as a gypsy, leads a delegation for Robert E. Lee and other Southern sympathizers (apparently, Poe faked his death in 1849). The author shifts point of view frequently, which was a little disorienting in the beginning, until I got all the different factions established in my head. Butler does a pretty good job of giving each POV a fairly distinctive voice, and the writing cracks a long at a good pace. The premise and the characters were a lot of fun--I enjoyed the parade of familiar historical characters (in addition to those already mentioned, readers meet Porter Rockwell, John D. Lee of the Mountain Meadows Massacre infamy, Bill Hickman, Eliza R. Snow, Brigham Young, George Q. Cannon, Heber Kimball, and others). I was impressed by the steampunk element too: the author clearly knew enough about modern weaponry to invent a realistic range of mechanical inventions. The book I read actually spans four novellas (available separately at Amazon: Liahona, Deseret, Timpanogos, and Teancum). And despite the compelling premise, I started to get a little bored about 2/3 of the way through when all the different gun fights started to blur together for me. I would have preferred a little less action and a more compressed story. There is a fair amount of gore (not surprising in a western where everyone carries a western), which may not appeal to some readers. I also really struggled with Eliza R. Snow's character, since she shows up as a kind of Mata-hari character: a kick-ass fighter who's willing to seduce men in order to achieve her objectives. I wrote a dissertation chapter on Snow and her use of rhetoric, and the Snow in this novel bears little resemblance to the Snow I studied. (I know this sounds like quibbling, given how much of the novel requires some suspension of disbelief, but this was one element I couldn't quite swallow).