Sunday, April 28, 2013

I finished the Whitneys!

This is my third year reading some of the Whitney finalists --but my first year reading *all* of the finalists. The Whitneys cover such a wide range of genres that, not surprisingly, I really loved some of the books; others I wasn't as fond of. Also, since there are now 40 finalists in 8 categories, this was a lot of reading!

I think my favorite categories from this year were the Middle Grade, Romance, General, and Historical.

In case anyone was wondering, here are my overall favorites from the finalists.

General: Dancing on Broken Glass was easily my favorite, though Night on Moon Hill has some lovely, lyrical passages.

Historical: Here, again, I had two favorites. I was impressed by Goldberg's Five Books of Jesus and his ability to make familiar stories fresh. That said, as a reader, I enjoyed Carla Kelly's My Loving Vigil Keeping the most (although don't read it if you're not prepared to cry!)

Romance: This may be too close for me to call. I loved Edenbrooke (I'm a sucker for regency romances), but I'm also a big fan of Melanie Jacobson and I enjoyed both of her entries.

Mystery/Suspense: Kilpack's books (see my review below) my two favorites.

Speculative: Dan Well's The Hollow City.

YA Speculative: Brodi Ashton, Everneath

Young Adult: I didn't have a clear favorite here--I liked all of them (although I didn't love Finding June). The Space Between Us was perhaps the most literary; V is for Virgin was fresh and new; The Ugly Stepsister Strikes Back and After Hello were both clean and sweet.

Middle Grade: Jennifer Nielsen's The False Prince was one of my favorite books I read last year, so naturally, this was my favorite. However, all the entries were good--this was possibly the most competitive of the categories, with four of the five books coming from national publishers.

I'll be interested to see how my favorites line up with the Whitney voters. Anyone interested can buy a ticket to the Whitney Awards gala (May 11, 7 p.m.) here.

61. Josi Kilpack, Tres Leches Cupcakes (Whitney finalist, suspense). Both of Kilpack's books this year were strong contenders and I enjoyed both of them for different reasons. I liked the character arc in Banana Split--it's not often in cozy mysteries that you find the main character evaluating herself and her life to the extent you see Sadie doing so in Banana Split. That said, I enjoyed the mystery of Tres Leches just a little bit more than Banana Split--Sadie is coming back to her old self, she's interesting and energetic, and I loved the little details about life in the Southwest that came through here.

62. Jokai Mor, Hungarian Sketches in Peace and War. Jokai is widely known as Hungary's premier 19th century novelist, and collections like this make it easy for me to see why. As an author, Jokai has such a wide range of topics--the sketches here range from the almost slap-stick comedic to the deeply tragic (I think I may be scarred permanently by the second story, which tells of the slaughter of an entire noble family during the reprisals to Hungary's 1848 revolution). I'm not sure that the writing style would appeal to all modern tastes, but I enjoyed many of them--particularly his attentiveness to details of ordinary life.

Monday, April 22, 2013

More Whitneys

This week's post was getting ridiculously long, so I decided to split it into two posts. Here's the second half:

56. Gregg Luke, Deadly Undertaking (Whitney, Suspense) Rebekah Smith enjoys her job at the Medical Examiner's office, even though other people might not get why she likes it so much (her boyfriend's coworker calls her CK for "crypt keeper"). However, when her office starts receiving several bodies of centenarians who have been partially embalmed before their bodies were discovered, she enlists the help of her law enforcement boyfriend, Josh Logan, to help her solve the mystery. Unfortunately for Rebekah, she's up against a killer with a cause, and her interest in these cadavers just might prove deadly.

The book was reasonably well written (there were a few typos), and the plot moved quickly. However, the book was not quite the mystery I envisioned; the reader discovers the murderer fairly quickly (several chapters are told from his point of view), so the book is more a suspense/thriller than a mystery. Genre quibbles aside, I didn't connect terribly well to the characters--Josh and Rebekah alternated between witty banter and serious, medical terminology, and although they both had serious struggles in their past, they never quite felt real to me. I find it interesting that a lot of reviewers (on Goodreads) mention that this book is "creepy." Now, I'm the kind of person who had to have her husband pre-screen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because I do not do creepy or tense well--but I didn't have a problem with the book. Maybe that's because I wasn't super emotionally invested in the characters? I also found the clinical/medical descriptions the most interesting part of the book.

57. Rachel Ann Nunes, Line of Fire (Whitney, Suspense) 3.5 stars. This is one of a series of books about Autumn Rain (so named by her hippie adoptive parents), who has an unusual gift: she can sense "imprints," or strong emotional residue left by owners of physical objects. This gift proves useful in helping her solve crimes, the right object can lead her to the perpetrator. Autumn is also a nicely flawed character: she's recently met her twin sister (separated at birth) and is coming to terms with her past. In this story, Autumn's sister Tawnia asks Autumn to investigate their biological father, a man who's believed to be involved in the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl. While some aspects of the plot (particularly at the end, when things seem to work out suspiciously well for the main characters) were a little far-fetched, I thought the writing was solid and I enjoyed the character interaction. I also liked that the mystery wasn't completely predictable. The story reminded me, in good ways, of Charlaine Harris's Haper Connelly series (only not nearly as gruesome and without the sex).

58. Traci Hunter Abramson, Code Word. (Whitney, Suspense). This is book #6 in Abramson's Saint Squad series, about a Navy SEAL team that is predominantly Mormon. In this particular novel, Jay Wellman has just been granted two weeks leave after a nearly-fatal mission as part of the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. Jay anticipates a relaxing two weeks spent with his father; he doesn't expect Carina, the older sister of one of his father's swimming students--and the daughter of a Chicago mobster. Although Carina and her sisters have put the family behind her, the family hasn't forgotten about them. When the new head of the family sends men to find Carina (and something that Carina has), she reluctantly turns to Jay for help. The story flowed well and I liked that Carina was a strong woman who didn't have to be saved. However, I have to admit that there were some parts (mostly when the characters were discussing their plans) where I got a little bored. The romance and Jay's growing interest in the Mormon church seemed a little too pat and predictable for me. I would have liked to feel a little more surprised (or suspenseful) about how the story turned out. Also, coming into the series late, there were lots of side characters that I had a hard time keeping track of (I did have the sense, though, that all these characters had their own story and their appearance would mean something to fans of the series).

59. Jude Morgan, Indiscretion. This is my second Jude Morgan book, and while I didn't enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the first (An Accomplished Woman), I still enjoyed it a great deal. Since this is primarily a comedy of manners, it's a little hard to describe the plot, which centers primarily around the interactions between individuals. After Caroline Fortune's father runs through what little remains of their fortune, Caroline takes a job as a companion for a truly horrible, manipulative old woman, Mrs. Catling. This plunges her into Ms. Catling's social millieu, where Caroline meets Mr. and Miss Downey, along with the dashing Richard Leabrook--none of whom are quite what they seem at first inspection. After being summarily dismissed from Mrs. Catling's, Caroline takes refuge with an aunt and uncle and meets the delightful Milner family. Things seem to be going well until Caroline encounters ghosts from her past in the form of Mr. Leabrook and the Downey's. I really enjoy the author's distinct characterizations, the witty and sly observations, and the general Regency atmosphere of these books.

60. Jessica Day George, Princess of the Silver Wood. This is the final book in a trilogy retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. In this book, Petunia, the youngest of the twelve princesses, is on her way to visit a Duchess when her carriage is attacked by the Wolves of the Westfalin Woods (a fun nod to red riding hood). Petunia is inadvertently kidnapped by their leader, Oliver, who is not quite what he seems. At the same time, Petunia's nightmares about the King Under Stone (who forced her and her sisters to dance before his death) have returned. When Oliver is tasked with seeing Petunia safely returned to the Duchess, he discovers that Petunia's dreams are in fact quite real, and Petunia, Oliver, and the remaining princesses and their spouses will have to face the sons of the King Under Stone one last time. While it was difficult to keep track of all the characters, I thought George did a pretty good job keeping them distinct and I thought the story was generally charming, if not particularly profound.

Whitney roundup: Romance and Middle grade

This was a good reading week--I finally finished all the different books I was working on last week, so it makes it look like I did a lot of reading this week, when really I was tying up loose ends. (Also, I have a bad habit of reading 3-4 books at a time, depending on my location. I just happened to finish a bunch of books I started a while ago).

My title promises my response to the Whitney Romance and Middle Grade categories, so before you get lost in reviews, here are my thoughts.

The Romance category had some strong contenders this year. I've liked all of Melanie Jacobson's books, and her two nominees (Smart Move and Twitterpated) were no exception. Stacy Henrie's Lady Outlaw had an unusual premise and I liked the western flavor of the novel. Krista Jensen's Of Grace and Chocolate is reviewed below: some of the writing was lovely and I liked the honesty between the two main characters.  However, I have to say that Julianne Donaldson's Edenbrook was my favorite: I'm a sucker for a good Regency romance.

The Middle Grade category was pretty competitive as well; I think this is, in part, because four of the five books were published by national presses. J. Scott Savage's Zombie Kid is a nice blend of humor and horror (reviewed below); Freakling was unusual (I think) as a middle-grade dystopia. Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero was a harmless story, but a little out of its league. I am a long-time fan of Shannon Hale, so I enjoyed her Palace of Stone--especially her efforts to make rhetoric understandable for younger readers. The writing wasn't as strong as Princess Academy, but I still enjoyed it. However, Jennifer Nielsen's False Prince was one of my favorite novels from last year and none of the others changed my opinion; I think Nielsen actually has a good chance of winning best novel with this (although Dancing on Broken Glass is also very strong).

53. A. L. Soward, Espionage (Whitney, historical). This novel follows Peter Eddy, an American spy set down in Calais to convince local Nazi leaders that a decoy invasion in Calais is the real thing. Naturally, in such a setting, he encounters a variety of villains and heroes, including a French resistance fighter Jaques Olivier and his sister Genevieve. I thought the writing flowed smoothly and the pace, particularly of the last third of the novel, was good. However, I wasn't in love with the characters or the voice--the characters, to me, all seemed sort of similar (the good guys similarly virtuous and the bad guys similarly evil). It's hard not to contrast this with the brilliantly written Code Name Verity, which takes on a similar topic, but with a more distinctive voice.

54. Krista Lynn Jensen, Of Grace and Chocolate (Whitney, Romance). There was a lot to like about this novel, about a young woman, Jillian Parish, working to rebuild her life after a difficult childhood. Early on, she meets Scott (or re-encounters, as it turns out Scott figured in a pivotal episode in her youth, one that Jillian remembers but Scott doesn't). Jillian isn't interested in the relationship that Scott offers, but when Jillian's kid sister shows up at her doorstep with a baby and then vanishes, leaving Jillian with the baby and a host of questions, Scott becomes the friend she doesn't realize she needs. Some of the things I liked: some of the writing was gorgeous (an early chapter about Scott and Jillian's past was beautiful). I liked how the characters, Jillian in particular, had flaws but were trying to work through them. And I liked how their LDS faith was woven into the novel in a natural, rather than pedantic or preachy way. Some things I didn't like: I felt like the novel couldn't quite decide if it was a romance or a thriller, so it wound up having a little bit too much suspense and not enough romance for my taste (since I went into it expecting a romance). I thought the complex family issues were plenty of meat for the novel; it didn't need the additional danger and suspense.

55. J. Scott Savage, Case File 13: Zombie Kid (Whitney, Middle Grade). According to my sister, this is my 9-year-old nephew's new favorite book. I can see why: this is an almost pitch-perfect blend of humor and not-so-scary horror that would appeal to young readers. After Nick's creepy great-aunt dies, an encounter in a cemetery leaves Nick with a strange illness, one that Nick and his horror-mad friends think looks a lot like some kind of zombie plague, which is awesome, right? That is, until Nick starts loosing brain functions and body parts and it's clear that the three friends are going to have to find a cure, and quick.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Whitney finalist round-up: Historical

This past week I finished James Goldberg's The Five Books of Jesus (#52) and I'm nearly finished with A. L. Soward's Espionage.

I found Goldberg's book surprisingly enjoyable--and I say this because religious fiction is not often my favorite genre; also because when I picked up the book the first time the opening was so mystical that it was off-putting. But the book itself was lovely: the language was poetic and lyrical. But what I liked best about the book was that I felt it gave me a new perspective on familiar stories in the New Testament: I started seeing the stories in terms of individual characters making real decisions and sacrifices in their lives to follow (or not follow) Jesus. There's an interesting essay by the author about his journey to self-publish at the LDS blog, Dawning of a Brighter Day.

Although I'm not quite done with Espionage (so my review will wait for another day), I think my friend Jessie Christensen captures my reaction well in her comparison of Espionage and Code Name Verity, a nationally published book about WWII spies. Both books take the same subject, but Code Name Verity was a much stronger book, partly because the voice was so much clearer.

Of the Historical novels, I think that Goldberg's book probably should win in terms of writing--but as a reader, my favorite was Carla Kelly's My Loving Vigil Keeping, which was interesting and moving and, um, romantic. (Yes, I have a weakness for romantic plotlines!)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Eclectic: Historical, Middle Grade, Dystopian, Regency

Sometimes the books I read have a natural thematic link: this week, the only existing link seems to be my occasionally eclectic taste (and my Whitney list).

46. Matt Peterson, Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero (Whitney finalist, middle grade). Andrew Jensen doesn't quite feel like he fits in--at church, school, or elsewhere. But he's still looking forward to his upcoming Boy Scout backpacking trip. The trip, however, doesn't go as planned. From the tempestuous rainstorm that drenches their campsite to an unexpected tragedy, Andrew and his friends find out that they are stronger than they think they are. There were a lot of things to like about this book: I like how naturally Andrew's LDS faith was woven into the story, and, especially once the kids were on their scouting trip, the pace of the story was brisk. I would have liked a stronger sense of voice--it wasn't always clear to me how Andrew's perspective was any different from the other boys in his troop. Some of the other boys also felt sort of interchangeable to me, but I'm not sure this is a  concern that would affect any of the book's intended audience. In general, I think it's a cute, harmless book that would appeal to young readers (especially boys).

47. Martha Ward, Spinster's Folly (Whitney finalist, historical). (Disclaimer: although this is the fourth book of a series, this is the first of the books I've read.) I was looking forward to this book, as I've read a fair amount about women in the nineteenth-century American West, and the premise seemed promising. Newly settled with her family in Colorado, 18-year-old Marie Owen worries that she's dwindling into a spinster. She's angry with her father for not taking care to arrange a marriage for her as he did for her brothers, and she wonders who she could possibly marry in their relatively small community. After she confronts her father, he agrees to arrange a match for her--but Marie finds herself strangely uncomfortable with the match and with her intended's attitude toward her. She resolves to talk to her father about her concerns, but before she can do so, she's sweet-talked into eloping with a man who is not what he seems and Marie has to confront the consequences of her own "folly." Ultimately, I didn't enjoy the story as much as I had hoped. Ward does a nice job with some of the dialogue--the characters and attitudes seemed convincingly nineteenth century. The novel also worked well as a stand-alone novel; I didn't feel like I was missing essential information by not reading previous novels). I also enjoyed the minor character of Janette Rallison (a novelist whose books I admire). However, I really struggled to like Marie. First, I'm not convinced that at 18, a frontier woman would be on the shelf (many women married younger than this, true--but many were also older). Marie's mood swings were sometimes also inexplicable to me--how she was so intent on marriage, but once a match was arranged she became apprehensive. I also wasn't convinced at how quickly she agreed to elope with a virtual stranger--she seemed like a relatively intelligent, compassionate girl and I couldn't figure out how she could miss all the warning signs. I also found it a little hard to understand how Marie could miss the open admiration of the one man in the novel who was genuinely interested in her, to the point that she really thought she had no marriage prospects. Ultimately, I think I found it hard to get into the book because I had such a hard time relating to the main character.

48. Marie Lu, Prodigy. I've been looking forward to this book as I really enjoyed Legend. I liked Prodigy, but I don't think I loved it as much as I loved the first book. In this sequel, Day and June have made it to Vegas, only to be intercepted by the Patriots, who are working to overthrow the Republic. Then the Elector dies, and the Patriots want to assassinate Anden, the Elector's son and new Elector, throwing the country into chaos. Only they need Day and June to help them, as their popularity will help further destabilize the Republic. What I liked about this novel: I liked how much of the plot was unexpected; I liked that the politics were complicated, in a lot of good ways. What I didn't like as much: June and Day are separated for a fair portion of the novel, and I felt like it was their interactions that made me like Legend so much. I also didn't feel like I saw quite as much character growth here as I did in the first book (perhaps because June and Day have already overcome a lot of their original antipathy). Still a strong, well-written novel--I look forward to reading the conclusion to the trilogy.

49. Jude Morgan, An Accomplished Woman. At the ripe age of thirty, Lydia Templeton is a confirmed spinster, though as a woman of independent means, she's quite content with her lot in life: the season in London, summers on her family estate and in the company of pleasant neighbors (including the gentleman she inexplicably rejected ten years earlier). But when a dear family friend asks Lydia to escort her young ward, Phoebe, to Bath, Lydia finds her comfortable life overset. For Phoebe has a peculiar problem: she's deeply in love with two young men, and she counts on Lydia to help her make a decision. And although Lydia is determined not to interfere, she finds it increasingly difficult to keep her resolution. . . . As a reader who grew up reading Georgette Heyer's regency novels, I found this book fun and refreshing (and often laugh-out-loud funny). Admittedly, the plot is slow moving at times (this is true of some of Heyer's novels as well), but I loved the characterizations and I loved Lydia's sly point of view. While the romantic element is downplayed, there were still some nice moments of tension (especially toward the end). Mostly, though, I just enjoyed reading a regency novel that didn't strike me as silly or shallow.

50. Jokai Mor, The Baron's Sons. Since this is a translation of a mid-Victorian novel, I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the writing sometimes seems uneven: sometimes funny, biting, brilliant; other times over-the-top sentimental or sensational. The story follows the three sons of an evil Baron (in the original Hungarian, the title is the stone-hearted man's sons). On his death-bed, the Baron dictates instructions to his wife, who then proceeds to ignore all of them, especially concerning her sons. The two oldest sons, Odon and Richard, are drawn into the intrigues that precede the 1848 revolution in Hungary. The youngest son Jeno, an artist, follows the revolution but manages to remain above it, although it will ultimately touch him intimately. I have to admit that I enjoyed reading the book, but my enjoyment came primarily from the historical and local color element: it was fascinating to get a glimpse of a pivotal historical period from a man who himself lived through the revolution (Jokai was 22 when the Revolution started).

51. Eva Ibbotson, The Countess Belowstairs. I try to save gushing reviews for more literary books, but I have to admit that I really adored this book--and it will likely go on my "to re-read soon" shelf. Anna and her family, Russian nobility, flee to England after the 1917 revolution. Penniless and desperate to find work, Anna accepts a job with the Earl of Westerholme's family as a house maid. Although the butler and housekeeper suspect Anna's noble background, they give in to her pleadings and agree to let her stay--and her charming presence begins to transform the house. As always, there's a complication: Anna finds herself drawn to the attractive Earl, Rupert--but Rupert is already engaged to the beautiful Muriel Hardwicke, who nursed him back to health after he was wounded in World War I. Muriel's money is saving the Westerholme estate and her beauty initially blinds Rupert to her other, less appealing characteristics. Of course the storyline is pretty predictable and the main characters unrealistically virtuous, but I still loved the story (for me, this is the best kind of fluff reading). Anna is adorable: quirky, warm-hearted, funny. Rupert is a little less developed in my head, but he's honorable and loyal and you can't help liking him for that. But really, I think it was the secondary characters who steal the show here: Proom, the butler, who betrays his stiff upbringing to save the family; the elderly uncle who likes to pinch maids but adores music; the little neighbor girl, Ollie, who's plucky and charming; Rupert's best friend, who's in love with the rich--but plain--Jewish neighbor girl . . . and so many more.