Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, 456 pages

Mara Dyer woke up in a hospital three days after a horrible accident that killed three of her friends. She has no memory of the event, and no explanation as to why she survived with barely a scratch on her. If that wasn't weird enough, she keeps hallucinating about her dead friends, and is having trouble telling the real world from the imaginary. Then there's the sexy mysterious bad boy who's pursuing Mara... all kinds of potential for trouble there!

As a teen horror novel, this one definitely had the right elements (see above paragraph) and Hodkin did a good job putting them together, without tipping her hand as to what's really going on here. I'm a bit disappointed that this is yet another YA series (not everything has to be a trilogy, people!). Several elements reminded me of The O.C., a TV show that was set in an upscale neighborhood in a sunny climate (and, yes, one of my guilty pleasures): the teenage cliques, the architecture of the school, the elaborate parties, the homes of the uber-rich, plot twists that make it a bit hard to suspend disbelief, a main character obsessed with Death Cab for Cutie. The one thing The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer had that The O.C. didn't: alligators. And for the purpose of scaring the crap out of me, those do a great job; I'll definitely crack open these books if I want to have the bejesus scared out of me by a reptile. But for sanity's sake, I'm sticking with Peter Gallagher's eyebrows, which are slightly less scary.

P.S. A note on the cover: I kinda liked the cover of this book, which, despite whitewashing a mixed-race main character (boo!) and featuring an image that has NOTHING to do with the plot, seemed almost holographic and mysterious, particularly under the shiny library plastic cover. 

The Death of Sweet Mister

The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell, 196 pages.

Daniel Woodrell outdoes himself in this tale of a sadder-than-hell dysfunctional Missouri Ozark family. Thirteen year-old Shug, or Sweet Mister, lives with his flirtatious, alcoholic mother, Glenda, and her long-time boyfriend Red. They live in the caretaker's house on the local cemetery grounds, in exchange for Shug's minimal labor. All there other needs depend on Red's mood, and his willingness to part with some of his ill-gotten cash.
Red might be Shug's father, but both of them hope that is not the case. Red hates everything about Shug, and abuses him and his mother. He's a psychopath, a drug abuser and a constant petty criminal. There is still hope for Glenda and Shug as the story opens, but it all fades as the story continues. By the end, jeez, you find yourself hoping for the ending you had dreaded a chapter or two earlier. Woodrell is a masterful storyteller with lovingly drawn characters and a relentless and unflinching style.
Nicholas Tecosky does an excellent job of narrating the audio.

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Downloadable audio.

Safe House

Safe House by Chris Ewan, 442 pages.

When Rob wakes up in the hospital after a motorcycle accident his questions about the health of his passenger go unanswered when the police insist he was found alone at the side of a lonely stretch of road. He begins to investigate the disappearance of this attractive young woman, and finds himself investigating the recent death of his sister as well. This book never really sells its setting, or its characters. It ends up being a diverting read, but nothing all that special.

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Fast Animal

Fast Animal by Tim Seibles, 90 pages.
One of the finalists for the 2012 National Book Award in poetry, Fast Animal is lyrical, nostalgic, and funny. Seibles discusses and explores young love, race in America, and the Blade movies with Wesley Snipes. A joy to read.
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Tapping into the Wire

Tapping into the Wire: The Real Urban Crisis by Peter Beilenson and Patrick McGuire, 214 pages.

Beilenson, the former Baltimore Public Health Commissioner, and McGuire, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, explore the connections between the issues raised in HBO's groundbreaking TV series The Wire and those found in many American Cities. Gun violence, the war on drugs, lack of needle exchanges or treatment options for drug abusers, and family and nutrition issues are all raised and discussed in this compelling book.
Christa's review can be found here.

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The Nao of Brown

The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon, 204 pages.

In this graphic novel, a twenty-eight year-old artist, illustrator, and fan of "ichi," which, from the context I'm assuming means "feminine fashion for the vibrant, sensual and sophisticated city girl" and not facial scarring traditionally used by the Igbo people of West Africa" though it might refer to one of several Japanese films. If ichi was defined in the book, I missed it. Oh, well. Nao Brown, daughter of an English mother, and an alcoholic Japanese father, suffers from a sometimes crippling OCD. She spends a fair amount of time locked in bathrooms, trying to convince herself that she is a good person, and not capable of committing the horrible acts she imagines. She meets a man in London, sabotages her roomates washing machine in order to meet him and they attempt to make a go of it. They are both damaged individuals and have to overcome a lot of personal issues along the way. An interesting read with bold, clear art.

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Three by Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban, 435 pages, 12 hours.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 734 pages, 20 hours.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 870 pages, 25.5 hours.
all written by J. K. Rowling, all narrated by Jim Dale.
We spent quite a lot of our weekends and all of our car rides listening to Jim Dale reading Harry Potter this month and last. Alas, we are done with the series now. The kids and I have listened to them all before in one form or another over the years, but it was the first time for Heather. She liked them all better than the movies, but had to be persuaded to listen to Goblet of Fire, the movie version of which was her least favorite of the series. We listened to them out of order, going with whatever was available. We listened to some of the discs over and over again, as we didn't start the next disc until everyone had listened to the one playing

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A Bride's Story Vol. 4

A Bride's Story Vol. 4 by Kaoru Mori   191 pp.

This volume of A Bride's Story introduces new characters and returns to one from the previous volumes. The wedding story centers around twins Laila and Leily, outspoken teens who are focused only on getting husbands. They plot and scheme to get what they want but in the end discover they are satisfied with the arrangements their father has made. Their noisy antics are amusing A side story involves Mr. Smith, the ethnographer from previous episodes who meets the twins when he is rescued after dozung off and falling from his camel into the sea. This series is improving with each new volume.

Oh Myyy!

Oh Myyy! by George Takei   154 pp,

George Takei never dreamed that a gay, Japanese-American actor in his seventies could become an internet sensation. But that is exactly what happened. Takei's posts on social media sites has taken on a life of its own with millions of fans reposting his comments, links, and amusing photos on Facebook, Twitter, and others. In this book he chronicles the rise of his internet presence, offers some insight into the vague workings of Facebook (at least as it was when he wrote the book), and explains how he keeps up with it all (his partner, Brad and two interns) while continuing his life of acting and activism.  Currently the book is only available electronically but that could always change.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Benediction / Kent Haruf 257p.

Another novel set in the small Colorado town in which Haruf's earlier Plainsong was featured.  An elderly cancer patient relives his past, wondering about the son from whom he's estranged.  A minister becomes estranged from his congregation and his family for his views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Thoughtful, but with little plot movement.  I enjoyed this but it wasn't as strong as Plainsong.

Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President / Candice Millard 339 p.

This was an excellent audiobook for a long car ride.  Before reading this, it was hard to imagine an interesting book about James Garfield.  Now I find it amazing that this story wasn't brought to prominence earlier.  There's a big cast of characters here, and most of them are fascinating.  Garfield himself is almost too good to be true, except he was, and the reader will wish fervently that he'd had far more than his few months in office.  His assassin Guiteau, although a killer, had the decency to have quite a few predilections that make for entertaining reading.  Alexander Graham Bell tried to invent a metal detector to find Guiteau's bullet in poor Garfield's back, which is almost another book in itself.   And VP Chester A. Arthur undergoes a moral conversion of sorts when faced with assuming the presidency.  High drama coupled with disgusting (cavities of pus - I don't need to elaborate, right?) medical detail.  Perfect!

The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy / Tim Pat Coogan 276 p.

This is hard to evaluate since I've read almost nothing else about the famine aside from novels, and not very many of those, in fact.  Coogan, a veteran journalist (the Irish Times, I think?) believes that most previous scholarship has been far too kind to the English, presumably because no serious person wanted to make the IRA even angrier than they already were.  Coogan takes the gloves off and calls the famine genocide, including the Geneva convention definition as an appendix.  At the same time, he is very careful to make distinctions among the players: the first famine Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, was ineffective but tried to ameliorate the problem.  The second, John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, was far worse, not least because he left the purse strings in the hands of Sir Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Trevelyan is on record as saying that the famine would deal effectively with the problem of excess population in Ireland, thereby clearing the land for highly profitable cattle rather than potatoes (and the poor buggers who farmed them.)  Challenging reading which assumes a good bit of prior knowledge of the land, the people, and their history.

N.B.  The Quakers earn a lot of praise from Coogan - efficient, hard-working, compassionate, and not interested in converting anyone from Popery in exchange for a meal. 


Graceling by Kristin Cashore, 471 pages

In Katsa's world there are regular people and there are Gracelings, the latter of which have superhuman powers of some manner and are instantly recognizable by their eyes, which are always two different colors. Gracelings can have any type of power (or Grace), from predicting weather to swimming really well to swordfighting. Even among Gracelings though, Katsa's different. Her Grace is killing, and her uncle, a king, has put her to good use as a thug when his underlords need a bit of painful persuasion. That all changes though when Katsa meets Po, a Graceling prince from a nearby kingdom. The two Gracelings strike an unlikely friendship and embark upon a quest to solve the mystery of his grandfather's kidnapping.

There were several things I enjoyed about this book. Katsa registers high--nearly off the chart--of my Katniss-Bella Scale of YA Heroines, but manages some emotional growth that Katniss Everdeen could only dream of (but probably wouldn't because it wouldn't occur to her that she needed emotional growth. But that's a different book.). She's an excellent heroine, and I love love LOVE her feminist views and the relationship that develops between Katsa and Po. The only problem I had with the book was that the plot seemed a bit muddled toward the end, as if Cashore was putting all her energy into the developing relationship and didn't have any left over to make plot devices connect. But this was Cashore's first novel and the relationship was awesome, so I'll overlook that and simply call this an excellent book. Well worth the read, and thank you, Annie for recommending it.

The Amulet of Samarkand

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, 462 pages

Nathaniel is a young magician with great talent, ambition, unquenchable curiosity, and the desire to go far in England's magician-centric government. He's also got an axe to grind with Simon Lovelace, a superstar magician who publicly humiliated Nathaniel. Enter Bartimaeus, a smart-mouthed djinn Nathaniel summons to swipe the mysterious Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace. As expected, things don't go entirely to plan, and Nathaniel and Bartimaeus are manage to get in one pickle after another as they're held together by an almost-unbreakable bond.

This is the first book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, which I'd been curious about for quite some time. One of the things I liked about this was that the narration switched back and forth between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, the latter of whom used footnotes (he claimed as a way to relate the story on multiple planes of existence, though I think it was just to annoy the reader. I was certainly annoyed.). But I did like the switching points of view. As someone who has become so used to the world of Harry Potter, it was a little weird for me to read about Stroud's version of the education of young magicians (though considering that Stroud pokes fun at the notion of a boarding school for magicians, I'm probably not the first to have that sensation). I also really liked that Nathaniel isn't your typical golden boy hero (I would totally sort him into Slytherin if he was in that world, which he's not) and I loved the humor. I'll definitely be checking out the rest of the series.

The Death of Bees

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell, 311 pages.

Lisa O'Donnell writes a moving account of two gifted children who had it hard enough when they were being either abused or neglected by their self-absorbed, drug-abusing parents, but who have it just a little bit harder when their father dies under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and their mother commits suicide shortly after. Not wanting to return to foster care, Marnie and Nelly decide to bury their parents in the backyard (and that's just the first page). The rest of the book details their quest to remain on their own, with the deaths undiscovered. Everything gets more complicated than they thought it would, with their registered-sex-offender neighbor, a couple of local drug-dealers, and the return of their long-dead grandfather. All of the characters are interesting, and everyone is keeping secrets. They all have hidden agendas and move the story forward even if their actions get a bit strained by the end. The books tone is dark and funny, and always veers toward the dark and unfunny, but then finds some way to give a laugh again. A good solid book.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Paperboy

The Paperboy by Pete Dexter 307 pgs.

This 1995 book by Pete Dexter is a dark and moody tale.  The story is narrated by Jack James, the younger brother of Ward James who is part of a super reporting duo at the Miami Times.  Ward and his partner are working on a story in his home town where they believe a convicted killer was railroaded with "redneck" justice and is actually innocent.  The story takes a lot of research but eventually wins a Pulitzer prize.  Problems crop up when another reporter tries to double check the story.

A lot more happens, of course, but the brother characters Jack and Ward are very interesting.  Their relationship evolves and you get to know them a bit by the way situations are handled.

Imagine my embarrassed surprise that this book was made into a movie just last year.  The summary of the movie plot seems to leave out the parts of the book that I found the most interesting so I'll probably skip it but the link below gives you the option to request all versions of this book/movie/audiobook.

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Fever Season: the Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City / Jeanette Keith 261 p.

In 1878 the city of Memphis was struck by an especially strong epidemic of yellow fever.  The population fled, leaving behind 20,000 people, mostly African-Americans who had fewer means to leave.  Keith's book is the story of how those who stayed behind organized care for the thousands of sick, obtained and distributed food, and maintained order under hideous circumstances.  Keith highlights especially those who are on record as showing great courage, and analyzes why they stayed when they might have saved themselves.  Interesting but also somewhat frustrating.  Having read lots of Erik Larson (Devil in the White City, etc.) and recently, Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic, I kept wishing that Keith would tell me a story.  There may not have been enough in the historical record for her to do that; I just like a little narrative with my pestilence.   

A Tale of Sand

A Tale of Sand by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, adapted by Ramon Perez; graphic novel; 120 pages

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I picked this up:  maybe something along the lines of The Dark Crystal in comic form?  I didn't realize that Henson had worked on films aimed at adult, and kind of existential, experimental films at that.  This is one of his scripts that was never produced, but has now been adapted into comic form.

The story is pretty hard to explain:  it involves a man running across the desert with no destination and no explanation of why he's there. Over the course of the book he encounters one surreal experience after another, and he is constantly pursued by a man with a patch over one eye.  The artwork here is cartoony, but manages to capture the dreamlike quality of the story.  There's very little dialog, so this is a fast read, but one that will make you think.  Now I'm left wondering how muppets would have fit into this movie....

Me before you, by Jojo Moyes

Will Traynor had it all – in his mid-thirties he was a wunderkind businessman; had a beautiful girlfriend and wealthy family; and he thrived on travel and extreme sports.  His world has been destroyed by stepping off a curb into the path of a motorcycle.  Left quadriplegic by the accident and in considerable pain, he is now being cared for around the clock in the annex of his parents’ home, in the small town he grew up in whose tourist attraction is its ancient castle.  Twenty-seven year old Louisa Clark is a local girl who has just been laid off from the only job she has ever had when the Buttered Bun cafe closes.  Her long-term boyfriend, Patrick, has little time for her as he is training obsessively for an ultra-triathlon; her father’s job is in jeopardy; her mother is unable to work because she must care for her stroke-ridden father; and her more favored and intelligent sister, who left college when she became pregnant, is living at home with her young son in the only spare bedroom – so Claire sleeps in a closet.  She must find work, and all she can find is a job as one of Will’s caretakers.   He is depressed, suicidal, impatient and sarcastic.  This is the story off their six months together.  Yes, it sounds a bit like a chick-flick, a setup for a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, or a remake of An Affair to remember.  But I found the characters believable, and their story thought-provoking and heartbreaking.  Oh, and it is also very funny.   Kept me up way too late reading.  369 pp.

The art forger, by B. A. Shapiro

The 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is one of the great unsolved art crimes.  This novel is an alternative history of what might have happened to one of the paintings (also fictional) involved.  Claire Roth is a talented young painter who currently works as a copyist for Repro producing skilled copies of famous paintings.  She is asked by successful gallery owner Aiden Markel to produce a copy of one of the stolen paintings.  The reward won’t by just money, which she desperately needs, but an opportunity to show her work at his important gallery.  A Faustian bargain.  But is the painting she is using as her guide a copy of the Degas, or is it the stolen original, and if so, how did Markel come by it?  There’s more to the background story of Claire and "forgery," which led to the suicide a few years earlier of her lover.  And Claire and Aiden seem to be falling in love.  The art scene is well-described; the details of how a successful forged painting is made are fascinating; the imaginary correspondence between Isabella Gardner and her niece is well-done; and the dénouement is clever.  But I was troubled by Claire’s lack of any real moral compass.  360 pp.

Another insane devotion, by Peter Trachtenberg

If you are picking this book up because you are a cat-lover, be forewarned that it has relatively little to do with cats. The frame narrative is the disappearance of a beloved cat, being cared for by a student house sitter while the author, a professor, is teaching at a university 700 miles away and his wife is working in Europe.  The student, either lackadaisical or terrified to let the owner know immediately that Biscuit has not returned from outdoor wanderings, also doesn’t respond to phone messages requesting more information after he tells him the worrisome news.  Ultimately, the author, who really can’t afford the time or the money, drops everything and returns home to search.  But the book is really about his relationship with his wife and other significant others over his adult life, and their cats.  A meditation on love and life.  But not all that interesting…..and I kept feeling that no matter how well- read and erudite he is, he was careless in both his pet care and his love life.  283 pp.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The American Heiress

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin  468 pp.

In the late nineteenth century, Cora Cash is the lone offspring of the wealthy Cash family whose fortune dwarfs many of the "old money" families. Her mother's ostentation knows no bounds. Cora and her mother travel to Europe in search of a titled husband as do many American heiresses of the time. A riding accident results in the chance meeting between Cora and Ivo, the Duke of Wareham. The meeting results in a romance and marriage. Cora has the money to renovate the decaying family castle and revive the Wareham's social standing. However, she must learn to navigate the tightly bound class traditions of her new country. There is romance, infidelity, snooty aristocrats, "shocking" breaches of etiquette, and everything a novel like this should have. Aside from a few historical inaccuracies such as Sherman burning plantations in Virginia and the Prince of Wales and Prince Edward at one point seeming to be two different people, this is an enjoyable novel.

Scarlet/Marissa Meyer

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles, book 2); young adult, science fiction, fairy tales; 464 pages

Cinder set up Meyer's futuristic Earth, where the threat of war with the dangerous Lunar civilization looms constantly.  Scarlet briefly leaves the story of Cinder and moves to the other side of the world--to the French countryside, where our eponymous heroine is searching for her grandmother, now missing for two weeks.  The police have given up, but a fresh lead indicates that the disappearance may have something to do with the mysterious street fighter (known only as "Wolf") who's recently come into town.  The book jumps back and forth between Scarlet's and Cinder's stories, while the political standoff with Luna slowly deteriorates around them.

I freely admit to geeking out a LOT over this book. Red Riding Hood is one of my favorite stories--not so much because of the story itself (which is really kind of dull), but because there's so much you can do with retellings.  Meyer does an amazing job here:  I genuinely couldn't decide whether to trust Wolf or not throughout the book, and there were enough twists and turns to keep me guessing right up until the end (and I mean the VERY end, not just the last quarter of the book).  Cinder's story also continues to move along, though we've left the Cinderella part of it behind:  Prince Kai gets his own chapters to illustrate the ongoing struggle with the Lunar queen, while Cinder escapes from prison and attempts to learn more about her past (starting with tracking down the rebel pilot who might have help smuggle her onto earth all those years ago).  The stories interconnect seamlessly, and the Scarlet story, at least, has a very satisfying conclusion.  My one complaint for the whole book (only one!) is that the meetup between Cinder and Scarlet could have been explained better.  Cinder just sort of appears out of nowhere, with no explanation given of why she's there or how she found Scarlet.  I feel like maybe a chapter was left out of the book?

This book also lists the titles of the next two books in the series:  Snow (2014), and Cress (2015).  I think it's pretty clear that Cress will cover Rapunzel, but "snow" could be a lot of things:  Snow White (of course), Snow White and Rose Red (which is a completely different fairy tale than the aforementioned), The Snow Queen; we could even stretch it to East of the Sun, West of the Moon.  I'm really excited to see where this series goes! 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Goliath /Tom Gauld 86 pgs.

This may be a story you know from the bible but Gauld tells it from Goliath's point of view.  Turns out he is big and tough looking but really not much of a fighter.  Sure, he goes out and offers to fight twice a day but he is hoping nobody accepts.  He is out in the Valley of Elah with his shield carrier (a 9 year old boy) and that is about it.  He would rather be attending to his administrative tasks.  You probably know how the story ends.  Gauld's drawings are fantastic and he does a great job of showing us a possible Goliath. 

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lean in

Lean in: women, work, and the will to lead by Sheryl Sandberg 228 pgs.

Boy for all the stir this book has created, I thought I was going to read some pretty crazy and radical ideas.  Ready for controversy, I leaned right in and read fast and found out it is none of those things.  Yes, Sheryl Sandberg is rich and beautiful and accomplished but, at times, she deals with the same confidence issues as the rest of us.  This book just doesn't strike me as controversial.  It encourages women and men to share responsibilities and encourages women not to sell themselves short.  I can't get up in arms over such all sounds pretty practical to me.

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Leading quietly

Leading quietly: an unorthodox guide to doing the right thing/Joseph Badaracco 201 pgs.

You usually hear about leaders who make a big splash, that change things up and pity the poor people who get whiplash on the way.  This book is very different in that it shows you how to work within the system, it talks about avoiding the big splash and taking your time.  I found it inspiring and practical.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, 326 pages

Nailer is a poor metal scavenger on what used to be the Gulf Coast, when a “city killer” storm hits the coast, bringing with it a crashed luxury ship with a swanky heiress aboard. Nailer must decide between cashing in on his “lucky strike” by selling the heiress out or by protecting her.

Though I know several people who have completely fallen in love with Ship Breaker, I didn't really like this book. I liked the view of what might happen ecologically if we continue consuming as we do now, but that's about it. The plot was a little violent for my taste, there were some very "ick" moments, and the romance element (because how could it be dystopian YA without it???) seemed really forced, as if an editor made Bacigalupi add it in at the last moment. (I can picture the conversation going something like, "Well, you've got a boy and a girl who are friends, and that's just not going to work for me. How about you add a paragraph in here where they kiss?" "But won't the readers notice that there's no build-up to this kiss, that Nailer and Nita function really well as friends, and that there's no need for this?" "Nah! They're just kids! They won't notice a thing!" Boo.) For a "take it or leave it" book, I really wish I'd left this one.