Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Review: Naomi and Ely's No-Kiss List

Naomi and Ely's No-Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
4.5 stars

Summary: Naomi and Ely are life-long best friends. Naomi loves and is in love with Ely, and Ely loves Naomi, but he prefers to be in love with boys. So they create their "No Kiss List" of people neither of them is allowed to kiss. And this works - until Bruce the Second. Bruce is Naomi's boyfriend, so there's no reason to put him on the List. But Ely has kissed Bruce, too. The result: a rift of universal proportions and the potential end of "Naomi and Ely: the institution."

My thoughts: I adored this pair's first collaboration, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, so I was very excited to see this book come out. It gets docked 1/2 a star because Naomi and Ely really frustrated me at the beginning - I wanted to knock their heads together and tell them to grow up. And Naomi's habit of using computer icons in place of words is a tad annoying. And also, instead of the chapters being Naomi, Ely, Naomi, Ely - there are other friends, boyfriends, wanna-be boyfriends narrating the story. This provided different perspectives, and I think it was good to have Bruce the Second and Gabriel (the hot young doorman with his eye on Naomi), since they were directly involved, but there's a whole subbplot about two of their friends, Robin-girl and Robin-guy, that wasn't really necessary and muddied things up a bit for me.

I enjoyed the pop culture references to Dawson's Creek and Buffy. At first I thought they weren't very current, but with some math I realized they would've been young teenagers when the shows were on. (I'm a new Buffy convert - I didn't watch it until it was on DVD and only recently finished the last season.) I loved Gabriel's inclusion of the Buffy musical's "Walk Through the Fire" on his mix CD for Naomi: "[Your mom] told me how you cry and cry for Buffy. You cry when Angel shows up to be Buffy's prom date even though they've already recognized the futility of their true love and have broken up. You cry when Buffy's mom is taken away by natural instead of supermatureal causes. You cry when season six and seven really don't reflect the quality of seasons one through five except for the musical episode." I'm with ya on all of those, Naomi! :)

But, anyway, without me knocking them together, Naomi and Ely do grow up. And that's what gave it the extra 1/2 star for me, the ending is really lovely and true. It's an interesting coming-of-age story because technically, they've already come of age - they're physically grown, they're in university, one of them has had sex, etc. But by the end of the book, they've taken it to a new level and learned about true romantic love and true friendship (both are equal types of love, both are hard), letting go, moving on, and accepting change. I enjoyed Ely's realization at the end that he wanted his own damn soul, he doesn't want a soulmate in either a lover or a friend. But being close, in both friendship and love, is wonderful.

It all gets summed up simply and beautifully at the end: "It's a total lie to say there's only one person you're going to be with for the rest of your life. If you're lucky - and if you try really hard - there will always be more than one."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Review: Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green
4.5 stars

Summary (from School Library Journal): From the very first page, tension fills John Green's Michael L. Printz Award-winning novel (Dutton, 2005). Miles Halter, 16, is afraid that nobody will show up at his party because he doesn't have many friends. He loves to read biographies and discover the last words attributed to famous people. He's particularly intrigued with the dying words of poet Francois Rabelais: "I go to seek a great perhaps." Miles is leaving his loving Florida home for the "great perhaps" of the same Alabama boarding school attended by his father. Ominous chapter headings (40 days before, 10 days after) reveal that something tragic may happen. At school, Miles is accepted by a brainy group of pranksters led by his roommate and Alaska Young, a smart and sexy feminist. The teen becomes captivated by his new friends who spend as much energy on sex, smoking, drinking, and cutting-up as they do on reading, learning, and searching for life's meaning. As the school year progresses, Miles's crush on Alaska intensifies, even after it becomes evident that her troubled past sometimes causes her to be self-destructive. This novel is about real kids dealing with the pressures of growing up and feeling indestructible. Listeners will be riveted as the friends band together to deal with the catastrophic events that plague their junior year, and rejoice at their triumphs.

My thoughts: I'd been wanting to read the Printz Award-winner for quite a while and I'm glad the What's in a Name challenge gave me the chance. As I've said before, I don't read many "boy books" - but this one is quite remarkable. As SLJ points out, the characters are very real - they aren't perfect, they have quirks, yet they care about each other and their education. Alaska is a bundle of contrasts - sometimes sweet, sometimes caring, sometimes mean, sometimes self-destructive. She's very smart, but her pain causes her to do things before thinking them through, hurting herself and others.

I was so happy when Miles made friends at "the Creek" because the opening scene of his pathetic birthday party is really sad, although he takes it in stride. The rail-thin newbie is given the ironic nickname of Pudge (because he's rail-thin) by his roomate the Colonel (so called because of his prank-organizing prowess) and from then on he's part of the Colonel's group, with Alaska and secondary characters Takumi and foreign beauty Lara.

The tension caused by the countdown is a great effect - you know something bad's going to happen and you figure it will probably happen to Alaska, but when the time comes, it's still a blow.

Despite the tragedy, the book also has humour, which I appreciated. One of my favourite scene was Miles being bitten in the behind by a swan while he's running for his life after pulling a prank. "And then I was running with a noticeable limp, because my ass was on fire, and I thought to myself, What the hell in in swan saliva that burns so badly?"

John Green became something of an It Author after this was published, and now I see why. I think I'll have to give his next book, An Abundance of Katherines, a go.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Review: Bloodsucking Fiends

Bloodsucking Fiends: a love story by Christopher Moore

4.5 stars

Summary (from the back cover): Jody never asked to become a vampire. But when she wakes up under an alleyDumpster with a badly burned arm, an aching neck, superhuman strength, and a distinctly Nosferatuan thirst, she realizes the decision has been made for her. Making the transition from the nine-to-five grind to an eternity of nocturnal prowlings is going to take some doing, however, and that's where C. Thomas Flood fits in. A would-be Kerouac from Incontinence, Indiana, Tommy (to his friends) is biding his time night-clerking and frozen-turkey bowling in a San Francisco Safeway. But that all changes when a beautiful undead redhead walks through the door. . .
First line: "Sundown painted purple across the great Pyramid while the Emperor enjoyed a steaming whiz against a dumpster in the alley below."

My thoughts: I read You Suck, the sequel to this book, last year, without knowing it was the second book. I loved it, anyway, but it makes a lot more sense now that I've read Bloodsucking Fiends. And I found it as wonderfully bizarre and hilarious as You Suck!

There are just so many funny things in this book. Tommy trying to learn about women by reading Cosmo stands out - every answer in the Cosmo quiz on trying to get your boyfriend to please you in bed involves hitting him on the head with a your bedside lamp. His research on vampires by reading everything from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice leads him to conduct all kinds of unfortunate tests on Jody (no amount of standing on a chair and trying to imagine herself with wings will turn her into a bat, for example). The Emperor is actually a homeless man with two dogs who is actually well-respected by most people in the City and believes he is indeed its Emperor (and also the Protector of Mexico). He's most likely crazy, but he's also very wise. The Animals - Tommy's night clerk buddies - get up to all kinds of antics at the Safeway after midnight.

There's also a crime story element, which I didn't work quite as well for me. Two detectives suspect Jody and Tommy of killing people when it's actually the ancient vampire who turned Jody (well, most of the time). That part didn't really grab me in the second book, either. But there had to be some conflict, of course, it wouldn't be much of a story if Jody just stayed safe in their trendy loft all day and did good works at night.

I would definitely recommend reading these 2 in order for anyone who likes an offbeat laugh. I plan to read a lot more Moore, myself.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review: Witch Way to Murder

Witch Way to Murder by Shirley Damsgaard 3 stars

Book description: Thirty something Ophelia Jensen wants to live a quiet life as a small town librarian. She's created a comfortable existence with her kooky, colorful grandmother Abby, and if it were up to her, they could live out their days—along with Ophelia's dog Lady and cat Queenie—in peace and quiet. But, to Ophelia's dismay, she and Abby aren't a typical grandmother/granddaughter duo. She possesses psychic powers, and Abby is a kindly witch. And while Ophelia would do anything to dismiss her gift—harboring terrible guilt after her best friend was killed and she was unable to stop it—threatening events keep popping up, forcing her to tap into her powers of intuition. To make matters worse, a strange—yet devastatingly attractive—man is hanging around Ophelia's library, and no matter how many times she tells him she's sworn off men forever, he persists. Soon this handsome newcomer reveals he's following a lead on a local drug ring, and then a dead body shows up right in Abby's backyard. And much as Ophelia would like to put away her spells forever, she and Abby must use their special powers to keep themselves, and others, out of harm's way.

First paragraph (after the prologue): "I felt someone watching me as I put the returned books away. My hackles stood up and my skin tingled. I sighed and shook my head. My instincts told me it was Mr. Carroll, one of our oldest patrons, all in a twist and wanting to pounce on me about our latest book selections. He treated the library as his personal domain and me as his personal slave. He was not one of my favorites."

My thoughts: This is my second book in the Every Month is a Holiday Challenge - February is Library Lovers' Month. I am certainly one of those, so I picked a book with a librarian as the central character. And she's a witch, to boot! I wish I was a librarian/witch... I promise I'd use my powers for mostly good. I can think of a bunch of troublemakers that I'd hext, for the good of the library.

As you can see from the first paragraph, Ophelia shares my dislike of patrons. :-) She leaves the perkiness to her assistant, Darci, while she does paperwork and research in the library's basement. There were lots of great library moments in the book - I particularly enjoyed the discussion of a patron who made a fuss about the latest Nora Roberts book because it was "too smutty."

Abby was a the quintessential perfect grandma, plus, magic powers! She was wise and loving, but didn't let Ophelia get away with hiding her feelings or closing herself off and for a 73 year-old lady, she was plenty tough.

The mystery was a pretty good one - despite having a lot of them on my TBR list, I'm not really a mystery person and not really into the "cozies." But there were twists and turns and, combined with Ophelia's mysterious and chilling visions, it was a good read.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
3.5 stars

Summary (from Amazon):
It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?

First line: "Please tell me that's not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening." I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra.

My thoughts: Another one I'd been meaning to read for ages - thanks Triple 8 Challenge! :) The spiritual world Gemma enters is The Order - it is her destiny to be the conduit between the Order and the spiritual world known as the Realms. But the evil Circe wants to use the dark powers of the Realm for destruction.

The book is lots of things - boarding school story, Gothic novel, and a fantasy. It succeeds as all of them, although some of the Order and Realms stuff was a bit . . . soupy. I'm not sure that I was ever really convinced of how the Order came to be and why Gemma was the missing link. But the story of the 4 girls becoming friends - Gemma, outcast Ann, beautiful Pippa and power-hungry Felicity - works well. None of the girls are particularly likeable (although I did enjoy Gemma's spirit) but you come to understand that each one is trapped by Victorian attitudes about what a lady should be. I think I'll probably read the other 2 books in the trilogy. Plus, it has a very neat cover!

While looking for a summary, I came across an IMDB entry for the title, so it looks like it's about to become a movie. Which I think will be great - I think the magical elements might translate better visually.

(As a side note, I think Libba Bray has a really cool name.)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review: Cocktails for Three

Cocktails for Three by Madeleine Wickham
3 stars

Book description: Three women, smart and successful, working in the fast and furious world of magazines, meet for cocktails and gossip once a month. Roxanne: glamorous, self-confident, with a secret lover - and hoping that one day he will leave his wife and marry her. Maggie: capable and high-achieving, until she finds the one thing she can't cope with - motherhood. Candice: honest, decent, or so she believes - until a ghost from her past turns up, and almost ruins her life. A chance encounter in the cocktail bar sets in train an extraordinary set of events which upsets all their lives and almost destroys their friendship.

First line: "Candice Brewin pushed open the heavy glass door of the Manhattan Bar and felt the familiar swell of warmth, noise, light and clatter rush over her."

My thoughts: Madeleine Wickham is better known as Sophie Kinsella. So when I spotted this book while browsing in a used bookstore and noticed the note saying that's who she was, I snapped it up, since I enjoyed the Shopaholic books and especially Can You Keep a Secret?

This one's okay, though I didn't think it had the sparkle of her other work. It's pretty darn predicitable (although the Shopaholic ones are, too, but somehow their charm makes up for most of it) - you know Candice is going to get herself in trouble with the person from her past, it's not hard to guess who Roxanne is having the affair with, and it's obvious that Maggie is in for some post-partum depression.

That seems to be a theme as chick lit writers turn into mommies - the joys but mostly horrors of having a baby. I really felt for Maggie, feeling like she had to do everything perfectly while being so completely exhausted.

The theme of the book is secrets and how we hide them from even our closest friends. I did like the message that it's good to tell people when you need help or are having problems, to avoid everything from stress and to actual crises before they get to be too much to handle.

Overall, it's not a bad piece of Chick lit - I polished it off in about a day while sick in bed.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Review: The No. Ladies' Detective Agency

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
4 stars

Book description: "Wayward daughters. Missing husbands. Philandering partners. Curious conmen. If you've got an apparently insoluble problem, then pay a visit to Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest – and only – female private detective. Her methods may be unconventional but she's got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention her friend Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Precious is going to need them all as she sets out on the pitfall-strewn trail of a missing child."

My thoughts: I've been meaning to read this one for some time - despite being disappointed in a few of his books recently, I like Alexander McCall Smith. And it seems as if this series has charmed just about everyone. I haven't heard a bad word spoken against it. And I was quite charmed, too. [Note, I may have a few spoilers here, so don't read on if you plan to read this one. But I have a feeling I'm one of the few people left who hadn't read it!]

I was surprised, though, to find horrific incidents sprinkled throughout what I thought was going to be basically a cozy mystery - Precious' husband is a violent rapist who tries to kill their unborn child, then leaves her. While Smith and Precious both love Botswana, there are still references, mostly subtle, to Africa's problems - AIDS, corrupt police, smuggling, etc.

But Precious definitely lives up to her name - she's very clever, funny and has a heart as big as her "traditional" frame. It was quite interesting and rather funny to see a fat lady be admired, for a change, and I could imagine Precious' large frame sailing through town on her missions. I did wonder, however, how she could remain a private private detective when everyone in the area knew her and she was rather hard to miss.

I also found some funny touches in the names of businesses (include the name of the agency) caused by English not being the native language in Botswana. My favourite was the Go Go Handsome Man's Bar, but I also got a kick out Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

I liked that there were smaller, mostly gentler cases mixed in with the larger case of the kidnapped boy. My favourite was the one about the doctor that seemed to be incredibly forgetful but was actually a set of twins. I enjoyed how Precious used her instincts, feminine wiles, and the knowledge she gleaned from both Agatha Christie novels and the PI manual she sends away for. And, of course, I liked that the kidnapped boy was found safe and sound.

An African lady written by a Scottish man seems fairly implausible, but McCall Smith is in fine form. While the sequels aren't right at the top of my TBR list, I have a feeling I'll be visiting the Agency again.