Friday, December 31, 2010

Review: The Fortunes of Indigo Skye

The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti
4 stars

Reasons for reading: I've enjoyed some of Caletti's other books; Colourful Reading Challenge

Description: "Eighteen-year-old Indigo Skye feels like she has it all - a waitress job she loves, an adorable refrigerator-delivery-guy boyfriend, and a home life that's slightly crazed but rich in love. Until a mysterious man at the restaurant leaves her a 2.5 million-dollar tip, and her life as she knew it is transformed.

At first its amazing: a hot new car, enormous flat-screen TV, and presents for everyone she cares about. She laughs off the warnings that money changes people, that they come to rely on what they have instead of who they are. Because it won't happen...not to her. Or will it? What do you do when you can buy anything your heart desires -- but what your heart desires can't be bought?

This is the story of a girl who gets rich, gets lost, and ultimately finds her way back - if not to where she started, then to where she can start again."

First lines: "You can tell a lot about people from what they order for breakfast. Take Nick Harrison, for example. People talk about him killing his wife after she fell down a flight of stairs two years ago, but I know it's not true. Someone who killed his wife would order fried eggs, bacon, sausage -- something strong and meaty."

My thoughts: I really enjoyed this book - Caletti writes wonderfully. Indigo is very likeable and Caletti has some great turns of phrase like "spring delicious." Of course Indigo does have to become horrid to learn that money doesn't buy happiness, but that's par for the course for this kind of story. I really liked that Indigo truly enjoyed being a waitress because she got to serve people comforting foods and help them through their day just a bit. She made lots of good observations about what's important in life and what money can do to people, particularly when it gives them power over others. Her little sister Bex's desire to help tsunami victims and her twin brother's obviously doomed relationship with his boss' daughter made them endearing secondary characters and Indigo's boyfriend Trevor is a true gem. Indigo's journey, while not overly surprising, feels genuine and her affection and concern for others (except for the brief lapse into obligatory bitchiness), as well as her sense of humour, made her a joy to read about.

Review: Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning

Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning by Danette Haworth
3 stars

Reasons for reading: sounded good, Colourful Reading Challenge

Description: "Spunky, headstrong Violet Raines is happy with things just the way they are in her sleepy backwoods Florida town. She loves going to the fish fry with her best friend, Lottie, and collecting BrainFreeze cups with her good friend Eddie. She loves squeezing into the open trunk of the old cypress tree, looking for alligators in the river, and witnessing lighting storms on a warm summer day.

But Violet’s world is turned upside down when Melissa moves to town from big city Detroit. All of a sudden Violet’s supposed to want to wear makeup, and watch soap operas, and play Truth or Dare! It’ll take the help of Violet’s friends, her Momma, a few run-ins with lightning, and maybe even Melissa, for Violet to realize that growing up doesn’t have to mean changing who you are."

First line: "When Eddie B. dared me to walk the net bridge over the Elijah Hatchett River where we'd seen an alligator and another kid got bit by a coral snake, I wasn't scared - I just didn't feel like doing it right then."

My thoughts: My verdict is that this is a good read for preteens but for an old person like me it was pretty much a read-this-all-before book. It's the usual girl coming-of-age stuff, trying on make-up and bras, a mean (ish) girl, worrying about losing a friend, starting to notice boys, etc. I did like the rural, Southern setting, it gave it a bit of an old-fashioned feel. Violet was spunky but typical for this type of book, fairly self-centered and not wanting to grow up.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review: My Life, the Musical

My Life: The Musical by Maryrose Wood
3 stars

Reasons for reading: musical term for What's in a Name Challenge; YA Challenge

Description: "To best friends and devoted theater fans Emily and Philip, Aurora is no ordinary Broadway musical. Their love for the hit show (whose reclusive author has never been named) is nothing short of an obsession. Thanks to a secret loan from Emily’s grandma Rose, seeing the Saturday matinee has become a weekly ritual that makes real life seem dull and drab by comparison. But when the theater chat rooms start buzzing with crazy rumors that Aurora might close, Emily and Philip find themselves grappling with some truly show-stopping questions. What, exactly, is the “one sure thing” in show business? How will they pay back the money they owe Grandma Rose? And why hasn’t Philip asked Emily out on a real date? As they go to hilarious lengths to indulge their passion for Aurora, Emily and Philip must face the fact that all shows close sooner or later. But first they’ll put their friendship to the ultimate test, solve Broadway’s biggest mystery–and spend one unforgettable night at the theater."

My thoughts: Being a big fan of musicals, I wanted to like this one more than I did. I can't pinpoint what made it less enjoyable for me, exactly. Maybe I'm just too old, but I found Emily's constant lying to her parents and the easy way she took money from her rather dotty grandmother (both by being given it and by actually stealing it) pretty hard to take. The grandmother's constant refrain that Zero Mostel was the best Tevye ever started off cute but got annoying after about the 10th time. And I think the pace was supposed to resemble a musical, but I just found that too much happened quickly and (I have to admit, like every good musical) things were summed it very quickly and neatly at the end. Philip's encyclopedia-like knowledge of musicals was fun, but it really jarred with me that he hadn't seen The Producers. Why not? He'd seen every other musical, film and stage versions, from the past 50 years. And the cliche thing about whether a boy fan of musicals is gay or not was a bit tired. It also seemed odd that theatre freaks like Emily and Philip weren't in the Drama Club, but I guess they spent all their free time at Aurora.

It's not that it wasn't enjoyable, it just left me a bit cold. Probably teens who identify more with immediate-gratification Emily would like it more than I did.

What's in a Name? Challenge 3: Wrap-Up

Thanks to Beth F for hosting this challenge! It was fun, as usual! I got it finished just in the nick of time.

Here are the books I read:

1. Food: Big Cherry Holler by Adriana Trigiani

2. Body of water: Shem Creek by Dorothea Benton Frank

3. Person's title: The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

4. Plant: Roses by Leila Meacham

5. Place name: gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson

6. Music term: My Life: the Musical by Maryrose Wood

My favourite was gods in Alabama, which I had been meaning to read for ages, so I'm glad this challenge gave me a reason! I think my least favourite was The Other Queen because it was so repetitive.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Not a review: Christmas Cookie Club

I totally agree with this comment from Publisher's Weekly "Pearlman's effort tries hard not to be that lump of coal that it really is."

I was really looking forward to my annual Christmas story, but apparently it's not meant to be this year. I couldn't get past chapter 2. I liked the first couple of pages, where Marnie describes herself as the chief "cookie bitch" and outlines the strict rules for membership in the Christmas Cookie Club. But then we learn that:
- Marnie's first husband died of cancer when he was just 35
- her second husband was a serial cheater and she left him before her younger daughter was even born, making her a struggling single mother
- her eldest daughter is currently pregnant for the 4th time, having suffered 2 miscarriages and having to bring a stillborn baby to term and give birth to it (she describes it as "rotting inside her" and the baby is terribly deformed) - as the book opens they're waiting for test results to see if this latest baby will also be the victim of genetic defects

Wow, I feel full of the holiday spirit. There's then a bizarre 2-page essay on the history of flour before we get to meet Marnie's friend Charlene. Okay, I thought, here comes the comic relief of the wacky best friend. Nope. Charlene:
- has been divorced 3 times, including from one man who beat her
- she was also a struggling single mother to 3 kids to Marnie's 2
- her eldest son has just died, having fallen from an I-beam and been impaled on a spike of rebar
- this has caused her younger son to fall into depression and alcoholism

I was expecting the next friend to show up to have been blinded by household cleaning products and have just had her seeing-eye dog run over.

That was it for me, I don't care how good the cookies are.

(To be fair, the book may very well improve, but it was just way too much sorrow for me, especially on Christmas Eve eve.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Bright Young Things

Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen
3.75 stars

Reasons for reading: I loved the Luxe series; YA Challenge

"The year is 1929. New York is ruled by the Bright Young Things: flappers and socialites seeking thrills and chasing dreams in the anything-goes era of the Roaring Twenties.

Letty Larkspur and Cordelia Grey escaped their small Midwestern town for New York's glittering metropolis. All Letty wants is to see her name in lights, but she quickly discovers Manhattan is filled with pretty girls who will do anything to be a star. . . .

Cordelia is searching for the father she's never known, a man as infamous for his wild parties as he is for his shadowy schemes. Overnight, she enters a world more thrilling and glamorous than she ever could have imagined—and more dangerous. It's a life anyone would kill for . . . and someone will.

The only person Cordelia can trust is ­Astrid Donal, a flapper who seems to have it all: money, looks, and the love of Cordelia's brother, Charlie. But Astrid's perfect veneer hides a score of family secrets.

Across the vast lawns of Long Island, in the ­illicit speakeasies of Manhattan, and on the blindingly lit stages of Broadway, the three girls' fortunes will rise and fall—together and apart."

First line: "It's easy to forget now, how effervescent and free we all felt that summer."

My thoughts: Another hit from Anna Godbersen! I wasn't quite as swept up in it as I was the Luxe, but she still knows how to write good historical fiction. Her Jazz Age details are well researched, particularly the clothing descriptions. I didn't find the characters as well-defined as the Luxe ones - they have some personality, but not as much as, for example, the deliciously villainous Penelope Hayes in the first series. I liked feisty Cordelia the best, Letty seemed a bit too precious and naive. But Astrid sums up the F. Scott Fitzgerald-ness of the period the best, with her spoiled socialite life of parties and frivolity, while fears about losing Charlie and her income lurk underneath.

I felt that you could see a lot of what was coming, loud and clear (imagine, a sleazy Broadway producer isn't actually interested in Letty's singing voice!). This was probably at least somewhat intentional, but having almost every single plot point so telegraphed took some of the fun out of the story. I would have liked a few more surprises.

There is a bit of suspense from Godbersen's usual tell-it-in-the-prologue-but-not-quite thing:
". . . one would be famous, one would be married, and one would be dead" since I'm sure the descriptions won't match the girl you'd assume they would. I'll definitely be reading the sequel, I hope there are more surprises and more character development.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review: Pretty Dead

Pretty Dead by Francesca Lia Block
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: I've liked her other books, cool cover, YA Challenge

"Even if I wanted to die for someone, it wouldn't be that easy. They just keep dying for me.

Something is happening to Charlotte Emerson. Like the fires that are ravaging the hills of L.A., it consumes her from the inside out. Something to do with the tear in her enviably perfect nails. The way she feels when she's with the brooding, magnetic Jared. The blood rushing once again to her cheeks and throughout her veins. For Charlotte is a vampire, witness to almost a century's worth of death and destruction. But not since she was a human girl has mortality touched her.
Until now."

First line: "Teenage girls are powerful creatures."

My thoughts: Another lushly written book by Block. It's not much more than a novella, but her seductive writing and the fact that it's different from today's Twilight schlock vampire lore makes it worthwhile. It is for an older teen and adult audience, as her books tend to be, it's not for tweens.

I was a bit creeped out by the possibly inappropriate relationship between Charlotte and her twin brother (although I could have been reading that in where it didn't belong). And while the ending was interesting and a bit of a twist, I wasn't entirely sold - there were some holes in how it happened, I thought.

My favourite part was the section where Charlotte writes about her century of life for Jared, describing the sights and sounds of every era, from the 20's up until the 80's. I thought she captured the events very well. I also enjoyed the description of Charlotte's house full of "beautiful old things" that she's collected like vintage couture and perfume bottles.

A quick read, a nice change from the usual vampire stuff, and full of poetic prose.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: Front and Center

Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
4.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I love this series!; YA Challenge

Description: "After five months of sheer absolute craziness I was going back to being plain old background D.J. In photographs of course I’m always in the background . . .

But it turns out other folks have big plans for D.J. Like her coach. College scouts. All the town hoops fans. A certain Red Bend High School junior who’s keen for romance and karaoke. Not to mention Brian Nelson, who she should not be thinking about! Who she is done with, thank you very much. But who keeps showing up anyway . . .

Readers first fell in love with straight-talking D. J. Schwenk in Dairy Queen; they followed her ups and downs both on and off the court in The Off Season. Now D. J.steps out from behind the free-throw line in this final installment of the Dairy Queen trilogy."

First lines: "Here are ten words I never thought I'd be saying . . . Well, okay, sure. I say these words all the time. It's not like school and good and to are the kind of words you can avoid even if you wanted to. It's just that I've never said them in this particular order."

My thoughts: Ah, D.J.! Thr first lines show that she's still her awkward, lovable, tongue-tied self. I felt that this was a good ending to the trilogy. Part of me wishes there would be more D.J. books, because I love reading about her, but the smart part knows that 3 books is good, I wouldn't want to suffer from series fatigue and end up not liking her as much. In this book, D.J.'s self-esteem finally gets to where it should be, after a long battle with herself. D.J. has to start thinking about college. Everyone but D.J. knows her basketball skills are scholarship worthy - for D.J., the idea of playing in front of thousands of screaming fans is terrifying. So maybe she should go to a very small college where her skills will be very much in demand, but the games won't be so demanding?

And that Brian Nelson keeps popping up. Even though D.J. has a perfectly nice boyfriend now, who lives in her town, goes to her school, and isn't afraid to be seen with her in public. But...he doesn't make her feel the way Brian does. Again, she has to choose safety or throwing caution to the wind and going for it.

While I'll really miss D.J., I think it was a good idea to end as a trilogy - always leave 'em wanting more. I was satisfied with the way the series ended and feel confident that D.J. will go far in life!

Review: Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters

Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford
3.75 stars

Reasons for reading:
sounded good when I read reviews for purchasing it for the library, Young Adult Challenge

First lines:
"The Sullivan family's Christmas began in the traditional way that year. All six children gathered at the top of the stairs in order, from youngest to oldest, and waited for the signal from Daddy-o that it was safe to come downstairs and inspect the work of Santa."

Description (from Booklist): "On Christmas Day, the scion of the Sullivan family, Almighty, announces one of her grandchildren has offended her. Unless she receives a proper confession by New Year’s Day, Norrie, Jane, Sassy, their brothers, and their parents will be ripped from Almighty’s will and left destitute. Oh dear. So begins a cleverly plotted romp divided into three parts—the confession letters of each sister. Bunched together in age—18, 16, and 15—the girls have much in common, including a cheerful disdain for their parents, a healthy fear of Almighty, and the uneasy knowledge that their life of privilege isn’t how the rest of the world lives. The letters themselves are both thoughtful and funny, and if the voices of the three sisters sometimes sound alike, their confessions amply show the reasons Almighty might be angry, as one sister skips out on her cotillion to follow her heart, another blogs about her family’s evil road to power, and the third regrets killing Almighty’s fifth husband."

My thoughts: These interconnected stories kept me wondering which "crime" Almighty was angry about and wanting to get to know each Sullivan sister. As several reviews point out, it's nice to see a novel about wealthy girls who aren't bitchy, mean, label-whores. These girls are pretty normal (as normal as you can be in a rich family of 6 kids where the parents only vaguely seem to be aware that they're parents). My favourite sister was Norrie, who falls in love with an older man at her speed reading class and just can't make herself fit with the society boy her grandmother has picked out. Jane and her rather bratty blog about her "evil family" probably had the strongest voice and her bit of rebellion fit with her age and privileged upbringing. Sassy was sweet and a bit dumb, but I found her story, revolving around thinking she's immortal because she keeps getting hit by cars and not getting hurt, didn't really fit the tone of the other two mainstream stories, although it's basically the one that ties everything together. While I wasn't 100% on board with the ending, it did have a bit of a twist, which I appreciated.

The adults in the story are fairly well-drawn and pretty unusual. Daddy-o and Ginger (they can't stand the thought of actually just being called mom and dad) seem largely unaware of their children's behaviour, although Daddy-o is probably more with-it than he appears. Dramatic, fragile Ginger has furnished the house with fainting couches because she often finds it hard to remain upright. Almighty is a force to be reckoned with, a matriarch to the nth degree. She seems very cold and doesn't thaw much, although she does come to see the girls as more than just either irritants or extensions of her family name. The settings, both the family's enormous old house with its Tower Room and the location of Baltimore rather than NYC or LA add some interesting elements.

The Christmassy setting was a nice bonus for this time of year and while I didn't think the story was perfect, I enjoyed that it was actually an interesting story rather than the usual chick lit drivel. Definitely one to recommend to teen girls looking for a good read this holiday season!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review: Room

Room by Emma Donoghue
5 stars

Reasons for reading: I've loved her other books, sounded intriguing

Description: "To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another."

My thoughts:
I actually remembered about this book when a patron asked me about it - she knew the author and knew it was about kidnapping. I was able to Google it and vaguely recall hearing about it. When I read the description, I was fascinated. Plus, I already knew I was a Donoghue fan, although I've only read her historical fiction, so I wasn't sure whether this would be my cup of tea.

Well, I don't know if this subject is anyone's "cup of tea" but I could NOT put it down. I started reading it before bed one night (even though I knew I shouldn't) and was up til 1:40am before I could force myself to turn off the light. I finished it the next day.

I don't want to give any spoilers, so I can't tell you much. But the narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life with his Ma in an 11x11 room. He has never spoken to another human being, he has only ever glimpsed one other human being, their captor. When he was tiny, Ma explained that their life in Room was real and everything on TV was fake. But once Jack turns 5, she knows they can't keep living like that.

Jack is extraordinary but also an ordinary little boy. He has an amazing vocabulary and math skills, because Ma has basically spent every moment of his life teaching him. But he thinks Dora the Explorer, Rug, and Meltedy Spoon are his friends. He thinks the tiny bit of sun he can see through the skylight is God's yellow face. He has no idea what it's like to own as many books, toys or clothes as you can afford, he's never tasted many foods or been to a playground. He loves his Ma with his entire being, yet gets mad at her when she can't give him what he wants, like all kids do. Normally I don't like child narrators, because I find authors make them way too precocious or saintly or wise and have clearly never interacted with an actual child. But Donoghue clearly remembers what it was like when her kids were five and has managed to make Jack believable while still being the product of completely unusual circumstances.

And while it's heartbreaking to read, Donoghue doesn't pull any crappy tricks like making everything okay once they escape. Sometimes it's even harder to be out in the world than it is to be in Room, it certainly is for Jack, who is away from everything he's ever known and being bombarded with new, well, everything every moment of the day.

Donoghue's writing is amazing, but this paragraph struck me, because I had just been speaking to a friend about how true this is in today's society. Imagine if you were a boy who had spent his entire life with undivided parental attention (obviously not feasible outside of Room, I know!) and you saw how many parents in the outside world treat their kids (he observes this right after they've been to the library for the first time, maybe that's why it struck me, I see it every day):

Also everywhere I'm looking at kids, adults mostly don't seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don't actually want to play with them, they'd rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there's a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn't even hear.

That shows you Jack's voice and also that maybe we need to take a few hints from a small person who's seeing the world for the first time!

The reviews for Room use words like remarkable, flawless, original, and absorbing and they're all right. I agree with this one: "But be warned: once you enter, you'll be Donoghue's willing prisoner right down to the last page." (Newsweek Malcolm Jones )"

Review: Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige

Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige by Cathleen Gilles Seidel
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: Colourful Reading Challenge; recommended by a friend

Description: "Darcy Van Aiken is doing just fine, thank you. She’s an ICU nurse with an “amicable” divorce from her ex-husband, Mike, two great kids, and a prescription for Ritalin. Then her older son, Jeremy, gets engaged to Cami Zander-Brown---daughter of a wealthy New York family---and her world gets turned upside down. The source of her trouble, much to Darcy’s surprise, is not in the form of Rose Zander-Brown, Cami’s elegant and accomplished mother. Nor is it in the form of Guy Zander-Brown, Cami’s charismatic and wildly successful literary agent father. Instead, lurking in the shadows of Mike’s new life is the beautifully dressed Claudia, a self-described “managed perfectionist.” The Zander-Browns have money. Lots of money. The plans for their daughter’s dream wedding grow more fabulous by the day, and loving every minute is Claudia. With her perfect taste, Claudia can’t help thinking she would make a much better mother of the groom than Darcy. This wedding is her chance to entrench herself in Mike’s life---and take credit for the two sons Darcy has worked so hard to raise right. It’s a battle of will and wits. . ."

My thoughts: My friend Vidalia recommended this book and I believe she had just been the mother of the groom at a big society wedding (I doubt she wore beige, though I think she worked very hard to keep her mouth shut against some rather ridiculous in-laws-to-be). This book seems fairly realistic - Claudia's "managed perfectionism" is extreme, but you can imagine having to deal with someone like her. Darcy and Mike seem to have had a fairly amicable divorce but issues still come up and one of their younger sons is more trouble than the stellar first-born. The Zander-Browns' youngest son is mentally challenged and suffers from life-threatening food allergies. All pretty plausible stuff. One of the interesting themes about this book was that of friendship for older women - how it's harder to make friends, how you've got an image of yourself that keeps you at a distance from people, and how having children with serious problems can change you in ways your friends might not be able to handle. I also thought it was interesting that Mike still sort of acted like they were married, expecting Darcy to handle the little details of family life that he had never bothered with, like his mother's travel arrangements, even though he had apparently left Darcy because she wasn't organized enough for him.

It's definitely a good (Darcy) vs evil (Claudia) story, although perhaps Claudia isn't actively evil - she just really doesn't seem to know how normal people behave and while she knows everything about style, colours, table-settings and hem lengths, she doesn't have much common sense or courtesy. Darcy has lots of both, but is lacking in Claudia's stylishness, which makes her feel ill at ease.

The secondary characters were well done, except maybe for the older son, the groom - almost everything he said was the he wanted his bride-to-be to be happy, which was sweet. Little Finney Zander-Brown was a lovely little boy and the author portrayed his mental disability with skill, he was never either a cariacture or too precocious. Annie Zander-Brown developed nicely - starting as a beautiful princess but turning out to have her own problems and worries, mainly about her family. Darcy's retired pediatrician father was even great, he would be a welcome addition to anyone's family!

I wasn't blown away by the book, but I did root for Darcy and also Rose, two women who need friends. And the title is a hoot! Probably a better read for anyone who has grown kids who have gotten married, but still entertaining even without that background.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: Big Red Tequila

Big Red Tequila by Rick Riordan
4 stars

Reasons for reading: took it on my recent trip to San Antonio

Description: "Meet Tres Navarre...tequila drinker, Tai Chi master, unlicensed P.I., with a penchant for Texas-size trouble. Jackson "Tres" Navarre and his enchilada-eating cat, Robert Johnson, pull into San Antonio and find nothing waiting but trouble. Ten years ago Navarre lefttown and the memory of his father's murder behind him. Now he's back, looking for answers. Yet the more Tres digs, trying to put his suspicions to rest, thefresher the decade-old crime looks: Mafia connections, construction site payoffs, and slick politicians' games all conspire to ruin his homecoming. It's obvious Tres has stirred up a hornet's nest of trouble. He gets attacked, shot at, run over by a big blue Thunderbird--and his old girlfriend, the one hewants back, turns up missing. Tres has to rescue the woman, nail his father's murderer, and get the hell out of Dodge before mob-style Texas justice catches up to him. The chances of staying alive looked better for the defenders of the Alamo...."

My thoughts: I had no idea that Rick Riordan had an alternate life as a writer of adult mysteries! I only knew him from the Percy Jackson series. Well, no matter what he's writing, I think he does it well.

I didn't get the name of the book at first - we don't have Big Red here in Canada, we basically only have red cream soda, so we just call it cream soda. But I noticed it all over the place in Texas and I liked how the beverage kept popping up throughout the book.

I really liked Tres - he reminded me a bit of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden (minus the wizardry) obviously for the PI angle but also because he was so sarcastic and bad-ass, yet good-hearted. And I really enjoyed that he was both a martial arts master and the holder of an advanced English degree.

The actual mystery involved all kinds of worlds colliding - the Mafia, shady wealthy people, a former (or is she?) girlfriend, both friends and enemies of Tres' late sherriff father... It was quite a ride. The secondary characters are really well-done, too, especially the Red Zinger-drinking cop who helps Tres because he knew his father and Tres' rather fab girlfriend back in California, Mai.

The book describes San Antonio really well and, as I always am, I was delighted to read about places we'd just visited, such as the pinata-festooned Mi Terra bakery and cafe. And the Riverwalk. I love his description:

"About a hundred thousand people were strolling the flagstone banks past the fountains, stone bridges, and pricey new restaurants. The kitchen smoke of ten or fifteen different cuisines drifted up past the yellow and green patio umbrellas. Tourists with cameras and souvenir sombreros, basic trainees on leave, rich men with high-priced call girls, all happily spilling drinks on each other. This is what a San Antonian thinks of when you say 'river.' I remember how much trouble I had reading Huck Finn as a child, trying to imagine how in the hell that raft made it past all those restaurants and crowds, in water only three feet deep and thirty feet across, without anybody noticing the stowaway slave. Maybe that's why I became an English major - sheer confusion."

I also like this passage because it shows that where you grow up really does influence how you see the world (Tres tried to make a life in San Francisco, but couldn't stay away from home forever) - I was totally shocked that the San Antonio River is so small! I live near a river that, while not the Mississippi, is a large, working, float-log-booms-down-it river. The San Antonio is a trench compared to that, but it's still at the heart of the city.

I'm looking forward to reading the next book, The Widower's Two-Step.

Okra Picks Challenge

For full challenge details, click here.

Hooray, a challenge with Southern books - I love 'em! The challenge is to read books selected as Okra Picks (I love it, what a hoot!) by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association.

I'm going to choose the Goober level and read 3 books.

1. The Perfect Love Song: a holiday story by Patti Callahan Henry
2. Love, Charleston by Beth Webb Hart
3. Virals by Kathy Reichs

Off the Shelf Challenge

Off The Shelf!
Click for full details.

Hooray, a challenge to help manage the books that have been languishing in to-be-read-land! Most of my books aren't actually on my shelf, as I'm mostly a library girl, but I have a huge TBR list in LibraryThing.

The challenge is to read books you've already bought/put on the list before the challenge starts on January 1. I'm going to do the Trying level, which is 15 books, but maybe I'll be able to bump it up later in the year.

1. The Debutante Divorcee by Plum Sykes
2. A Much Married Man by Nicholas Coleridge
3. What Comes After Crazy by Sandi Khan Shelton
4. Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson
5. The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
6. The Future Homemakers of America by Laurie Graham
7. Bitsy's Bait and Barbecue by Pamela Morsi
8. Miss Julia Hits the Road by Ann B. Ross
9. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron
10. How to be Bad by E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle
11. One Day by David Nicholls
12. When a Man Loves a Weapon by Toni McGee Causey
13. The House on Tradd Street by Karen White
14. Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos by Donna Andrews
15. Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Four Month Challenge Part 4, wrap-up

4 Month Challenge, Part 4
July 1 - October 31, 2010

So, I'm finished. My goal was 200 points but I only made it to 110. Ah well.

Favourite books: The 2 Dresden Files ones, then Amy & Roger's Epic Detour
Least favourite: The Outcast

5 Point Challenges

Read a chick lit book:
All You Need is Love by Carole Matthews

Read a book with a proper name in the title:
Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson (also for YA Challenge)

Read a historical fiction book:
The Outcast by Sadie Jones

Read a book with a one word title:
Ruined by Paula Morris

10 Point Challenges

Read a hardcover book:
All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz

15 Point Challenges

Read a book by an author you’ve never read before:
Stalking Susan by Julie Kramer

Read a biography or autobiography:
Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart

Read a book with a number in the title:
Three Girls and Their Brother by Theresa Rebeck

Read any book and then post a review:

The Man of my Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

20 Point Challenges

Read a book in a series AND the one after it:

Proven Guilty and White Night by Jim Butcher (Dresden Files series)

Review: All You Need is Love

All You Need is Love by Carole Matthews
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: plucked it from the booksale to be a bathtub book; Chick Lit for Four Month Challenge

Description: ". . . Sally Freeman wants a better life for herself and her son Charlie. But it’s not going to be easy when their home is on a run-down Liverpool council estate. Just as Sally’s mission to improve their surroundings gets under way, she’s offered a ticket out of there, in the splendid form of Spencer Knight. He has everything she could wish for – the looks, the charm, not to mention the wallet. But is he the answer to her prayers, or does her hapless ex-boyfriend Johnny still hold the key to her heart? As Sally decides what to do, she discovers that if The Beatles are right, and all you need is love, then everything else will fall into place.

First line: "Sally Freeman, Single Mum and Superwoman, to the rescue again."

My thoughts: This was a pretty good, quick chick lit read. I liked the Liverpool setting and the Beatles references. Johnny is a lovely character - way better to Sally than she deserves. His secret struggle to be an artist and the far-fetched but fun twist it takes to make him a success was one of the best parts of the book. The book is completely predictable, in the way of almost all chick lit/romances.

I liked that the residents banded together to clean up their horrifying council estate. It was very heartwarming and I bet it could happen, but I think it would take more time and setbacks than Sally had.

And Sally. I didn't particularly think she was a superwoman. She doesn't appear to have ever held a job, any job, in her life. She's been on welfare since she had her son at 17 (fair enough) and now he's 10. She is attempting to finally get some skills as the book opens, but come on - she couldn't have been a waitress, she couldn't have somehow found a way to get some education in 10 years? To me, that would make her a superwoman (and I know there are tons of superwomen out there!). She doesn't seem to do anything but help a couple of elderly neighbours and cook meals for her son who, at 10, could probably make his own peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. The same goes for her hard-drinking, bitchy friend Debs - a trained hairdresser (with no kids) who makes money under the table doing hair at home, but is still on the dole. She uses her extra money for booze and sparkly dresses. Sally depends very heavily on Johnny (who is the sole caregiver to his disabled mother) to help with looking after Charlie, even though she's dumped him repeatedly, takes him for granted and tells him to do one thing and then gets mad when he does it and changes her mind. Everything is about what Sally wants for herself and Charlie. I get that she has to be focused on her son, but quite often it seems to be at the expense of consideration for other people. And once Spencer comes into her life, she dumps Charlie on anyone who will take him. Spencer is sweet but over-the-top clueless about life outside of his country manor and his family is stereotypically evil, sneering at Sally for being below their son.

While Sally is impressive with the estate makeover and has great future plans by the end, I never really found her particularly likable. The best parts of the book are Johnny and Charlie (who, underneath his 10-year-old-ness is a sweet boy; the scenes with him trying to be worldly with his best friend Kyle, who is a self-proclaimed expert on everything, particularly women, are a hoot).

Friday, October 29, 2010

Review: The Outcast

The Outcast by Sadie Jones
2 stars

Reason for reading: 2008 Costa First Novel Award winner for Book Awards Challenge

Summary (from Publisher's Weekly): "Set in post WWII suburban London, this superb debut novel charts the downward spiral and tortured redemption of a young man shattered by loss. The war is over, and Lewis Aldridge is getting used to having his father, Gilbert, back in the house. Things hum along splendidly until Lewis's mother drowns, casting the 10-year-old into deep isolation. Lewis is ignored by grief-stricken Gilbert, who remarries a year after the death, and Lewis's sadness festers during his adolescence until he boils over and torches a church. After serving two years in prison, Lewis returns home seeking redemption and forgiveness, only to find himself ostracized. The town's most prominent family, the Carmichaels, poses particular danger: terrifying, abusive patriarch Dicky (who is also Gilbert's boss) wants to humiliate him; beautiful 21-year-old Tamsin possesses an insidious coquettishness; and patient, innocent Kit—not quite 16 years old—confounds him with her youthful affection. Mutual distrust between Lewis and the locals grows, but Kit may be able to save Lewis. Jones's prose is fluid, and Lewis's suffering comes across as achingly real."

First line: "There was nobody there to meet him."

My thoughts: This one didn't really do it for me, I don't think I would have finished it if I hadn't been reading it for a challenge. Although then I would have missed the ending, which was the best part - not because it was over, but because some hope and joy finally flared up on the last few pages, which almost made it worth it.

Jones' writing isn't the problem, it's skillful. Her portrayal of the suffering of both Kit and Lewis is, as the review above states, "achingly real." But there's so much suffering! And it's just...dreary. Which is actually how I always sort of picture post-WW II England to be, with so many deaths and rationing still happening.

I didn't know how to feel about anyone but Kit, really. She's odd and spunky and intelligent and so terribly abused and her terrible mother is just glad it's not her getting hit. Everyone else basically just failed the two children. Although, from the beginning, Lewis was odd, to me it seemed like it was mostly due to having his weird, drunken mother's full attention while his father was off at war. I felt for the child Lewis, but by the time he was a teenager, I was getting a bit tired of him. Obviously, he should have been given some help after the tragic death (suicide) of his mother, but it was the 40's, how likely was that going to be? I wanted him to heed his father's advice not to let his mother's death be an excuse (although, it's not like his father was any kind of a great parent, he didn't know how to be, he does occasionally appear to be trying, at least). And the drinking! The entire town of Waterford is made up of drunks and/or bullies, which added more dreariness.

This isn't a particularly good review and the book probably deserves better than that, but it just wasn't my cup of tea.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: Airborn

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
4 stars

Reasons for reading: have always meant to; winner of the 2004 Governor General's Award for Children's Literature for Book Awards Challenge

Description: "Set in an imaginary past where giant airships rule the skies, Airborn is the story of Matt Cruse, the 15-year-old cabin boy of the 900-foot luxury airship Aurora. Hundreds of feet over the Pacificus Ocean, Matt fearlessly performs a dramatic rescue to save an old man from his crippled hot-air balloon. Before he dies, the stranger tells Matt about the fantastic, impossible creatures he has seen flying through the clouds. Matt dismisses the story as the ravings of a dying man, but when a beautiful, bold girl arrives on the Aurora a year later, determined to prove the story true, Matt finds himself caught up in her quest. But can he and Kate solve the mystery before pirates, shipwreck and frightening predators end their voyage forever?"

First line: "Sailing towards dawn, I was perched atop the crow's nest, being the ship's eyes."

My thoughts: This was a very enjoyable read and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to adventure-seeking young readers of either gender. Sky pirates - what else do you need?? The "imagined history" setting was well-done - there's almost a steampunk vibe to it. It was a bit odd that some things were the same (like Paris) while some things (like the Pacificus Ocean) were altered, but once I got used to it it added to the vibe of the book.

Matt is a very likeable hero and I really liked how his "airborn"-ness (he was born on an airship and only really feels at home when he's aloft) was woven through the story - it made him even more interesting and added depth to his character as we found out about his father's tragic death. His love for the Aurora is really impressive and it makes the ship a character itself.

Kate was occasionally a bit too spunky girl adventurer-type for me, but overall she's well-drawn, too. Her ability to escape her governess is admirable and produces some funny moments (one involving underwear and one involving sleeping medicine, for example).

I rolled my eyes at first over the flying creatures, thinking Oppel was going back to his days of writing about bats and while the story had enough action to do without them, they were eventually integrated into the story in a believable enough way.

The verdict: A rollicking adventure with great characters and I think I'll have to read the rest of the trilogy to find out if Matt ever gets his dream of flying his own airhship.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: Her Royal Spyness

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen
3.25 stars

Reason for reading: 2007 Agatha Award nominee (ran out of time to find a winner that my library owned and I wanted to read!)

Description: "Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, 34th in line for the throne, is flat broke. She’s bolted Scotland, her greedy brother, and her fish-faced betrothed for London. The place where she’ll experience freedom, learn life lessons aplenty, do a bit of spying for HRH—oh, and find a dead Frenchman in her tub. Now her new job is to clear her long family name."

First line: "There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal."

My thoughts: This was a fairly fun, quick read. I enjoyed the 1930's setting and that Georgie was a liberated young woman trying to find her way in a world that no longer forced her to marry the first prince who asked (though of course her family wishes she had). I really liked that, despite her privileged upbringing, she was willing to take on any tasks she needed to do to make it on her own, unlike her pathetic brother and witchy sister-in-law, and most of the other people in he set. The scene where she tries working at Harrod's is a hoot. The upper-class twit names like Whiffy and Binky and Fig and last names like Featherstonehough that's actually pronounced Fanshawe are straight out of a PG Wodehouse novel. I found the mystery part so-so, although the dead Frenchman in the tub was certainly a good twist. I wish there had been more about the actual royal family and Wallis Simpson, although maybe that comes in later books. I didn't warm to the book quite as much as I would have liked to, but the setting and spunky Georgie made it worth my time. I might try the next book in the series when I'm in the mood for a quick cozy mystery.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review: Still Life

Still Life by Louise Penny
4 stars

Reasons for reading: 2007 Anthony Award for Best First Novel for Book Awards Challenge

Description (from Booklist): "The residents of a tiny Canadian village called Three Pines are shocked when the body of Miss Jane Neal is found in the woods. Miss Neal, the village's retired schoolteacher and a talented amateur artist, has been a good friend to most of the townsfolk, so her loss is keenly felt. At first, her death appears to be a tragic accident--it's deer-hunting season, and it looks a stray hunter's arrow killed her. But some folks are suspicious, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the [Sûreté du Québec] is called in to investigate. Accompanying Gamache are his loyal assistant Beauvoir and Yvette Nichol, a new addition to Gamache's team. The trio soon finds that the seemingly peaceful, friendly village hides dark secrets. The truth is both bizarre and shocking, even to the jaded Gamache and his team."

First line: "Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday."

My thoughts: This was a very well-written and enjoyable book. Penny brings the village to life with beautiful descriptions (for example, a lane lined with autumn-coloured trees is described as a "Tiffany tunnel") and her characters, especially Gamache, really come to life. Gamache is wise, kind, stern, sharp, funny, and seems to have demons of his own. Beauvoir is his very loyal lieutenant and Nichol is shockingly unable to accept any criticism or see her own mistakes. The memorable townsfolk include a famous, award-winning poet hidden under the guise of an incredibly surly old woman, a charming gay couple who run the local cafe/b&b/antique store, a pair of artists who seem very different (she scatty and messy, he meticulous) but who love each other very much, Jane's shallow, materialistic niece and her horrid husband and son, whose last name is appropriately Malenfant ("bad child").

The mystery has lots of false leads and even up to the last whodunnit scene, you get misdirected. Penny has done a lot of research on archery and hunting. It really was a mystery as to why anyone would want the spinster schoolteacher dead. Elements of both longtime friendships and longtime bitterness are woven through the story. The bilingualism and discussions of Canadian culture (both English and French) were interesting additions and were also integrated nicely into the story - not always something I've come across in Canadian fiction.

I would definitely like to read more about Gamache and the townsfolk of Three Pines.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
3.25 stars

Reason for reading: 2010 Newbery Medal for Book Awards Challenge

Description from the inside flap:

Four mysterious letters change Miranda’s world forever.

By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I must ask two favors.
First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

First lines: "So Mom got the postcard today. It says Congratulations in big curly letters, and at the very top is the address of Studio TV-15 on West 58th Street. After three years of trying, she has actually made it. She's going to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid, which is hosted by Dick Clark."

My thoughts: Sorry Newbery committee (since I'm sure they care!), this one didn't do a whole lot for me. Maybe I was biased ahead of time because I remember reading a review that said the book was odd or would be hard for kids to follow or something. But it just seemed to me like an excuse to write a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle and the 70's. I don't really like this trend of the recent past in kids' books - it's not really historical fiction yet and I find it just ends up seeming slightly dated. Stead is a few years older than I am, which puts her at 11 years old in 1979, which seems to be Miranda's age. I can't quite think of the right word, but it just seemed a bit indulgent. And I'm one of the few people (it seems) who didn't adore A Wrinkle in Time, so that's another bias I have against this book. I only read it last year and it wasn't my thing at all. I think a kid who hadn't read it would find all of the references confusing and annoying. While the notes Miranda finds and the suspense built by the "when you reach me" thing was interesting, I didn't find the climax all that surprising or interesting and I had to read it several times to figure it out. (Although, again, time and space stuff isn't my bag.)

But, I could be wrong - my biases might be getting me and maybe kids will love this book. I did like that the book dealt with non AWIT/time travel/70's things like friendships and how they evolve and being a lower income, single parent family, however. And the chapter headings being categories from $20,000 Pyramid (Things That Sneak Up On You, Things That Bounce) was a nice added touch.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: The Dark Divine

The Dark Divine by Bree Despain
3 stars

Reasons for reading: sounded interesting, like the Minnesota setting, YA Challenge

Description: "Grace Divine, daughter of the local pastor, always knew something terrible happened the night Daniel Kalbi disappeared--the night she found her brother Jude collapsed on the porch, covered in his own blood--but she has no idea what a truly monstrous secret that night held.

The memories her family has tried to bury resurface when Daniel returns, three years later, and enrolls in Grace and Jude's high school. Despite promising Jude she'll stay away, Grace cannot deny her attraction to Daniel's shocking artistic abilities, his way of getting her to look at the world from new angles, and the strange, hungry glint in his eyes.

The closer Grace gets to Daniel, the more she jeopardizes her life, as her actions stir resentment in Jude and drive him to embrace the ancient evil Daniel unleashed that horrific night. Grace must discover the truth behind the boy's dark secret...and the cure that can save the ones she loves. But she may have to lay down the ultimate sacrifice to do it--her soul."

My thoughts: This one was okay. I found it fairly predictable and there was a lot of Twilight-ness to it, I thought, with the longing for the bad boy/supernatural creature that she shouldn't be with, etc. I did think it was interesting that faith was a focal part of the story without making it preachy or "Christian fiction" - I thought that aspect was fairly well done. Grace's willingness to sacrifice herself for Daniel is impressive and Daniel is probably the most interesting character, although it's pretty obvious from the start what his secret is. Despain creates some fairly interesting werewolf lore and there's enough excitement with mysterious attacks, the Divines' baby going missing, and a few red herrings to keep it interesting. Not sure I'm interested enough to read the sequel, but it's a surefire hit for paranormal romance fans.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review: Ruined

Ruined by Paula Morris
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: sounded intriguing, liked the cover, YA Challenge, One Word Title for Four Month Challenge

Description: "Rebecca couldn't feel more out of place in New Orleans. She's staying in a creepy house with her aunt, who reads tarot cards. And at the snooty prep school, a pack of filthy-rich girls treat Rebecca like she's invisible. Only gorgeous, unavailable Anton Grey gives Rebecca the time of day, but she wonders if he's got a hidden agenda.

Then one night, among the oak trees in Lafayette Cemetery, Rebecca makes a friend. Sweet, mysterious Lisette is eager to show Rebecca the nooks and crannies of New Orleans. There's just one catch.

Lisette is a ghost. A ghost with a deep, dark secret, and a serious score to settle.

As Rebecca is drawn deeper into a web of old curses and cryptic customs, she also uncovers startling truths about her own history. Will Rebecca be able to right the wrongs of the past, or has everything been ruined beyond repair?"

First line: "Torrential rain was pouring the afternoon Rebecca Brown arrived in New Orleans."

My thoughts: This one was pretty good. Somewhat predictable, but not too bad. I liked the New Orleans setting. It was actually quite interesting because the author clearly knows and loves New Orleans, but for most of the novel she has to make Rebecca loathe it. She pulled it off well, describing both the good and the bad aspects. Probably the most interesting and unique scene is when Lisette leads Rebecca through the streets and shows her the generations of ghosts that linger throughout the city.

But...there were some odd things. The mystery of Rebecca's family history comes to light, but not why her father, who has spent his life trying to protect her, suddenly delivers her into danger. And, frankly, gives her into the care of a woman who seems to barely be able to look after her own daughter and lets her life be ruled by her psychic feelings. Both adults of course epically fail in their mission to protect her. Anton has reasons for trying to distance himself from Rebecca, but I thought it was pretty clumsily done, making his character uneven. And while they tied into the prophecy that is the backbone of the novel, his dangerous actions at the end of the novel (I won't spoil it) didn't make sense to me other than the prophecy had to be wrapped up, so he did something wildly dangerous and destructive.

If you're interested in New Orleans and like a ghost story, this is a pretty good, quick read.

Review: Three Girls and their Brother

Three Girls and Their Brother by Theresa Rebeck
4 stars

Reasons for reading: recommended by a colleague, Alex Award winner for Book Awards Challenge

Description: "They may be the granddaughters of a famous literary critic, but what really starts it all is Daria, Polly, and Amelia Heller’s stunning red hair. Out of the blue one day, The New Yorker calls and says that they want to feature the girls in a glamorous spread shot by a world-famous photographer, and before long these three beautiful nobodies from Brooklyn have been proclaimed the new “It” girls.

But with no parental guidance–Mom’s a former beauty queen living vicariously through her daughters, and Dad is nowhere to be found–the three girls find themselves easy prey for the sharks and piranhas of show business. Posing in every hot fashion magazine, tangling with snarling fashonistas and soulless agents, skipping school and hitting A-list parties, the sisters are caught up in a whirlwind rise to fame that quickly spirals out of control.

When Amelia, the youngest of the three–who never really wanted to be a model in the first place–appears in an Off-Broadway play, the balance of power shifts, all the pent-up resentment and pressure comes to a head, and the girls’ quiet, neglected brother reaches a critical point of virtual breakdown. And against the odds, even as the struggle for fame threatens to tear the family apart, the Hellers begin to see that despite the jealousy, greed, and uncertainty that have come to define their relationships, in the celebrity world of viciousness and betrayal, all they really have is one another."

First line: "Now that it's all over, everybody is saying it was the picture, that stupid picture was behind every disaster that would eventually befall my redheaded sisters."

My thoughts: This was a fun read. I can really see why it won the Alex Award (for adult books that are appealing to teens) - it's actually not far from a YA novel, just a bit longer. The characters are teens and it's fast-paced with lots of glamour and glitz. But at its heart, it has the relationships of the four siblings. These seem fragile, non-existent, hate-filled, and just confused at times, but in the end, the Heller children really do only have each other. As with lots of actual YA novels, the adults in this book are horrifyingly neglectful and damaging! Their father buggered off and started a new family, their mother is a drunk, faded beauty queen who wants to live out her dreams through her daughters no matter what harm it does them, and the agent looking out for their interests is a piranha/parasite who will stay with them only as long as they make her money. Another awful but entertaining adult is the cutthroat, very scary Hollywood mover and shaker woman who is enormous, wears caftans, and claims to be Kafka's great-granddaughter. The way everyone treats Phillip is appalling - that he survives, hangs on to his sanity, and still manages to love his sisters is amazing. At the photo shoot Phillip describes dancing with his sisters as a lot of fun and basically the last moment they'll have like that for a while and it's really lovely.

Each sibling gets a chance to narrate, which could have been annoying but wasn't, it added to the story. Amelia really sounds 14, Phillip sounds like a confused teen boy who wants things to be okay and to do the right thing (and who is actually really smart), sexy party girl Polly tries hard takes charge when the chips are down and Daria is coolly imperious but very capable (though she is taken down a much-needed peg or two). The appearances of odd hairdresser Laura add considerably to things - Phillip has a crush on her and she turns out to be very resourceful, even if her ability to filter her thoughts as they come out of her mouth is nonexistent.

It's not Kafka, but this book is entertaining, heartbreaking, funny, and satisfying with a close look at the manipulating and just badness behind Hollywood and also at sibling relationships.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: All is Vanity

All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz

2.5 stars

Reasons for reading: book club selection, hardcover book for Four Month Challenge

Description: "In All is Vanity, Margaret and Letty, best friends since childhood and now living on opposite coasts, reach their mid-thirties and begin to chafe at their sense that they are not where they ought to be in life. Margaret, driven and overconfident, decides the best way to rectify this is to quit her job and whip out a literary tour de force. Frustrated almost immediately and humiliated at every turn, Margaret turns to Letty for support. But as Letty, a stay-at-home mother of four, begins to feel pressured to make a good showing in the upper-middle-class Los Angeles society into which her husband’s new job has thrust her, Margaret sees a plot unfolding that’s better than anything she could make up. Desperate to finish her book and against her better nature, she pushes Letty to take greater and greater risks, and secretly steals her friend’s stories as fast as she can live them. Hungry for the world’s regard, Margaret rashly sacrifices one of the things most precious to her, until the novel’s suspenseful conclusion shows her the terrible consequences of her betrayal."

First line: "I was a promising child."

My thoughts: Well, none of the book club members liked this one much. We felt there were some sparks of good writing, but the two main characters were a bitch (Margaret) and an idiot (Letty). Letty's financial situation spiralled out of control too quickly and too ridiculously for it to be believable. The book is referred to as satire, so I suppose that was supposed to be the satirical element about consumerism. Still didn't make it an enjoyable read. The person who chose the book had heard it was great, but couldn't remember where and now doesn't know why anyone would say it! One thought was that it does describe how difficult the writing process is and how people tend to treat would-be authors as though it's very simple. So maybe other writers liked it for that!

The verdict: No-one thought it was actually all that badly written, but overall it wasn't enjoyable and neither character got our sympathy.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review: Summer at Tiffany

Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I have an interest in Tiffany and New York history; sounded good; Autobiography for Four Month Challenge

Description: "New York City, 1945. Marjorie Jacobson and her best friend, Marty Garrett, arrive fresh from the Kappa house at the University of Iowa hoping to find summer positions as shopgirls. Turned away from the top department stores, they miraculously find jobs as pages at Tiffany & Co., becoming the first women to ever work on the sales floor, a diamond-filled day job replete with Tiffany-blue shirtwaist dresses from Bonwit Teller's—and the envy of all their friends.

Looking back on that magical time in her life, Marjorie takes us back to when she and Marty rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, pinched pennies to eat at the Automat, experienced nightlife at La Martinique, and danced away their weekends with dashing midshipmen. Between being dazzled by Judy Garland's honeymoon visit to Tiffany, celebrating VJ Day in Times Square, and mingling with Cafe society, she fell in love, learned unforgettable lessons, made important decisions that would change her future, and created the remarkable memories she now shares with all of us."

First line: "From the top deck of the bus, Marty and I were mesmerized by Fifth Avenue as we watched glamorous stores spring up like pages out of Mademoiselle."

My thoughts: This was a love letter to the bygone days of New York City and to Tiffany & Co. I enjoyed the first-hand descriptions of everything from eating at the Automat (I wish we still had them!) to VJ day. The celebrity visitors to the store were my favourite parts - giddy newlywed Judy Garland and sultry Marlene Dietrich, whom I didn't know had been so dedicated to the USO. I loved the stories of the inner workings of the grand store - the amazing secret elevator that could run by itself, the way the salesmen "rang" their diamond rings on the glass counters to call the pages, and the amazing goods to be had on every floor. And really, it was quite an amazing feat that two girls from Iowa could walk into Tiffany and be hired as the first women to serve on the shop floor.

This isn't an earth-shattering book, but it provides a brief look at a pivotal summer in North American (and world) history and at places and a way of life that are basically lost to us forever.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: Amy and Roger's Epic Detour

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson
4.5 stars

Reasons for reading: it looked fun, YA Challenge, Book with proper name in title for Four Month Challenge

Description: "Amy Curry thinks her life sucks. Her mom decides to move from California to Connecticut to start anew--just in time for Amy's senior year. Her dad recently died in a car accident. So Amy embarks on a road trip to escape from it all, driving cross-country from the home she's always known toward her new life. Joining Amy on the road trip is Roger, the son of Amy's mother's old friend. Amy hasn’t seen him in years, and she is less than thrilled to be driving across the country with a guy she barely knows. So she's surprised to find that she is developing a crush on him. At the same time, she’s coming to terms with her father’s death and how to put her own life back together after the accident. Told in traditional narrative as well as scraps from the road--diner napkins, motel receipts, postcards--this is the story of one girl's journey to find herself."

First line: "I sat on the front steps of my house and watched the beige Subaru station wagon swing too quickly around the cul-de-sac."

My thoughts: I loved this book! It absolutely made me want to head out on a road trip right this minute. In fact, the descriptions of Kentucky have bumped it up near the top of my to-visit list. The inclusion of the souvenirs from the road was fun and I liked Amy's notes on the different states (many of them are varying degrees of "big") and the couple of times she makes a note to herself not to talk to Roger about cult favourites like Hoosiers (in Indiana) and The Wire (in Maryland) because he can go on and on and on about them. I loved that they explore regional fast food, after getting over their disappointment that In n Out burgers are a west coast thing. Their reaction to the wonders of Sonic was very similar to mine (they have cherry-limeaid! and mozzarella sticks!) a couple of years ago. I'm now also dying to try Chick-fil-A.

But it's not all happy times - Amy is still incredibly traumatized by her dad's death, which she believes is her fault (the truth behind the accident is revealed slowly through flashbacks and while it's not a big surprise, it's still heartbreaking to read). Roger is dealing with being suddenly dumped by a goddess-like but very bitchy girl and he can't quite get over her. So, rather than follow Amy's mom's boring route, they set out on their epic detour to get some answers and find some closure. They meet some interesting folks along the way, like the golf course lawn-mower who fronts a Wizard of Oz-inspired band in Kansas (of course). And there's music, too! Amy is a musical theatre actress and Roger has eclectic tastes, which show up in his the iPod playlists.

The verdict: Join Roger and Amy on their journey before summer's officially over - you won't regret it!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: Wild Ride

Wild Ride by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

3.25 stars

Reason for reading: I really enjoyed this pair's first two books.

Description: "Mary Alice Brannigan doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Nor does she expect to find that Dreamland, the decaying amusement park she’s been hired to restore, is a prison for the five Untouchables, the most powerful demons in the history of the world. Plus, there’s a guy she’s falling hard for, and there’s something about him that’s not quite right.

But rocky romances and demented demons aren’t the only problems in Dreamland: Mab’s also coping with a crooked politician, a supernatural raven, a secret government agency, an inexperienced sorceress, an unsettling inheritance, and some mind-boggling revelations from her past. As her personal demons wreck her newfound relationship and real demons wreck the park, Mab faces down immortal evil and discovers what everybody who’s ever been to an amusement park knows: The end of the ride is always the wildest."

First line: "Mary Alice Brannigan sat on the roof of the Dreamland carousel at twenty minutes to midnight and considered her work in the light from her yellow miner's hat."

My thoughts: I didn't enjoy this book as much as this duo's previous novels, Don't Look Down and Agnes and the Hitman. If it had been the first book I'd read by them, ir might have put me off reading the others. It still had their trademarks of wit and romance mixed with macho stuff, but the supernatural element wasn't great.

I found it quite hard to figure out what was going on at first. And I just couldn't get behind the premise - that an amusement park (hello, crawling with children!) was built to house 5 demons in easily-breakable chalices inside iron statues. And the key to each "cage" is an integral piece of the statue that, when removed to lock the cage, makes the statue incomplete, so people tend to replace the pieces and unlock the cages. Mab at one point questions this and gets an explanation that we're supposed to buy, but I didn't.

If you can figure out what's going on and suspend your disbelief, there are some fun characters and some cute love stories. And a nice message about creating your own family. I found the details about classic amusement parks and Mab's work to restore Dreamland interesting. It was still an entertaining book, but it was pretty over-the-top, even for these two. I hope they go back to their quirky but non-supernatural ways next time.