Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Review: Jane Bites Back

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: sounded fun, recommended by a co-worker, Austen-esque novel for Four Month Challenge

Best review: ""It's impossible not to love Ford's sharp-witted, sharp-fanged Jane Austen (and I'm not just saying that because she spares my life in Chapter Six)."—Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"

My thoughts: That was actually one of my favourite parts of the book, Jane's ire at Grahame-Smith and other people who have used her books and her name to gain fame. The - I hope - fictitious Jane Austen Workout book was the best one, with an empire-waisted woman holding dumbbells. The book is fluff, but it's pretty good fluff and I'm an Austen fan, so I enjoyed seeing her come to "life." The premise that Jane Austen has been rejected by 116 publishers over the past 200 years is pretty hilarious and Ford's Jane is sharp-tongued and smart but sometimes still rather bewildered by being a modern-day woman. I'm not 100% sure I'm intrigued enough to read the rest of the series as it comes out, I'd have been happy with this as a one-off, but I might if I'm in the mood for something light.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's Tuesday, Where Are You?

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I'm back in Las Vegas with Brett the tattoo artist (her shop is in the Venetian's Grand Canal shops - fancy!), who's gotten herself involved in another mystery, this one involving an attack on a drag queen with a champagne cork. (Pretty in Ink by Karen E. Olson)

I'm also in Brakeston in Upstate New York at a bookstore owned by Jane Austen. Yes, Jane Austen - she's a vampire and her first new book in 200 years is about to be published! (Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Review: Don't Judge a Girl by her Cover

Don't Judge a Girl by her Cover by Ally Carter
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: I like the series; 10 in 10 YA Chick Lit Challenge

Description: "When Cammie "The Chameleon" Morgan visits her roommate Macey in Boston, she thinks she’s in for an exciting end to her summer break. After all, she’s there to watch Macey’s father accept the nomination for vice president of the United States. But when you go to the world’s best school (for spies), "exciting" and "deadly" are never far apart. Cammie and Macey soon find themselves trapped in a kidnappers’ plot, with only their espionage skills to save them.

As her junior year begins, Cammie can’t shake the memory of what happened in Boston, and even the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women doesn’t feel like the safe haven it once did. Shocking secrets and old flames seem to lurk around every one of the mansion’s corners as Cammie and her friends struggle to answer the questions, Who is after Macey? And how can the Gallagher Girls keep her safe?

Soon Cammie is joining Bex and Liz as Macey’s private security team on the campaign trail. The girls must use their spy training at every turn as the stakes are raised, and Cammie gets closer and closer to the shocking truth…."

First line: " 'We're moving.' The man beside me spoke into his sleeve, and I knew the words weren't for me."

My thoughts: I've loved the idea of Gallagher Academy since the first book and I still do, but I had a few moments where I thought I'd had just about enough of this series while reading this book. Happily, Carter added some new questions and now I want to know the answers, but this wasn't my favourite G. Girls book. Macey isn't my favourite of the girls, so I wasn't loving all the focus on her. It was cool to meet Cammie's kick-ass aunt and learn a bit more about her family history. But it was the usual stuff - Liz being insanely smart, Bex being super-brave and cool and all three of them breaking rules and using their spy skills to help someone even when they're not supposed to. And the words "my best friend(s)" seem to appear on every other page, which I found irritating. The term best friend usually means one person (maybe two), not three. And we know that they're your friends, Cammie. But, as I said, the introduction of some shadowy information about Cammie's family and Cammie herself revived my interest a bit, so I think I'll be able to stick around to find out more in the next book. I do like the books and I like Ally Carter, I just tend to get series fatigue pretty easily.

Review: A Northern Light

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
4 stars

Reasons for reading: I love Donnelly's adult novels; Book about a real person for Four Month Challenge

From School Library Journal: "Mattie Gokey, 16, a talented writer, promised her dying mother that she would always take care of her father and younger siblings. She is stuck on a farm, living in near poverty, with no way of escaping, even though she has been accepted at Barnard College. She promises to marry handsome Royal Loomis even though he doesn't appear to love her. Now, Mattie has promised Grace Brown, a guest at the Adirondack summer resort where she works, to burn two bundles of letters. Then, before she can comply, Grace's body is found in the lake, and the young man who was with her disappears, also presumably drowned. This is a breathtaking tale, complex and often earthy, wrapped around a true story. In 1906, Grace Brown was killed by Chester Gillette because she was poor and pregnant, and he hoped to make his fortune by marrying a rich, society girl. Grace's story weaves its way through Mattie's, staying in the background but providing impetus. The protagonist tells her tale through flashback and time shifts from past to present. Readers feel her fears for her friend Weaver-the first freeborn child in his family-when he is beaten for being black and his college savings are stolen, and enjoy their love of words as they engage in language duels. Finally, they'll experience her awakening when she realizes that she cannot live her life for others."

First line: "When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down."

My thoughts: At first I thought I wasn't going to like this book, I almost stopped reading it. It seemed so gloomy and I really missed Donnelly's usual setting of late Victorian London. Life is really hard for the people in the tiny logging towns of the Adirondacks at the turn of the century and Donnelly doesn't shy away from it. There's hope at the end of the book, but a lot of sadness along the way. Mattie's mother has just died, her brother has left the farm after a fight with their father leaving her and her 3 youngest sisters to help their desolate, angry father to run the farm. Mattie's friend Weaver (their "word duels" are great fun) loses his temper when he feels he's being treated as inferior, and unjust as it is, this gets him into a lot of trouble. Mattie's best friend barely survives giving birth to twins and then is trapped in a cabin with the babies, housework, and a husband who wants to impregnate her again immediately.

But I kept reading and I'm glad I did. I really liked that it was based on true events but that the centre of the story was Mattie's journey rather than the murder itself. Through letters she gave to Mattie to burn right before her death, the events surrounding the murder are revealed and Grace's tragedy is what ultimately convinces Mattie that she needs to live for herself and not be limited by what her father or her fiance (who is clearly only marrying her for her father's land) think she should be.

Donnelly's notes show that she did a ton of research, which shows and I really liked that she got the details of life both for lumberjacks and for life working in the area's summer hotels from members of her family. She obviously feels a deep connection to the story and it shows.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: Victory of Eagles

Victory of Eagles (Temeraire, book 5) by Naomi Novik
4.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I'm addicted to this series; Fantasy for the Four Month Challenge

Summary: "For Britain, conditions are grim: Napoleon’s resurgent forces have breached the Channel and successfully invaded English soil. Napoleon’s prime objective is the occupation of London. Unfortunately, the dragon Temeraire has been removed from military service–and his captain, Will Laurence, has been condemned to death for treason. Separated by their own government and threatened at every turn by Napoleon’s forces, Laurence and Temeraire must struggle to find each other amid the turmoil of war. If only they can be reunited, master and dragon might rally Britain’s scattered resistance forces and take the fight to the enemy as never before–for king and country, and for their own liberty."

First line: "The breeding grounds were called Pen Y Fan, after the hard, jagged slash of the mountain at their heart, like an ax-blade, rimed with ice along its edge and rising barren over the moorlands: a cold, wet Welsh autumn already, coming on towards winter, and the other dragons sleepy and remote, uninterested in anything but their meals."

My thoughts: My husband (who got me into the series) teases me about me calling these books "scrapey" - but it's because Laurence and Temeraire get into scrapes that I just can't imagine they'll be able to get out of! And this time was no different. Laurence has been charged with treason and the only reason he hasn't been executed is to keep Temeraire in line. But when Temeraire decides he's tired of sitting around in the breeding grounds and wants to fight, he leads the other dragons off to harry French troops in the British countryside. When Laurence is called in to find him, the reunion is a happy one, but Laurence is a changed man. He's always been stoic, but now he's broken and sure that he'll soon die. He's not even sure anymore whether or not he was right in committing his "treasonous" act of saving the lives of Europe's dragons by providing France with a cure for a deadly illness. But Laurence and Temeraire do their duty and fight Napoleon - once Temeraire has convinced Wellington that dragons should be given ranks and pay. (And also huge, garish epaulettes to mark their rank - that was one of my favourite parts, I love the dragons' charming vainness.) The book ends with an alternate-reality battle of epic proportions.

I think this book marks a turning point in the series. Temeraire's dreams of dragons' rights are briefly recognized, but one gets the sense they won't last out the war. Temeraire is still clever and jealous and vain and sweet, but he's slowly starting to learn the ways of men and how things really work. Laurence has literally lost everything except his dragon - he tries to cling to his old touchstones of honour and duty, but finds he can't. The very end of the book sees to duo being exiled to Australia because Temeraire is seen as too "dangerous" with his ideals but the team are too valuable to simply eliminate. I'm really looking forward to their adventures in wilds of New South Wales!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Review: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: Have always meant to; Carnegie Medal winner for Book Awards Challenge

From the back cover: "Maurice, a streetwise tomcat, has the perfect money-making scam. Everyone knows the stories about rats and pipers, and Maurice has a stupid-looking kid with a pipe, and his very own plague of rats - strangely educated rats... But in Bad Blintz, the little con suddenly goes down the drain. For someone there is playing a different tune and now the rats must learn a new word. EVIL. It's not a game any more. It's a rat-eat-rat world. And that might only be the start..."

Best line: "Of course, there weren't just rat plagues - sometimes there were plagues of accordian-players, bricks tied up with string, or fish - but it was the rats everyone knew about."

My thoughts: I wanted to like this one more than I did. I didn't even dislike it, I just...couldn't quite get lost in it. I haven't read any other Terry Pratchett books, so I don't know much about him, but I felt as though there was this sort of veneer over the book that I think must be his distinctive style. That doesn't make sense, really, but I can't do better than that.

There are very funny bits, to be sure, like the line above. Very British-humour bits. I loved that the rats had taken their names from stuff at the dump, so they're called things like Nourishing, Big Savings, and Sardines (who tap dances). There's a lot of scatalogical humour, which many boys would like and some rat swear-words. And a lot of dumb adults, always a good thing in kids' fiction. Keith the stupid-looking kid turned out not to be stupid at all, which I was pleased about. Malicia the girl who wishes life was a story was irritating but funny. I enjoyed her enormous bag filled with supplies for just about any emergency a young adventurer might encounter (including being faced with a giant squid), if they lived in a storybook. The nod to/jab at Beatrix Potter was a good joke, as the rats wish that animals and humans could get along (and all wear clothes) like they do in the twee Mister Bunnsy books.

I just couldn't quite suspend my disbelief enough. I didn't feel like the change that enabled the rats to think was explained well enough, just that they ate some enchanted stuff at the dump and the ability of the "king rat" to get inside people's minds was never explained at all.

The verdict: There's a lot that's funny and clever and even fairly deep in this book, so I can see why it won. Maybe I'm just not a Discworld-world girl. But I do still want to read Good Omens.

Monday, April 5, 2010

It's Tuesday, Where Are You?

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I'm in the hamlet of Bad Blintz with Keith the stupid-looking kid, Maurice the talking cat, and the educated rodents trying to figure out what's going on with the town's sinister rat-catchers.

And I'm also back at Gallagher Academy and out on the campaign trail with Cammie and the other Gallagher Girls since one of their own, Macey, is in danger while her father runs for Vice President. Or is it Macey that the bad guys are after....? (Don't Judge a Girl by her Cover by Ally Carter)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Review: Black Hills

Black Hills by Nora Roberts
4 stars

Reasons for reading: I've always thought I should read a Nora Roberts book; I visited the Black Hill last year; Black for Colourful Reading Challenge; NYT Bestseller for Four Month Challenge

Description: "Lil Chance fell in love with Cooper Sullivan pretty much the first time she saw him, an awkward teenager staying with his grandparents on their cattle ranch in South Dakota while his parents went through a messy divorce. Each year, with Coop's annual summer visit, their friendship deepens - but then abruptly ends. Twelve years later and Cooper has returned to run the ranch after his grandfather is injured in a fall. Though his touch still haunts her, Lil has let nothing stop her dream of opening the Chance Wildlife Refuge, but something - or someone - has been keeping a close watch. When small pranks escalate into heartless killing, the memory of an unsolved murder in these very hills has Cooper springing to action to keep Lil safe. They both know the dangers that lurk in the wild landscape of the Black Hills. And now they must work together to unearth a killer of twisted and unnatural instincts who has singled them out as prey ..."

First line: "Cooper Sullivan's life, as he'd known it, was over."

My thoughts: I can see why Nora Roberts is so popular! While at times I felt the book was a bit....slick because she's clearly written so many of them, I still enjoyed it. The ending was a crazy whirlwind with an unexpected (to me, at least) twist. I was glad that I've seen the Black Hills and Deadwood, it added a lot to the book for me to be able to picture the setting. I sometimes don't like it when an author has clearly done of a lot of research on a topic and includes a ton of it in the book, but Roberts' information about the big cats was interesting it fit in well. I'm not a big wildlife person, but I actually loved the cats - they had their own personalities and the Chance Refuge treated them all with such respect and care. It made me wish it really existed and I could go and see Boris the old tiger and Baby the cougar.

The love story between Lil and Cooper was pretty well done. I liked that she set it up from their childhood, with Cooper thinking South Dakota was hell and Lil not being able to imagine living anywhere else. It was really cute. I did think it was a bit angsty with all of the "You hurt me!"/"But it was for your own good!" debates between them. I liked that Lil was really strong and smart, but also able to admit (eventually, reluctantly) that she needed his help. He was maybe just a bit too take-charge, throw-her-over-his-shoulder romance-novel hero at times, but overall they were a good match.

The buildup to finding out who is preying on Lil was well done. Just when I was starting to think that it was time to tell us who it was, Roberts did. And what a weird, psychotic villain she comes up with! Definitely bonus points for having an interesting predator who really fit into the South Dakota setting.

The verdict: A good read, I can see why she's an instant best-seller. I think I'll look into her work a bit more and maybe read a few of her "greatest hits."

Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
5 stars

Reasons for reading: I couldn't put Hunger Games down; book in a series for the Four Month Challenge

Summary: "Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has won the annual Hunger Games with fellow district tribute Peeta Mellark. But it was a victory won by defiance of the Capitol and their harsh rules. Katniss and Peeta should be happy. After all, they have just won for themselves and their families a life of safety and plenty. But there are rumors of rebellion among the subjects, and Katniss and Peeta, to their horror, are the faces of that rebellion. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge."

My thoughts: Another winner! I was slow to get on the bandwagon for this series, so I'm sure everyone's said much better things in much better ways than I can. I was delighted to find the second book just as gripping as the first, I find that that's pretty rare these days. Collins is the master of the twist and leaving you hanging in suspense!

I was a tiny bit worried that the action of the Games were just going to be a rehash of the ones in the first book, but Collins managed to make them even crazier. I loved that Katniss became a national heroine and inspired a revolution - it doesn't get much bigger than that! But it was made even more poignant because while it's a good thing to change the evil regime of Panem, many people suffered and Katniss took the blame on herself. She's still headstrong and doesn't always say or do the right thing, but Katniss grew in this book, coming to understand how her actions could affect people and starting to control her impulses a bit better. I loved the mockingjay symbol and how it was used to provide secret hope for the downtrodden citizens. I thought the "Which one will she pick?" thing between Peeta and Gale was both a good plot device (who needs simple?!) but also a bit frustrating, I wished she'd pick!

The verdict: You don't need me to tell you it's awesome! I can't wait for Mockingjay to come out later this year!

Review: Son of the Mob

Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I love Gordon Korman; Young Adult Challenge; Four-word title for Four Month Challenge

Summary: "Vince Luca, 17, has a problem. His wealthy family runs the, uh, vending machine business in New York, and Vince is determined not to be part of it. Especially after a hot date is ruined when he finds that his older brother Tommy has conducted some business with Jimmy the Rat and hidden the messy and temporarily unconscious body in the trunk of Vince's car. His dad, the King of the Mob, is reasonable, sensible, lots of fun, gives great presents to his kids--and his name strikes the hearts of other mobsters to stone.

Although Vince keeps a low profile at school, his family connection brings him unwanted advantages, like the birthday Porsche that gets him arrested on stolen vehicle charges, or the football game in which he makes touchdown after touchdown because word has gotten around and nobody is willing to tackle him. Even private conversations at home have to be carried on in the basement because the FBI has bugged the house and an agent is always listening. Vince's life is inextricably tangled up with the family business, no matter how hard he tries to stay out of it. How can he show them he's serious? Then he meets Kendra, and when she innocently reveals that her father's an FBI agent--that FBI agent--it's a match made in heaven. He thinks."

First lines: "The worst night of my life? My first - and last - date with Angela O'Bannon."

My thoughts: My heart will always be with the first Kormans I read, his early humorous ones about MacDonald Hall and other boys-behaving-badly stories. But this one is a pretty good step up for older readers. It's a really quick read and I think it would appeal to reluctant-reader boys.

I have to say, it felt quite ABC Family movie-ish in places, but overall it was funny and Vince really does try to be a good guy, and it's great to see that he uses the mob-boss brains he inherited from his father in order to do something good. The book came out during the Sopranos era, and there's mention of the show, and I found that made it feel a bit dated. But, on the other hand, it's not like there's not always interest in the Mob.

One thing I found hard to believe was that Vince would only have one uber-geeky friend. There are a few cases where people are afraid of him because of his family, but it seems like not everyone knows. He doesn't come off as a geeky loser.

There are some very Korman-esque moments, starting from the opening scene where Vince's attempts to score with Angela are thwarted by the family business. And the "Uncles" on his dad's crew are done with tongue-in-cheek humour. The stand-out is Uncle Pampers. Nobody really wants to know how he "takes care of problems" for Vince's dad.

I'll probably read the sequel to find out if Vince is successful in escaping the family business when he goes to college. Something tells me that it's rather unlikely...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review: Getting the Girl

Getting the Girl: a guide to private investigation, surveillance, and cookery by Susan Juby
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I love Juby's Alice books; March author birthday for the Four Month Challenge; Young Adult Challenge

From the publisher:
"Sunglasses. Check.
Binoculars. Check.
Notepad. Check.
Mom's pink bike. Check. Check?

Meet Sherman Mack. Short. Nerdy. Amateur P.I. and prepared to do anything for Dini Trioli.
Nobody knows who began it or when it became a tradition, but every girl at Harewood Tech fears being D-listed, a ritual that wipes her off the social map forever. When Sherman believes Dini is in danger of being D-listed, he snatches up his surveillance gear and launches a full-scale investigation to uncover who is responsible.

Could it be the captain of the lacrosse team?
The hottest girls in school, the Trophy Wives?
Or maybe their boyfriends?

One thing is for sure: Sherman Mack is on the case. And he's not giving up."

My thoughts: While not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as the Alice books, Getting the Girl has some great humour. It's also a great story of one person deciding to stand up for what's right. And there's a bit of mystery thrown in there, too. At first I thought I was going to hate wanna-be ladies' man Sherman, but he's pretty endearing. He has a lot to deal with - his hot, young single mom is burlesque dancer and they survive mainly on toast; he has a growing attraction to his friend Vanessa, although he'd be happy with just about any girl, if only they'd respond to his charms; and now he's become an amateur sleuth in order to save more girls from getting Defiled.

I thought the funniest parts were Sherman's attempts at surveillance (particularly involving a mason jar for long stakeouts) and his cooking class misadventures with a home ec teacher who is both ridiculously perky and ridiculously hardcore about the world of professional cooking (that would be Cafeteria class). Sherman's odd but loyal friends and his adult mentor/neighbour add to the mix, bailing Sherman out - most of the time. The book culminates in a hilarious dinner party thrown by Sherman and if the conclusion feels a bit like the end of a Scooby Doo episode, I applaud Sherman for wanting to stop the cruel tradition of defiling, all while pursuing his interest in both cooking and women.