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.