Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Vacationers

The Vacationers
By Emma Straub
Riverhead, 2014. 304 pgs. Fiction.

This was a very quick, entertaining read. At times light, with undertones of serious subjects, it was a great summer read. Clever characters, and funny dialogue made this an enjoyable book. Straub put humor in the story where it was needed while still allowing room for plenty of heart. I completely fell in love with the daughter in the story, Sylvia. And the island of Mallorca. I would love to vacation there.

The book consists of a vacation home in Mallorca that is filled with the Post family, and the mom's best friend Charles and his husband. The book starts with a hint of secrets and tension and it is revealed through out why the Posts are hesitant to go on this family vacation together. Two weeks on an island leads to boredom, fights, and very funny outbursts as well as adventures. By the end you cheer for the quirky family as they try and repair what has happened and move on.


The Ring and The Crown

The Ring and the Crown
By Melissa De La Cruz
Disney-Hyperion, 2014. 384 pgs.

The Ring and the Crown takes place in a different 20th century where a Franco-British empire rules the world and is assisted through the magic of mages (Merlins) that stay with the family for hundreds of years as partners in power. The story focuses on Marie-Victoria, the princess; Aewln, the daughter of Merlin; Leopold, the prince that is to marry Marie-Victoria; Ronan, an Astor descendant and a mage; Wolf, Leopold's brother and quite a few more. There are love hexagons, hints of magic, period balls and more that made it an interesting read, even if it wasn't always easy.

This book had a lot going on. I picked it up because the cover is beautiful and I liked the idea of an alternate history book dealing with Merlin and the Astors along with royalty of a few different families. It maybe had too much going on. There are a large number of pretty active main characters and their relationships of love and hate and dislike and ally continued to change or develop and left me trying to figure out who did what. The magic of Merlin was barely touched upon and was mostly used to keep Queen Eleanor young. The end seems rushed, but the majority of the book was full of romance and conspiring and secrets. I will give the second one a try in hopes some of the characters are ironed out.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I Kill the Mockingbird

I Kill the Mockingbird
By Paul Acampora
Roaring Brook Press, 2014. 166 pages. Young Adult

The shenanigans really begin with the sudden, untimely death of Mr. Nowak, everyone's favorite eighth grade English teacher. When best friends Lucy, Elena, and Michael vow to find a way to memorialize Mr. Nowak over their final summer before high school, they decide to find a way to get everyone reading his favorite book: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Their plan? To make all the copies of the classic novel disappear from local libraries and bookstores through "creative" reshelving, and publicizing their efforts through a social media and website presence known as IKilltheMockingbird. "It's not stealing," Lucy insists. "It's shrinkage."

Their problem? The campaign quickly spirals out of control, and copies of To Kill a Mockingbird begin to disappear from bookshops and libraries all over the United States. Now the friends must work together to stop the "literary terrorism" they've started, before their plan backfires spectacularly and nobody reads the novel at all.

I Kill the Mockingbird is a charming little novel! Lucy's voice is active, piquant, and believably fourteen. She and her friends are round, dynamic characters who are well-fleshed but not overdrawn; and supported by a cast of secondary characters who are almost as much fun as the main ones. There are a lot of fine emotional nuances, particularly scenes between Lucy and her parents (her mother is a recent cancer survivor), and the moments between Lucy and Michael (who are starting to develop romantic feelings toward one another). The novel feels like a love letter to the enjoyment of great literature, and I can't say I didn't giggle over a few of the social media culture references. Quick, clean, and fun.


Monday, July 21, 2014

War of the Whales: a True Story

War of the Whales: A True Story
by Joshua Horwitz
Simon & Schuster, 2014.  426 pgs.  Nonfiction

When a number of beaked whales came ashore and mostly died in March of 2008, whale researcher Ken Balcomb is on hand to save those he can but perhaps more importantly to save the heads of the dead for analysis--what caused the whales to run aground en masse? He doesn't suspect the Navy until he sees a destroyer plying the channel above the Great Bahama Canyon where the whales live and feed and where conditions are perfect for training against submarine attacks. Balcomb keeps his mouth shut about the destroyer at first because he is a former Navy man trained there in underwater acoustics and besides his loyalty to the service, he has signed non-disclosure agreements.  But by and by for him and for many other environmentalists and researchers who are beholden to the Navy for funding, the whales' plight trumps even concerns for national security.  Horwitz's fine story of the battle between two good causes:  saving the lives of whales and, perhaps, saving the lives of American sailors and civilians is a profound character- and action-driven story of what happens when two forces seemingly essential to our welfare clash. Well-written and compelling, War of the Whales is already showing up on multiple Best Books of the Year lists, and rightly so.


Shots Fired: Stories from Joe Pickett County

Shots Fired:  Stories from Joe Pickett Country
by C. J. Box
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2014.  269 pgs.  Mystery

Fans and newcomers alike should enjoy C. J. Box's sparkling new collection of stories set in Wyoming. Joe Pickett, steadfast and companionable game warden, is the protagonist of a couple of these stories, including the title piece which has piercing things to say about shallow, self-absorbed lives as opposed to the life of a good man, a hard and faithful worker. "Pronghorns of the Third Reich" sounds like it will be a funny story, but it is a chilling (in more ways than one) tale of two men caught in a Wyoming blizzard, one wronged by the other, or so he says. "The Master Falconer" doesn't sound like it will be funny but it is mildly amusing as Joe's friend Nate Romanowski engages in a battle he seemingly cannot win with an Arab sheikh who demands wild falcon chicks to train. If you love the West, this book can be enjoyed simply for Box's descriptions of landscape and atmosphere, but there is ever so much more of ironic twists, human nature turned against itself, and flat-out fear that make this book a fine summertime read in the cool of the evening.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Grave Matter

A Grave Matter (Lady Darby #3)
By Anna Lee Huber
Berkley Prime Crime, 2014. 421 pages. Mystery.

It's New Year's Eve and Lady Darby is celebrating at the Hogmanay Ball with her brother at a neighboring estate. But when one of the groundskeepers staggers into the ballroom at the stroke of midnight, telling of grave robbers and murderers, Lady Darby finds herself thrust into the middle of an investigation with the charming Sebastian Gage once again. Their inquiries take them into the seedy side of Edinburgh's criminal classes to find a group of grave robbers that have turned their trade into ransoming rich families for the return of their loved ones' bones. Will Gage and Lady Darby be able to find the criminals before more people are hurt? And will they be able to settle the feelings that have built up between them?

I've loved Huber's mystery series from the start. She has created very memorable characters and the plots are unique enough to draw the interest of even the most well-read mystery reader. This was a book that I savored each time I picked up, never quite ready to let it end.


There Will Come a Time

There Will Come a Time
By Carrie Arcos
Simon Pulse, 2014. 315 pages. Young adult fiction.

Mark is overwhelmed by grief after watching his twin sister, Grace, die next to him in a tragic car accident. And then he finds a list he wrote just a few days before the accident, a list of the five things she wanted to do before the year was over. Mark determines to fulfill his sister's final goals, with the companionship of her best friend, Hanna.

This book is intensely powerful. Arcos has a very spare writing style, but she is able to convey so much emotion with what she puts to paper that I was in tears several times throughout the story. Mark's heartbreak is so real and accessible that the reader goes through his emotional journey with him as he learns to live his life again with the one person he thought would always be there. It was not what I expected...and I loved every minute of it.


Friday, July 18, 2014

The Lonely Hearts Club

The Lonely Hearts Club
By Elizabeth Eulberg
Point, 2011. 290 pages. Young adult fiction.

Penny Lane Bloom (named after an album by her parents' favorite band, the Beatles) is tired of having her heart broken by boys. So she decides to take action. Using the Beatles for her own inspiration, she starts the Lonely Hearts Club, a support group for girls who are ready to give up on the high school dating scene and wait until college, when boys will be more mature and treat them with respect. Before she knows it, girls are flocking to her Saturday night meetings, eager to meet up with girls who want to be able to be themselves and not just hang on the arm of the cutest guy at school. But things start to get out of hand when the Principal bans the club as exclusionary. And, even more problematic, Penny discovers that her best guy friend may be trying to ask her out - all to the outrage of the Club. Will the Lonely Hearts survive the crisis?

I love Elizabeth Eulberg's writing and this book was an adorable example of her ability to get into the heads of teens and see what is really happening. The characters are likeable and believable and it is enjoyable to see Penny evolve as she comes to understand that her initial broken-hearted anti-man stance may have been a little precipitate. But it also shows how important it is for girls to have girl friends and a firm understanding of who they are. Overall, it was a fun read with a really good message.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Merciless

The Merciless
By Danielle Vega
Razorbill, 2014. 336 pages. Horror

Sofia Flores is a military kid, used to moving every six months, used to being a lone wolf. So when she's automatically embraced by the queen bee of her new high school in Friend, Mississippi, Sofia thinks she just might be able to fit in for the first time. Sure, her new friends are a little . . . intense about their religious convictions, but what's wrong with that?

So when Sofia ends up in the basement of an abandoned house with her new friends -- Riley, Grace, and Alexis -- to perform an "exorcism," she begins to wonder if she should have gotten involved with the girls at all. Their target? The high school's resident outcast and snark queen, Brooklyn Stevens. Riley says they want to help Brooklyn, but all the house's windows are nailed shut, the doors are padlocked, and Riley's the only one with a key . . . and the only one with a knife.

Brooklyn doesn't seem possessed to Sofia, but something about her behavior doesn't add up, either. And Riley's "exorcism" methods seem closer to sadistic torture than they do to exorcism. Torn between her morality and her sense of self-preservation, Sofia begins to play a dangerous game . . . and if she doesn't win, she'll pay with her life.

I'm not going to lie, this novel made me flinch. And squirm. I originally bought it for the YA collection, but after reviewing it, realized it would be better placed in adult fiction due to some graphic violence. However, for readers who enjoy Stephen King-esque horror, this is a phenomenal novel. Vega does a remarkable job in reversing Sofia's (and the reader's) loyalties to Riley and Brooklyn; one moment, we're certain Riley's a sociopath; the next, we're certain that Brooklyn is a possessed by some demon. For those looking for Mean Girls with an edge, this novel is for you.


Monday, July 14, 2014

White Tiger

Cover image for The white tiger : a novel
The White Tiger
By Aravind Adiga
Free Press, 2008. 304 pgs.

The white tiger is rare in the animal kingdom, and so is Balram Halwai, who narrates his own entrepreneurial ascension in this fierce, darkly comedic novel. In his open letter to a visiting Chinese dignitary, who wants to learn about true entrepreneurs in India, Balram shows a side of India that is quite different from other currently reigning literary Indian voices. This is the India of impoverished small villages, of servants (modern slavery), government corruption, derelict education systems, caste, and of the depravity human nature can stoop too when continually forced into these conditions. Having traveled in India myself, I found Adiga's descriptions to be heart-breakingly accurate.

Adiga's writing is sharp, clever, and compelling as he tells a modern day 'Crime and Punishment' story following the events that lead Balram to murder his boss. And yet like Raskolnikov, and Rushdie's Saleem Sinai; Adiga's Balram is every man, he is the voice of the down trodden of India and his experience is that of every Indian. The White Tiger is haunting, startling, and captivating. A must read for anyone interested in gaining insight to one of the rising super powers of the world.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind

For the Benefit of Those who See:  Dispatches from the World of the Blind
by Rosemary Mahoney
Little, Brown, and Company, 2014.  287 pgs.  Nonfiction

Rosemary Mahoney is a fine writer, usually of travelogues, but in this excellent volume she combines seasons in Tibet and India with an excursion into the world of the blind.  Braille Without Borders is a school in Tibet founded to rescue blind children from the abuse and abandonment they often suffer in a society where they are deemed useless.  Sabriye Tenberken (herself blind) and her partner Paul Kronenberg (sighted) have brought such a change of status and hopefulness to the blind children of Tibet that one girl expressed gratitude for her blindness because she now had opportunities for education and advancement that the sighted children in her village would never have. As Mahoney moves on to the Braille Without Borders training school in India, she becomes an English teacher as well as a student, and introduces her readers to some remarkable people who are gifted, funny, hard-working, ambitious, and joyful and who simply "see" the world differently.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

We Were Liars

We Were Liars
By E. Lockhart
Delacorte Press, 2014. 240 pages. Young Adult

Cadence "Cady" Sinclair Easton is the eldest grandchild of an old-money family, one headed by a patriarch who owns a private island off Cape Cod. Every summer, the family gathers on the island, and Cadence, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and their friend Gat (the eponymous "Liars"), have been inseparable during those summers since age eight. But during their fifteenth summer, Cadence suffers a horrible accident, one that leaves her with amnesia, prone to debilitating migraines, and addicted to pain pills.

Two summers later, Cadence returns to the island to pierce together just what happened on the night everything changed, the night her family won't talk about, and the night she can't remember.

I've come to expect a lot out of E. Lockhart's novels, and I'm happy to report that We Were Liars did not disappoint! Cady's voice is sparse, yet authentic, and her descriptions of pain both emotional and physical were so deft, they made me cringe. The family drama that unfolds on the page is heart-rending, but Lockhart manages not to demonize the "beautiful Sinclair family," which only makes the tension more taut and their drama cut deeper. (And I'll bet you five bucks you don't see the ending coming!) A well-wrought novel that deserves to be on everyone's to-read list this year.


The Truth About Alice

The Truth About Alice
By Jennifer Mathieu
Roaring Brook Press, 2014. 208 pages. Young Adult

Jealousy, rumors, and lies can really ruin a teen girl's life. In Healy, Texas, everyone knows everyone else's business, and so everyone knows that Alice Franklin slept with two boys at Elaine O'Dea's party. Everyone knows she had an abortion. And everyone knows she's responsible for the death of Brandon Fitzsimmons, the school's beloved high school quarterback.

Or do they?

Told in five voices, The Truth About Alice should have been a powerful book. I expected the novel to deal with larger issues like bullying, slut-shaming, and lying with grace and tact, but was frustrated to find that it only managed to skim the surface. I wanted to love this novel, but the characters and voices felt inauthentic to me, and I still struggle to accept parts of the novel's climax and denouement. Still, it's a better, more literary choice for those looking for more Mean Girls fare.


The Undertaking of Lily Chen

The Undertaking of Lily Chen
By Danica Novgorodoff
First Second, 2014. 432 pages. Graphic Novel

When hapless young Deshi accidentally kills his brother by pushing him in front of a moving Jeep, Deshi's parents send him on a mission to acquire a "corpse bride" to accompany his brother into the afterlife. Problem is, eligible dead girls are in extremely short supply. Guilt-ridden Deshi seeks the help of a matchmaker, a grave robber, and a hospital attendant before he runs into stubborn, spirited Lily, who would make a perfect bride if she weren’t so alive . . . and Deshi can't decide if he should kiss the girl, or kill her.

I wasn't quite sure what I was in for with The Undertaking of Lily Chen, but overall, the outing was a delightful one. While I was put off at times by Lily's self-centeredness, I ended up rooting for her because of her tart, quick wit and irrepressible sense of self. The artwork is sparse: backgrounds evoke the grace of ancient Chinese art, while the character designs are modern, a tactic that highlights the clash between old traditions and contemporary society. While I would recommend Gene Luen Yang's Boxers and Saints over this title, I still found the story compelling, at times funny, and occasionally a little verklempt-making. A good choice for readers whose tastes in graphic novels skew literary.