Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Review: Albert of Adelaide

Author: Howard L. Anderson
Title: Albert of Adelaide
Description: This book is about a platypus, Albert, who escapes from the zoo in Adelaide and sets out to find the platypus paradise. He’s not quite sure how to get there, but he starts out nonetheless. Along the way, he meets the wombat Jack, the raccoon TJ, and an assortment of good guys and bad guys.
Review source: netgalley
Plot: I had this book in my to-read list. I can’t imagine what it was about a description or a review that would have made me want to read it. Basically, it was a western, with gambling, drinking, outlaws, and wanted posters.
Characters: Albert seems innocent and naïve at first (think the Madagascar crew set loose in the jungle), but he’s quick to want to punch, shoot, and pull out those poison spikes. The quick recourse to violence is not my style, but I suppose it fits with the western idea.
Writing style: Seen from Albert’s point of view, everything that happens is a new surprise. So there’s this naïveté joined with linear reporting (“Albert noticed that they were playing some kind of game with dice. He felt lucky.”)
Audience: ? People who like westerns about Australian mammals?
Wrap-up: This book was just a little too innovative for me. That, plus the idea of killing people as the solution when you can’t get along made this book not quite my cup of billabong tea. 3/5*.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book Review: Paper Angels

Author: Billy Coffey
Title: Paper Angels
Description: Andy awakens in the hospital and gradually remembers the accident that put him there. His personal angel, the Old Man, seems to have left him at this worst time in his life. A hospital counselor asks him to talk through his box of keepsakes. Each keepsake is linked to a memory of a lesson Andy learned. As he reviews his life, Andy faces the question of where to go from here.
Review source: ALA
Plot: Short stories form vignettes of Andy’s past life, but are connected by the overarching narrative of his keepsake box.
Characters: Andy is a loner, having grown up orphaned. The angel that dogs his footsteps prevents him from forming lasting relationships (he doesn’t want people to think he is talking to himself). Other characters drop in and out of the story.
Writing style: The book kept me interested, but I would say it crossed the line into sappy more than once. The final “surprise” is pretty obvious from the beginning of the book. And I’m starting to get really tired of that kind of foreshadowing where the author drops in a name and a looming disaster but refuses to say what has happened until the end of the book. Wearying. Also, lots of preaching going on here. For every story, there is a lesson learned. Thunk.
Audience: Christian fiction, though it’s more that “life lesson” kind of thing than overtly Christian. Also the protagonist is a man, so if men are looking for Christian fiction, I'd recommend Coffey as the kind of author who won't overwhelm them with chick lit.
Wrap-up: Mildly enjoyable. 3/5*

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: In Darkness

Author: Nick Lake
Title: In Darkness
Description: In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, a teenaged boy lies trapped beneath the rubble of a destroyed hospital. As he lies there, he remembers the events that have led up to his hospitalization, caused by a gunshot wound. He also has memories of another life—not his, but that of his country’s liberator, Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Review source: I think I picked up at ALA.
Plot: I was disoriented for a good while until I figured out what was going on with the flashbacks, etc. There are two plots running parallel: the modern day story of Shorty the teenage gangster in Cite Soleil and Toussaint’s story of liberation.
Characters: In Cite Soleil, teenage boys (and younger) are the drug lords’ henchmen, mostly because the young men die off so quickly that rarely does one make it to his twenties. In both modern and historical Haiti, there isn’t much room for idealism; even people who try to do good have to make some big compromises along the way.
Writing style: Shorty uses a lot of creole or Haitian slang, but it can be figured out.
Audience: I get the impression that this was meant to be a YA novel; if so, it’s got major profanity issues and would be a fairly difficult read for under-16. Totally works as an adult novel.
Wrap-up: Every once in a while I get fascinated by a topic, and Haiti is one that I can’t let go. I did some research on Haiti for grad school, now this book—and after I read this one, I just wanted to go out and read more about Haiti. So Mountains Beyond Mountains is on its way, and I’m going to read some Danticat as well, as a start. I know Julia Alvarez has a new Haiti book out as well.  Back to this one, though—4/5*

Monday, July 23, 2012

Book Review: The Homecoming of Samuel Lake

Author: Jenny Wingfield
Title: The Homecoming of Samuel Lake
Description: Samuel Lake is a pastor who is just a little too controversial for the southern churches he serves. After his denomination tells him they just don’t have a church for him, he and his family—wife Willadee and kids Swan, Noble, and Bienville—end up at Willadee’s parents’ house. There Samuel wrestles with his vocation, Samuel’s ex-fiancee tries everything she can think of to get him back, Swan tries to befriend her uncle Toy, and the family becomes involved with young Blade, who will change their lives.  
Review source: netgalley
Plot: yes. All of the plots and subplots were interesting.
Characters: The book was not as much about Samuel Lake as the title makes it out to be. It’s probably more about Swan and Toy. But all of the family members were well-drawn characters. The villain was truly scary. I felt like a part of this family by the time I had finished the book.
Writing style: I never knew quite what was going to happen here, and the action keeps moving, but it doesn’t preclude character development. In terms of style, the book sort of made me expect magic realism, but there wasn’t any—there was, however, one miracle. I liked this book in the same way that I liked A Grown Up Kind of Pretty.
Audience: I confess, I could look up the publisher, but I don’t know if off the top of my head. That said, I don’t know whether or not this book is being marketed as Christian fiction. Which makes it just the kind of Christian fiction I like. Very much in the tradition of Peace Like a River.
Wrap-up: I loved this book. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending—I can think of two or three endings I would prefer. But that doesn't take away from the overall impact the book had on me. 5/5*

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Review: Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing

Author: Melissa Bank
Title: The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing
Description: A collection of short stories centering around Jane Rosenal (except for one about her aunt’s neighbor).
Source: yup, Penguin.
Writing style: A little disorienting—some first person, (including when the neighbor narrates), some second person.
Audience: Definitely literary fiction; more women than men, I’d guess.
Major ideas: The stories are about love. Or at least dating relationships. Jane’s brother, Jane, Jane’s aunt’s neighbor’s son’s.
Wrap-up: It was an easy one-vacation-day read, but I’m not sure that it’ll stick with me for long. A lot of New York publishing scene type stuff. 4/5*

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Book Review: Pledged

Author: Alexandra Robbins
Title: Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities
Description: Robbins spends a year following for sorority sisters on a college campus. The sororities were worried about publicity, so she had to go “undercover.” The picture that emerges is not a flattering one for most mainstream sororities.
Writing style: Excellent narrative non-fiction. The four girls’ stories are tracked through the school year, but in each chapter, Robbins also widens her focus to discuss the national picture regarding sorority issues such as sex, body image, drinking, and charity work.
Audience: If you like narrative non-fiction, this book is for you.
Major ideas: Sororities could be a force for good (witness most minority sororities), but are instead social clubs and money-making ventures.
Wrap-up: I brought six other books on vacation but finished this one first. 4/5*

Friday, July 20, 2012

My Favorite Reads: Books Based on Fairy Tales

Something I haven’t done for a while: a list post.

I love fairy tales, and fiction based on fairy tales in some of my favorite. Here are some of my five star reads that are at home in the world of fairy tales.  These are in no particular order; all of them have five stars from me.

The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley. Robin McKinley is probably my favorite writer who keeps coming back to the fairy tale genre. She’s very well known for her takes (yes, more than one) on the Beauty and the Beast story, so I picked this book of short stories which is less well known.

Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell. This was my very favorite book as a kid. I’ve probably read it more than fifty times. Here’s the review from my most recent reading.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Maybe my single favorite fairy tale book. Some people were disappointed by the movie, but its soundtrack by Ilan Eshkeri is one of my very favorites.

The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block. I reviewed this one a few months back, too.

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card. I was sort of surprised to come across this one by Orson Scott Card, but he makes nice use of the Russian setting to bring in the ultimate fairy tale baddie, Baba Yaga.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke. I don’t count her better-known book Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as a fairy tale, even though it is about fairy land. (I do love it better, too). But this book has short stories based on fairy tales and it still worth a read.

The Book of Lost Things by John Conolly. Sometimes the land of fairy tales is a scary and creepy place.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: In the Heart of the Sea

Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
Title: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Description: Moby Dick was based on a true story; the story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaleship that was rammed by a whale. The crew was forced to take the three whaleboats and try to reach land.
Source: I <3 Penguin
Writing style: Absolutely fascinating. Meticulously researched, based on primary sources, and riveting.
Audience: Anyone.
Major ideas: History can be better than a novel. I could never finish Moby Dick.
Wrap-up: I loved this book. The sailors seemed real to me; who would live and who would not? I loved the Stormalong John tales as a kid, and my ancestors are from New England. Maybe I just have some sea water in my blood. 5/5*

For a more light-hearted look at life on (and off) the ship, click here

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

Author: Greg Mortenson & David Relin
Title: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time
Description: This book is pretty well known by now, but if you haven’t heard: Greg Mortenson gets lost in Pakistan and in gratitude to the village that took him in, promises to build them a school. With almost no resources, he manages to get it done, but it is just the first of many schools he builds in Pakistan and Central Asia.
Source: The Penguin treasure-trove.
Big Caveat: About a year ago, a bunch of articles came out that exposed several parts of this book as fictional. There have also been questions about Mortenson’s management of money and the resources of the Central Asia Institute. With no strong rebuttal from Mortenson or the publisher, those allegations were constantly in my mind as I read this book; I have to admit to looking at it pretty cynically.
Writing style: There were some issues here. For one thing, though Mortenson is listed as the primary author, the book is written in the third person. That allows for as much aggrandizement of Mortenson as possible without it sounding like boasting. This got on my nerves.
Audience: The book could be read by anyone; it doesn’t seem geared toward a certain audience. I know it has been chosen for multiple One Reads.
Major ideas: The way to combat terrorism is through education, not war.
Wrap-up: The controversy surrounding the book and Mortenson’s eagerness to embrace the role of hero both bothered me. I didn’t think the book was especially well-written, though I do think the message is important. 2/5*

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review: Elisha's Bones

Author: Don Hoesel
Title: Elisha’s Bones
Description: Archaeology professor Jack Hawthorne is hired by a mysterious millionaire to find a sacred artifact. He travels around the world, hooks up with a beautiful woman, finds some clues, some people get killed…
Review source: Free on kindle (looks like it still is).
Plot: Too much happened in this book. The plot sent Jack and Espy from one crisis to another. Realistically, they shouldn’t have survived past Venezuela…
Characters: Character development isn’t a strong suit here. The characters are just something the plot happens to.
Writing style: Typical thriller. Very little character development because things keep happening. I don’t think this book would be in existence without The Da Vinci Code; it’s very much along those same lines.
Audience: This book is Christian fiction, but the Christian part is fairly light-handed. The relic (oh, you know it is Elisha’s bones; the title gives it away) supposedly has supernatural powers. Jack sort of equates if the bones really do have supernatural powers then God exists.
Wrap-up: I’m really not a big fan of thrillers.  2.5/5*

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review: The Paradox of Choice

Author: Barry Schwartz
Title: The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less
Description: Schwartz wondered why, when we have more choices than ever before, are we so conflicted when making choices? Shouldn’t we all be much happier than in the past, when our choices were so limited?  Note: the book is not necessarily about how to make decisions, but about what happens psychologically when people are faced with multiple options.
Source: Penguin
Writing style: Schwartz takes a load of research and puts it into language a layperson can understand. Very readable.
Audience: Pretty much anyone who wonders about this question.
Major ideas: There are tons of good ideas in this book. Mainly, though, Schwartz advises that instead of taking lots of time on decisions and agonizing over all the possibilities in order to make the BEST choice, that people limit their time making decisions and settle for “good enough.” He does recognize that some choices are more important than others, and therefore merit more time, but for deciding potato chip brand or which fast food restaurant to patronize, limit your options, make the choice, and move on.
Wrap-up: I found this book interesting, thought-provoking, and helpful from cover to cover. I highly recommend it. 4/5*

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: Thy Neighbor

Author: Norah Vincent
Title: Thy Neighbor
Description: Nick lives a wasted life alone in his childhood home, spending most of his days sleeping and most of his nights drunk and high. Thirteen years before, his father shot his mother, then committed suicide, and that was pretty much it for Nick. When he can think, he spends his time with Monica, a girl with no last name, past, or occupation, or he spies on his neighbors.
Review source: netgalley
Plot: Somehow, things seem to be revealing more about Nick’s past than they ever have before. He never knew what really went on between his father & his mother, but someone out there does know.
Characters: This is the author’s first novel, so I have nothing to compare it to, but Nick’s voice (it’s a first-person narrative) is right on. He’s bitter, sarcastic, and funny. He’s angry and vulnerable. Pretty amazing.
Writing style: This is definitely a dark story, and it really made me think. I actually used my kindle highlighter, meaning there were some passages I want to think on some more.
Audience: It’s a mystery/thriller. If you're offended by graphic language, this book isn't for you.
Wrap-up: A little darker than what I usually read, but it kept me fascinated through to the end. 4/5*

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: Goodbye for Now

Author: Laurie Frankel
Title: Goodbye for Now
Description: Sam is a computer genius. He works for an online dating company and comes up with the perfect algorithm to allow people to find their soulmates. He uses it to find his—Meredith, who works in the same company. When he gets fired for costing his company business, he uses his skills to help Meredith get over the grief of losing her grandmother by writing an algorithm that will duplicate her online presence. When they decide to offer this service to others with dead loved ones (DLOs), Sam learns a lot about life.
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: This seems like the kind of book where the author asked a “what if” question, then answered it. In Frankel’s case, though, she keeps coming up with more what ifs. What if your DLO was not who you thought they were? What if the DLO had spent their whole life being sick? What if you told your DLO that she was dead?
Characters: Frankel has a wonderful way with her characters. I loved them all.
Writing style: This book is primarily about death and grief, but it was really funny and a fun read. 
Audience: It’s tough to know how to classify this book. I suppose literary fiction, where stuff goes when you don’t know what to call it. I think just about anyone would like it.
Wrap-up: I loved reading this book even when the end made me cry. It will be a keeper for me. 5/5*

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Review: The Bad Always Die Twice

Author: Cheryl Crane
Title: The Bad Always Die Twice
Description: Nikki Harper is a Hollywood real estate agent who is the daughter of Victoria Bourdeaux, a glamorous fifties movie star. Cheryl Crane is a real estate agent who is the daughter of Lana Turner. Make of this what you will. So Nikki is investigating the death of a rascal who supposedly died six months earlier in a plane crash, but ended up stabbed through the eye in her best friend’s bed.
Review source: I think I got this ARC at ALA last year.
Plot: When you take away all the Hollywood glamour, this is a fairly straightforward whodunit. I thought it was interesting; there were plenty of twists, and new information was handed out steadily throughout the book.
Characters: Nikki is level-headed and practical in spite of her Hollywood background. Her mother is likeable as well, though way past eccentric on the kooky scale.
Writing style: Fine. There is a lot of brand name dropping, which means nothing to me and I could do without.
Audience: Mystery readers. Despite its Hollywood setting, it’s not exactly noir, but there are some noir-ish touches.
Wrap-up: Mysteries aren’t my top choice in reading, although I always enjoy a well-crafted whodunit. So the fact that I wouldn’t go out looking for another book by Crane isn’t so much a judgment on her as just a reflection on my own choices in reading. 3.5/5*

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book Review: Gone to Green

Author: Judy Christie
Title: Gone to Green
Description: Lois inherits a small-town newspaper (in Green, La.) and moves there to take over running the bi-weekly publication. She has been working in a large city newsroom, so she has to make adjustments: to a small town, to being the boss, and to living in the south, for starters.
Review source: I got the first four volumes of this series from the author last year at ALA. There is now a fifth volume.
Plot: Involves Lois meeting the citizens of Green and some nefarious land development going on.
Characters: Lots of small-town characters crop up; I’m sure they’ll be back in the next book. I most enjoyed the subplot of Lois befriending a rebellious teenager, but she also meets a catfish farmer/football coach, a lady pastor, etc.
Writing style: No distracting tendencies. Basic storytelling.
Audience: This is Christian fiction (Lois isn’t Christian, but everyone she meets is). Also chick lit.
Wrap-up: It was an enjoyable read. If I didn’t have the next three books, I probably wouldn’t seek them out, but since I do have them, I’ll read them. 3/5*