Monday, May 28, 2012

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani is an epistolary novel for young readers, a story of two unlikely pen pals who are, perhaps, more similar than one might initially expect. River Justice is a boy from Eastern Kentucky, the son of a coal miner. Meena Joshi is a girl from New York City, though she was born in India. The two correspondents learn a lot about, and from, each other over the course of a year.

This book is obviously of didactic intent, though the story does not come across as overly didactic. Set in 2008, there is a lot of discussion of the politics of the day (specifically, the presidential election). I enjoyed reading this book, but I think it will have limited appeal to kids. I can definitely see it being used in a classroom setting, though.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent by Veronica Roth is just as fast-paced and gut-wrenching as its predecessor. The five factions are on the brink of war: Abnegation decimated by Erudite's attack, Dauntless split in half in the aftermath of the battle, Amity hoping for peace and trying to remain neutral, and Candor searching for the truth of the matter. And then there are the Factionless . . . who may hold secrets that Tris and Four never would have guessed.

This book picks up right where Divergent left off. The well-regulated world established in that book has obviously just been shattered, and more conflict is on the way. Insurgent begins to hint at some of the questions raised by Divergent: how were the factions established? What, if anything, exists beyond the fence? Why is Divergence such an important trait? The questions aren't all answered in this book, but they are at least acknowledged -- and another book is on the way. . . .

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Divergent by Weronica Roth

I reread Divergent by Veronica Roth, in anticipation of reading the sequel. Divergent was one of my favorite reads last year -- here's what I wrote about it then:
Divergent is a dystopian novel set in a world where humans have divided into five factions that co-exist peacefully, each faction taking charge of one function of government or society. At the age of 16, each person makes the most important choice of their life: which faction to join. Factions are based on which trait one most values: bravery, selflessness, intelligence, honesty, or kindness. Once a person has chosen a faction, the faction is expected to hold the foremost place in their loyalties, even before their family.

Beatrice Prior has grown up in Abnegation, the selfless faction which controls the government (because of their selflessness, they are seen as uncorruptible), but Tris doesn't feel like she is selfless enough to spend her life in Abnegation. She struggles with the thought of leaving everything and everyone she has ever known, but choosing her faction is only the first challenge that awaits her. After choosing a faction, teens must pass Initiation -- different for each faction, but challenging and sometimes dangerous. To top it off, Tris may be even more different than she originally suspected . . . and she lives in a world where such differences can get her killed.

This tightly-plotted story will grab readers' attention, pull them in, rush them through heart-pounding action, and leave them breathlessly wanting more. The author doesn't pull any punches, either: Tris's danger feels raw and realistic. The characters are strong and complex, and there's just enough romance to add interest to the story without taking over the central plot. Fans of The Hunger Games will love this book.
I wrote that review to avoid even the minor spoiler of which faction Tris chose, so if you haven't read the book and would like to remain unspoiled, you may want to skip the rest of this post.

I was struck once again, as I had been when I first read the book, about how unsuited I would be for Dauntless, Tris's chosen faction! The description of Dauntless initiation sounds absolutely miserable to me. I'd probably end up in Amity or Abnegation, myself -- though an online quiz I took a while back placed me in Erudite. (Side note: the fact that the faction names don't agree in case bothers me. I mean, shouldn't it be Erudition, to match Amity, Abnegation, Candor -- but then Dauntlessness just sounds dumb. Maybe it should be Dauntless, Erudite, Candid, Amicable, Abnegating? The fact that I am grammar-picking probably indicates that Erudite would, in fact, be the proper faction for me.)

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

In Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers, Harriet Vane stumbles upon a dead body on a deserted beach. Evidence shows that the man has been dead for only minutes, but there's nobody else in sight. Was it suicide -- or murder? And will Harriet find herself a suspect in yet another murder investigation?

Each Lord Peter Wimsey novel seems to have something particular to recommend it, and in this one, it's the glimpses we get into Harriet's character and thought processes, and Harriet and Lord Peter's developing relationship. I'm really looking forward to Gaudy Night (I'm skipping Murder Must Advertise because I read it last year), but I have a few non-Sayers books to read in the interim.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Merits of Mischief: The Bad Apple by T.R. Burns

Merits of Mischief: The Bad Apple by T.R. Burns is the first book in a quirky new series for young readers. When he accidentally kills a substitute teacher by throwing an apple, Seamus Hinkle's parents send him to a school for troublemakers. What his parents don't know is that Kilter Academy is not a reform school . . . if anything, it's the opposite. Seamus and his fellow students are trained in the art and science of troublemaking. At Kilter Academy, demerits are good and gold stars are bad. Playing pranks on your teachers is mandatory. Students who fail to make enough trouble are in danger of expulsion. The thing is, Seamus wasn't trying to be a bad kid -- the incident with the apple was an extremely unfortunate accident. Can he survive his time at Kilter Academy?

This odd little story fits in well with books like The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Name of This Book is Secret. It's obvious that the author plans to continue with the series, as very few loose ends are tied up at the end of this book, and though it's not exactly a cliffhanger, readers may find that they have more questions than answers when the book is closed. Even so, it's a tremendously fun read, and I'll be keeping an eye out for future installments.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan

Taking a brief hiatus from the Lord Peter series, I just read Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan. This fictionalized account of Alcott's life covers the year the Alcott family lived at Fruitlands, Bronson Alcott's attempt at a utopian society. The book is in diary format, alternating between Louy's "public" and "private" journals (as imagined by Whelan, of course). These document the struggles of a loving and high-spirited girl who longs to be a good and obedient daughter, but finds herself a long way from perfection. She's surrounded by an interesting cast of characters -- her loving mother, of course, and high-minded father, as well as her perfect older sister Anna, sympathetic younger sister Lizzie, and toddler Abby May. Joining them at Fruitlands are Mr. Lane, a stern Englishman, and his son William, along with a motley cast of characters who are also seeking perfection. (Unfortunately, these secondary characters are more sketches than fully developed characters.) The quest ends unhappily, as the year's harvest proves insufficient to see them through the winter, and the individuals end up going their separate ways.

This book is not one of Whelan's better efforts. Perhaps the difficulty is in portraying so well-known a figure as Alcott faithfully, or perhaps it's the bittersweet ending of the book, but for me, the story fell flat. It was a quick read, but felt a bit repetitive -- Louy does something seemingly harmless / speaks without thinking / is a tiny bit rebellious, father scolds her, she cries and apologizes. Moreover, I think it is difficult to find the right audience for this book. Readers too young for Little Women are unlikely to be interested in the lives of the Alcott family, though some readers who enjoy books like the "Dear America" series might read it for the diary format and historical context. Older readers who are interested in Alcott's life will probably seek information among the plethora of Alcott biographies, where they can get more concrete information about Bronson Alcott's Transcendental philosophies and utopian dreams. This book is pleasant (though not particularly exciting) to read, but it neither presents a great deal of information about Alcott nor engages the reader with strong plotting and characterization.

(Reviewed from a  copy borrowed through my library system.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy Sayers

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy Sayers is not one of my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey books, though the complicated plot and over-abundant Scots dialect make it one of the most memorable ones. Lord Peter retreats to the picturesque Scottish countryside and, of course, there is a murder. Campbell, a hot-tempered artist, is found at the bottom of a cliff, but his death was no accident. Any of six other local artists could have committed the crime, but only one of them did.

I'll admit, this one was a bit of a slog for me. Reading before bed, it was all too easy to drift off to sleep when the police started discussing train time-tables. There were far too many trains, towns, bicycles, and suspects, and they were far too difficult to tell apart. Wimsey doesn't shine as much in this one as in previous books, and after all of the character work in Strong Poison, this detached and relatively unemotional Lord Peter is a bit of a let-down. Still, it's Lord Peter, so worth a read!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers is one of my favorite books in the series. A woman is on trial for poisoning her lover. The evidence points, overwhelmingly, to her guilt -- but Lord Peter is convinced that she is innocent. In fact, he takes a rather personal interest in this particular case. . . .

This book introduces a character who plays a significant role in future books, and also advances certain through-running plot lines. The dialogue is excellent, even better than in the earlier books, and a few lines had me nearly rolling with laughter (there's a conversation between Lord Peter and his sister concerning pajamas that is particularly noteworthy). I reread this book more recently than most of the others, so had some vague memories about the solution to the crime, but this is one of those rare detective novels that bears rereading even without that element of surprise.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Finally and Forever by Robin Jones Gunn

Finally and Forever by Robin Jones Gunn is the conclusion of the Katie Weldon series. More than that, this book wraps up loose ends from over twenty years of writing by Robin Jones Gunn. Katie was a secondary character in Gunn's Christy Miller series, Sierra Jensen series, and Christy and Todd: The College Years trilogy. Christy's story was wrapped up in that trilogy (though she makes occasional appearances in other books), Sierra's story concluded with Love Finds You in Sunset Beach, Hawaii (one of my reads from January of this year), and now Katie's story concludes with this book.

Katie, in her usual spunky and impulsive style, has followed her boyfriend Eli to Africa, where his parents work with a mission organization. Now that Katie and Eli have finished college, they both hope to find a way to be useful in Kenya. Will Katie be able to adjust to life in Africa? Will she and Eli find purpose for their lives -- and will those purposes be compatible, or will the two of them end up going their separate ways?

I have a sentimental connection to Gunn's writing, since I counted her among my favorite authors when I was a teen. Her squeaky-clean inspirational romances are better written than most of that genre, and she does a good job of creating interesting characters and developing relationships between them. Her teen and young adult novels feel realistic -- they're a good depiction of the conservative Evangelical Christian culture I grew up in. As such, they may not be of interest to those unfamiliar with or disinterested in that culture. For their target audience, however, they are a pleasant diversion.

I often don't mention book covers, but I do want to add that this one is particularly heinous. The first three books in this series have covers that are actually expressive of Katie's personality and of the tone of the story -- but with this book, the publishers threw all of that out of the window and decided to go for a soft-focus picture of a dreamy-eyed girl who looks like Africa would chew her up and spit her out. I'm really unimpressed. It looks like they just gave up and slapped any old stock photo on this cover.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers

In Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers, a powerful businessman is missing. On the night of his disappearance, an unidentified corpse turns up in a bathtub. Are the two incidents related? It's up to Lord Peter to discover the truth.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club reminded me a bit of Unnatural Death. In this book, an elderly gentleman is found dead in his usual chair at his club. It seems obvious that he had a heart attack, but the time of death is very difficult to ascertain. Normally it wouldn't matter, but there's a complicated issue of inheritance that depends upon the old gentleman's exact time of death. In investigating the old gentleman's final 24 hours, Lord Peter discovers that there's more to the death than anyone originally suspected.

When reading a series, I often find that I've said everything I want to say about them in the first post or so. I'll continue to read and enjoy this series, but my postings about the books are probably going to be brief.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

In Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers, Lord Peter encounters what just might be the perfect murder. An old lady, dying of cancer, passes away a few months earlier than the doctor had predicted. Her money goes to the grand-niece who is her next-of-kin and chosen heir, even though the old lady had a superstitious aversion to making a will. Only the doctor is suspicious -- and that could just be a case of professional pride. After all, there's no evidence of foul play. A chance encounter between Lord Peter and the doctor sets off an investigation . . . and because of the investigation, there are more crimes, more victims.

In this book, the reader really sees Lord Peter wrestling with the philosophical and ethical problems that an amateur detective must face. If he hadn't started poking his nose into the details of the case, all that would have happened was that a little old lady would have died a few months earlier than predicted. However, to conceal the murder, the murderer is willing to go to great lengths. More people will die -- is Lord Peter in some measure culpable for those deaths? Does Lord Peter solve crimes, in a sense, for his own amusement? And is it worth solving a murder like this one, if more lives are lost as collateral damage along the way? I'm always impressed at how deftly Sayers ties these issues into her characterization of Lord Peter, with Parker's down-to-earth practicality, Bunter's efficiency, and Miss Climpson's lively curiosity as perfect foils for him.

As you can probably tell, I'm really enjoying rereading this series. I plan to go back and pick up Whose Body? next, then continue through the series.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

I've been in the mood for mysteries lately -- a change of pace from all of the young adult, dystopian, and fantasy I've been reading lately. I pulled Clouds of Witness off my shelf, thinking it was the first book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers. (It's actually the second book; my copy of Whose Body? doesn't fit in with the rest of the mass market paperbacks, so it lives on a different shelf. I'll go back and catch up on reading that one eventually.)

In Clouds of Witness, Lord Peter and Bunter are returning from a trip abroad, only to discover that Lord Peter's brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, is accused of murder. Who is he said to have murdered? Denis Cathcart, his sister Mary's fiance. And Gerald refuses to provide an alibi for the time of death. It will take all of Lord Peter's skill to extricate his brother from this mess -- without implicating his sister, whose story about her actions that night also has a few holes.

I read all of the Lord Peter books in high school and college, and that's been long enough ago that I have forgotten the plots of many of the books, so I am enjoying them again! Lord Peter is one of my favorite detectives in literature -- I'll even admit to a small literary crush -- and the other recurring characters (Bunter, Parker, the Dowager Duchess) are like old friends as well. I'm looking forward to rereading the rest of the series!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)