Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Cat Who... Series, books 5-8 by Lilian Jackson Braun

Continuing with my reread of the Cat Who... series, I recently finished books 5-8: The Cat Who Played Brahms, The Cat Who Played Post Office, The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare, and The Cat Who Sniffed Glue. In these books, Qwill undergoes a massive lifestyle change -- he inherits millions from a quirky little old lady and moves to Moose County ("400 miles north of everywhere"). These four books introduce many characters who appear in future volumes . . . sometimes as corpses (hey, it is a mystery series). What surprised me is that I don't count any of them among my favorites. There are titles I'm looking forward to a little further on, but these four, while solid 3.5-star reads, don't exactly set the pond on fire (despite at least two occurrences of arson). It will be interesting to see if the mid-series titles I remember so fondly stand up to rereading.

I do have a slight book-crush on Junior Goodwinter, though. That, at least, hasn't changed!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis lives up to its name! I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the incomparable Katherine Kellgren. Since this is one of those books where I wanted to crawl inside and live in that world, I liked the fact that the audiobook stretched out the time I spent enjoying this book, but I'm also certain that I'll revisit this book in ink-and-paper format at some point.

Sunday Woodcutter, seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, has to be careful what she writes -- the things she puts in writing have a tendency to come true. When Sunday meets a talking frog in the forest, she has no idea what sort of adventures are in store for her. Balls and godmothers, wishes and beanstalks, shoes and axes and more all fit together in the intricate puzzle that is the plot of this novel. All of these elements are woven through the lives of the Woodcutter family, where fairy tales are the stuff of everyday life.

This is one of those books that isn't based on a specific fairy tale, but takes elements from different tales and meshes them together. It manages to be funny but not silly, and there are undertones of real darkness and evil that elevate this book above titles for younger readers (such as Once Upon a Marigold). The closest comparison I can think of is Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing. I was also reminded of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Some readers may find the number of tales referenced a bit too much, but as for me, I was completely . . . enchanted.

(Reviewed from an audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Cat Who... Series, books 1-4 by Lilian Jackson Braun

Over the weekend, I reread the first four books in the Cat Who... series by Lilian Jackson Braun: The Cat Who Could Read Backward, The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern, The Cat Who Turned On and Off, and The Cat Who Saw Red. I first discovered this series when I was thirteen or fourteen, read all of the books that had been published at that time, and then kept up with the series until the author's demise a few years ago. Unfortunately, the series really jumped the shark somewhere along the way. I decided that a reread was in order, to see which (if any) of the books were worth keeping. These first four books definitely are.

The series is about Jim Qwilleran, a middle-aged journalist. After some life lessons learned the hard way (divorce, alcoholism, bankruptcy), he moves to an unnamed mid-western city and takes a job in the Features department of one of the city newspapers. His first assignment is the local art scene, despite the fact that he knows nothing about art. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, he acquires Koko, a male Siamese cat of unusual mental capabilities. In the second book, Yum Yum, a female Siamese, joins the family. Qwill has a reporter's curiosity and a longstanding interest in crime, so when he notices something fishy, he's always keen to investigate -- and, as in most cozy mysteries, crime seems to follow Qwilleran around!

Of these four books, the weakest is probably the first -- particularly in terms of the mystery. The most critically acclaimed, and possibly the strongest book of the series, is The Cat Who Saw Red. My personal favorite of the four is The Cat Who Turned On and Off. I'm not sure if it's the antiques district setting, the fact that the action takes place around Christmas, or just some indefinable something in it that appeals to me, but it's always been a favorite.

I find it interesting that my teenage self connected so strongly with this series. I'm more of a dog person than a cat person, and I certainly didn't have much in common with a middle-aged curmudgeon at the time (now maybe slightly more so, but without the divorce, et cetera). But the strength of the series is in the characters -- a veritable parade of interesting, full-fledged secondary characters -- and, to a lesser extent, the setting. I recommend at least the first several books of this series to anyone who enjoys cozy mysteries. If you're a cat lover, that's an added bonus, but if not, don't let that keep you away. While there is a story arc to Qwill's life that you can follow by reading the series in order, it's also possible to enjoy the books out of sequence, so The Cat Who Saw Red is a fine starting place if you don't want to start with book one.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Catch and Release by Blythe Woolston

Catch & Release by Blythe Woolston is the story of two MRSA survivors who go on a road trip together, and not much else happens.

Polly-That-Was had it all together. She was pretty and smart and popular, and she had plans for the future. Then she lost an eye, and part of her face, to an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria. Her perfect boyfriend dumped her before she was even out of the hospital, and her boss at the day care gently informed her that it would probably be best if she didn't come back to work. Polly and her mom used to be close, but now her mom hovers and worries, making Polly fretful and self-conscious. When Odd, the only other survivor of the MRSA outbreak, arrives at her door inviting her on a two-day fishing trip, Polly apathetically accepts. The fishing trip stretches into a meandering road trip across the northwestern United States.

Here's what doesn't happen on the road trip:
-Polly and Odd do not go to Portland and beat up Bridger, the aforementioned ex-boyfriend
-Polly and Odd do not fall in love, nor do they have sex (although the issue does come up once or twice)
-Polly and Odd do not stand together at the shore of the Pacific ocean and contemplate their futures
-Polly and Odd are not chased by bears at Yellowstone
-Polly and Odd are not in a car accident, nor are they pulled over for speeding or drunk driving or driving a car with expired license plates
-Polly does not have a sudden realization that Life is Beautiful, nor does she have a stunning moment of self-acceptance

So, what does happen? As I said before, not much. They do occasionally fish. They drive randomly from one place to another. Odd says strange things and does strange things. They compose a few pages of a picture book about monsters. They drink stolen alcohol and smoke prescription marijuana. They become friends, in a sense. If you're looking for a grand plot-driven road-trip-as-self-discovery story, this isn't it. This book is all about voice -- Polly's voice -- and that is done masterfully. Polly is dark and bitter and sarcastic, and it's certainly justifiable. Her character growth is incremental, and rings all the more true because of that. Grand moments of self-acceptance and a sudden determination to embrace life would have cheapened the story. The ending is inconclusive in many ways, though a few things about Odd's character are revealed. I wanted this book to be a little more concrete. Though I think it succeeds in what it was trying to do, it just doesn't appeal to me all that much. On the other hand, I can see it winning literary awards on the strength of the writing.

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

Among Others by Jo Walton

There was an epic contest between good and evil. Twins Mor and Mori, with the help of the faeries, faced down their mother, the Evil Queen, as she made a bid for world domination. The consequences were tragic . . . but all of this is actually just back-story for the book Among Others by Jo Walton.

Mori ran away from home after her sister died. She ends up in the care of her father (a man she doesn't even remember) and his three controlling sisters, who send her to boarding school. At school, she is an outsider -- because she is Welsh, because she is crippled, because her mother's family is not wealthy -- and she longs for acceptance, not from her schoolmates, but from a group of like-minded individuals with whom she can discuss books and the other things that she finds meaningful in life. She longs for this so much that she uses a little bit of magic -- and though the results are all she could wish, she finds herself conflicted. Is she really any better than her mother, using magic for her own ends?

Written in diary format, this is first and foremost a paean to books -- the science fiction and fantasy stories that Mori reads incessantly, the books that keep her company in her loneliest times, that entertain and console and educate her, that make her think and question, that make her embrace life. Readers unfamiliar with classic sci-fi may not understand a lot of the references, but the heart of the story is more about loving books than about knowing science fiction.

And then there are the faeries -- the magical denizens of forests and ruins. The main plot of the story, interwoven into the tale of Mori's life at boarding school, her personal reflections on growing up, and her comments on her voracious reading, is of Mori and magic, Mori and the faeries, and the things that Mori must do if she is to work only on the side of goodness. Despite the fact that Mori believes implicitly in the faeries, the existence and prevalence of magic in Mori's world is ultimately left up to the reader. Is Mori's mother a witch, or just insane? Do Mori's aunts keep her father under their thumb with a little genteel magic, or has he just given up? Does Mori bring the book club into being with her spell, or was it there all along?

Personal anecdote time: when I was a few years younger than Mori is in the book, I attended a particularly heinous private school, and I survived by reading (in the halls, in class, on the bus, etc.) -- so much so that, in my yearbook, another student wrote, "I'll miss seeing you read books." I think any bookish outsider will immediately identify with Mori on that level, even if, as with me, sci-fi is only a peripheral interest. I might have loved this book more if I had read everything Mori does -- but even without sharing her tastes, I was completely absorbed in her story, and I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Gilt by Katherine Longshore

Gilt by Katherine Longshore is the story of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII, from the perspective of Kitty Tylney. Cat and Kitty grew up together, closer than sisters, as poor relations in the house of the Duchess of Norfolk. Unloved and often unsupervised, Cat devises wild schemes and scandalous parties in the maidens' quarters, often presiding as the Queen of Misrule, with Kitty always in her shadow. When Cat is whisked away to court by her ambitious relatives, she catches the eye of the king. Cat promised Kitty and the others that she would try to bring them with her if she gained any influence at court. Now, as the most influential woman in England, Cat brings her old friends to her side -- for the sake of friendship, or the better to keep a lid on her less than virtuous past. It doesn't take a scholar to know that Cat's past will catch up with her . . . but will Kitty share her friend's fate?

This book employs the use of 21st-century dialogue, with mixed results. Though Tudor English would probably have turned off many potential readers looking for stories about Mean Girls in History, the characters seem a little too modern at times. Kitty is also a mix of historical and modern, as she is submissive and often servile toward Cat, yet determined to find love and romance on her own. This probably won't deter most readers -- without the hints of romance in Kitty's life, the story would be much flatter. Though I had a few issues with this book, I would still recommend it to teens who enjoy historical fiction with romance, deceit, and court intrigue.

Fair Coin by E.C. Myers

In Fair Coin by E.C. Myers, Ephraim Scott comes home one day to find that his mother has attempted suicide. At the hospital, as she is undergoing treatment, he learns that her suicide may have been because she had just identified his dead body. In the dead boy's effects, Ephraim discovers a mysterious quarter commemorating the state of Puerto Rico -- and he later receives an anonymous note instructing him to flip a coin and make a wish. When he does, he finds that the world alters around him in confusing and often unexpected ways. Ephraim has the power to change his life for the better . . . or does he? Is the coin really granting wishes, or is something else at work here?

This book has a great, complex, but still generally fast-moving plot and good world-building. The characters are fairly well-written, and the concept is intriguing, if slightly problematic. I don't want to give too much away, so that's all I'll say about this one.

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

Saturday, July 21, 2012

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund is -- wait for it -- a post-apocalyptic Jane Austen retelling. This was bound to happen eventually, right? But actually, it's not as bad as it sounds.

Elliott North is a member of the post-apocalyptic society's ruling class, the Luddites. Not so many generations ago, the human race was nearly wiped out by scientific advances involving tampering with human DNA. The Luddites refused to participate in this trend for religious reasons, and so when the scientific experimentation went horribly wrong, the Luddites were the ones who survived with all of their faculties, while children of the genetically-enhanced became known as the Reduced because of their extremely limited mental capacities. These Reduced generally ended up as servants on the estates of wealthy Luddites, who control society and severely limit scientific experimentation in order to avoid falling into the trap of earlier generations. Now, in Elliott's time, some of the children born to the Reduced are known as Posts (Post-Reduction), with full mental capacities, but they are still part of the servant class. One of those Posts, Kai, grew up alongside Elliott on her estate. The two formed a friendship that eventually turned into something more -- but when Kai fled the estate, Elliott remained behind. Since her mother's death, Elliott had become the only person capable of managing the estate, while her father and sister cared only for fashion and pleasure. Then, four years after leaving the North estate, Kai returns in a company known as the Cloud Fleet. This group of Posts, lead by a man known as Captain Innovation, travel to nearby islands in search of pre-Reduction technology that the Luddites will purchase and use, and they are renting Elliott's grandfather's defunct shipyard in order to build a larger sailing vessel. Kai, now known as Malakai Wentforth, is still just as attractive to Elliott -- but he's still just as angry with her for her refusal to leave her estate. Can the two move past their misunderstanding, or is their shared history enough to keep them apart forever?

Austen fans, no doubt, have already recognized the framework of Persuasion underneath this story's post-apocalyptic trappings. I'm going to admit that, while I count myself an Austen fan, I'm not one of those fans who rereads the canon every year or so and can bring to mind every minute detail. It's been more than ten years since I read Persuasion, so my knowledge of the original story did not stand in the way of my enjoyment of this book. I found it generally enjoyable, with a few minor details to quibble about. I never thought Kai's resentment of Elliott for staying behind made much sense -- he knew that she was the one holding everything together, and if she had left all of the people he grew up around would probably have starved. I also thought there were a few more loose ends at the end of the book than I would have liked -- not enough that I feel a sequel is inevitable (or even warranted), but enough to leave me a little bit unsatisfied. Still, I liked the book on the whole, and would recommend it if the premise intrigues you. Fans of Austen retellings will enjoy this if they don't mind a little added sci-fi, and those who have not read Austen's original will still be able to enjoy both the well-described dystopia and the sweet romance.

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

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

I listened to The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown over the course of a week or so. I was glad I had decided to listen to, rather than read, this one, as it gave me a chance to savor it. Narrator Kirsten Potter's voicing of the story was excellent, and contributed to my enjoyment of the book.

Sisters Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia grew up in a small college town in Ohio. Over the years, they have moved away and grown apart, not because of any cataclysmic disagreement or misunderstanding, but simply because they grew into individuals who don't have much in common. When their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, the three sisters return, ostensibly to care for her -- but in truth, all three are running from something, and back at home, they will have to learn how to deal with their own secrets. They'll also have to learn to relate to one another as adults.

Simply put, I loved this book. It is gentle and thoughtful, with just the right amount of romance. The pace is small-town slow, but it doesn't drag. One of the most interesting features of the book is the narrative voice. I spent a while at the beginning of the book trying to decide which of the sisters was the point-of-view character, but discovered as the story went on that the point of view is, in a sense, the collective consciousness of all three sisters. If this hadn't been well-done, it would have been extremely annoying . . . but it was well-done, so it ended up adding a great deal to my enjoyment of the story. I found myself empathizing with all three of the sisters, even Bianca (the one with whom I have the least in common). I also loved the Shakespeare quotes -- the girls' father is an English professor specializing in Shakespeare, and uses quotes both familiar and obscure to express himself -- a trait he has, at least in part, passed on to his daughters. I had some concerns as I approached the ending of the book, fearing a couple of disastrous outcomes -- but in the end, all was resolved, sometimes in ways I had expected, and sometimes not, but always satisfactorily.

This is not necessarily my usual fare. I remarked to a co-worker, "I read a grown-up book -- and it wasn't even fantasy!" Still, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys a well-written story, and if you enjoy small-town atmosphere and family drama, all the better. I can see this becoming one of my comfort reads in the future.

(Reviewed from an audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Super-fast mini-review catch-up

I have been running way behind for weeks now, and I am determined to get caught up today. To do that, I'm going to give brief summaries and reviews for the books I've read that didn't make a huge impact one way or the other.

 Another Faust by Daniel and Dina Nayeri -- five teens with supernatural abilities appear at an exclusive private school. Have they sold their souls to the devil?

This was a reasonably good story, though I found it a slog in places. I'm not super familiar with Faust (I keep meaning to read Doctor Faustus, but you know how that goes), but it seemed to be an interesting take on the original source. Recommended if you're into paranormal YA, or are intrigued by the premise. The authors have apparently written a few more books in this series; I probably will not read them unless they are on hand when the mood strikes me.

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

 Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey -- Egg, a despised youngest child, embarks on a series of adventures when a seeming accident causes his entire family to be lost in a runaway hot-air balloon. Now heir to his father's island plantation, can Egg stay safe from the people who appear to want him dead?

This book has a lot of great elements, and it brings them together nicely -- a likable hero, a feisty female character, pirates, a convincing villain, a bit of mystery . . . in short, I liked it a lot. I'll be looking forward to the rest of the series.

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

Well Witched (aka Verdigris Deep) by Frances Hardinge -- when three children steal a handful of coins from a wishing well, they find themselves in over their heads, as the vengeful spirit of the well gives them special powers and demands that they grant the wishes made with the coins they stole.

Despite an interesting plot and well-developed characters (even the parents were fully-fledged individuals), this book didn't do much for me. Hardinge is a hit-or-miss author for me (I loved The Lost Conspiracy but didn't care for Fly By Night). Well Witched is certainly not a bad book; I'm just not its ideal reader -- which is strange, because I generally love middle-grade fantasy. I'll keep reading Hardinge, though, in hopes of another fantastic success.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck -- Peewee, having finished eighth grade, dreams of becoming an auto mechanic, and is determined to have nothing more to do with books and learning. This all changes when Irene Ridpath and her friends, stylish fledgeling librarians, sweep into town to rescue the neglected little library.

I expected to like this book more than I did. The opening bit, about a tornado that rips through a graveyard and digs up graves, seemed to be trying for a tall-tale style (no real tornado acts the way that one did), but I never really saw how it fit with the rest of the story. So, that bothered me. On the other hand, a twist that happens fairly early in the book, of the sort that I usually see coming way off, took me completely by surprise, so that's a point in its favor. I'll probably read more by this author, as his books are well-known (and often award-winning).

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

I listened to the audiobook of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling. This audiobook was read by the author, which was, in this case, a good thing.

The author of this memoir is a staff writer and actress on the American version of The Office. I've seen maybe two episodes of the show, so pretty much any time she referenced things that happened on the show, or other actors from the show, I was in the dark. That was fine; there was a lot to enjoy in this audiobook even for people who, like me, are unfamiliar with The Office and Kaling's career in general. In the book, Kaling reminisces on her childhood, college days, and her rise from complete obscurity to her current position. As you'd expect from a sitcom writer, her observations are made with a great deal of humor. Interspersed with the personal history are essays and "listy-things" featuring Kaling's opinions on a wide variety of subjects. The content is generally lighthearted.

I was surprised how often I agreed with Kaling. Her views on marriage, for instance, struck a chord with me. And while Kaling is what I describe as "Hollywood fat" (meaning, possessing a body much thinner than that of the average American woman, but slightly larger than the typical Hollywood stick figure), her struggles with finding clothing that fits and flatters also resonated. On the other hand, when she talked about comedy, she lost me fairly quickly. I do have a sense of humor (I think...), but I don't always have the greatest appreciation for the kind of funny that's popular on mainstream TV.

There are a few drawbacks to listening to this, rather than reading it. For one thing, you miss out on any photos and illustrations. For another, I occasionally had a hard time figuring out when one essay ended and another began. Things that are immediately obvious in a book's formatting are less so when they're being read aloud. Was that line the title of a new essay, or another bullet point in the current one? I also felt that the reading pace was rushed at the beginning, but I quickly got used to it. I'd recommend this book in either format, with the caveat that audiobook listeners may want to briefly obtain a paper copy later to check on what they might have missed.

(Reviewed from an audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Magic for Marigold by L.M. Montgomery

Magic for Marigold never quite numbers among my favorite L.M. Montgomery works. Marigold Lesley is similar to many Montgomery heroines -- an imaginative young girl, part of a large and relatively prosperous Prince Edward Island family. In fact, Marigold is one of the least interesting of Montgomery's heroines, in my opinion. Her extended family is more interesting -- Old Grandmother is certainly a fascinating old dame, and I always think there should be more about Uncle Klon and his wife. None of the secondary characters get enough page-time, so they remain interesting but underdeveloped. The real problem with the book, though, is the lack of a plot. Many of Montgomery's books are more episodic than linear, but Magic for Marigold feels to me like a book of short stories. The tales of Marigold's escapades are charming, but I never find the end of the book satisfying. All in all, I'd recommend this only to Montgomery completists like myself -- casual fans can give it a pass, and readers new to this author should certainly start somewhere else.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

Aha! Admit it -- you thought (that is, if you thought of it at all) that my Lord Peter Wimsey series reread had fallen by the wayside. While I did take a bit of a hiatus, I do hope to finish off the series this year, and I'm one book closer to that goal, having recently finished rereading The Nine Tailors. (I skipped Murder Must Advertise, having reread it just last year.)

Despite the title, The Nine Tailors has nothing to do with sewing. It is, in fact, about change-ringing, that particularly British form of campanology in which church bells are rung, not to make a tune, but in mathematical patterns. The title refers to the nine strokes of the tenor bell for a man's death. In this book, Lord Peter is stranded in a small town on New Year's Eve, when the change-ringers at the local church are preparing for a nine-hour peal to ring in the New Year. When one of the ringers falls ill and is unable to participate, Lord Peter steps in, having done change-ringing in his youth. When, not long after that night, a crime is discovered to have been committed in that same small town, the rector of the church writes to Lord Peter for assistance.

While this book is as enjoyable as many of the entries in the series, it is not one of my favorites. Too much technical talk about change-ringing, not enough Bunter, and absolutely no Harriet Vane. On the other hand, the minor characters are interesting (the rector and his wife are lovely and fun), and the solution to the mystery is novel. For fans of the series, it's certainly worth a read.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle

The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle has long been a favorite of mine, so I turned to it when I was in the mood for a reread.

When strong-willed Kate and her little sister Emily return to their ancestral home after their father's death, they are greeted by two fluttery aunts and a surly cousin who feels that he, not the girls, has a right to the property. Their cousin's antagonism is soon the least of their worries, though. One evening the sisters get lost on the paths and back roads around the estate, and they meet a strange little company. When one of them, Mr. Marak, offers them an escort home, Em is glad to accept -- but Kate is more cautious. Something in her warns her to keep her distance from this odd but charming stranger. Through a series of fantastical events, Marak reveals to Kate that he is the Goblin King, and she is his chosen bride. Kate is determined never to go with the goblins. She dreads the thought of living in their dank underground halls, never being able to feel the wind or see the stars. When Emily is in danger, however, Kate makes a bargain with the Goblin King. Will she regret it -- or will she find that life with the goblins is not at all what she expected?

This story has its faults, it's true (I should probably detest the goblin method of finding brides), but I love it all the same. Marak is a great character with a wicked sense of humor, and Charm (who has no sense of humor at all) is also a favorite of mine. Some readers complain of pacing problems in the book, but the flow of the story has never bothered me. I definitely recommend this to fantasy fans.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

I'm not going to be able to do justice to Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi. It's a good post-apocalyptic dystopia, but I have gotten over-saturated with the genre. I need to take a break from it for a while. (Plus, with the power outages and the weather around here lately, life is starting to feel a bit post-apocalyptic!)

To briefly sum up, Under the Never Sky is the story of Aria, a girl who has lived in a dome all her life. Dome residents spend most of their time in virtual environments called Realms, where they can experience whatever they want without risks or serious consequences. When Aria and a few other teens sneak into a damaged sector of their dome for some real-life adventure, however, things go a little too far. Aria is unfairly blamed for the events, and is cast out of the dome -- basically, a death sentence. She meets Peregrine, a boy from the outside who is dealing with his own issues, and the two form a tentative alliance . . . which, inevitably, leads to something more. . . .

I didn't find this book particularly original or compelling, but I imagine teens who love dystopias and survival stories will like it.

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

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

In Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl, we meet Althea, the most delightfully mercenary heroine of any Regency romance I've ever read. Althea's father is dead, her mother is sweet but impractical, and the whimsical castle built by her eccentric great-grandfather is crumbling about her shoulders. Althea is willing to marry just about any man with a large enough fortune to rescue the estate, so her hopes run high when young, handsome, and wealthy Lord Boring moves into his family estate nearby. Althea is confident that her beauty will win Lord Boring's hand . . . but his infuriating man of business, Mr. Fredericks, keeps distracting her!

This book is delightfully fun and funny. Yes, I saw most of the plot twists coming a mile off, but that didn't detract in the slightest from my enjoyment of the story. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys a well-written, lighthearted historical romance.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system)

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage is a middle-grade mystery set in small-town North Carolina. Eleven-year-old Mo LoBeau doesn't have what you might call a normal family life -- when she was a baby, she was washed down the river in the aftermath of a hurricane, right into the arms of the Colonel, who was himself suffering from amnesia. Now Mo, the Colonel, and flamboyant Miss Lana run a cafe in Tupelo Landing, and Mo regularly sends out messages in bottles to her "Upstream Mother," asking anyone who's traveling upriver to drop one in the current for her. Other than existential angst over her biological origins, however, Mo is fairly content and happy in her small-town world. Then, one day, a cafe regular is murdered, a couple of big-city detectives roll into town, and Mo's entire world seems about to be torn up by the roots. She and her family may even find themselves in danger. Can Mo, along with her sidekick Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, solve the mystery?

This was a fairly enjoyable read. I have to admit, any story with amnesia as a major plot point makes me roll my eyes a little bit. The writing style felt like a cross between Polly Horvath and Kate DiCamillo -- authentic Southern charm with a hint of straight-up weirdness. Readers who like books by those authors will probably like this one. For me, it was just all right, not fantastic.

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

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is the story of a childless couple in the Alaskan wilderness of the 1920s. Mabel and Jack moved to Alaska for a fresh start, but Mabel finds that the melancholy and depression have followed her, particularly through the bleak darkness of the Alaskan winter. Then, on the evening of the first snow, Jack and Mabel are caught up in a carefree moment and build a little snow child, outfitting it with mittens and a scarf. The next day, the snow child is gone, but a little blond girl appears in the snow near their cabin -- wearing the scarf and mittens. Is she some magical creature, born of sorrow and desire, or is there some more pragmatic explanation for her appearance? As the years pass, the little girl becomes almost like a daughter to Jack and Mabel -- but Mabel remembers an old fairy tale about a snow child . . . and she remembers that the tale never has a happy ending.

This retelling of an old Russian fairy tale is beautifully written, and perfectly conveys the bittersweet poignancy of the old story. The characters are nuanced, and the mystery of the snow child is left up to the reader's interpretation to some extent. I thought the relationship between Mabel and Jack struck all the right notes, and I was particularly sympathetic with Mabel's desire to work alongside Jack in their new home -- I've had that kind of strong mental image, and it never does work out exactly like one hopes! This is a beautiful little story, and I'd recommend it to fans of magical realism and retold fairy tales.

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