Friday, March 29, 2013

In the News: Amazon Acquires Goodreads

Yesterday, Amazon bought out Goodreads, a large social cataloging site.  I'm not a Goodreads member, but I know a lot of people who are.  If you're one of them, right now you may be wondering what's ahead for Goodreads, and whether you really want Amazon to have access to quite so much of your data.  If you're thinking of moving to greener pastures, let me direct your attention to LibraryThing, my favorite place on the Internet. I feel strongly that LibraryThing is, and has always been, a superior option for social cataloging -- it has great data, great developers, and great members.  And, right now, it's free: LibraryThing is giving a free one-year membership to everyone who joins between now and Sunday! UPDATE: The offer has been extended to Friday, April 5th!

I consider the cost of my lifetime membership to be the best $25 I ever spent, but if you want to try it out before you buy in, whether you're leaving Goodreads or just looking for a good place to catalog your books online, this is your chance.  See you there!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners by Libba Bray is a creepy paranormal mystery set in New York City in the Roaring Twenties.

Evie O'Neill's parents don't know what to do with her. When one particular scandal nearly leads to legal action, Evie is sent to New York City to live with her bachelor uncle Will, curator of a museum of occult paraphernalia known colloquially as the "Museum of the Creepy-Crawlies." Shortly after Evie's arrival. Will is asked to consult on a police case involving a serial killer, because some strange and possibly occult markings have been found on the corpses. What the police don't know is that the killer is actually a malevolent spirit, intent upon using a macabre ritual to bring about the end of the world. Evie is determined to help her uncle with the investigation, especially since she has a paranormal talent that could prove useful. However, investigating a murder (and attempting to exorcise dark forces) is not a game -- and Evie's life, and the lives of the friends she has made in New York City, could be in jeopardy.

I listened to the audiobook of this novel, and I'm glad I did. Narrator January LaVoy proves herself to be a virtuoso, with a great range and the ability to make me forget that I was listening to a story read by just one person. Beyond that, this is just a really interesting story. Evie is a sympathetic yet flawed heroine, and the plethora of secondary characters are likewise interesting and well-written. The plot is intricate and fast-paced; I never felt like the story dragged even though I was listening rather than reading. I will say that 1920s slang is "positutely" the most annoying ever, but it is at least authentic to both the period and Evie's character. The creepy factor of this story is about at my personal creepiness threshold, as I don't handle horror stories well at all -- there were definitely some moments when I wanted to yell, "No! Don't go down those stairs by yourself; are you stupid?!?" but nothing that I couldn't deal with. (It probably also helped that I listened to the story while driving, during daylight hours.) So, if you like the 20s, paranormal stories that are a little bit scary, and plucky heroines, give this book a try -- the audiobook particularly, if you are so inclined. You won't regret it!

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

The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes

The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes is realistic young adult fiction set in a high school in the Midwest.

Paige Sheridan and her two best friends Lacey and Nikki have always dreamed of being Homecoming royalty -- but now that their senior year has finally arrived, it seems that too many things may have changed. At the end of their junior year, there was a party -- and then the was a car accident. While it could have been much worse, it left Lacey injured, Nikki riddled with guilt, and Paige isolated -- first, by distance (her mother hustled her off to Paris to be an unpaid au pair for the summer) and then by a complex web of secrets, resentments, and misunderstandings. As the school year begins, Paige finds that she is not as close to Lacey and Nikki as she had been in the past, but as she explores new relationships and starts to reinvent herself, she may unwittingly cause a great deal of pain to friends both old and new.

This book had more depth than I was expecting: Paige is surprisingly easy to relate to, and her character development is well-written and believable. Even Lacey and Nikki are more than superficial Mean Girls, and the supporting characters are all fully realized and interesting in their own rights. The plot is sprawling and would not have been hurt by a little judicious pruning here and there, but all in all this is an enjoyable and well-written book.

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

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore is a charming mishmash of science fiction and magical realism reminiscent of Natalie Babbit's Tuck Everlasting.

After Ephraim Appledore-Smith's father has a stroke, his mother relocates the family to Crystal Springs, Maine -- not only can Ephraim's father get better medical care there, but Crystal Springs is also the ancestral home of the Appledore family, and there is plenty of room for them in the formerly vacant Water Castle. Ephraim has mixed emotions about the move, and about his father's illness. He would do almost anything to see his father return to health. When he learns that some of his ancestors were obsessed with the idea that the Fountain of Youth was located there in Crystal Springs, he begins to hope that something in the town might be able to help his father. With the help of two unlikely new-found friends, Ephraim begins exploring the grounds of the Water Castle. Magic and science, the past and the present -- many unexpected discoveries await Ephraim and his friends. Will it be enough, though, to cure Ephraim's father?

I really enjoyed this book, though I suspect young readers may find it slow going at the beginning. The writing is solid, and the plot is tightly woven, with a few intriguing details for careful readers to discover -- and a few small mysteries left unsolved at the end, perhaps with an eye to writing a sequel? Readers who liked the aforementioned Tuck Everlasting and Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me will find that this book hits the spot. I would not be surprised to hear it mentioned in discussions of 2014 Newbery titles, though it's early days yet for predictions like that!

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Just One Day by Gayle Forman

In Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Allyson learns how taking a risk and doing something a little bit crazy can completely transform her life, for better and for worse.

Allyson has always been "the good girl" -- a good student, responsible, not prone to going wild or taking chances. She's just finished high school, and her parents have sent her on a tour of Europe before heading off to college in the fall. At the end of the tour, Allyson and her best friend break away from the group in Stratford-upon-Avon to see an experimental, outdoor production of Twelfth Night. Ally feels an instant connection with Willem, one of the actors, but expects that she will never see him again. When she meets him again the next day on the train to London, they discuss her recent travels, including the fact that the tour group didn't get to see Paris because of a baggage handlers' strike. Allyson has one more day in London before going back to the USA, which she is supposed to spend with friends of friends. When Willem offers to take her to Paris instead, Allyson decides to step out of her comfort zone and take a chance -- to be "Lulu," the persona she associates with the quirky nickname Willem gives her. And, despite some moments of worry and doubt, it is a magical day. But then, after spending the night with Willem in an artists' squat, Allyson wakes up alone. Willem is gone, without explanation, and Allyson is alone in an unfamiliar part of an unfamiliar city, where she does not speak the language, without money (she spent the last of it the previous day) or a working cell phone. She feels like she's been played. She manages to get in touch with the guide from her tour company, who negotiates transportation back to her friends in London, but it's a harsh return to reality for Allyson. Over the following year, Allyson struggles with questions and doubts. She's back to being the repressed, almost robotic "good girl," doing what her parents expect, but it's making her miserable. Is there any of "Lulu" left, or did Allyson leave her behind after that one day in Paris? And what happened to Willem? Will Allyson ever get the chance to return to Paris and find out?

I thought this book was all right, but not fantastic. I didn't get a real sense of Willem's character (though I'm sure the sequel will clear that up, as it's the story from his point of view, basically), so I couldn't really appreciate Allyson's fixation on him. Also, I thought their day in Paris was pretty lame, honestly. I mean, I can understand not wanting to do touristy things after being on a long guided tour, but if I ever go to Paris, I want to see more than a nightclub, a cafe, an artists' squat, and a random park. I liked the Shakespearean bits, of course, but any book with scenes set in a college class has to be careful it doesn't come across as overly didactic. This book teeters on the edge of that line, for sure. I also got a little impatient with Allyson's angst. But not to be too critical, I did enjoy the book as a whole, and I liked the ambiguity of the ending (though I note that many reviewers did not). I will probably read the sequel when it comes out.
(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson is a fantasy/mystery/historical fiction hybrid set in 1765 Boston.

Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker -- he recovers stolen goods for members of the city's merchant class (and usually the lower echelons of the merchant class, at that). He's also a conjurer, which is why he finds it best to keep a low profile, since witchcraft is illegal. When one of Boston's most influential citizens hires him to find a piece of jewelry belonging to a murdered woman, Ethan's first impulse is to turn the job down, not wanting to get involved in that sort of case. When it becomes clear to him that the woman was murdered through sorcery, and that he may be the only person in the city who can solve the case, he begins an investigation -- but what he uncovers is much more sinister than a single murder by a rogue conjurer.

I really enjoyed this story. While none of the individual elements of plot, setting, character, or magic system are particularly unique, they come together in a way that makes the book add up to more than the sum of its parts. Also, while I look forward to seeing what happens to Ethan in the future, I never felt that this book was merely setting up a series. If you enjoy both fantasy and historical fiction, give this book a try!
(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Catherine by April Lindner

Catherine by April Lindner is a modern retelling of Wuthering Heights. It's been half a lifetime since I read the original, but I don't think that hampered my enjoyment of the book.

Since she was very young, Chelsea had been told that her mother Catherine had died. Upon learning that Catherine actually ran away, Chelsea sets out to discover the truth about her mother's disappearance. Her search takes her to the hip nightclub where Catherine grew up -- and to Hence, the club's bitter, withdrawn current owner. There's some history between Catherine and Hence that Chelsea is only beginning to discover -- does he know why her mother ran away all those years ago? Does he know where she is now?

The story is told in alternating viewpoints, switching back and forth between Chelsea's adventure and Catherine's teenage romance with Hence. Readers who are familiar with the original will not be surprised to learn that it doesn't end well for Catherine and Hence -- but they may be surprised at how Lindner evokes sympathy for the tempestuous pair. I remember Wuthering Heights as basically a perfect storm of dysfunction (hilariously caricatured by Jasper Fforde in the group therapy scene in The Well of Lost Plots), but in this book teenage Hence has moments of genuine likability. There are a few issues, of course -- Chelsea is not the most fully realized character, and most of the choices she makes over the course of the book are bad ones (at least from this adult reader's point of view), but I was definitely engaged to the very last page. I'd recommend this to both fans and detractors of the original, as well as those who have never read it but have a vague idea of what the story is about.

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

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher

Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher has a lot of interesting elements, including time travel, vengeful fey, and a creepy old house. Intrigued?

Jake Wilde is in trouble at boarding school again -- and this time, it's bad enough to get him kicked out. Of course, that was Jake's plan all along. This time, instead of being shuttled off to the next school, Jake will be sent to Wintercombe Abbey to confront Oberon Venn, his reclusive guardian and the man Jake is convinced killed his father. Accompanied by one of the teachers from the school, Jake travels to Venn's remote estate, where he finds that Venn is more than just a legendary explorer turned recluse, and there's more to Jake's father's disappearance than Jake could possibly have guessed.

I definitely was pulled into the world of the story, though not all of the elements came together perfectly. It seemed like there were several stories going on -- a dystopian one about a girl traveling back through time to prevent the end of the world, a mystery about Jake's missing father, a tale of a changeling boy trapped among the fey, and a piquant, surreal little love story about a girl and her imaginary friend. It was almost too much, through somehow they all worked together, more or less, by the end of the book. For me, this is bound to be a problematic series -- I want to know what the next book will bring, but I'll never remember all of the characters and events from this book, but I didn't love it so much that I will really relish a reread when the next book comes out. So, I suppose my recommendation is to read this book, but read it when the sequel is also available.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher, via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)