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June 02, 2010

Review: Soulless

I realized that I listed this as one of the best books I read last year, but never actually posted anything about it. Time to remedy that.

Soulless by Gail Carriger
Genre: Fantasy, romance
Pages: 373
Rating: 9.4

Imagine vampires and werewolves as an accepted but not exactly welcomed part of society - and part of Queen Victoria's government. Honestly, even if this book had nothing else going for it, it would have had me right there. But it does have other things going for it. Read this description (pulled from Amazon; I think it was on the back of the book, because I know I've read it before):

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.
Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire -- and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.
With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?
SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.
It's every bit as funny as that makes it sound. The steampunk version of Victorian England is well-drawn, the characters are vividly drawn (if a tad overdone at times), and the romance is both sweet and pretty hot without being sappy or sentimental. Fans of Amelia Peabody, especially, will love Alexia. I'm about to read the sequel, and I can't wait.

Posted by Kat at 01:00 PM | Comments (2)

November 20, 2009

Review: Bookmarked for Death

Bookmarked for Death by Lorna Barrett
Genre: Cozy mystery
Pages: 297
Rating: 7.2

This is the second in a series of mysteries set in a town of bookstores - like Hay-on-Wye but in New Hampshire, and the actual location is based on a town where I used to live. So you can see why I have to read them. But . . . they're not that great, honestly. They're not bad. They're certainly readable, and enjoyable enough, but . . . enh. Nothing special. As perhaps a symptom of this, I can barely remember the plot of this one. I would try one of these (the first is Murder is Binding) if you're particularly interested in bookstores or small-town New Hampshire, but otherwise, there are probably better options.

Posted by Kat at 06:10 AM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2009

Review: Catcher

Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero by Peter Morris
Genre: Sports, social history
Pages: 386
Rating: 8.1

Now, as we've discussed recently, I am not really a baseball fan, although I do at least understand the basics of the game play, which was more than I could say about football until, oh, about last week. (Okay, okay, maybe it was a few weeks ago.) But this was about old baseball (about 1870 to the early 1900s), and social history, and it mentioned Stephen Crane in the little blurb in the library catalog, so I had to give it a try. And I have to hand it to Morris - this was a thoroughly interesting story, even for a non-baseball fan. He did a good job of blending history, individuals' stories, quotes from literature of the time, and other cultural artifacts (especially ads for various baseball-related products) to show how the public perception of the catcher changed over time and how this echoed other societal and cultural changes. The narrative could be tightened up and was a bit hard to follow at times, and there was some repetition, but overall this was a readable and engaging history. Definitely give it a try if you have any interest in baseball or turn-of-the-century social history.

Posted by Kat at 07:54 AM | Comments (0)

August 23, 2009

Review: The Family He Wanted

The Family He Wanted by Karen Sandler
Genre: Romance (category; contemporary)
Pages: 217
Rating: 6

I was going to start with some sort of explanation or excuse or something, but enh, I don't have the energy. So I read trashy romance novels sometimes. Harlequins, even. So sue me.

Aside from my apparent defensiveness about the subject in general, though, I had somewhat mixed feelings about this particular title. Generally, what I am looking for in a romance novel is:

1. Grammatically correct writing.
2. Characters who a) seem like real people and b) are either likeable or are interesting enough for me to not care that I don't like them.
3. A plot that seems at least mostly coherent.
4. A happy ending that follows believably from the plot and isn't TOO far-fetched.
Of course, numbers one through three are what I'm looking or in any novel, not just a romance. Anyway. This one was written decently, which gets it major points in my book, but the characters and the plot both seemed a little - off - in ways I'm having trouble articulating.

It was one of those stories in which the characters have just Decided, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, that they will Never Fall in Love or Never Trust a Man or whatever. So of course over the course of the book they have to realize that they were wrong, etc., etc. This plot device often bothers me, but sometimes certain books can make it work. This one didn't, really. Although now that I think about it, this was the second in a series and I didn't have the first, so it's possible that there was more character background/motivations given in that first book (in which the main characters from this book were secondary characters).

But too much of the book just seemed - random. Things happened, but the things that happened didn't necessarily seem connected. And the things that happened caused character development, but not necessarily in ways that made any sense. The male lead went from being an old friend of the female lead to wanting to help her when she showed up on his doorstep pregnant and penniless, to deciding that even though he would Never Fall in Love he should marry her to take care of her and the baby, to falling in love with her. And that's a fine progression, if it's written in a believable way. But this just - wasn't, quite.

And this is one petty little detail, but it's still bugging me: At one point, there's a secondary character who needs a transplant (kidney? I think?), and several characters are talking about getting tested for compatibility. Including the female lead. And no mention is made of the fact that she's pregnant and therefore, I assume, wouldn't really be a great candidate for transplant surgery. Sigh.

Posted by Kat at 10:44 AM | Comments (1)

July 10, 2009

Review: Love and Peaches

Love and Peaches by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Genre: YA
Pages: 243
Rating: 7.8

This is the third (and last?) in the Peaches series (so named for the peach orchard at the center of the series), and it wasn't as good as the second, which wasn't as good as the first. But it was a quick read and I like finishing series, so whatever. These are follow the model of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants et al. - a group of teen girls who seem very different on the surface end up helping each other deal with various Big Issues and Important Lessons as they grow up. I had a harder time warming to the girls in this series - they just didn't seem real enough. And there's a slight mystical element that seemed kind of unnecessary. But I shouldn't be so negative - they're a decent read, just nothing wildly special. If you (or a girl you know) love the Traveling Pants and want more in that vein, give this series a try. The first is Peaches.

Posted by Kat at 07:17 AM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2009

Review: A People's History of Christianity

A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story: A History of the Grassroots Movements in Christianity that Preserved Jesus's Message of Social Justice for 2,000 Years and Their Impact on the Church Today by Diana Butler Bass
Genre: Religion, history
Pages: 353
Rating: 7.5

The basic premise of this book as that the current "progressive" or "generative" Christianity movement is not as new as people think it is, and that churches and believers today lose something by not having a better sense of their history. Bass sets out to rescue some of this lesser-known history and relate it to today. She discusses many figures and movements who were interesting or important but have been obscured or just neglected by the "official" narrative of church history. As with virtually all books of history that strive to provide a specific message for today, this book suffers a bit from having its information molded into place for its message. Bass also tends to jump around a lot - the sections are roughly chronological but the chapters alternate between religious practice and social justice, and each chapter starts with an anecdote from Bass's own life before jumping back to its historical topic. I'm sure the latter format was designed to make it easier for readers to relate to the book, but I just found it distracting. All that said, though, there was some really good information here, and Bass is a pretty clear writer, so if you're interested in church history, I'd give this one a read.

Posted by Kat at 07:25 AM | Comments (0)

June 29, 2009

Review: Smooth Talking Stranger

Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas
Genre: Contemporary romance
Pages: 340
Rating: 8.5

(Note: This is actually the third book in a series. I'm usually a stickler about reading series in order, but I didn't realize this was a series until I was too into the book to make myself stop and go back. So you might want to read Sugar Daddy first.)

Ella is an advice columnist whose orderly, boring life is disrupted when her irresponsible sister leaves a baby with her irresponsible mother. Ella is called in to fix the situation. The sister won't name the father, but some of her friends suggest Jack, a millionaire businessman. Now, Jack isn't the father, but he and Ella of course fall in love, and have to straighten out various issues involving their families, their very different lifestyles, and, of course, the baby before they can live happily ever after.

This book was almost a perfect example of the light romance genre. The main characters were likeable but not ridiculously perfect. There was a big fun extended family, a la Nora Roberts. There was a baby, and the baby storyline was actually done well. (It seems that element can be very hit or miss.) The characters had real problems to work through, but there weren't excessive obstacles put in the way of their happiness just for the sake of it. There was a definite sense of place (Texas). I apparently have no recollection of how the sex scenes were, so I'm going to assume that they weren't ridiculous enough to ruin the rest of the book for me (as has happened with other romance novels). The writing was decent, and compelling enough that I read most of it in one sitting. It definitely made me want to read the rest of the series, and Kleypas's other books (historicals).

(SPOILERS AHEAD) I just had one main problem: Ella's relationship with her boyfriend Dane. At first, he's just sort of boring, but then turns out to be extremely self-absorbed, which - fine. But then, when Ella finds out that he's sleeping with someone else while she's away trying to figure out what to do with the baby, he tells her that they've had an open relationship for the past four years, and he just hasn't mentioned it. What?? And even after that, Ella keeps apologizing for getting involved with Jack before she and Dane have officially broken up. So that whole subplot was rather frustrating. (END SPOILERS)

But! With that caveat, this was definitely a great light summer read - perfect for the beach or vacation or one of those days when it's too hot and sticky to move and you just want to sit on the couch with a book.

Posted by Kat at 07:16 AM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2009

Review: 3 Willows

3 Willows by Ann Brashares
Genre: YA
Pages: 319
Rating: 8

3 Willows is the first in Brashares' new series, The Sisterhood Grows. The sisterhood in question, of course, is the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the wildly popular teen book and movie franchise. After four books in the Traveling Pants series, Brashares faced the problem of her teen protagonists not being teens anymore. So rather than try to continue with them, she moved on to a new, younger set of girls. They are based in the same town and, slightly weirdly, know of the Traveling Pants girls as a sort of legend around school. I don't know about you, but I never really got the impression that all that many people knew about the magic of the pants in the original books. But anyway. There are some tangential connections - one of the new girls babysits for the younger siblings of one of the original girls, one of them has one of the original girls' sisters as a romantic rival, etc. And it seems as though the original girls themselves will make occasional cameos in this new series. All of this, no doubt, will help appease readers who wanted the original series to continue.

Now, how about the book itself? It follows the now-familiar formula of a group of adolescent girls with differing interests and personalities who are nevertheless bound together by some sort of improbable friendship, and who each have a Big Issue that needs to be dealt with over the course of the novel. (Now that I think about it, I wonder if this sort of thing got its start with The Baby-sitters Club and the other 1980s girls' series books like that? Hmm. Are there earlier examples I'm just not remembering?) 3 Willows is good - not as good as the original books (especially the first) but better than most of the legions of imitators that are now being published. The girls are a little younger and their problems a little less mature, but that's fine. The girls themselves are all likeable enough, if somewhat cliched - the poor little rich girl whose parents are separating, the brilliant immigrant who ends up on one of those horrifying wilderness adventure camping trips instead of at an academic camp, etc. The beginning was a little slow, but after about fifty pages I didn't want to put it down.

There are definite lessons in these sorts of books, but Brashares manages to make this add to rather than detract from the reading experience. The main lessons here are: 1) Be yourself, but don't be afraid to try new things; 2) The real friends are the ones who are there when you need them, not necessarily the ones who are most sophisticated or have the right clothes; and 3) Remember that family is important but don't let it completely define you. Again, nothing groundbreaking here, but they're good reminders for the target audience of young teens (and the rest of us). If you liked the Traveling Pants books or other similar titles, give this a try.

Posted by Kat at 08:15 AM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2009

Review: The Bad Beginning

The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
Genre: Juvenile fantasy
Pages: 162
Rating: 3.1

This is the first volume of Lemony Snicket's enormously popular Series of Unfortunate Events; I had, of course, been aware of them for years, but never been terribly interested. I finally read this because my fifth grade book buddies wanted me to. When I started reading, my main response was "Oh, come ON" - I tend to have issues with narrative styles that are so deliberately cutesy. I eventually found myself drawn into the story, though. (For those who, like me, might have missed this phenomenon: it's about three siblings who are orphaned and face one awful happening after another until they manage to save themselves [until the next book] by their wits and ingenuity.) And it gets bonus points for presenting - and explaining - interesting vocabulary words, and for presenting a young female character who is a talented inventor and engineer.

Posted by Kat at 03:30 PM | Comments (0)

April 04, 2009

Review: What I Know Now

I'm going to try writing little reviews of books as I read them, instead of waiting until the end of the month. We'll see how it goes.

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self edited by Ellyn Spragins
Genre: Essays
Pages: 183
Rating: 3.7

This book consists of letters written by famous women to themselves at a particular point in their past. I will admit that I requested it from the library solely because I had read that Jane Kaczmarek had a letter in it and I wanted to see if she had anything to say about her husband, Bradley Whitford. She did:

And, the best lesson of all: You'll find you can like people and let them into your world, even if they aren't big success stories. Because of that, someone different will enter your life. He won't have the trappings of success that you used to think you needed to have in a man. On your first date, he'll ride you home on the handlebars of his bike, because he has no car and can't afford to hire one. But he's really funny, smart, and has amazing integrity. Because of this horrible year, Jane, you'll be willing to pay attention to the guy you're going to marry.
All together now: Awwww. (And maybe a chuckle at Brad Whitford as "unsuccessful." Yes, they met well before he started making millions of dollars a year on West Wing.) Anyway, I did read the rest of the book as well. There were submissions from a bunch of businesswomen, some actors, a few politicians, etc., and of course some of the letters were more interesting than others. It did get a little repetitive - popular themes include "believe in yourself;" "make time for your family and yourself;" "appreciate what you have;" "follow your dreams;" etc. The letters were short - one to three pages - and therefore necessarily somewhat simplistic; I think it would have been a more useful book with fewer, longer letters that went into greater detail about the writers' experiences. But it was a quick, inspirational read that certainly included some ideas worth contemplation.

Posted by Kat at 03:57 PM | Comments (0)

April 03, 2009

March Books

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen
Genre: Young adult
Pages: 422
Rating: 4.8
Okay, I know I posted this last month, but that was a mistake - I actually finished it in March.
Sarah Dessen is one of my favorite authors, and she certainly doesn't disappoint with this one. 17-year-old Ruby is abandoned by her mother and sent to live with Cora, the older sister she barely knows. After years of living a marginal existence with her addict mother, Ruby has to learn to trust people and become part of Cora's world. She has some help from Nate, the boy next door who is hiding his own secrets, and is wonderfully but believably appealing, as Dessen's male leads tend to be. Cora's husband Jamie is a great secondary character as well.

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Genre: Juvenile
Pages: 275
Rating: 3.4
I had somehow never read this one as a kid - not sure why. I read it with a few of the fifth graders I work with, and they completely adored it. They pretty much thought it was the best thing ever. Now, I'm not generally a fan of animal stories in general (at least this kind of talking animal story - I love, say, the Saddle Club), but I thought this one was pretty good. It was charming, and obviously well-written - it is White, after all. When I was trying to describe it to some adults, I started realizing just how weird some of the plot elements were - bondage! self-mutilation! - but the kids didn't seem to pick up on any of that. So I don't know. My feelings were mixed. Come to think of it, I never liked Charlotte's Web as much as I thought I should have, and the concept of Stuart Little always creeped me out a little so I never actually read it. Maybe White's children's books just don't do it for me. I'll stick with Here Is New York. Or, you know, The Elements of Style.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Genre: Science fiction
Pages: 211
Rating: 4.8
This was a reread, obviously. I convinced one of my fifth grade reading buddies to give it a try, and I read it along with him. He was hesitant at first because it was "so old," but he wound up loving it, so I was pleased. I find it hard to come up with anything coherent to say about this book - other than "It's so good! What do you mean you've never read it? You have to read it!" - partially because I wrote a thesis on L'Engle and . . . I don't know. But you have to read it! L'Engle herself called it her "love letter to God" and it's the best one-volume synthesis of her philosophy and theology, in addition to being a darn good sci fi/adventure story.

Posted by Kat at 08:33 PM | Comments (1)

March 08, 2009

Books for January and February

I was in a horribly reading slump for most of February, so this list is pretty pathetic. But hey, March is going better so far . . .

High Five by Janet Evanovich
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 292
Rating: 3.8
The Stephanie Plum books are good for when you need a little brain candy that requires absolutely no thought. Like, say, when you're starting a new job. So this was perfect for what I needed in early January. The mysteries aren't really all that mysterious, but it's a fun series. I'm already getting a little sick of the Morelli vs. Ranger back and forth, though.

Mia and Bravo, Mia! by Laurence Yep
Genre: Juvenile
Pages: 130 each
Rating: 4.5
I was a faithful American Girls Collection reader and collector as a kid, but hadn't read any of the new books about contemporary girls. I was pleasantly surprised by these. Yep is a good writer, and Mia and her family were likable but interesting characters. Mia is an ice skater but has less money and isn't as cool as the other skaters at the rink, and the books are all about hard work and family and finding your own dream, but in a mostly non-preachy way. Highly recommended.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Genre: Young adult
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.7
Clay gets a set of cassette tapes in the mail; they are the story of his classmate Hannah who has recently committed suicide. The tapes are going to thirteen different people, all of whom played a role in Hannah's decisions. Clay spends a night driving around town listening to the tapes, and with him the reader discovers layers of secrets. The writing is powerful and the story is compelling. A must-read for YA fans.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen
Genre: Young adult
Pages: 422
Rating: 4.8
Sarah Dessen is one of my favorite authors, and she certainly doesn't disappoint with this one. 17-year-old Ruby is abandoned by her mother and sent to live with Cora, the older sister she barely knows. After years of living a marginal existence with her addict mother, Ruby has to learn to trust people and become part of Cora's world. She has some help from Nate, the boy next door who is hiding his own secrets, and is wonderfully but believably appealing, as Dessen's male leads tend to be. Cora's husband Jamie is a great secondary character as well.

Posted by Kat at 02:18 PM | Comments (0)

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