Monday, April 23, 2012

Loss by Jackie Morse Kessler -- a DNF post

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  Fifteen-year-old Billy Ballard is the kid that everyone picks on, from the school bullies to the teachers. But things change drastically when Death tells Billy he must stand in as Pestilence, the White Rider of the Apocalypse. Now armed with a Bow that allows him to strike with disease from a distance, Billy lashes out at his tormentors...and accidentally causes an outbreak of meningitis. Horrified by his actions, Billy begs Death to take back the Bow. For that to happen, says Death, Billy must track down the real White Rider—who is lost in his memories.

In his search, Billy travels through White Rider’s life: from ancient Phrygia, where the man called King Mita agrees to wear the White Rider’s Crown, to Sherwood Forest, where Pestilence figures out how to cheat Death; from the docks of Alexandria, where cartons of infested grain are being packed onto a ship that will carry the plague, to the Children’s Crusade in France—all the way to what may be the end of the world. When Billy finally finds the White Rider, the teen convinces the man to return to the real world.

But now the insane White Rider plans to unleash something awful on humanity—something that could make the Black Death look like a summer cold. Billy has a choice: he can live his life and pretend he doesn’t know what’s coming, or he can challenge the White Rider for his Crown. Does one bullied teenager have the strength to stand his ground—and the courage to save the world?

And here's what I thought:   I'm calling this a "DNF" post because I just couldn't finish this book.  I've read the previous two books in this series and really liked them, but I found myself just laboring to read this one.   Kessler took an interesting approach in this book, and gave us not only a main character in the present, but another main character, who lived in the past, to explain Pestilence.  However, I found this confusing, and frankly, would have been happier if there had been more focus on our present-time main character.  I felt like things were disconnected at times, and I had a hard time following what seemed to be two storylines.   I like Kessler's writing style, and I liked what the story was about ---- but I just couldn't get through this one.

If this book sounds interesting to you, I'd recommend checking out the other reviews from readers on GoodReads.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads): For fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Postmistress, and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story of love, war, loss, and the scars they leave set during the years of World War II and its aftermath.

It’s 1941. Babe throws like a boy, thinks for herself, and never expects to escape the poor section of her quiet Massachusetts town. Then World War II breaks out, and everything changes. Her friend Grace, married to a reporter on the local paper, fears being left alone with her infant daughter when her husband is shipped out; Millie, the third member of their childhood trio, now weds the boy who always refused to settle down; and Babe wonders if she should marry Claude, who even as a child could never harm a living thing. As the war rages abroad, life on the home front undergoes its own battles and victories; and when the men return, and civilian life resumes, nothing can go back to quite the way it was.

From postwar traumas to women’s rights, racial injustice to anti-Semitism, Babe, Grace, and Millie experience the dislocations, the acute pains, and the exhilaration of a society in flux. Along the way, they will learn what it means to be a wife, a mother, a friend, a fighter, and a survivor. Beautiful, startling, and heartbreaking, Next to Love is a love letter to the brave women who shaped a nation’s destiny.

And here's what I thought:  The summary from GoodReads mentions other books that I've read, and compares this book to them --- and actually, that makes a lot of sense.  I'd agree that if you read Guernsey, or Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, you'll probably enjoy this book.  

I liked how the author begins with one character, Babe, and takes us with her through the years.  At first, it seems like she's not really friends with the other women in the small town she lives in, but then it seems like the fact that most of the men from the town are going off to war draws them together.   I found this interesting -- because I think that if it weren't for that, then these women wouldn't have enough in common to bond together at all.   I also liked how the author told parts of the story through the viewpoints of other characters --- it not only gave a balance to the story, but sometimes, it gave more insight into one of them, like Babe, or a general situation.

The author wrote in her acknowledgments that the inspiration for this novel came from a real group of young men from the town of Bedford, Virginia.  Those 19 men, from a town of 3,000 all dies in the first minutes of landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day ... and that this was the greatest one-day loss suffered by any town in America.    The real-life elements in this story really made it feel very personal, and I found I really cared about what was happening to the people in the story.   I didn't find it difficult to imagine what life would have been like for these women, left at home while the men went to war ... but I had often wondered about what it was like for men who returned home after being at war, and the author gave me that, as well.   Babe's husband comes back a changed man, and it's clear that the atrocities he witnessed while in combat have had a significant impact on him.

I found this book to be a fast read, mostly because the pace is even, and I was pretty engrossed in the story.  If you have read the books mentioned in the GoodReads review, and liked them, I'd recommend this book.   If you haven't read those books, but you find this period of history interesting, or like stories about womens' lives, you also might enjoy this book.  The author doesn't shy away from real-life situations in this time period, like women who chose to work outside the home (and then had to face giving up their jobs when the men came home), and even some of the racial tensions that existed during the 1940s and 1950s.  I think this would make a great book for book groups, because I could see it generating some good discussions.

First lines:  In the year and a half Babe Huggins has worked for Western union, she has been late only once before.  Maybe that's why in the months to come she will occasionally persuade herself that some premonition delayed her this morning.  But in her more rational moments, she knows her tardiness has nothing to do with a sixth sense, only an unsteady hand when she draws the line down the back of her leg to simulate the seam in a nylon.

Thoughts on the cover:  It's an interesting composition, with the girls at the bottom and the planes on the top -- definitely gives the flavor of the story, with the women, and the backdrop of the war.

Please note: I received an ARC of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  Thus, any pages/quotes noted in my review may change upon final publication.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Implosion of Aggie Winchester by Lara Zielin

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  Sixteen-year-old Aggie Winchester couldn't care less about who's elected prom queen-even if it's her pregnant Goth-girl best friend, Sylvia Ness. Aggie's got bigger things to worry about, like whether or not her ex-boyfriend wants to get back together and whether her mom will survive cancer.

But like it or not, Aggie soon finds herself in the middle of an unfolding prom scandal, largely because her mom, who is the school's principal, is rumored to have burned prom ballots so Sylvia won't be elected queen. Aggie's own investigation makes her wonder if the election could be dirty on both sides.

And here's what I thought:   While I won't say this book was perfect, I enjoyed it, and found I was making time to keep reading (meaning, I chose to read instead of vacuuming, like I was supposed to).   As you can see from the summary, this is Aggie's story about not only her best friend, and her ex-boyfriend, but also about her relationship with her mom.   Of all of that, I found myself thinking about her relationship with her best friend, and how she thought about herself, to be the most interesting part of the book.

When we meet Aggie, she's 16 and her new best friend, Sylvia, is totally unlike all of her previous friends.   Sylvia's got a tough look, and a tough attitude, and she's a definite influence on Aggie, who has changed her look and attitude to match Sylvia's.   The question is, as always -- is the image that you show to the rest of the world what you're really like?   In this case, not necessarily (which probably doesn't surprise you).   Dressing in black, and using dark makeup makes Aggie feel like she's tough, and that she can't easily be hurt by other people --- and Sylvia is a part of this, too.   Sylvia's tough enough for the two of them, so it's easy to understand why Aggie gravitates to her.  However, as tough as Sylvia may be, she's got issues of her own -- and when she gets pregnant, it starts to become clear that she's not just tough, but kind of immature, and selfish ... and not a very good friend.

I suppose I found this element of the book to be interesting because I identified with it a bit.  When I was 17, I became friends with a girl who wasn't like any of my other friends; her skirts were shorter, she smoked, her attitude was tougher .... you get the drift.  And because I felt insecure about myself, especially around my other friends who always seemed prettier, and more self-assured, I started to hang out with this other girl.  And I felt tougher, and more secure.  At least, for a while.   Until, I discovered that she was selfish, and kind of immature and not a very good friend.    In this book, close to the end, Aggie says, "I studied Tiffany and thought about all the things I could say.  You were a bitch in ninth grade.  You lied and turned everyone against me.  I turned Goth because of you.  You got what you deserved here.  But I knew it wouldn't do any good.  People would always be jerks.  Life would also be imperfect.  Being Both or being a cheerleader didn't change any of it.  The point was not to let it change her."

What I wasn't so wild about was how quickly certain things seemed to be resolved, especially the ending, with her mother.   Mother-daughter relationships can be tricky -- sometimes, we love each other and sometimes, we can't stand each other .... and things aren't always resolved between those two feelings in a nice and neat way.   I didn't feel the ending was that believable.   However, since believing that this whole story was completely realistic wasn't in the cards for me, anyway, I found I still enjoyed the book.   I'm giving this a 3, but if I had a 3.5, that would be the correct rating (it's not quite at a four, but it was a good enough read).

First lines: I pushed open my car door and stepped straight into a puddle of ice and slush.  Fat, wet snowflakes fell like rain.  I raised my hand and extended my middle finger toward the sky.  The universe could suck it for creating March in Minnesota as far as I was concerned.

Thoughts on the cover art:  I think the photo is a good choice, especially since this girl is looking into the distance -- definitely fits the story.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):   When Richard Mayhew stops one day to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London pavement, his life is forever altered, for he finds himself propelled into an alternative reality that exists in a subterranean labyrinth of sewer canals and abandoned subway stations. He has fallen through the cracks of
reality and has landed somewhere different, somewhere that is Neverwhere.

And here's what I thought:   That summary above doesn't do enough justice to this book, but I suppose it'll suffice.  And heck, you can read an entire Wikipedia entry about this book.   It's better to add this to it, I think:  What if your city (any city) had a distinct second-city beneath it, which was filled with all sorts of magical, fantastical, and sometimes quite horrifying things?  Imagine you were having a somewhat normal evening, and then fell into this "under-city", finding that life as you knew it would never recover, and never be the same.

This is one of my all-time favorite books, hands-down.  I think this might be my 5th time re-reading it (I don't really keep track), and every time I read it, I just love it so much.   There are so many things in this book that I really enjoy: the various characters, and how interesting they are (more on that in a moment), the amazing storytelling that I always get from Neil Gaiman, and also, the idea of the city under a city.  I've been in London, and I really, really love imagining London Below, and all the things I might find there.

So, the characters --- Richard Mayhew is our main character, and he's a sort of everyman (at least, on the surface), but it's hinted at early on that there's more to him than meets the eye.  He's definitely the ordinary man who becomes a hero, and I always get the impression that he's been waiting his whole life for an adventure like the one he finds when he meets Door.  Door, the daughter of the Lord Portico, has a gift to open doors --- not just what she sees in front of her, but hidden doors, which sometimes open up into distant places.  We also have a whole supporting cast of other fascinating characters --- and what makes them especially interesting to me is that it's difficult to tell at times if they are good or bad.  Some seem to be perfectly nice on the surface, and then their real intentions are revealed.  Others, like the Marquis de Carabas, is definitely one to keep your eye on because it's very difficult to tell what he might be up to.  

And then, there are the truly nasty characters: Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar.  They're perfectly horrible, and I really enjoy them.  If you've read the book, that statement should make sense.   They are frightening, and horrifying, and yet, they have their own charm.  They ooze a loathsome sort of good manners, always polite when they're about to do something vicious.  And there's a sense of dark humor about them that I always quietly delight in (because to loudly delight in such a thing would be somewhat off-putting ... and odd).   They're truly awful ... but so awfully interesting.

As I mentioned, the storytelling in this book is just absolutely fantastic.  Every time I read this book, I just savor it --- it's like eating the most wonderful food imaginable, or drinking the absolute best wine .....  I just delight in it.    The first sentences of the book don't really hint at anything too remarkable, but as the story gets going, it just gets more and more fantastical and descriptive.   I know this book was published in 1996, and I'm not sure what was going on in Neil Gaiman's life when he wrote it, but I imagine him smiling to himself as he crafted these descriptions of people and places, and filled this book with incredible imagery.

This is a book I recommend often, especially to people who come into my library looking for a good book.  Inevitably, they are readers who have never read much fantasy, thinking that fantasy is all about dragons, and wizards, and magic.  I always introduce them to this author, and this book --- because here, magic is in the small details.   There is adventure here, and heroism (and cowardice).  There are characters that stay in your mind long after you've finished the story, and to me, that makes it a wonderful book.   It doesn't smack of "fantasy," but rather, I think, of a feeling of being privy to a world you never knew existed, but always maybe suspected was there, in the dark corners, just out of range, where you might see a shadow and imagine what it is.   To read this story is to be delivered into a world you may have never imagined existed, but can perhaps completely believe in.  

First sentences:  The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.  He had begun the evening by enjoying himself: he had enjoyed reading the good-bye cards, and receiving the hugs from several not entirely unattractive young ladies of his acquaintance; he had enjoyed the warnings about the evils and dangers of London, and the gift of the white umbrella with the map of the London Underground on it that his friends had chipped in money to buy; he had enjoyed the first few pints of ale; but then, with each successive pint he found that he was enjoying himself significantly less; until now he was sitting and shivering on the sidewalk outside the pub in a small Scottish town, weighing the relative merits of being sick and not being sick, and not enjoying himself at all.

More writing that I like better than the first sentences:  "I am impressed.  What a brain, Mister Vandemar.  Keen and incisive isn't the half of it.  Some of us are so sharp," he said as he leaned in closer to Richard, went up on tiptoes into Richard's face, "we could just cut ourselves."   p 29, when Richard meets Croup and Vandemar for the first time.

Thoughts on the cover art:   My hardcover edition has the cover art at the top of this post, and I really like it because it gives the clear idea of a London Above and a London Below, and has a somewhat moody feel about it that suits the story.  However, other editions also have nice cover art:


If you're interested, this book was made into a graphic novel, and also into a television series.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Treating myself....

to a delicious re-read of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.   Expect a review in the next day or so.

It's been one of those weeks ..... I read 2 books over the weekend, but didn't love them enough to write up a review post.  The other books I started I just didn't like too much ....   so decided to do some re-reading of some favorite books.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Merry Sisters of Fate strike again .....

If you don't already read them, you might want to check them out.   I always enjoy their stories, and today's Giantkiller, is a good one.  

Book Blogger Confession .... to spoil or not to spoil...

Book Blogger Confessions is a meme that posts the 1st and 3rd Monday of every month, where book bloggers "confess" and vent about topics that are unique to us. Feel free to share, vent and offer solutions. Just keep it respectful - no bashing authors or other bloggers! Hosted by Tiger's All-Consuming Media and For What It's Worth, there's always a thought-provoking, discussion-worthy question.

This Monday's question is: Spoilers in review: Do you read them, do you include them?  How do you describe (or avoid describing) spoilery parts of a book?

It's easiest for me to break down this question into two parts --- Do I read spoilers, and do I mind them and Do I include spoilers in my reviews on my blog?

As far as spoilers in the reviews that I read, many of the reviews I come across in my library sources don't tend to have spoilers.  Journals like Booklist, Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal don't tend to have spoilers in the reviews/summaries, so that's not really an issue.   When I read reviews on blogs, however, I do keep an eye out for any "spoiler alert here" that the blogger has put in.   Most of the time, spoilers don't ruin it too much for me, but if it's a book I'm really curious about, or in the middle of reading, I'll usually stop reading the review at that point and come back to it later.   What I don't like is when a blogger goes ahead and puts in spoilers, with any kind of "alert, alert --- spoiler ahead" kind of note ..... that can be annoying.   If you can't contain yourself, and must write about something in the book that turns out to be a spoiler, fine --- but give me a heads-up first, please.

In my own reviews, I try to avoid spoilers.  I'll maybe lead up to something and then say, "And yes, you'll have to read the book to find out what happens."   That being said, maybe I should go back and look at some of my past reviews to double-check that something I wrote about didn't turn out to be a spoiler.  Just because I didn't think it was doesn't mean it totally blew the cover off something for another reader.   I try to hint at things, but if I feel like I'm coming too close to a spoiler, I stop.

I have a friend who sometimes will read the ending of a book first, so that she knows what to expect when she's reading (and doesn't have any nasty surprises waiting for her at the end).   I don't do that, although I do admit that I often turn to the book jacket to see what the author looks like.

and hey ... does the word "spoil" look really weird to you right about now?  It totally does to me.  I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone else is confessing on this one.

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