This is a fascinating combination of dark fantasy, Victorian novel, and boarding school story. Gemma Doyle is sixteen and living in India with her par...moreThis is a fascinating combination of dark fantasy, Victorian novel, and boarding school story. Gemma Doyle is sixteen and living in India with her parents when her mother dies mysteriously, a terrifying event which Gemma witnesses in a disturbing vision. She is sent back to England to Spence, a girls' boarding school, where she finds her way into an influential clique and learns more about her mother's and her own connections with a mystical group called the Order. I must admit that I wasn't convinced by the Victorian setting, as Gemma's attitudes and speech patterns were on the modern side, but the story is powerful and the writing compelling; so much so that I was disappointed at the ending's lack of resolution to the book's major storyline. However, I find that this is the first of a planned trilogy, so I'm hopeful that the sequels will provide a better payoff. (ETA: they did, but at the cost of being overly long and drawn out.)(less)
I remain unconvinced by the setting of these books; the language isn't quite right, and the tone seems often a little modern. (Possibly reading these...moreI remain unconvinced by the setting of these books; the language isn't quite right, and the tone seems often a little modern. (Possibly reading these after Possession, which does the Victorian period gorgeously, did them a disservice.) I also wonder whether Bray worked out the entire plot before writing the books, because it doesn't always hang together well, and the pacing of the beginning of the books is on the slow side before they each speed up and gain intensity. However, I can forgive these faults for the sake of Bray's engagement with issues around female power and sexuality, class, and race, her variety of characters (especially Gemma), and the marvelous, dark, magical atmosphere she creates. I like that the magic has a price, and Bray isn't afraid to sacrifice her characters when the story demands it. I'm very interested to see what she comes up with next.(less)
Phaedra, the beautiful daughter of the Warden of Trant, knows that she must marry, but none of her suitors can live up to the mysterious man she has m...morePhaedra, the beautiful daughter of the Warden of Trant, knows that she must marry, but none of her suitors can live up to the mysterious man she has met for years in her dreams. When she chooses to elope with him, she finds that he is a sorcerer and the son of a feared noble family, and their marriage sets off an explosive chain of events, which continues on into the sequel, The Widow and the King.
I found the two books slow to start, but eventually absorbing. The style is terse and elegant, and the atmosphere is unsettlingly creepy, particularly in the first book, as Phaedra learns more and more about her husband and his powers.(less)
This didn't quite live up to the first book (The Cup of the World, I thought; the pacing was a little too slow, and the alternating POVs didn't hold m...moreThis didn't quite live up to the first book (The Cup of the World, I thought; the pacing was a little too slow, and the alternating POVs didn't hold me as well as Phaedra's sole POV, but the worldbuilding and atmosphere remained excellent.(less)
This was entertaining, but it was hampered by being neither a full biography of Waters nor of her restaurant, and thus being not entirely satisfying o...moreThis was entertaining, but it was hampered by being neither a full biography of Waters nor of her restaurant, and thus being not entirely satisfying on either front. I also missed the sense of taste I like in really good food writing. One gets some of it from Waters' own words (extensively quoted from interviews and also present in a few recipes), but really none from McNamee's prose, and so it's harder to grasp the specialness of Chez Panisse's food. (I found myself contrasting it to the marvelous description of the French Laundry's food in Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef, which helped make the French Laundry and Thomas Keller such vivid presences in that book.)(less)
Eleven-year-old Linnet is growing wings from her shoulder blades. She is shocked, but her mother Sarah expected it; after all, she began to grow wings...moreEleven-year-old Linnet is growing wings from her shoulder blades. She is shocked, but her mother Sarah expected it; after all, she began to grow wings at about the same age -- but her mother cut them off. Linnet and Sarah don't know what to do, but Linnet stumbles into a community of people like her, who live in a secluded place in the mountains, under the threat of exposure. I thought the premise was unusual and interesting, but it wasn't developed enough to really grab me. It's probably meant more as a coming-of-age novel, but I wanted more worldbuilding, particularly near the end; the ending relies too heavily on a deus ex machina which isn't sufficiently explained and therefore isn't convincing.(less)
When Mandy answers an ad from another girl, Tracey, who wants to correspond by letter, they begin an epistolary relationship which grows deeper and de...moreWhen Mandy answers an ad from another girl, Tracey, who wants to correspond by letter, they begin an epistolary relationship which grows deeper and deeper as each girl opens up and reveals her secrets. I was impressed by the writing, in how Marsden delineates each girl's voice, and by the way in which he slowly allows them to open up to each other. However, I hated the ending. I don't necessarily need a happy ending to enjoy a book, but I do prefer something more definite than this book provided. (less)
This takes place in the 1960s, in a small British seaside town, where teenage Laura longs to grow up and move to London someday. She also longs to be...moreThis takes place in the 1960s, in a small British seaside town, where teenage Laura longs to grow up and move to London someday. She also longs to be friends with beautiful Vicky Logan, whom Laura worships. But just when something happens to pull Laura and Vicky together and it seems Laura's dreams might come true, Vicky is drawn into an affair with a rough factory worker.
I read this (a Virago reprint) on the strength of Manning's The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, and I was rather disappointed. I occasionally felt some sympathy for Laura, whose life is constricted by her looks, her small town, and her unsympathetic mother, but none of the other characters came alive for me. Perhaps the book's short length (under 200 pages) contributed to this feeling; the characters and situations generally felt underdeveloped.(less)
Possibly the most famous play in baseball history is Bobby Thomson's bottom-of-the-ninth home run off Ralph Branca in the 1951 playoff game between th...morePossibly the most famous play in baseball history is Bobby Thomson's bottom-of-the-ninth home run off Ralph Branca in the 1951 playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers, which sent the Giants to the World Series and the Dodgers home to Brooklyn. Nowadays, the fan who caught such a ball would either treasure it forever or sell it, but back then, baseball memorabilia wasn't big business. For years, the whereabouts of that ball has been a mystery: who caught it, and what did they do with it? When Brian Biegel's father Jack found a baseball at a thrift store which he thought might be the famous home run ball, Biegel began a quest to find out whether his father's ball was really the one. Along the way, he learned to deal with the potentially devastating depression he'd been saddled with since a series of personal setbacks.
The writing is nothing outstanding, workmanlike and readable, but the book is cleverly structured. As the mystery unfolds and Biegel meets more people who might have a clue for him, there are short flashbacks to the moment of the home run, showing what each person involved was (or might have been) doing. In fact, since Biegel is primarily a documentarian and did make a documentary about that, I wondered if the choice of structure was influenced by his film background. I thought his fight with depression could have been a larger part of the book, but as it was, the course of the ball investigation was so absorbing that I was happily carried along by that. Full of baseball history, legends, and lore, _Miracle Ball_ is a great book for baseball fans. (less)
Gladwell proposes here that ideas, information, and behaviors act like an epidemic, starting small and spreading until they reach a certain threshold,...moreGladwell proposes here that ideas, information, and behaviors act like an epidemic, starting small and spreading until they reach a certain threshold, the "tipping point". Although I enjoy Gladwell's clear, conversational writing and thought he had some interesting ideas, I was less taken with this than I was with Blink. Much of what he talks about in this book has to do with marketing and advertising, and I just don't find those compelling topics, as opposed to, say, Blink's discussion of unconscious racism and ideas for how to combat that. It was an entertaining read generally, but it's not a book I'm going to be thinking about a lot after finishing it. (And in fact, I just culled it.)(less)
Ana Chen is graduating from eighth grade, which should be a happy day for her. But her Chinese American father and her African American mother have in...moreAna Chen is graduating from eighth grade, which should be a happy day for her. But her Chinese American father and her African American mother have invited both sets of grandparents over to dinner, and her grandparents just don't get along. To make things even worse, her best friend got Ana to invite cute Jamie Tabata and his parents, and Ana is worried that things will blow up with Jamie there. I felt this was a lot slighter than Flygirl. It was fine and reasonably entertaining as far as it went, and I appreciated the biracial heroine and her rich family cultural heritages, but there was a wealth of character background barely touched on in the final chapters, and Smith could have done a lot more with that.(less)
Rhonda Lee is a math-loving high-school senior, working hard to earn a college scholarship and tutoring other kids in math; she doesn't have time for...moreRhonda Lee is a math-loving high-school senior, working hard to earn a college scholarship and tutoring other kids in math; she doesn't have time for fun or dating. When she has to tutor popular Sarah Gamble, Rhonda notices Sarah's queasiness and tiredness and figures out that they have something in common. Against her will, Rhonda grows to like Sarah, and her brother David, and realizes that she needs to face her past.
On the plus side, I was impressed with the characterization of Rhonda, which is very vivid and convincing, and with the complex web of relationships she has with her friends and family, and I thought the plot was nicely worked out without being at all preachy. On the minus side, the dialogue often struck me as forced, and I would really have liked more resolution to Rhonda's relationship with her dad. On the whole, though, I did like this a lot and would definitely read more of Johnson's YA (looks like he's got another book coming out next year).(less)
Europe is on the edge of World War I, and two teens are right in the middle of the oncoming conflict. Prince Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdina...moreEurope is on the edge of World War I, and two teens are right in the middle of the oncoming conflict. Prince Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife Sophie, whose assassination by Serbian nationalists sets off the war and forces Alek to run for his life. Deryn Sharp is a British girl posing as a boy in order to enter the British Air Service. Their world may sound like ours, but it isn't, quite: here, Charles Darwin not only developed the theory of evolution, he also discovered DNA and also how to work with DNA to bioengineer new life forms. As a result of this, some of Europe's nations (the "Darwinist" nations, including Great Britain, France, and Russia) developed all of their technology along bioengineering lines, while the Clanker nations (Austria-Hungary, Germany) developed steam-based machinery, including giant walking war machines.
I should say right here that I do not think I'm the target audience for this book, and so it didn't work for me as well as I'd hoped. I've enjoyed Westerfeld's YA novels in the past; Leviathan strikes me as written for a slightly younger audience. Even though the two protagonists are presented as older teens, they act and speak more like early teens. More importantly, Leviathan is steampunk as alternate history, and I didn't find any of the alternate history convincing: neither the divergence point from our timeline (Darwin discovering DNA and how to modify it), nor the subsequent political developments.
With that said, there's quite a bit to enjoy here. The action is nonstop, with exciting mechanical chases and thrilling airship hijinks. Did I mention that the airship (the Leviathan of the title) is alive? Westerfeld's bioengineered creatures are very cool, from the whale-based airship to the jellyfish-based single-person gliders (they look like parachutes, but are steerable like gliders). I loved the inclusion of Darwin's (historical) granddaughter, Nora Darwin Barlow, as the intelligent, sharp chief bioengineer, along with her pet Tasmanian tiger (now extinct). And Keith Thompson's marvelous illustrations, especially the gorgeous endpaper maps, enhance the book immensely.
Leviathan ends on quite a cliffhanger, with the protagonists ready to travel to a whole new land, and I admit to being very interested to see where they end up in the next book. I wish I could silence that part of myself which insists on alternate history being convincingly worked out, so that I could enjoy this series more, but maybe that won't bother me so much by the time the sequel comes out. (less)
Olivia's rebellious, beloved twin sister Violet has died, and Olivia's parents have moved the family across the country to San Francisco to start agai...moreOlivia's rebellious, beloved twin sister Violet has died, and Olivia's parents have moved the family across the country to San Francisco to start again. Olivia would love to start her life again in a new city and a new school, but her life seems to have been put on hold when Violet died. Then one day, Olivia meets a mysterious seamstress who makes her a dress which grants her dearest wish, though perhaps not precisely as she would have wanted.
I'll say right up front that if I hadn't gotten this from the Amazon.com Vine program and thus felt obligated to review it, I would have put it down after 50 pages or so. The writing is awkward and full of clichés and poor word choices. The magical element doesn't work with the rest of the plot at all; it's just a creaky mechanism to get Violet back and never believable in and of itself. The concept of Violet-as-ghost is potentially interesting, but poorly executed: for example, on one page, we learn that she can't affect anything physical, while soon afterward, she's flipping through a magazine.
On the plus side, the relationships between Olivia and her new friends are fairly well done. She gets in the middle of a breakup, and the angst around that feels real and actually worked better for me than the more fantastical elements of the plot. By the end, I felt as though there was a decent book about grief and moving on trying to get out of Wish, but it's simply buried too deep in the labored writing and the tacked-on magical elements.
If you'd like to read a much better YA book about a girl and a ghost (well, more than one ghost), try Megan Crewe's Give Up the Ghost. (less)
Before talking about Gregory Maguire's Wicked, I should probably say that I'm a longtime lover of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, having read all fourteen o...moreBefore talking about Gregory Maguire's Wicked, I should probably say that I'm a longtime lover of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, having read all fourteen of them (plus some of those written by others) many, many times since I discovered them in elementary school. This is not the first time I've read Wicked; I read it soon after it was published, and I unequivocally hated what Maguire had done to my beloved Oz.
Since then, it's gotten rave reviews everywhere, and finally I decided that I must have been missing something, that I must not have read it with an open mind, and that I should reread it, hoping to appreciate it more. And you know what? I still didn't like it. Although this time, I was actually able to admire the way in which Maguire reworks Baum's fairytale land into his own politically torn country (there are multiple references to characters and places from Oz books other than the first one, too, so it's clear that he did his research), I was still unengaged by the characters - or at least, in the way they develop.
The book is divided into five sections, each dealing with a period in the life of Elphaba, the little green girl who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West. Years pass between sections, so that just when I was beginning to be engaged with the action of one section, it would stop abruptly and go on to the next. Characters who are heavily featured in a particular section are suddenly pushed to the background, where you frequently hear little of them later on in the book.
For instance, Glinda, Elphaba's college roommate, is a main character of the section dealing with Elphaba's university life, and a lot of that section is from her point of view. Yet once that section is over, she is mentioned or present in the narrative only a few times. How did her character change over that time? Who knows, because Maguire doesn't tell us. Yes, the focus of the book is on Elphaba, but even with her, significant periods of her life are left out, and it's tough to follow her emotional development. I had a hard time even believing the last section, which tells what happens when Dorothy comes to Oz; Elphaba's reactions just didn't ring true to me.
Third time may be the charm, but I don't think I'll be reading Wicked a third time. (less)
I'm of two minds about this biography. On the one hand, it's clearly well-researched and tries to offer a well-rounded portrait of Porter, with all du...moreI'm of two minds about this biography. On the one hand, it's clearly well-researched and tries to offer a well-rounded portrait of Porter, with all due respect for his musical and literary genius and sympathy for his personal issues (though less for his wife Linda, whom I felt didn't get enough space).
On the other hand, it's simply poorly written. The narrative flow is choppy and interspersed with irrelevant factoids. The prose is stilted and excessively formal, with formulations like "[t]hey queried Cole as to whether or not he could compose a song," instead of something simpler like "they asked Cole whether he could compose a song." Or how about "Cole chose Jack Coble to effectuate this project"? Really? Porter himself probably could have gotten away with using that word, but at least he'd have found something amusing to rhyme it with.
If McBrien had any of Porter's own flair for language, this could have been a very good biography. As it is, it's a slog I can recommend only to fervent Porter fans. (less)