Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"The Scorpio Races" by Maggie Stiefvater

409 pages

Every November, the Scorpio Races come to the island of Thisby. Every November, riders attempt to keep control of their water horses long enough to cross the finish line. Some racers live, but others die. Nineteen-year-old stableboy Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He's quiet and keeps to himself, as he's much more comfortable with horses than people. He's never cared much for the races, despite his talent for winning them. But now his harsh employer has given him the chance to buy his best friend/horse, Corr, if he wins. Puck Connolly  has never ridden in the races--in fact, no female ever has. But with her parents dead, her older brother about to leave the island, and her little brother to care for, she needs the prize money. When she gets her first taste of racing during practice, however, she realizes she's in way over her head. Then she meets Sean, who has the knowledge of the races that she needs to know to have a chance. But only one of them can win, and the stakes have never been higher for either of them. 

I've never read a book quite like this before, and I really liked it. Stiefvater did a great job of creating the atmosphere of Thisby--it felt melancholy and beautiful at the same time. I could just see the dangerous capaill uisce and the water's thrashing waves. The plot is a bit slow and definitely predictable, but I enjoyed the writing so much that it didn't bother me. 

The Casual Vacancy

by J.K. Rowling
512 pages

Barry Fairbrother, a town councilman and leading citizen in the community has died suddenly.  This leaves a seat open on the town council and a huge gap in the hearts of many citizens of Pagford.  However not everybody is upset by Fairbrother's passing; his opponents on the town council see it as an opportunity to find a more "suitable" replacement.  Rowling portrays the  effect one person can have on a community, as well as they darker side of humanity.

This is definitely grittier than any Harry Potter novel.  The teenagers portrayed are far more "real" than Harry and his friends.  Drug use, bullying, welfare, and computer hacking play a prominent role in this novel.  This being said, I really enjoyed this novel and hope that Rowling writes more novels for adults in the future.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1)" by Alan Bradley

374 pages

Flavia de Luce isn't exactly your average eleven-year-old. Her mother died when she was young, so her father is raising her and her sisters by himself in their decrepit English mansion. More bizarrely, she's a self-taught aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. In the summer of 1950, a series of suspicious events cause Flavia to add "detective" to her list of talents. First a dead bird shows up on the doorstep with a postage stamp pinned to its beak. That night, Flavia overhears her father arguing with a mysterious stranger. Then, only hours later, she discovers a dead body in the cucumber patch. A murder has been committed, and Flavia is determined to solve the mystery--especially after her father is accused of the crime. 

Flavia is my new favorite heroine! I have a feeling that she would totally creep me out if I knew her in real life, but in print she comes across as delightful and charming. It's refreshing to have a young female character who is fearless, intelligent, and more interested in science than boys. Plus, she just cracked me up. The mystery was unique and had enough twists to keep me interested. This is definitely a series that I will be continuing. 

"In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" by Erik Larson

464 pages

In 1933, a mild-mannered professor named William Dodd was appointed US ambassador and moved from his home in Chicago to Berlin, bringing with him his wife, son, and daughter. At first, it seemed that the vicious rumors about the new chancellor, Hitler, were exaggerated. The Dodds found Germany to be lovely, and daughter Martha especially began integrating into Berlin's social scene. Before long, however, evidence of Jewish persecution became more troubling and more frequent. Dodd expressed his increasingly alarming concerns to the State Department back home but found it to be, for the most part, indifferent. As the atmosphere grew more tense, the Dodds began to see Hitler's true character and ambition come to light.

I thought this story was interesting, but not as fascinating as I expected. I was hoping for more griping first-hand accounts of the Nazis atrocities and an inside look at how such a madman as Hitler could rise to power. I thought this book had too much of Martha's social life and not enough of the real stuff. Larson certainly did his homework on that front, and perhaps Martha's correspondence and such is the bulk of what's still around from the Dodd family at this point (meaning that Larson was forced to make that his focus). Still, I was disappointed. 

"From the Bottom Up: One Man's Crusade to Clean America's Rivers" by Chad Pregracke

320 pages

Chad Pregracke grew up on the northern Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The mighty water, which flowed right beyond his back yard, was part of his daily life. Then, as he grew older, he began to notice how much trash his beloved river carried. As a teenager, he decided to do something about it. What began as a simple one-man operation became a full-time national movement. In this memoir, Chad explains how it all went down. 

Very inspiring! I love how Chad just saw something he wanted to change and made it happen--with lots of hard work and help, of course. When I finished reading, I felt all pumped up and ready to go out and tackle the world's problems. I like Chad's goofy, humorous way of looking at things, too. I felt like the book could have used a little more editing and maybe had some things rearranged for clarity, but for the most part I enjoyed the actual story as well as the motivational value. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Nabari no Ou: Volume 5

by Yuhki Kamatani, 193 pages

Apathetic middle-schooler Miharu Rokujou is unfazed by the revelation that his body contains the nabari (or, hidden) world's most powerful and secret art, the Shinra Banshou.  So when various ninja and other clans' representatives start trying to protect / control / kill him, he's not overly concerned, much to the frustration of those trying to convince him they have his best interests at heart.  He does eventually settle for hanging out with the local Banten Village outfit, but largely because keeping their company offers the path of least resistance, since the familiar face of his kind teacher, Kumohira-sensei, is among them.  But when a quiet, expressionless young assassin from a different group, the Grey Wolves, secretly asks for his help independent of any clan, Miharu finds his habitual apathy shaken.  Yoite is dying.  His use of the nabari world's deadliest and most forbidden art, Kira, is quickly killing him.  Tired of knowing only emptiness and pain, Yoite wants Miharu to use the Shinra Banshou to erase his existence.  Miharu, sensing a kindred spirit, agrees to help.  But Kumohira-sensei, closely guarding his own painful secrets, is dead-set against the Shinra Banshou's use and vows to stop Miharu if he tries to invoke it--just as he has sincerely vowed to defend the boy with his life.

Meanwhile, Raimei Shimizu, one of Miharu's new friends and heir to a once-great samurai clan, is on the trail of her prodigal brother, Raikou, whom she believes murdered their family and destroyed their clan years ago.  But when she finally confronts him, will she be able to hear the truth he refuses to utter?

This is an emotionally involving series where the politics and mysticism confuse but the personal struggles of the protagonists draw you in and make you care, anyway.  The distinctive art's thin, fragile figures add to that attachment and make you worry all the more for the characters.  Frail, resigned Yoite makes me want to cry, and watching Miharu slowly emerge from his own self-imposed numbness to help him is bittersweet.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Library Wars: Love & War: Volume 8

by Kiiro Yumi (story and art) and Hiro Arikawa (original concept), 190 pages

Iku learns the truth of the inquiry against her and is asked to choose between saving herself and standing up for what she believes in as Shibazaki deals with a personal and professional betrayal of her own.

What makes a "prince" a prince?  Iku finally gets a clue!  As corny as this series is--and, boy, is it corny--it's still nice to see the gang bonding and learning to better understand one another as they fight the forces of censorship.  But do we really need to see Iku don a miniskirt instead of her gun to catch a molester of female library patrons?  *eye-roll*  If only the series didn't take such ridiculousness seriously, the cheeze would be easier to swallow.  *sigh*

The Earl and the Fairy: Volume 2

by Ayuko (story and art) and Mizue Tani (original concept), 209 pages

Lydia and Edgar follow the clues to their goal, but what will they find when they get there?  And will they both live to see the outcome?

The mechanics of the supernatural and mystery elements are a little hazy and occasionally require a bit of re-reading, but that seems (mostly) to be by design so I'm willing to go with the flow and watch how things progress.  This volume again includes some somber elements among the snark, which I like, as it gives everybody involved a little more depth.  The more snippets Lydia and the reader hear about Edgar's former master, Prince, the craftier and scarier he sounds, so I'm looking forward to seeing how they do or don't deal with him in the future and where the next adventure takes them.

The Earl and the Fairy: Volume 1

by Ayuko (story and art) and Mizue Tani (original concept), 182 pages

Lydia Carlton is the latest in a long line of "fairy doctors," individuals who help humans to understand and deal with the world of local spirits, but modern Victorian society sees her as more of a superstitious flake than anything else.  She's pretty much resigned herself to a life of ridicule when she suddenly finds her services not only wanted but drawn into the middle of a potentially deadly rivalry.  Lies and legends get all mixed up as Lydia tries to figure out whom she can trust with her knowledge...and her life.

Lydia's a bit overly perfect, but she's still likeable enough and may show a little more personality as the series continues and she gets more comfortable with her situation.  At least she talks back to the people making her life more complicated than she'd prefer.  Edgar, the titular Earl, and his devoted servants have a surprisingly dark shared history, which balances out nicely with the fluffier elements of the story and keeps things from getting overly silly.

Room: A Novel

by Emma Donoghue, 321 pages

Five-year-old Jack narrates as he comes to understand the truth of the four-walled world he shares with his mother.

Despite some too-convenient elements (Jack is a precocious little boy and his mother gives him more of a leg-up than seems likely considering the environment and her limited resources), this story is involving and moving and makes the reader care about the characters.  Instead of just ending with a climactic confrontation with the perpetrator of the crime, the author examines the aftermath and long-term effects such experiences can have on the individuals involved and their loved ones, giving the book depth and substance beyond the usual and adding an element of social commentary to a story about the struggle to survive and overcome.

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose

by Lauren Willig, 385 pages

Between daydreaming about Colin and fending off the advances of a pompous archive curator, Eloise learns the story of a cool beauty drawn into the world of international espionage by a cynical pawn of the Pink Carnation as they finally uncover the true nature and identity of the deadly Black Tulip.

I like how this series flows from one interlinked story of the past to another.  It makes each new volume feel more grounded when you already know some of the people involved.  This particular installment also clears up some of Colin's less-than-genial behavior in the past, making it easier to like him now that his previous jerkiness has a logical explanation.

Amulet: Book Five: Prince of the Elves

by Kazu Kibuishi, 199 pages

Max's backstory is revealed, shedding much light on his actions in the present, as Trellis and Emily slip in and out of the past in their struggle to understand the Voice and how to right their world.

Ah, now I have more sympathy for Max.  And it's good to see Trellis and Emily overcoming their original antipathy and contrasting mindsets in their efforts to fight a common enemy, whatever its true nature.  Kibuishi has created an involving world and story, here, and I just wish we didn't have to read it in pieces, as I'm always wanting the next one.

"The Red House" by Mark Haddon

264 pages

Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his sister Angela and her family to join him, his new wife, and his stepdaughter for a week at a vacation home in the English countryside. His invitation is an attempt to repair his relationship with Angela, as they haven't been in touch since they drifted apart as their mother died years earlier. Angela brings her husband and three children, all of whom she is feeling alienated from. Needless to say, putting this group together for a week creates a new level of familial dysfunction and drama. 

I picked this one up because I loved Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The Red House just didn't do it for me, though. It lacks the charm and intrigue of Curious Incident.  In that story, I was totally interested and invested in Christopher, the autistic narrator. In this book, I just didn't care about any of the characters. I didn't think they were good people. I like for characters to have flaws, but I also need them to have some redeeming qualities and I didn't find any here. I did like Angela's youngest son, but he's forgettable enough that I can't remember his name. Bottom line: if I don't care about any of the characters, I usually don't care about the book. 

"We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson

146 pages

Merricat and her sister Constance live in Blackwood family mansion with their ailing uncle Julian. Constance and Julian never leave the property, while Merricat only goes into town once a week to get food and other necessities. The townspeople fear and mock them because their entire family was murdered years ago and Constance is widely believed to be the killer though she wasn't convicted. The little family has reached an uneasy peace by isolating themselves in their home, but the arrival of a long-lost cousin threatens to disrupt their world. 

I loved this creepy classic. Jackson has mastered the art of using subtle psychological elements to create something that's much more disturbing than a simple gory horror story. Merricat is an unreliable but fascinating narrator, and I enjoyed trying to figure out what was really going on. 

"City of Ashes (Mortal Instruments #2)" by Cassandra Clare

453 pages

Clary's life has sort of become a mess since she found out that werewolves, vampires, and faeries are real and that she is a demon-slaying Shadowhunter. Her mom is in a magically induced coma, and she just found out that the boy she thought she was falling for is actually her brother. But now things are getting even more crazy: someone in New York City is murdering Downworlder children. It seems that Valentine--Clary and Jace's evil, deranged father--is behind the killings, which are part of an even bigger, more sinister plan. When the second Mortal Instrument, the Soul Sword, is stolen, it seems that all is lost. Clary and her friends have to pull out all the stops to keep Valentine from starting a war between Shadowhunters and Downworlders. 

I think this is the last Mortal Instruments book I will read. I rarely don't finish a series I start, but I just can't handle any more of these. I'm not sure why they annoy me so much because I really like the Clare's prequel series, the Infernal Devices. I guess I just don't like these characters as much. And yeah, I'll come out and say it--I just can't handle the incest stuff. I have a feeling that Clary and Jace will turn out to not be brother and sister, but it's still gross that they make out and are so hung up on each other when they think they're siblings. I'm sort of interested in what happens, but I think I'll just read up about it on Wikipedia and save myself some time.