November 28, 2014

Review: God'll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi

God'll Cut You Down By John Safran
Available now from Riverhead (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN is not the gritty true crime tale you might expect from the title.  John Safran is an Australian documentarian who specializes in fairly juvenile pranks.  He takes a fairly light approach to murder.  I enjoyed seeing an outsider's approach to Mississippi and US racial tensions, and appreciated that Safran was pretty open about his various biases.  But I often found him pretty annoying, the sort of guy who isn't half as funny as he thinks he is.  I kept reading, however, because he does have a clear and engaging style, and the details of the crime itself are fascinating in their murkiness.

In 2010, Vincent McGee murdered Richard Barrett.  Barrett was an infamous racist, the founder of the Nationalist Movement.  Vincent McGee was a young black man, in and out of prison, who Barrett hired to do yard work and then stiffed him on the payment.  McGee's story about the murder changed several times.  It might've been about money, it might've been about Barrett making a sexual pass at him.  The media got excited - it was about race, it was about sex - but then the story fizzled.

Safran got interested because he'd played a prank on Barrett years before, getting a DNA sample and announcing in public that Barrett was part black.  (It's not the triumph it might seem - Safran admits to switching the sample.)  He's also not popular at the time, so he heads off to Mississippi and talks to anyone who will talk to him about the case, and tries to find anyone who knows anything real about what happened.  This leads to GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN having a meandering but roughly chronological order.  The first half seems to focus more on Barrett, the second half more on McGee.  Personally, I think things really start moving after Safran talks to McGee's cousin Michael Dent, who ended up in prison as an accessory.

Sometimes, the interesting parts of the story are about the culture around the murder.  Safran finds that on a day-to-day basis, gayness is preferable to blackness, because it can be hidden.  Yet most people he talks to would prefer it to be about race, that that would be less shameful to Vincent.  Either way or neither way, it's an ugly side of our culture.

If you can stand the narrator, GOD'LL CUT YOU DOWN is a pretty fascinating read.  It isn't a neat one, but it is a fascinating attempt at trying to track down the truth of what happened between two men one night, that resulted in a death.

November 26, 2014

Review: Catch the Wind: My Journey with Caroline

Catch the Wind An American Girl Beforever Journey
By Kathleen Ernst
Available now from American Girl
Review copy

I used to get the Pleasant Company catalogs for American Girl and would page through them, wanting each and every one of the dolls.  I never got one, but I could go to the library and check out the American Girl books.  Since Mattel bought American Girl, they've played around with the focus and product offerings.  The latest is a line of choose your own adventure American Girl books.  As a fan of both, I couldn't resist giving them a whirl.

The actual CYOA element could be deployed much better.  You don't get to make many choices.  Most of the time a section tells you to flip to the next page (or to another specific page).  It's maybe one in six sections that you actually get to make a choice.  Some of the storylines end very quickly, and one per book requires you to go online to read the ending.  I really didn't like that element -- I had to stop and boot up my computer to read maybe six pages.  It's a good idea but needs some tweaking.

I do like that each book includes a short introduction to the history of the time at the back.  Caroline's story takes place during the War of 1812, near the Canadian border.  It's a war I wouldn't expect the elementary-school-age audience to be very (if at all) familiar with. 

In this story, you take the place of a young girl with a Navy mom who is about to be deployed and younger twin sisters.  You travel back to Caroline's time using a compass.  There, by Lake Ontario, you meet Caroline, whose father is a prisoner of war.  Caroline is one of the American Girls who was after my time, so her story was new to me, but easy to pick up.  There's lots of exciting storylines, including one involving a naval battle.

I like that CATCH THE WIND was very easy to read.  I think my eight-year-old niece could manage, especially since it is divided it to short sections.  This one is a good choice for a girl who is interested in war history or who has a parent in the military.  Or, perhaps, for a girl who has to stick with the books because a doll is out of le parent's budget.

November 25, 2014

Review: Chaos

Chaos Book three of the Guards of the Shadowlands trilogy
By Sarah Fine
Available now from
Review copy
Read more at my Sarah Fine tag

I really enjoyed FRACTURED and SANCTUM, the first two books in the Guards of the Shadowlands trilogy.  I picked up CHAOS eagerly, wanting to know how the Mazikin would be defeated forever and Malachai and Lela would find a way to be together again.  (Plus, there was that whole cliffhanger ending to SANCTUM.)  CHAOS satisfied those questions, although it took a bit longer to do so than I would've liked.

The main problem with CHAOS is that the meat of the plot ends about halfway through the book, and multiple twists are required to sustain the rest.  Plus, as wonderful as Malachai and Lela are, I got tired of them sacrificing themselves to save each other.  At some point heroic death comes cheap.  By the third time, it's definitely cheap.

I absolutely love the series as a whole.  Sarah Fine is a great writer, and the Guards of the Shadowland series is filled with both dynamic action and convincing romance.  There's also an exploration of different kinds of love; mother-daughter relationships are particularly important in CHAOS.  The afterworld Fine invented is clever, compelling, and unlike most anything else I've read.

In fact, I think I'm only complaining about CHAOS because the first two books in this series were so strong.  It had a tough act to follow.  I think it would've made it with one or two less extraneous subplots.  At the same time, it's much better than many books I've read lately.

If you're looking for a series with a fierce and determined Latin-American heroine, a romance that spans life and death (several times), a desperate fight against body snatchers, and battles against impossible odds, give Guards of the Shadowlands a try.  It's terrific fun.

November 24, 2014

Review: Disney Princess Hairstyles: 40 Amazing Princess Hairstyles With Step by Step Instructions

Disney Princess Hairstyles By Theodora Mjoll Skuladottir Jack
Photos by
Available now from Edda USA
Review copy

I remember my mom buying Klutz hairstyle books in order to properly do my sister's and my hair for ice skating competitions and ballet recitals.  As I helped her out and learned how to do the styles myself, I started finding more complicated things to do with my hair.  It is a fun way to pass the time, and now I enjoy doing my niece's hair.  (She enjoys doing mine in return, which often leads to giant rat's nests.)

I really liked the idea of a book of hairstyles inspired by Disney Princesses.  It's a great hook for young girls.  Most of the forty styles assigned to various princesses don't have much to do with the actual princess, but there is a wide variety.  I am not sure about the other styles, but the three Tiana styles will work with natural black hair.  Also, there are more than forty styles total thanks to an overview of how to do a variety of basic braids at the beginning.

Each step for each hairstyle is accompanied by a small photo, along with a large photo of the finished hairstyle.  The large photos aren't always helpful.  Sometimes the angle doesn't show the full hairstyle, or the photo is too dark to see.  One Aurora style has a plant shadowed in front of the girl, leaving her hair practically invisible.  The small photos, however, are helpful.  Moreso than many line-art illustrations I've seen in similar books.  The instructions could be a little clearer, but they're good enough with the photos.

I don't think any of the hairstyles are too hard for a beginner, especially not the curling techniques.  Once you get the braids in the front down, these should be simple.  Some do require special equipment, like bun fillers.  Also, most of these styles are best done with hair that is longer than shoulder length.

This is a beautifully photographed hairstyle book with a lot of appeal for young girls.  If you're looking for ideas for your daughter or niece's hair, or just want to learn to braid, this is a good choice.

November 21, 2014

Celebrating Jacqueline Woodson, and matching donations to #weneeddiversebooks

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for BROWN GIRL DREAMING, a memoir in verse.  I'm not a memoir fan, but I've heard nothing but good things and intend to read it after the Cybils are over.

However, her win was overshadowed by remarks made by the presenter, Daniel Handler.  (Also known as Lemony Snicket.)

His first apology acknowledged that he'd taken the moment away from her.

This morning he made a second apology acknowledging that his remarks were racist.  He again acknowledged that the conversation about the National Book Awards should be about the books.

Therefore, he is donating $10,000 to #weneeddiverse books and matching donations up to $100,000 made in the next 24 hours since his tweet.

Let’s donate to to . I’m in for $10,000, and matching your money for 24 hours up to $100,000. -DH [3/4[

He closed by reiterating Jacqueline Woodson's achievement, as he should.

So let's celebrate Jacqueline Woodson's win for BROWN GIRL DREAMING and help support diversifying the publishing industry and texts in classrooms by donating to We Need Diverse Books.  You can donate to their IndieGogo here.  For $75, you can #CelebrateJackie and get a signed copy of BROWN GIRL DREAMING.

Review: Chasing Before

Chasing Before Book two of the Memory Chronicles
By Lenore Appelhans
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy
Read my review of The Memory of After

Note: I know Lenore Appelhans.

It's been awhile since I read THE MEMORY OF AFTER (published in hardcover as LEVEL 2), so it took several chapters before I readjusted to the mythology of the series and remembered what had happened before.  Felicia and her boyfriend Neil have both moved on to Level 3, the second level of the afterlife.  Unfortunately, the Morati (a group of rogue angels) have moved into Level 3 too. 

There were several things I liked about CHASING BEFORE and several things that frustrated me.  I liked that we got to meet Felicia's best friend Autumn, who had been murdered before the events of THE MEMORY OF AFTER.  Autumn is still working through her afterlife, and though she says she's forgiven Felicia for stealing her boyfriend, there is still an obvious friction between the girls.  They also run into Neil's older brother Nate, which felt like a bit much.  Maybe if he'd died many years after, but it sure feels like a lot of their peer group conveniently died off.  Nate, however, does provide one big revelation: Felicia and Neil didn't die in the car crash like they thought.  They're both missing months of memories.

CHASING BEFORE is full of neat twists like that, and they keep coming though the climax of the book.  The end of CHASING BEFORE can serve as a conclusion, but I'm excited to see Level 4 and find out what's next.  Unfortunately, the exciting twists and things blowing up keep getting bogged down by relationship drama.  The issues between Felicia and Neil are very realistic.  She wants to have sex; he still wants to keep to his ideal of no sex before marriage.  She's prone to jealousy and he's stubborn.  But their fights didn't endear me to Neil, who I've never found that swoonworthy.

Level 3 itself is also a mix of good and bad.  I liked the character development Felicia goes through as she learns to let go of her life on Earth, even as she's desperate to recover her lost memories and the whole of herself.  At the same time, Level 3 is apparently where you learn your afterlife career.  Thankfully we don't have to spend too much time in class.  There are less flashbacks in CHASING BEFORE than in THE MEMORY OF AFTER, if you're one of the readers that was bothered by those.  The past continues to be helpful to discovering what's happening, but it is no longer a focus.

CHASING BEFORE is a breezy read with an intriguing take on the afterlife and a heroine who is both brave and determined.  There is a love triangle, for those who hate that, but it is very much in the background.  It's probably best if you read THE MEMORY OF AFTER first, but I think CHASING BEFORE can stand on its own.

November 20, 2014

Review: Gracefully Grayson

Gracefully Grayson By Ami Polonsky
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

Note: I am using male pronouns throughout this review.  The book is unambiguous that Grayson is a girl, but she is identified as male throughout the story.

First of all, GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is notable from being a middle grade (or tween) novel that deals with trans* issues.  There aren't stories that deal with this issue for that age group filling the shelves, so this fills a very important gap.

I was a bit disappointed at first.  There seemed to be nothing happening in the novel except for Grayson's discomfort with his gender role, and then a tentative relationship with a new girl.  I felt rather sorry for the kid as he seemed to think that becoming a girl would be all skirts, dresses, and princesses.

Things really pick up when Grayson tries out for the school play -- as the female lead.  It's an important step in Grayson stepping out of his shell and reaching for the person that he wants to be, but not all of the adults around him recognize it as such.  I liked that there were no true villains.  Some of the adults come close, but only because they're trying to protect Grayson from bullying (that reaches the extent of bodily harm).  Yes, sometimes adults have to overrule a child's wishes to keep them safe.  It's a difficult conundrum, even if Grayson much prefers one side of the battle.

GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is a fairly slight story that leans a bit too heavily on the issue and too light on plot, especially at first.  However, that doesn't make it a dull issue novel of the eighties.  Ami Polonsky's writing is quite sweet, and she has a good knack for character.  I particularly liked the various girls who reach out and become friends with Grayson.  There's also a brief appearance by a progressive mom that I really enjoyed.

One day, LGBTQ books will be widely available for all age groups, and kids will be able to find themselves and their troubles reflected in the stories around them.  GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is a good step in the right direction.  Grayson's struggle is sympathetically drawn and very suitable for younger readers.

November 18, 2014

Review: Love Is the Drug

Love Is the Drug By Alaya Dawn Johnson
Available now from Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)
Review copy
Read my review of The Summer Prince

Emily Bird - Emily to most, Bird to the best - is a senior at one of the most prestigious high schools in the country.  She doesn't entirely fit in, being one of the few black kids.  She also doesn't fit in because she might be going along with her mother's plan to go to college (and thinking of Stanford for herself), but her real goal is to run a small shop.  (Not that having a business degree wouldn't help with that, but it never comes up.)

When LOVE IS THE DRUG opens, Bird is at a party with her boyfriend.  She meets a man who works with her parents and drops the name of a lab she once saw in the trash.  What follows is a nightmare as the man stalks her, threatens her friends and family, and messes with her life in an attempt to get her to confess what she knows.  It just makes Bird determined to find the truth, and to discover whether she really did find out a national secret that night.

This thriller plays out against a widespread plague, the worst since the Spanish flu.  The v-flu, as it is known, is being held back by a quarantine.  Bird is as safe as can be in her high-class school full of politician's kids.  But how is the country ensuring that those kids stay so safe?  And, of course, does the flu have anything to do with what Bird might know?  Unrealistic diseases are a pet peeve of mine, so I like that this flu plays out like a real disease.  There's no killing everyone over 25 or anything silly like that.

I loved the paranoid atmosphere of LOVE IS THE DRUG, although I felt the plot faltered at the end.  There were a lot of ideas but nowhere for them to go.  And the romance dragged the whole thing down.  Bird falls for Coffee, the one guy who really gets her.  He's also a drug dealer, and the story never really convinced me to get over it.  He's just the cliche soulful, smart bad boy.  Now, Marella, Blue's lesbian friend, is where it's at.  Their friendship blooms throughout the pages, starting warily and growing as they're stuck in quarantine together.  I think they spend more time together than Blue and Coffee, and honestly have better chemistry.  I wished I were reading a more inventive lesbian romance instead of what the book actually was.

LOVE IS THE DRUG has its high points.  I loved Bird's relationship with her uncle, the disappointment of her family.  I loved the way LOVE IS THE DRUG tackled social issues, from being black to being foreign to being LGBTQ.  Alaya Dawn Johnson really brought the diversity of DC to life.  There are strong characters, a compelling atmosphere, and beautiful writing, but a boring romance and a plot that never has any steam.  Johnson has written better.

November 17, 2014

Review: Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life & Times of Jacky Faber

Wild Rover No More Book twelve of the Bloody Jack Adventures
By L.A. Meyer
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy
Read my Bloody Jack tag

When I read BOSTON JACKY, I noted that it felt like the "same old, same old, and the new elements introduced never go as far as they might."  When I saw that WILD ROVER NO MORE was going to be the final book in the Bloody Jack Adventures, I felt relief.  It was a fun ride, but it ran out of new ideas a few books ago.

(Then I learned that author L.A. Meyer died in July and was quite sad, but I am happy he managed to finish this series as he wanted.)

WILD ROVER NO MORE follows the usual pattern.  Jacky gets in trouble, Jacky runs and hides in a new identity, flirts with a new man, eventually reunites with old friends just as the danger is greatest.  I did particularly enjoy the stretch where Jacky hides as a governess since it required her to use more of her respectable skills, too often unemployed.  I was very confused by the section where she disguises herself as a red-haired Russian named Natasha Romanoff.  Was that a deliberate reference to The Avengers or did everyone involved in the book somehow miss that?

I enjoyed WILD ROVER NO MORE much more than BOSTON JACKY.  The early reunion didn't entirely reconcile me to Jaimy, but I accepted that it worked for Jacky.  I do always enjoy spending time with Jacky as she wreaks havoc through nineteenth century history.

If you've been following this series, do yourself a favor and pick up the conclusion.  Meyer concludes most of the major strands of the story and provides a finish that does Bloody Jack Faber proud.  If you haven't read this series, give it a whirl if you're into adventurous girls, age of sail, and hijinks in wacky disguises.

November 13, 2014

Review: Off Pointe

Off Pointe By Leanne Lieberman
Available now from Orca Limelights
Review copy

Ocra Limelights are a series of hi-lo books from Orca Books.  Hi-lo books are books that are high in interest and low in effort.  They're especially good for struggling readers.  As such, OFF POINTE is short, to the point, and very easy to read.

Meg is a ballerina.  She lives and breathes ballet, and hopes to do it professionally.  However, there is something holding her back.  So when her ballet camp plans fall through, her teacher advises her to go to a different dance camp, one that will expose her to other disciplines.  Meg decides to focus on contemporary thanks to Nio, the boy she set next to on the bus.  But she's deeply unhappy to not be doing ballet, and finds contemporary somewhat embarrassing.  She doesn't like improving dancing like a tree and such.

There's two storylines.  One is about Meg's dance, learning to stretch herself and develop a comfortable stage presences.  The second has to do with her rivalry with Logan, the star of the contemporary class and Nio's usual partner.  The two girls are jealous of each other and the other's friendship with Nio.  It's all very platonic as the book dances around the fact that Nio is probably gay.  (Obviously, not all male dancers are gay, but Nio certainly doesn't seem interested in the girls around him, even when they are having catfights over his attention.)

The brief page count means there isn't time for OFF POINTE to go off into unpredictable directions.  But that's fine.  Sometimes a standard plot executed well is enough.  OFF POINTE is well suited to the targeted group, and it is perfect for dance-crazy young readers.

November 12, 2014

"Waiting On" Wednesday: The Weight of Stars

The Weight of Stars "Waiting On" Wednesday is hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine.

I love Tessa Gratton's United States of Asgard series, so I was quite surprised that I almost missed that she has three novellas coming out next week, on November 17.  They will be available individually, or in a collected volume called THE WEIGHT OF STARS.  I'm going to by the anthology myself, although the individual ebooks are tempting given their pretty covers.


“This infinitely exciting tale’s twist and turns highlight the characters’ missions as they decide which identity to choose: hero, martyr, or villain. Readers looking for a sophisticated fantasy that shows a raw, rowdy, and rough side of life will be utterly satisfied. For fans of Robin LaFevers’s His Fair Assassins series.” —School Library Journal

The United States of Asgard is a nation of poets and warriors, of rock bands and evangelical preachers, of gods and their children. The media tracks troll sightings and reality TV is about dragon slaying and teen prophets. The president rules the country alongside a council of Valkyrie, and the military has a special battalion dedicated to eradicating the threat of Greater Mountain Trolls.

Welcome to the United States of Asgard: Be sure to watch for troll-sign!

GOLD RUNNER tells the story of Amon Thorson, bastard son of Thor Thunderer, a rebel who specializes in illegal troll artifacts and elf gold. Someone has stolen Loki’s Mask of Changing, and Amon is the prime suspect, putting a famous hunter and a mysterious stranger on his tail.

LADY BERSERK is about Vider, the first female berserker warrior in generations, who is loved by Loki Changer but determined to stand on her own. One of six celebrities invited to participate in a televised dragon hunt, she knows things are not as they seem—which is usually a sign Loki is up to his old tricks.

GLORY’S TEETH offers a glimpse into the wild heart of the Fenris Wolf, also called Glory, trapped in the shape of a teenaged girl for hundreds of years so she cannot grow large enough to devour the sun and begin the end of the world. But Glory’s seen signs that now is time she’s fated to hunt Baldur the Sun down and eat him.

With evocative writing and lush world building, Tessa Gratton once again captivates readers with her inventive reimagining of Norse mythology and American life in this collection of novellas based on her United States of Asgard series.

“With razor-sharp prose and bone-deep emotions, Tessa Gratton doesn’t just tell a story. She invites readers into another world-- one we hate to leave when the last page is turned.” —Saundra Mitchell, author of Mistwalker and The Vespertine

November 11, 2014

Review: The Walled City

The Walled City By Ryan Graudin
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

THE WALLED CITY seems like so many dystopians when it opens.  Yet, it quickly becomes clear that the world outside the city is pretty darn normal and that the law is waiting just outside the walls.  This is not a dystopian at all, but instead a more realistic story based on the history of 1980s Kowloon, a former military fort turned no man's land.

There are three points of view: Jin, Dai, and Mei Yee.  Jin and Dai become drug-running partners as part of the secretive Dai's plan to do something.  Jin agrees because he'll get her access to the final brothel she needs to search.  Mei Yee is the sister Jin is looking for, who Dai meets unknowingly.  The countdown that starts the book lets you know that as these three are drawn together, they only have eighteen days to achieve their goals before something big happens.

THE WALLED CITY is a rough read.  Mei Yee's passages are particularly difficult, because she's been sold into sexual slavery.  As a favored girl at the nicest brothel in town, she has it better than some others.  But that's about the only good thing you can say about it.  Jin is hiding as a boy and roughing it out on the streets, but one of her last thefts earned her the enmity of a gang and there's not many safe places left for her.  Dai has dark secrets that drove him to the Walled City.  Ryan Graudin does not shy away from depicting the dangers her young protagonists face.

This is Graudin's second book to release this year.  Her debut, ALL THAT GLOWS, was a fairly standard urban fantasy with insta-love and a protagonist whose competence all too often relied on telling instead of showing.  I bounced off of it.  I wish THE WALLED CITY had been her debut instead, because this book says that Graudin is one to watch.  It's not quite like anything else I've read this year.  It's tense, deftly plotted, and well characterized, with an unpleasantly vibrant setting.

I'm not quite sure how to classify THE WALLED CITY.  I think it will please fans of historical fiction, dystopian fiction, and thrillers.  It has elements of all three genres, blended smoothly together.  It's a real nail biter, right down to the cathartic epilogue.

November 10, 2014

Review: White Space

White Space Book one of the Dark Passages
By Ilsa J. Bick
Available now from EgmontUSA
Review copy

WHITE SPACE does not have a quick beginning.  It opens with Lizzie, a precocious child, observing a conflict between her parents play out.  This bit is filled with odd vocabulary and a strange magic, and just as soon as you think you've figured out the rules, a girl named Emma wakes up from her reverie about being Lizzie to recall how she came to be driving through the mountains.  And so on, flashing though narrators and their stories and the way they come together.

WHITE SPACE is a disorienting experience.  It keeps almost coming together into something nice and neat when Ilsa J. Bick throws another curveball in the story's rules.  This wouldn't work for most books, but WHITE SPACE is a horror novel.  The shifts in the text keep the readers as off balance as the characters.  Plus, it is metafictional horror.  The characters are, in many ways, threatened by potential monsters fueled by their own fears.  The deceptive looseness of the structure makes the amorphous more frightening.

I was thrilled by WHITE SPACE.  This is a disturbing book, full of imagery that gets beneath your skin, like a shirt wearing a person or crawling through tunnels (filled with things I'll leave to you to discover).  It's a book that trusts the reader's intelligence, to remember the details and fit them together, to be able to readjust whenever there is a paradigm shift.  It's also populated with strangely likeable characters for a horror novel.

I will say that WHITE SPACE goes on a touch too long.  It's the beginning of a series, and stands fairly well on its own, although the ending chapters clearly lead-in to the next book.  But there is a bit of fatigue before then, because this is one fat novel.  I loved the rising tension of the opening, things ever so slightly not right.  But once things go crazy, a few incidents could've been cut.  At the same time, that's really my only complaint.  This is a genuinely scary horror novel, which is something I appreciate.

November 7, 2014

Review: Personal

Personal Book nineteen of the Jack Reacher series
By Lee Child
Available now from Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

My grandfather gave me a copy of PERSUADER, telling me that it was a good airplane novel and Jack Reacher was "a good man to know and a bad man to have for an enemy."  My family has always loved sharing their favorite novels with me, since they know I'll read anything and talk about it after.  PERSUADER was the last book my grandfather ever gave me.  As such, I have a special soft spot for the Jack Reacher series.

Now, this series isn't one you think of when you think of a soft spot.  It's almost hypermasculine, with a retired military police hero who has no home or real possessions, and who always happens to be in the wrong place at the right time.  In this case, he's lured there by an ad in a paper meant just for him.  An assassination attempt was made on the French president, and it appears to have been an audition for an assassination at the upcoming G8 or G20 summit.  One of the suspects is a man Reacher put in jail almost two decades ago.  (He kept up his sniper skills through yoga, as one does.)  And so he's on the case, his only companion a young CIA agent with anxiety issues.

Casey Nice is young, pretty, and reminds Reacher of Dominique Kohl, one of his proteges who was tortured and murdered when she went to arrest a suspect.  It's ground the series has covered before, although Lee Child thankfully doesn't make us witness any flirtation between the twenty-something Casey and the reaching-true-retirement-age Reacher.  However, their relationship is one of the highlights of the book.  The plot, such as it is, is a bit ridiculous even for a macho thriller.  Child's attention to research and detail just helps highlight how goofy elements like the yoga sniper and the giant man with fingers larger than sausages and a house 150% as big as a normal house are.

It didn't take me long at all to read PERSONAL, because Lee Child does know how to keep the pages turning.  But at nineteen books, the Jack Reacher series seems to be churning a bit of water.  There's a high level of silliness to the proceedings.  It doesn't, however, erase the memories of the tight earlier books or discussing them with my grandfather.  I like to think that if he was still alive, he'd have fun reading the newest book in his favorite series.

November 6, 2014

Review: Waistcoats & Weaponry

Waistcoats and Weaponry Book three of the Finishing School series
By Gail Carriger
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy
Read my review of Curtsies & Conspiracies

The penultimate book in the Finishing School series is witty and exuberant.  I love spending time with these characters, and Gail Carriger finds a way to trap all of the best ones in a small space together (wearing terrible disguises).  At the same time, while it has the best character interaction yet, the plot is a let down.  There are some vague intimations as to the ongoing supernatural struggles, but very little is actually figured out.  WAISTCOATS & WEAPONRY felt like filler before the end, aside from one major development.

I don't necessarily think focusing more on the characters is a bad thing.  Because the Finishing School series is set 25 years before the Parasol Protectorate series, there isn't much mystery as to how the power struggle works out.  What Sophronia chooses to do with her life, and who she chooses to live it with, is a mystery.  On that level, WAISTCOATS & WEAPONRY more than delivers.

It is always hard to review one of the latter books in a series, especially in a series that revolves around secrets.  Needless to say, if you are a Finishing School fan, you won't be disappointed.  If you aren't a fan, I recommend starting at book one (ETIQUETTE & ESPIONAGE) or at least book two (CURSIES & CONSPIRACIES).  In a book with this much character payoff, you need the setup.  I do recommend starting this series if you enjoy spies, steampunk, ridiculous disguises, convoluted plans, and girls determined to make the best of their options in life.  This series is excellent frothy fun.

November 5, 2014

Review: Trust Me, I'm Lying

Trust Me, I'm Lying By Mary Elizabeth Summer
Available now from Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

TRUST ME, I'M LYING is the tale of a teenage grifter, a type of con artist that sells people things that don't exist.  When her father disappears, Julep Dupree isn't worried.  That is, until her apartment is ransacked, leaving her with little but a cryptic note and a gun.  Finding out that her father somehow got involved with the mob is the cherry on top of the something-is-wrong sundae.

There is a heightened reality to the novel.  Julep is running several large-scale scams at her school, almost everyone she comes in contact with is somehow involved, and there is an incredibly elaborate scavenger hunt that took a lot of work to set up in likely very little time.  It's the sort of crazy plot that is fun to read but falls apart after you start to think about it.  You've just got to suspend your disbelief and go with it.  It's also slightly hurt in story by the inclusion of a sex slavery ring.  TRUST ME, I'M LYING is too much of a breezy read about a teen criminal in over her head to really incorporate such a heavy issue in a meaningful way.  The emotional payoff felt unearned.

Julep has an appealing, witty voice and conflicting goals.  On one hand, she wants to leave the life and go to Yale.  On the other hand, she's desperate to know what happened to her father and rescue him if she can.  If that means breaking the law and getting into trouble, so be it.  She also has two love interests, as is de rigueur.  One is Sam, her best friend and partner in crime, who needs to gather up the courage to tell her.  Despite being talented at reading people, Julep misses the obvious.  The other is Tyler, the cool kid who is suddenly interested in helping her out and following along.  Despite being talented at reading people, Julep misses the obvious. (In this case, it bears repeating.)

I found both relationships vaguely tedious.  They were nothing new, and standard romantic drama is boring compared to trying to outwit the mob.  The romance, however, did have the stronger emotional payoff. 

TRUST ME, I'M LYING is Mary Elizabeth Summer's debut novel.  It certainly shows promise for future endeavors.  Summer could take a page from her heroine and do things a little less by the book next time.

November 4, 2014

Review: Mortal Heart

Mortal Heart Book three of the His Fair Assassin trilogy
By Robin LaFevers
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy
Read my reviews of Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph

I didn't start to read MORTAL HEART as soon as I got it because I didn't want to say goodbye to the His Fair Assassin trilogy.  The first two were darkly beautiful historical fantasy novels featuring two very different, but equally compelling heroines, and their genuine chemistry with their heroic counterparts.  But I couldn't hold off for long.  Amazingly, I think MORTAL HEART might be my favorite of the three.

MORTAL HEART is actually more forgiving to new readers than DARK TRIUMPH.  It winds time back a bit, to shortly after Sybella is sent on her mission (in DARK TRIUMPH) and re-establishes the rhythm of convent life and what is at risk in the War of Breton Succession.  There's been something fishy at the heart of the convent, and it comes to a head as Annith realizes the abbess's orders can't come from their patron saint Mortain (the saint of Death).  The abbess thinks Annith is docile and biddable, when really Annith is helpful and doesn't see the point of making waves.  When she does, she reveals the steel beneath.

I loved Annith's appearances and Ismae and Sybella's books, and she does not disappoint when handed center stage.  She's confident in her skills and her knowledge, but unsure of her heart.  She's never been able to see the marque (which is how Mortain's handmaidens know who to assassinate), and so she's less confident in her kills, even when they save people.  She doesn't know if she's cut out to be an assassin, but she knows she isn't destined to be a seer, locked in a little room, the destiny the abbess is trying to force upon her.

Annith, of course, gets her own romance.  Balthazar is a hellequin, sort of a member of a Wild Hunt.  He and Annith instantly spark - some good ways, some bad ways.  Love certainly doesn't turn Annith into a swooning damsel.
"What was your intent with this sparring of yours?  To entice them?  To entice me?"
"If that is the case, then it is their fault and not mine.  I wished only to keep my own skills honed." - p. 141, ARC
I think DARK TRIUMPH had the strongest love story of the three books, although I enjoyed the other two.  Annith and Balthazar's relationship frequently takes a backseat to the action plot, and I am not going to complain about that.

I love how Robin LaFevers wove real history and fantasy together in this series.  She makes the political maneuvering between battles just as vivid and high stakes as the battles themselves.  The Duchess of Breton is in a bad place: the princess is dying, her husband-by-proxy has his own wars to fight, she can't pay her mercenaries, and it's just bad all around.  The struggle to save Brittany from destruction holds equal weight to Annith's personal journey, and both are dealt with together in a satisfactory ending.

His Fair Assassin is one of the best trilogies in recent years.  It starts strong and just keeps going - no sagging middle, no lagging finish.  I highly recommend all three of these books.  They're exciting and insightful, and a wonderful exploration of feminine strength in a time when women were regarded as little more than property.

November 3, 2014

Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & Conspiracies Book two of the Finishing School series
By Gail Carriger
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy

I found the idea of Gail Carriger's Soulless series intriguing, but the execution was lacking for me.  Especially after the first two books.  However, I kept hearing that her Finishing School series was much better.  Thus, I gave it a try.  I have to agree.

The second book, CURTSIES & CONSPIRACIES, finds Sophronia being ostracized after she scores the highest on their spy skills and etiquette test.  Determined not to let it get to her, she keeps spying on her own time to discover what's really going on at her school, beyond the whole training-young-women-secret-skills thing.  She's particularly intrigued by an apparent plot against her best friend, Dimity.

 Another ripple comes when the school takes a trip to London, accompanied by the boys of Bunson's (a school for mad geniuses).  It's highly unusual, and Sophronia is determined to get to the bottom of things, all while flirting politely with Lord Mersey.  I feel that the love triangle is overused in YA, but I do like both points of this triangle.  Soap is of lower social status, but Sophronia respects his skills and he respects hers.  Lord Mersey is to be a duke, which makes him act rather entitled, but his attraction to Sophronia is honest and he has no desire to squash her eccentricities.

At the same time, Sophronia's focus really isn't boys.  It's putting the pieces together.  Doing so also makes her think more about what her future means.  Who will she work for?  How will she know she's doing good?  She's being made into a tool, and if she's not careful, she could be wielded in ways she does not approve of.  Carriger doesn't flinch from depicting the darker side of spycraft.

If you're looking for a steampunk series with humor, adventure, and romance, give the Finishing School a chance.  The third book, WAISTCOATS & WEAPONRY, comes out tomorrow.


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