Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Travels with Alice by Calvin Trillin

I'm caught without anything to review this week--I've been reading, but I haven't finished anything. So here's a review of the only book I have to hand that I've actually read before.

Calvin Trillin is an excellent essayist. I highly recommend anything he's written (although his political poetry goes over my head since I don't follow politics). I've read Travels with Alice a number of times, and I always laugh my head off.

This is an older book, first published in 1989. Alice is Trillin's wife, and in these essays their two daughters are still fairly young. Trillin writes about their travels, naturally, during which he tries to, as he says, "stuff a little culture" into his kids, although mostly he just wants to eat good food. The writing is lively, funny, and always interesting. Trillin relates trips to places like France, where he and his family spent a month just hanging around in a small town, and Barbados, where Trillin ate a lot of fried chicken.

It's actually taken me a long time to write this very short review, because I keep dipping into the book and reading it. It's well worth chasing down a copy.

B&N link (used book)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

This is the sixth book in the Temeraire series. I've read all the previous books, although not recently. If you haven't read any of them, you really shouldn't start here. Novik drops the reader into the story without trying to catch us up. I don't have any problem with that, myself, but it would be difficult to figure out what's going on if you haven't read any of the earlier books. You wouldn't even be able to figure out Temeraire is a dragon right away.

The series is set during the Napoleonic wars, but this world has dragons. In the first book, sea captain Will Laurence captures a French ship carrying an unusual dragon egg; when the egg hatches, the dragonet inside chooses Laurence as his companion, and Laurence has to leave the Navy and join the Aerial Corps instead. It's a great book.

The other books are good too, but oddly enough, nothing much really happens in them. The characters typically travel a great deal in some foreign land, maybe participate in a few battles, Temeraire discusses philosophy with Laurence and with the dragons and people they meet along the way, and at the end the war advances in a new direction. That's not to say the books are boring at all; I can't stop reading them once I start, and I'm really looking forward to the next book (there are nine planned). But they're slow-moving.

This one takes place in Australia, which is still a penal colony with only one city, Sydney. Laurence and Temeraire have been transported for treason, but they're soon given a useful task: search for a pass through the mountains. But things go awry, and soon they're chasing across the continent after a group of thieves and/or smugglers.

Temeraire is an appealing character, and Laurence's relationship with him is always charming to see. It's really the characters, and the good writing, that keep me interested in this series. (Although I must say, I don't reread any except the first book, and then I skim all the battles, so I refuse to buy these books in hardcover and have to wait for the paperback to come out, a year or so after.)

B&N link

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Heroes at Odds by Moira J. Moore

I reviewed the fifth book in this series, Heroes Return, last year. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed this one too. I like this series, which is solid and always interesting.

In this one, Lee and Taro are dealing pretty well with their posting at Flown Raven. Their relationship has finally settled down (and thank goodness). While Lee doesn't love the area, she's made some friends and passes her spare time teaching herself casting.

Then her mother and two younger brothers show up unexpectedly. It seems that when Lee was a toddler, her parents arranged a marriage for her with another merchant family's son. Lee was never told, since when she was discovered to be a Shield and sent to the Academy, all prior contracts were annulled--but the merchant's family is in financial trouble and is grasping at straws. They want the marriage contract fulfilled, whether or not Lee likes it. Lee is horrified enough at the news, but she's also distracted by some senseless attacks on the local people: fires set, fish poisoned, etc.

For years I've been trying to decide if Lee's portrayal as particularly dense when it comes to figuring other people out is something Moore does on purpose or if it's just clumsy writing. I've decided Moore does it on purpose, mostly because in this book Lee acknowledges that she's not good at reading people. That's an understatement.

I like that Lee and Taro have resolved some of the issues plaguing them over the last several books, although I'd have liked to see more warmth between them in this book. I also (as always) want more channeling of natural disasters--it's what attracted me to the series in the first place, what fascinates me most about this world, but it hasn't had a central role in the books for a while now.

One thing that frustrates me in this series is that Lee doesn't take the initiative often, even when she is aware that something needs to be done. That's part of her character, of course, but I still wish she'd be a little more active--or at least voice her worries to Taro, who can do something about them.

Still, I enjoyed this book a lot. I would have liked a little more forward momentum in the overarching plot, but there are a number of small but important steps towards Lee and Taro's conflict with the emperor. Hopefully they'll get out of Flown Raven soon, because frankly I find it almost as boring there as Lee does.

The Book Smugglers reviewed this book recently and had something to say about the cover--notably, that all the Heroes books have terrible, terrible covers. Terrible. I've been saying this for years myself. Please look beyond the covers, because these are fun and interesting books.

B&N link

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Looking for Bobowicz by Daniel Pinkwater

I've liked Daniel Pinkwater's writing ever since I was a kid, although I'm also the first to admit that he can be a little over-the-top with his plots. Looking for Bobowicz is one of his better books, a fun and fast-paced story about a kid who moves to Hoboken and gets mixed up in a mystery of a giant chicken and a phantom who steals bikes.

The writing is brisk and sure, a given when you're reading Pinkwater. It's also very funny. I loved Nick's parents, especially his dad, who provides a lot of the humor in the story.

I never figured out the mystery, although I thought I was getting close a few times (I wasn't). I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, though, and the solution was satisfying.

Powell's link (used book)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bullets for Macbeth by Marvin Kaye

I can't say I've thought about the mystery of the Third Murderer in Macbeth since my college days, and even then I didn't lose any sleep over it. Bullets for Macbeth, first published in 1976, proposes a new solution for which character the Third Murderer is, and ties it in to a murder.

Gene (whose last name I never did figure out) is a private investigator, although he actually works as an assistant to Hilary Quayle in her small PR firm. They're hired to advertise a production of Macbeth, whose director, an old friend of Hilary's, has a new idea for the Third Murderer and plans not to reveal it to anyone except the actor in question until the play opens. But Gene soon discovers that strange things are going on, events that the actors and director think are just due to Macbeth's bad luck--until someone is killed and the mysterious Third Murderer is a suspect. But no one knows who the Third Murderer is.

It's an interesting premise, but I don't know that it quite works. Kaye twists the plot into a pretzel in order to pull it off, keeping information from the reader to prolong the suspense. I was surprised at who the murderer is, but not in an "aha, of course!" way. I didn't really believe the person had done it, frankly. It didn't make a lot of sense, although I was more interested in the literary mystery of which character portrays the Third Murderer in the play.

I haven't read the first two books in this series so I don't know anything about the characters' history together, but I just couldn't warm up to Gene or Hilary. The book is also terribly dated, with lots of 70s slang, rampant sexism, and some coy but hostile references to gays. My attention wandered a lot. I stopped caring about who did it when I realized I couldn't figure it out because Kaye was withholding clues.

But it's a fast read and never actually made me mad. It just didn't grab me.

Powell's link

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Red Glove by Holly Black

This is the sequel to White Cat, which I reviewed earlier this year. I really liked that book. I think I like the sequel even better.

Cassel Sharpe is starting his senior year at an exclusive high school, but his troubles are far from over. His oldest brother is murdered, and the Feds want Cassel to join them and find the murderer. They don't plan to take no for an answer--and they're perfectly capable of going after Cassel's emotion-worker mother, who's taught Cassel everything he knows about conning people. But the head of the Zacharovs, a mob family that Cassel's own death-worker grandfather works for, wants Cassel to join the family business. And Zacharov's daughter, Lila, has enrolled at Cassel's school.

The plot is intricate and dark. The more I learn about this world, the more I want to know about it. Cassel found out in the last book that he's a rare transformation-worker, a secret that's leaking out despite his attempts to hide it. He has to make hard choices between loyalty to family and friends and what's right, and the choices aren't a bit clear.

I like Cassel, who's smart and a fast thinker. He isn't afraid to face his own doubts about himself, too. His relationship with Lila and his other friends is as complex as the main plot.

I still can't say I'm enamored of the present tense writing. I keep seeing it in YA books lately, and it always comes across as gimmicky and frequently jarring. But that's the only real problem I have with the book. I really hope there are more in this series.

B&N link

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Freak Show by James St. James

Billy Bloom has moved in with his father just before his senior year, after an event so cataclysmic that his mother can't deal with him anymore. Billy can't exactly remember what happened, sort of. Now he's in Florida, where his father barely acknowledges him and his only friend is the maid, Flossie, who doesn't like him all that much either. And now he's got to start his senior year of high school in an exclusive, ultraconservative school in the middle of a swamp.

That would make a great set-up for any YA novel. That Billy's a drag queen in training just makes it that much better.

Billy is a greatly likable character. He's vulnerable without even realizing it, dealing with his situation and his mood swings by designing fabulous new outfits or sometimes just hiding in a kitchen cabinet to fantasize about a better life. He can be tough when he needs to be, although he doesn't even realize it. Seeing his friendly overtures rejected is painful even when it's funny.

I won't tell anymore about the plot, since anything at all could spoiler it. I will mention the writing style, since not everyone will like it. It's written in a sort of stream of consciousness from Billy's point of view, which makes it immediate and gives the reader a straight view into Billy's brain. But sometimes I caught myself longing for a few paragraphs of ordinary prose. I found I had trouble reading for more than 50 pages at a time without feeling kind of fractured and hysterical. Your mileage may vary.

I did really enjoy the book, though. Billy's journey is an especially hard one, but I loved how he dealt with everything from gay-bashing to Homecoming. And I only mentioned in passing earlier, but the book is often hysterically funny--although sometimes I was crying at the same time as I was laughing.

B&N link

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Magic Thief: Found by Sarah Prineas

I think this is the conclusion of this particular trilogy, although I don't know for sure. It feels like a conclusion, anyway.

Apprentice wizard Conn is trying to find a way to protect the city of Wellmet--specifically, the city's magic, a living being--from a predatory magic. Conn is hampered since he still doesn't have his locus stone that allows him to work magic. He's also hampered by the city guards, who are convinced he's nothing more than a thief, and by the city's other wizards, who don't believe the magic is alive and don't believe it's under threat. With his mentor's help, Conn casts a spell to help him find his locus stone--a spell that leads him far away from Wellmet when the city needs him the most.

When I first read this book, I was a little disappointed. When Conn leaves the city, I didn't expect that part of the story to last so long. I kept itching for him to get back. But that was just me; now that I think about it, Conn's trip to find his Locus stone is a key part of the whole trilogy. That's where he discovers what the magic really is. I was just being impatient.

As always, I enjoy Conn's reticence and practicality along with his clever sense of wordplay. These are fun books to read and I daresay they'd be fun to read aloud. I hope there's more in this series, but even if there aren't, I like the ending a lot.

Powell's link