Archive for December, 2009

Review of Lips Touch: Three Times, by Laini Taylor

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

lips_touchLips Touch

Three Times

by Laini Taylor

with illustrations by Jim Di Bartolo

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2009. 265 pages.
National Book Award Finalist, 2009.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #8 Fantasy Teen Fiction

Laini Taylor is an amazing writer. Her imagination is extraordinary, as she here takes off from different mythologies to create three amazing worlds.

Lips Touch: Three Times is a collection of three stories, all of which involve a kiss in some way. All also involve something fantastic and haunting. Before each story is a sequence of pictures by Jim Di Bartolo showing something that happened before the story began.

The first story, “Goblin Fruit,” is about wanting. The beginning gives you a clue how entrancing these stories are:

“There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.


“The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

“Like Kizzy.”

The second story, “Spicy Little Curses Such as These,” takes us into the depths of Hell, where an Englishwoman barters for lives. She’s allowed to save all the children in a village if she will curse a newborn little girl. The girl will have the most beautiful voice ever to slip from human lips, but anyone who hears it will immediately fall down dead.

Anamique gets along, not challenging the curse, until she falls in love. The consequences of her love and her first kiss are surprising, perhaps not what the demon expected.

The third story, “Hatchling,” also draws you in with the first paragraph:

“Six days before Esme’s fourteenth birthday, her left eye turned from brown to blue. It happened in the night. She went to sleep with brown eyes, and when she woke at dawn to the howling of wolves, her left eye was blue. She had just slipped out of bed when she noticed it. She was headed to the window to look for the wolves — wolves in London, of all impossible things! But she didn’t make it to the window. Her eye flashed at her in the mirror, pale as the wink of a ghost, and she forgot all about the wolves and just stared at herself.”

This story develops an intricate mythology, telling of the soulless Druj, who can take the shapes of animals or humans, but always have pale blue eyes. They like to inhabit humans, and Esme’s mother has a history with them, a history about which Esme is going to learn much more.

In this book, you’ll be drawn into three worlds, left thinking about them long after.

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Review of La’s Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith

Monday, December 21st, 2009

las_orchestraLa’s Orchestra Saves the World

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books, New York, 2008. 294 pages.

Alexander McCall Smith is good at writing about ordinary people living radiant lives. La’s Orchestra Saves the World is a stand-alone book, not part of one of his other series. It tells the story of La (short for Lavender), an ordinary woman who moved to the country at the start of World War II.

La contributes to the war effort in a small, ordinary way by growing a garden and looking after a farmer’s hens. She meets interesting people, including a Pole who has lost sight in one eye and can’t fight any longer. And she starts an orchestra.

This is a quiet, pleasant book, a little bittersweet. It tells about ordinary people living in extraordinary times and trying to make a difference in their own small ways.

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Review of Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

empire_of_ivoryEmpire of Ivory

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Random House Audio, 2007. 11 hours, 7 minutes on 10 compact discs.
Starred Review

Ah, the fourth book about Temeraire, the celestial dragon who fights with his captain William Lawrence in England’s Aerial Corps against Napoleon’s forces!

You definitely need to read these books in order. By this time, I am wholly caught up in the saga. Although Book Three, Black Powder War did not end with a cliffhanger, Empire of Ivory begins in the thick of things as if it did. It turns out that the expedition that ended the previous book was not as simple a solution as we thought it would be, and this book begins in the middle of a struggle to carry it out.

When Will Lawrence does get safely to England, he learns that the dragons of England are sick. However, it turns out that Temeraire may be able to find a cure in Africa. Along the way, we see the repercussions of the slave trade in a world where the natives of the African interior have dragons of their own. There’s all kinds of danger and ingenuity and narrow escapes.

I’ve been listening to these books on my commute to work, thankful that I moved further away! Empire of Ivory does end on a cliffhanger, so I checked out the next book the very same day I finished it, and am now eagerly looking forward to my next day’s commute. I have also gotten hooked on Simon Vance’s reading style, complete with accents, which is just as well. I’m sure I’d stay up all night reading the next book if I was enjoying the print version. Listening slows me down in a thoroughly enjoyable way.

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Review of A Christmas Promise, by Anne Perry

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

christmas_promiseA Christmas Promise

by Anne Perry

Ballantine Books, New York, 2009. 193 pages.

There’s nothing like a cozy Christmas murder mystery to put me in the mood for the holiday!

Seriously, I’ve come to enjoy Anne Perry’s Christmas offerings. They are short and quick to read. They have just a hint of sweetness, but no overt sentimentality, and enough tension and mystery to provide a puzzle and a sense of relief when the danger is past.

Two poor girls in Victorian England are the focus of A Christmas Promise. Thirteen-year-old Gracie Phipps comes across little eight-year-old Minnie Maude, looking for Charlie, her Uncle Alf’s donkey. Minnie Maude insists that her uncle was murdered, and that Charlie must be lost and frightened because he didn’t come home.

Gracie’s compassion for the little girl quickly gets her involved. But what can two girls do if Uncle Alf was murdered?

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Review of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

where_the_mountain_meets_the_moonWhere the Mountain Meets the Moon

by Grace Lin

Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers, New York, 2009. 282 pages.
Starred Review
2010 Newbery Honor Book
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction

“Far away from here, following the Jade River, there was once a black mountain that cut into the sky like a jagged piece of rough metal. The villagers called it Fruitless Mountain because nothing grew on it and birds and animals did not rest there.”

Minli lives in this village with her Ma and Ba. They are poor, like the others in the village, but Minli is different.

“What kept Minli from becoming dull and brown like the rest of the village were the stories her father told her every night at dinner. She glowed with such wonder and excitement that even Ma would smile, though she would shake her head at the same time. Ba seemed to drop his gray and work weariness — his black eyes sparkled like raindrops in the sun when he began a story.”

However, spurred by stories, and a magical goldfish, Minli sets off on a quest to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to change their fortune.

This book is a wonderful quest tale, with stories woven throughout, all having the feel of Chinese classic tales. The book design is wonderful, with a small picture for each chapter, full color illustrations periodically, and a change in font whenever a separate story is told.

The stories Minli hears all tie together, helping her on her quest. She meets friends along the way, including a dragon who can’t fly, and must outwit some monkeys and get past an evil tiger. The story itself is simple and satisfying, but also intriguing.

The book reminded me very much of The Wizard of Oz, and I would love to read it to children who are just old enough to listen to a book with chapters. Like The Wizard of Oz, the quest leads our heroine back to those who love her, and everybody ends up happy, having learned their lessons well. Minli does face dangers, but none too horribly frightening.

As much as this book would be suitable for young children, I found it delightful reading myself. I liked the way Minli’s adventures tied in with the tales that were inserted. I’ve always loved fairy tales, and this book offered many original tales, all tied together in the quest of a delightful little girl with plenty of pluck.

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Teaser Tuesday

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

teasertuesdays31It’s Teaser Tuesday!

Last week, I posted five teasers from books I was planning to read soon. In that time, I have only finished two of them, and in the meantime a new Alexander McCall Smith book came to the library, so that immediately went to the top of the pile.

I was happy that last week lots of people posted teasers of their own on my Facebook page. You can use the blog comments, too. Teaser Tuesday is hosted by the blog Should Be Reading, and here’s what you do:

Take a book you’re currently reading, turn to a random page, and post two teaser sentences from that page (no spoilers allowed). Alternatively, you can use the page where your bookmark is lying (which is what I’m doing today). Then tell the title and author of the book.

Here’s my contribution for this week:

La’s childhood was spent in the shadow of Death. He was an uninvited guest at their table, sitting patiently, watching La’s mother, his target, bemused, perhaps, that such courage and determination could keep an illness at bay for so long.

La’s Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith

Review of Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork

Monday, December 14th, 2009

marceloMarcelo in the Real World

by Francisco X. Stork

read by Lincoln Hoppe

Random House, 2009. 10 hours, 8 minutes on 8 compact discs.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Other Teen Fiction

Marcelo Sandoval is looking forward to the summer before his senior year of high school. He’s going to be in charge of the ponies at Patterson, the special education school he’s gone to all his life. Marcelo has something similar to Asperger’s Syndrome. He sees the world differently than most people, and hears music in his head that no one else can hear.

Marcelo’s father has other ideas for him. He wants Marcelo to get a taste of “the real world,” and to learn to cope. His father is a partner in a law firm, and he wants Marcelo to work there for the summer. If he can successfully complete the assigned tasks, Marcelo can go back to Patterson, but otherwise his father wants Marcelo to go to the public high school.

The law firm has many challenges for Marcelo. The girl in charge of the mailroom, where he is assigned, had hoped for a different assistant for the summer. The other partner’s son is home from law school, and he has plans for how Marcelo can be useful to him. Then Marcelo comes up against some ethical questions and a picture that haunts him. Why does he feel so compelled by the picture? And what should he do about it?

Marcelo in the Real World is a powerful and gripping story. Listening to the audiobook, I felt like Marcelo was talking to me, telling his story in a way that made perfect sense. He explains his way of looking at the world thoroughly, and the listener gets quickly caught up in his viewpoint, wondering, along with Marcelo, what he should do next and how the people around him will react, and what it all means.

Marcelo has a “special interest” in religion, and the book tackles some major spiritual questions, as well as ethical ones. All in the context of the lives of people you come to care about. A truly wonderful book.

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Review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

elegance_of_the_hedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Europa Editions, New York, 2008. 325 pages.
Original title: L’elegance du herisson, published in France in 2006.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Fiction

Two people live at number 7, rue de Grenelle, who are far more than what they seem. The building holds eight luxury apartments and their amenities. Paloma, on the fifth floor, is planning to burn theirs down and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.

Why should a child with so many advantages and so much intelligence decide to end her life? Paloma explains:

“All our family acquaintances have followed the same path: their youth spent trying to make the most of their intelligence, squeezing their studies like a lemon to make sure they’d secure a spot among the elite, then the rest of their lives wondering with a flabbergasted look on their faces why all that hopefulness has led to such a vain existence. People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd. That might deprive you of a few good moments in your childhood but it would save you a considerable amount of time as an adult — not to mention the fact that you’d be spared at least one traumatic experience, i. e. the goldfish bowl….

“But one thing is sure — there’s no way I’m going to end up in the goldfish bowl. I’ve thought it through quite carefully. Even for someone like me who is super-smart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else, in fact superior to the vast majority — even for me life is already all plotted out and so dismal you could cry: no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.”

Meanwhile, the other surprising person in the building is Madame Michel, the humble concierge, who is determined never to give away to anyone in the building how brilliant she is.

“I conform so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.”

Since the image of the concierge is someone who lazily sits around and watches popular television shows, until her husband’s death, Madame Michel let him preserve that part of her image.

“With the advent of videocassettes and, subsequently, the DVD divinity, things changed radically, much to the enrichment of my happy hours. As it is not terribly common to come across a concierge waxing ecstatic over Death in Venice or to hear strains of Mahler wafting from her loge, I delved into my hard-earned conjugal savings and bought a second television set that I could operate in my hideaway. Thus, the television in the front room, guardian of my clandestine activities, could bleat away and I was no longer forced to listen to inane nonsense fit for the brain of a clam — I was in the back room, perfectly euphoric, my eyes filling with tears, in the miraculous presence of Art.”

Paloma and Madame Michel share the beginning of the book in parallel, still in complete ignorance of each other. Paloma is trying to record some Profound Thoughts before she leaves the world, but also decides to write a journal alongside that records “masterpieces of matter.” She’s looking for “Something incarnate, tangible. But beautiful and aesthetic at the same time.” The examples she comes up with are quite wonderful, and incidentally will make the reader look at some common things very differently than ever before.

The book gets off to a slow start as the two philosophize, and criticize the rich supposed intellectuals around them, living in their building. This book was probably not the best to choose to read in a doctor’s waiting room, which was where I started it. It was, however, a fabulous choice to curl up with in bed on a lazy afternoon with snow gently falling outside, which was where I finished it.

Then one of the residents dies, his apartment is sold, and a Japanese filmmaker moves in. This man, Monsieur Ozu, immediately detects the two particularly brilliant souls among his neighbors, despite their clever disguises. Paloma says about him:

“So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize people because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy. When my mother offers macaroons from Chez Laduree to Madame de Broglie, she is telling herself her own life story and just nibbling at her own flavor; when Papa drinks his coffee and reads his paper, he is contemplating his own reflection in the mirror, as if practicing the Coue method or something; when Colombe talks about Marian’s lectures, she is ranting about her own reflection; and when people walk by the concierge, all they see is a void, because she is not from their world.

“As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone.”

Monsieur Ozu is the one who tips these two extraordinary individuals off to each other. As Paloma begins to suspect Madame Michel, we discover where the title of the book came from:

“As for Madame Michel . . . how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her, when she would talk with Jean Arthens or when she talks to Neptune when Diane has her back turned, or when she looks at the ladies in the building who walk right by her without saying hello. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant.”

As Madame Michel’s cover begins to come down with Paloma and with their amazing new neighbor, things begin to change.

Here is a beautiful book, definitely for reading when you are in a philosophical state of mind. I can see why it has been popular with book clubs. I will say up front that I don’t like the ending, but it still didn’t ruin the book for me. The philosophy is not exactly cheery, but I did like all the meditations about beauty, and the things to love, in the end, about life.

This book makes me wish I could read French well enough to try it in the original language. The translation job must have been tricky, as Madame Michel’s appreciation for language, and her keen eye toward the way supposedly educated people misuse it, show us more of her brilliance. For example, Alison Anderson managed to translate a note with a misplaced comma into English. I wonder what the original was like, and if she was able to translate directly.

A book that will leave you thinking about it for a long time.

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More Teasing Choices

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

teasertuesdays31It’s already Teaser Tuesday again!

On Teaser Tuesday, hosted by Should Be Reading, you take a book you’re currently reading, turn to a random page, and post two teaser sentences from that page (no spoilers allowed).

Last week, I had so much fun choosing my next book by looking at teasers, this week I’m really going to get carried away. First off, I will say I limited myself to books in the pile by my bed of books I hope to read very soon. And this is only part of the pile. I am not telling how many more piles there are.

I will post the titles and authors after the teasers. I will begin with the books I will probably read first.

Teaser Number One: “Well, you mustn’t be caught by them!” the king said to Minli. “Then they would find out all about my little adventures and then where will I be?”

Teaser Number Two: The dresses and the food didn’t matter, but the laughing did, and you didn’t wear the bells out by ringing them. Did happiness wear out?

Teaser Number Three: This doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but it would seem weird if I didn’t mention that the Hallsteds’ green Cadillac might not actually be green. I am a deuteranope.

Teaser Number Four: There wouldn’t be a chance to get coats. In the falling snow, she could hold the baby against her, using the blanket to shield him.

Teaser Number Five: On the way to lunch on Tuesday, they pause at the front end of the car, united by a common sympathy for ruined metal. Duncan can’t help thinking that given a woman’s bruised face or a bad dent, he knows which one he’d wince at first.

See what I mean I’m having too much fun with this? And that’s only some of the books on my first pile. Let’s see. Remember how in December I was planning to catch up on the 30 books I’ve read and want to review? Well, now there are 39 on my list! You can see that I’ve only written one “official” review in December, but have done plenty of reading.

I’m going to have to chalk it up, again, to headaches. I’m getting these very low-level, very persistent headaches. I can still read, but it’s harder to be creative and write reviews. So — I’m adding more books to my list to be reviewed, and then not reviewing them. This was made all the worse the last few weeks, as the neurologist prescribed a migraine preventative to try — and it turned out to be exactly the medicine I should not take. I think it was responsible for several migraines during that time. All I know is that today the side effects of that medication are done; I feel worlds better — but I still have the very persistent, very low-level headache that I went to see the neurologist about in the first place. In fact, this is the 27th day. Urgh.

Anyway, my reaction to the medication put things in perspective — this low-level headache is really not so bad! By contrast, I almost feel good!

But I suppose I probably won’t get five books read in the next week. Still, I can try. Here are the candidates for my next books to read:

Candidate Number One: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. This is a children’s novel mentioned on the Heavy Medal blog and nominated for the Capitol Choices list. Looks good. Quite light, with fairy tale overtones. Might be a little too much like the fabulous Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman, which I finished last night.

Candidate Number Two: A Christmas Promise, by Anne Perry. So far, in my light holiday reading in past years, books by Anne Perry have definitely been my favorites. I started this after my MRI last week, so tonight might be a good time to polish it off.

Candidate Number Three: A Young Adult novel with a great cover is How to Steal a Car, by Pete Hautman. Great author, too. I will definitely read this one soon, but am not quite sure when I will get to it.

Candidate Number Four: The Spy Who Came for Christmas, by David Morell. Holiday thriller reading is usually fun, too. If this one involves a baby in danger, I might have second thoughts.

Candidate Number Five: New World Monkeys, by Nancy Mauro. Gotta love that title! This is a novel for adults that looks quirky and funny. Looks like there’s a lot of realistic, and funny, tension between a married couple, too. If that doesn’t get too dark, could add to the fun.

So, I’ve certainly spent enough time on that. Now I’m going to review last week’s teaser, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery.

Fluffy Holiday Reading

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

by Janet Evanovich

Well, on Teaser Tuesday I posted two teasers and asked you to help me choose which to read. I got one comment on Facebook, and I went ahead and ignored that comment!

Yep, my friend Missy told me to skip the Janet Evanovich holiday book, but Wednesday night I went ahead and knocked it off. She said that she’d been disappointed in a different Evanovich holiday book. But I had wanted something light and fluffy, and something I could read in less than two hours.

Sure enough, I read Thanksgiving in about the same amount of time it would have taken to watch a chick flick, it had about that much depth and characterization (not much), was that much fun (lots), and hurt my head a lot less, because it didn’t involve any bright light. So it was exactly what I was in the mood for.

But it was light and fluffy and not highly believable or lasting literature and sexy and silly and fun and not necessarily what I want to be known for recommending. So — I thought I’d just talk about it on this blog but not post a review on the main site. But that way, you’d know how the Teaser Tuesday turned out.

And today I had another long wait at a hospital for an MRI, and read further on The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Okay, it’s quite dry reading, but I’m getting pulled in, little by little. I probably should stop reading it when I have a headache, though, I think, as it needs a little more focus than what I’m giving it.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, did not need much powers of concentration at all! Basically a young woman with a history of being dumped has moved to Williamsburg and meets a fresh-out-of-medical-school pediatrician when his rabbit (of all things) nibbles her skirt. Then a young teen mother mistakes them for a married couple and dumps a baby on them, and Megan falls for the baby (yeah, right) and they take care of it and have a perfect Thanksgiving with their families and confront her former fiance and have a comedy of errors (of course) and go through lust and love and decide whether to live happily ever after.

Light and fluffy, completely unrealistic, but quite a bit of fun. I was a little annoyed that the rabbit hardly ever came into it after the initial scene where it engineers their meeting, but okay that wasn’t the only quibble. And it certainly didn’t have any more plot holes than a similar chick flick and would make a delightful one.

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