Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Musician's Daughter

The Musician's Daughter
Author: Susanne Dunlap
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books, 2008
336 pages

This gem of a mystery is set in eighteenth century Vienna. Theresa Maria is the teenage daughter of a violinist who works for composer Josef Haydn. When her father is mysteriously murdered on Christmas Eve, Theresa Maria does all she can to keep the family together. She takes a job as copyist for Herr Haydn, while conducting her own investigation into her father's murder. Along the way she will meet people who defy stereotypes, and others who perpetuate them. In the end, she will have her answers, but she will also have an education about people, politics, and what it means to stand for something you believe in.

Theresa Maria is a strong female in an era that was not particularly kind to females. (It wasn't lost on me that she was a namesake of Empress Maria Theresa, another strong female.) Other interesting characters in the book included a rather nasty and lewd uncle, a handsome Hungarian musician, a sympathetic and very admirable Haydn, and a band of Gypsies - a group of Roma people living on the outskirts of Vienna. 

Living in Vienna this year really helped me mentally navigate my way through the places mentioned in the book, like the Hofburg, the Danube River, and the Prater. I found myself feeling a little "homesick" for Vienna. The only thing missing was a good Vienna coffee shop - but the time had not quite come yet for that institution.

Unlike the other book I reviewed today, The Musician's Daughter got the Aunt Mariandy Seal of Approval for my niece, and I left it on the nightstand of the room we share at Gramps and Granny's house so she'll find it next time she visits.

Rating: 4.25 stars - an overall good read with some nailbiting moments.

Betwixt

Betwixt
Author: Tara Bray Smith
512 pages
Poppy, 2009

I bought several Young Adult books when I was in North Carolina last week, hoping to pass them along to my niece after I read them. This book promised appeal to fans of the Twilight series, and it had an interesting cover, so I bought it. However, after reading it: 1) I don't think it should be classified as a Young Adult book; and 2) I can't recommend it. Which is sad, because there are many things the author does right. Her three main characters reflect diversity - I especially loved that she had a Native American character. The story itself is quite interesting (three teens realize they have "special gifts"). But it's obviously set up to be yet another trilogy or series, and Twilight it ain't.

There are way too many boring parts where nothing much is going on. The adults in the book don't seem to care about their children. There's way too much darkness for a YA book. The "F" bomb, and references to drugs and sex are common. There is even a bondage and rape scene that seems to go on forever. How this came to be classified as a YA book, I'm not sure. 

I cannot believe I spent time reading this book. I must have been thinking that eventually it would get better. I guess this is what happens when you choose a book for its cover.

Rating: 2 stars.

If I'd read the reviews on Amazon.com, I wouldn't have bothered with this one. 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Random House, 2003
403 pages

Jane Austen meets the Supernatural in this Victorian-era “Young Adult” nail-biter. Sixteen-year-old Gemma, the daughter of British expats living in India, is longing to visit her home country. For some reason, her mother doesn’t want her to go. This only brings out Gemma’s rebellious nature. Suddenly, her mother is killed under mysterious circumstances just after Gemma experiences the first of many frightening “visions.”

Gemma finds herself getting her wish: she’s placed in the Spence Academy, an English boarding school. There, she goes through trials and tribulations of being the new girl: dealing with cliques, bullies, and adult authority figures while continuing to experience her “visions.” The goal of Spence is not so much to educate girls but to transform them into society wives and mothers. Gemma connects with three other girls: beautiful Pippa, who’s about to be married off to a man older than her father; contrite Felicity, whose thirst for power seeks to fill a gap left by absent parents; and Ann, the poor orphan who is at Spence on scholarship and knows that in the future she’ll be no more than a servant to the girls who are now her peers. Together the girls enter into a pact that has long-lasting (for some, eternal) consequences, and along the way they learn what really happened to Gemma’s mother.

A Great and Terrible Beauty provides strong female characters while also commenting on the social order of the Victorian era, a time when keeping up appearances was more important than truth and substance. I don’t think my niece is quite old enough to appreciate this book (it’s probably better for readers 16 and older), but I did, and I already bought the next book in the series – Rebel Angels

Rating: 4.25 stars.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press, 2008
374 pages

I was browsing Stephenie Meyer's website a while back, when I noticed she was recommending this book as being one of the best she'd read in a while. I filed that away for later. "Later" came last week, when I had a Borders coupon that was burning a hole in my wallet. I bought The Hunger Games with the intention of giving it to my niece after reading it. This is the excuse I use for all the Young Adult fiction that I read - which probably seems like a lot. :-) 

The setting is post-apocalyptic North America, and sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the main character and narrator, lives in District 12 in what used to be Appalachia (sounds like West Virginia or eastern Kentucky based on her descriptions.) Truthfully, her life kind of sucks. Her Dad died in a coal mining explosion a few years ago, and her Mom hasn't been the same since. Katniss took over the role of family breadwinner by illegally hunting in the woods outside the fence that surrounds their community. Despite numerous obstacles, she's made a life for herself and her small family, which also consists of her 12-year-old sister, Prim. 

Prim is the complete opposite of Katniss: she's a fragile girl, not a survivor at all. So when Prim's name is drawn for the annual Hunger Games (think Olympics, but fighting to the death), Katniss volunteers to take her place. The winner and his or her family will never go hungry again. This is Katniss' story as she completes in this event, which is so huge that citizens of Panem (the name of their country) are forced to watch as the teenage contestants scheme, plot, and kill each other off. It's the ultimate reality TV show.

The Hunger Games is not as violent as you might think, and there's way more to the story than gruesomeness. In a lot of ways this is more of a book for adults, in the vein of "V for Vendetta" (the movie) in that there's an underlying current of rebellion and what the government does to people who rebel. I would not want to live in this dark, ugly world. But that's the whole point and the thing I most like about Katniss: she makes the best of one bad situation after another. That's what makes her a true survivor. We can learn a lot from her and from The Hunger Games.

Rating: 4.5 stars - way, way better than I thought possible.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Coldest Winter Ever

The Coldest Winter Ever
Author: Sister Souljah
Pocket Star Books, 2006 (originally published 1999)
430 pages, plus 100+ pages of commentary

A couple of weeks ago while ordering coffee, I noticed that the barista was reading a new hardcover book by Sister Souljah and we got to talking about it. The barista was very enthusiastic about the new book (Midnight) because it was supposed to be the sequel to one of her favorite books of all time, The Coldest Winter Ever. Meanwhile, when I visited the library last weekend, I happened to see three brand-new paperback copies of The Coldest Winter Ever on the new arrivals shelf. I picked one up out of curiosity . . . and was immediately transported to the raw, urban world of Winter Santiaga.

Winter, so named because she was born in the middle of a January storm, is the oldest of four girls. Her father is a big-time drug dealer in Brooklyn and her mother, who was 14 when Winter was born, is a self-described "bad b*tch" whose primary focus is on looking good and spending money. The Santiaga family includes Winter's younger sisters - Porsche, Mercedes, and Lexus - and an extended circle of aunts, uncles, cousins, and others, most who have some role in the "family business." Winter's father is the clear leader, however, so she (and her mother and sisters) are treated like royalty by everyone in their community.

We follow Winter's life from the ages of thirteen to twenty-five in this book. She really is a spoiled princess, used to wearing expensive designer clothing and having everything she wants. Despite the type of work her father does, he is a very loving father and husband. So this is one thing I have to say I like about the book: it may have some stereotypical characters, but they do not always behave in the stereotypical manner. 

One day, quite out of the blue, Winter's father moves them to a new home - a mansion in the Long Island suburbs - and tells them under no circumstances to go back to Brooklyn. At first, Winter hates her new life and misses her friends and the city. She feels like a prisoner. But she soon gets used to the luxuries of affluent suburban living. Cash is everywhere and the family spends generously on cars, jewelry, furnishings for the house, and lavish parties. On weekends they "import" their family and friends from Brooklyn and it's like nothing has changed.

Suddenly, everything goes wrong. Winter's mother is shot in the face during a visit to Brooklyn. The disfigurement of this once-beautiful woman is the first in a series of really bad things that happen to her - and to the rest of the family. Winter's father is arrested, and everything the family "owns" is seized by the government. All those family members and "friends" who used to be so supportive scatter to the four winds. Winter's sisters are taken by Child Protective Services, and since she is underage (seventeen by now), they're looking for her, too. So Winter goes on the lam, fighting for survival.

Winter is physically attractive, and has no difficulty getting attention. Sexually active since the age of twelve, she has no inhibitions whatsoever and sees sex as one of the most powerful tools a woman possesses. (She has a lot of partners and speaks openly about her feelings and experiences, so if you don't like reading this type of stuff, you might not want to read this book.)

There is one man she cannot charm with her feminine wiles. His name is Midnight - a mysterious soldier in her father's army (and the main character in the recently-released book of the same name.) Try as she may, Winter cannot manipulate this man - he's not like any man she's ever met. For one thing, Midnight is fascinated by Sister Souljah (interesting that the author placed herself as a character in the book) and often listens to her on talk radio. Eventually Winter will meet up with Sister Souljah and even attend a few of her "Womanhood" meetings. But will they do any good? Will Winter get herself together, or is she destined for a life of crime and suffering? 

You will just have to read it to find out. The commentary at the end gives further insight into the characters and provides "the story behind the story" from the author's perspective. So be sure to get the 2006 version if you want to read that.

By the way, after finishing The Coldest Winter Ever, I got on Amazon.com to read the reviews of Midnight. Those reviews are mixed. It seems as if Midnight is not the sequel some people were expecting. Instead, it's more of a prequel, and Midnight is the only character in both books. Many readers are disappointed about this. Still, I think Midnight sounds interesting, so I will have to put it on my list of future reads.

Rating: 3.5 stars. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

Darkfever

Darkfever
Author: Karen Marie Moning
Bantam Dell, 2006
348 pages

This first-of-a-trilogy (so far) by an Indiana author who typically writes "Highlander Romance" novels is more of the Paranormal Romance (what a friend of mine calls Monster Porn - LOL) genre. It was recommended by another friend who enjoyed the Twilight series so much she read all four of those books in a couple of weeks. We're all looking for something, anything, to give us our fix now. (I still haven't read the fourth Twilight book because I just don't want it to end. But I'll have to read it soon b/c everyone else is passing me by.)

OK. Back to Darkfever. The main character is a 22 year-old bartender and Southern Belle named MacKayla Lane. (I'll just accept that instead of complaining about the horrible spelling of the name that should be spelled Michaela. I hate modern phonetic spellings.) Fortunately, everyone calls her Mac. She's a spoiled brat who's been given everything on a silver platter - well, that's my perception. But that was before she and her parents found out that Mac's older sister, Alina, had been murdered while studying in Dublin, Ireland.

Turns out, Alina tried to call Mac's cell phone on the day she died, but Mac had just dropped the cell phone in the swimming pool, so she didn't get the call until sometime later when she replaced her phone. Alina's frightened, cryptic message prompts Mac to high-tail it to Ireland to solve the murder, since Dublin's Finest can't seem to figure it out. Mac, in her pink cropped pants, silver sandals, long blonde ponytail and I'm-Not-Really-a- Waitress nail polish, almost immediately begins encountering the strange. A crazy woman approaches her in a pub and calls her an O'Connor, which makes no sense to Mac since she's a Lane. While walking back to her inn, Mac gets lost and passes through a strange, dead part of town. By a strange twist of fate she lands at an incredibly well-lit bookstore, and there she meets Jericho Barrons, the mystery man who will become her mentor when it becomes clear that she is a sidhe-seer ("SHE-seer"), or one who sees the Fae (fairies.)

There are some evil fairies out there - and some who are just, well, interesting - like V'Lane, the Prince of the Seelies (Light Fairies), who has this, well, interesting affect on women. (I imagine him as looking sort of like Fabio back in the 1980s, and having that magnetic throw-your-panties-on-the-stage affect that Tom Jones had in the 1960s. Or so I was told.) Mac begins learning her way around this new paranormal world. Along the way she solves the mystery of her sister's murder, but gets deeper into her new role. The "old" Mac transitions into a warrior - the symbolic cutting of her hair (and dying it black) and wearing all-black clothes instead of her previously-preferred pastels and bright colors. Look out, she's becoming a serious Goth Chick! Yet the old woman (whom she will see again) insists that she is an O'Connor and not a Lane. Mac begins to question her parentage, and Alina's.

The cliffhanger in this book is so tight that you really want to pick up the next book right away, without a break. 

Rating: 4 stars - OK, so I'm kind of embarrassed to give it 4 stars, but the truth is, I liked it, this is my blog, and I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Authors: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dial Press, 2008
278 pages

This is not a title that would typically appeal to me, yet it called to me like a siren. It was highly recommended at all three of the major online bookstores whose web sites I visit regularly, and it has high user ratings. So, in the interest of pop culture, I bought and read it. I was so not disappointed.

This epistolary novel is presented as a series of letters to and from Juliet Ashton, a writer looking for her next book topic in post-World War II England. Out of the blue she receives a letter from a farmer in Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands between England and France) who has somehow come across a book Juliet once owned. In his letter he mentions his membership in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet's curiosity is arouses, and they begin a correspondence which eventually leads Juliet to visit the island.

Not many people realize that a part of Britain flew under the Nazi flag during the War, but it's true. The Germans occupied Guernsey for nearly five years. From here, bombers took off to conduct raids over London (Juliet remembers the bombing raids well. In fact, her flat was destroyed by a bomb.) The people of the island had virtually no communication with the outside world during this time. They were told that London had been bombed to ashes, and there was a great deal of additional sadness brought about by the fact that many islanders had sent their children to England as a preventive measure in advance of the Germans' arrival, and were unable to contact them. For five years, they had no idea if they were dead or alive (the children or the parents).

The German Organisation Todt used slave labor to construct fortifications along the islands. The laborers - mostly from Eastern Europe - worked under horrible conditions and were given very little if any food, so they often strayed away from the camps in search of something, anything to eat. If locals aided them, they were arrested and sent away to concentration camps on the continent.

So along with a good story, you also get a history lesson in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The book is absolutely alive with interesting characters, from Isola, the local "witch" who sees everything as black or white, to Booker, the former servant who by fate, became a master. Everyone in the book has a story. But perhaps the most interesting stories are those of the people who are not there to tell them: fiesty Elizabeth, mother of young Kit; and Christian, the German officer who was respected by the locals because he did not treat them like enemies. Their stories are told secondhand by the people who knew them.

You'll laugh a lot while reading this book. But keep the tissues nearby, because there will be several opportunities for tears. Save a tissue for the author (Shaffer) who became ill not long after she got the publishing contract and unfortunately did not live to see the book's publication and success. Sad.

Rating: 4.5 stars. Giving it a little extra for originality - and because I learned something new about WWII history.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Bootlegger's Daughter

The Bootlegger's Daughter
Author: Margaret Maron
Warner Books/Hatchette Book Group USA, 1992
261 pages

Sometimes you just need something "light" to read. (I may be about to go through a "light reading" phase to balance an otherwise complicated life, so bear with me if you start to see more of these types of books.)

I had been seeking a mystery series set in the South, and came across this one (set in my home state of North Carolina) at my local B&N. According to its cover, The Bootlegger's Daughter won several awards in its day, including the Edgar Award and the Agatha Award (both awards for mysteries). The first few pages are filled with excerpts of praise from critics and other writers - including some well-known authors. So my expectations were pretty high for a $6.99 trade paperback.

The main character, Deborah Knott, is a thirtysomething lawyer who, tired of courtroom b.s., decides to run for a judgeship. Meanwhile, the eighteen year-old daughter of her law firm partner wants her to solve a mystery. When the girl was a baby, she and her mother had disappeared and after three days her mother was found dead, while she was found strapped in a baby seat just feet away, dehydrated and near death. Who killed the girl's mother? The girl, now a young woman, wants to know.

As the mystery unravels, a series of letters to the editor apparently written by Deb appears in local papers. Only she didn't write them. Is someone trying to sabotage her campaign, or keep her from solving the mystery? Suddenly - two other murders. Are they related? What do they have to do with the murder 18 years ago?

The Bootlegger's Daughter is predictable and formulaic, but interesting to me as a native Tar Heel because I recognized the names of some North Carolina politicians: Jim Hunt (former Governor), Harvey Gantt (former mayor of Charlotte), Thad Eure (the late longtime Secretary of State) and Mike Easley (Senator) to name a few.  My favorite character, by far, was Deb's father, Keziah - the one-time bootlegger. In the book-turned-movie in my mind, he was played by Paul Newman. 

Did the book meet my expectations? I'm not sure. I liked it well enough, and it certainly provided me with the light reading I needed. But it wasn't great.

Rating: 2.75 stars