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Hot Mess: Summer in the City

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Emma Freeman decides last minute to ditch her plans of lifeguarding with her boyfriend when that boyfriend rather abruptly becomes an ex-boyfriend. What better way to forget about your ex than to ditch the suburbs for Manhattan? Best friend in tow, she sets off for an internship, adventure, and maybe love in the big city. By the time the girls head back to school, they've found all of that and more: in total, a hot mess.Initially, I did not care for this book at all. I've worked as a high school teacher and camp counselor for the last seven years and the girls reminded me of some of my less-beloved charges. They're incredibly naive and immature, and the first few chapters of the book seemed implausible and stilted. Once it got going, however, I found myself getting drawn into the story and seeing more positives in the girls. Yeah, they are immature but hey- they're 17 and 18. Weren't we all? Their adventures with crappy jobs, crazy bosses, and utter confusion in the face of Manhattan's chaos reminded me a bit of my own early days in the city (I moved from rural Northern CA to NYC for college at 17)- getting lost on the trains, trying desperately not to look like a tourist, attempting to control your hair in the wretched humidity that is New York in the summer. Oh, the memories. . . but I digress.By the end of the book, I had actually grown rather fond of little Emma; the author did a nice job of developing her from an ignorant and oblivious high schooler to an ignorant and aware young woman, which I liked far better than an attempt to transform the character into a full-fledged grown-up. Ms. Kraut and Ms. Lester certainly did a nice job a capturing the 17 and 18 year old mentality, along with its hopes, dreams, fears, and surprising resiliency. True, the story is a bit (well, fairly) implausible in some ways but I could see a lot of my high school girls really loving it. I'd also like to add, for any teachers or parents out there, that this book did a nice job dealing with the drinking and fooling around that inevitably surround most high schoolers these days. These girls aren't too squeaky clean to be true but neither are they wanton sexpot addicts, the latter of which I see all too often. They reminded me of my normal good-girl students- they have a drink here and there and enjoy making out with the boys but are pretty innocent at heart. I would easily feel comfortable recommending this to my girls, and I'm pretty strict about that for obvious liability reasons. So if you know any mainstream high school girls that like light romantic adventure stories, this would be a good pick.
Muerte de Tinta

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The much-anticipated finale to Funke's excellent Inkheart trilogy. Darker than the first two, Inkdeath follows the story established in the previous books in a natural way, neither adding unnecassary melodrama nor avoiding unpleasantness when it arises. Truly, an excellent series. I don't think I can do it justice in the limited time I have right now but I will try to come back when I can. In the meantime, if you're a fan of young adult fantasy by authors such as Lloyd Alexander, Tamora Pierce, and, of course, J. K. Rowling, you should really check this series out. (As an aside, for you die-hard Harry Potter fans- the other two authors I mentioned write/wrote some of the best ya fantasy in existence, as far as I'm concerned, and if you haven't read them yet, you're missing out on some great stuff.)
The Gone-Away World

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What would happen to the world if scientists dicovered a bomb that would make things just go away, and governments decided to use it? Harkaway's debut novel takes place in just such a world, combining elements of standard science fiction fare with Mad Max sensibilities, some political commentary, psychological musings, and, of course, ninjas. If you're thinking that sounds like an awful lot to take on in a debut novel, you would be correct. My one complaint about this book is that it takes on a bit too much and can sometimes feel disjointed and over-stuffed. The author had some really cool ideas that he seems to have thought through really thoroughly. This is a good thing, except that he then tried to cram all of those ideas and details into one novel. The Gone-Away World clocks in at a solid 500 pages, and it's not especially light reading. Surprising, since the back makes it sound like a humorous work. Although it has certainly has elements of humor, I didn't find it funny overall. That's not a critique though; I thought the basic premise of the book worked, bizarre though it sometimes was- I just didn't think it was funny.Before this review looks like a pan, I should mention explicitly that I generally enjoyed the book. It's really weird. Seriously. Filled with craziness. Most of it made sense, within the context of the book, though occasionally the reverse was also true. I can't even really give more of a plot summary without either getting bogged down in the details or revealing spoilers. So, if you enjoy really convoluted post-apocalyptic semi-humorous novels, give it a shot. If you're expecting a light, silly read, however, this is probably not your best bet. I do look forward to Harkaway's future novels though, because I believe that he has a lot of potential that just needs some tightening up and focusing, so I'd call him one to watch for fans of zany alternative reality works.
Songs for the Missing: A Novel

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This book was an advance review copy, from Barnes and Nobles First look program. The touchstones don't appear to be up yet, probably because the book will not be released until November 3, 2008.Although I do not think that my review reveals any major plot points not made evident by the back synopsis, purists may feel differently and are hereby forewarned: possible spoilers ahead. My other book blog, found at this location will hide them behind a cut, for anyone concerned.Kim Larsen is a typical teenager, treading water during the final summer months between high school and college. Hanging out with friends, drinking, dating, going to the beach, and working swing shift at a local gas station- just enjoying a normal Midwestern youth. Until, one day, she disappears.The bulk of the book takes place after Kim's disappearance, following her family and friends as they go through the various stages of loss- anger, denial, depression, mania, and regret. Although Kim is only an active character for the first fourteen pages, her presence haunts all of the character in different ways, affecting their lives long after the living person is gone. One of the things that I really liked about the book was the way that the action really fit the progression of time. The days immediately following Kim's disappearance are meticulously described, with all the frenetic hope coming through the writing. As time progresses, and the search begins to stagnate, events are only described as they relate to the plot. Things slow down, and the book loses its manic edge, mirroring the family's unwilling acceptance of reality. In operas, good composers create music that mirrors the tone of the storyline; Mr. O'Nan has done the same with his writing in this book.When I read the summary of this book, my first thought was "Pass." I'm not big on heartwarming tales, or stories of loss and redemption. Then, because it was free and I am a poor book addict, I gave it another look and decided it might be okay. I then promptly forgot all about it until it arrived in the mail. I dutifully set aside my three in-progress books and began this one. By the third page, I was hooked.This book could easily have been maudlin, or coldly cynical, but it was neither. The real strength of the book lies in the author's portrayals of the family members, that are so realistic that you can imagine each member quite vividly. Little details, like a person's preferred brand of cigarettes, or the small of the Dairy Queen, help bring the small town where the bulk of the book takes place to life. Each character feels fleshed out, and their grief comes through as real. Going along with the depth of the characters is the depiction of grief. Having experienced the unexpected loss of a loved one, I recognized so many of the stages that my family went through, as each person learns how to grieve in his or her own way, and the various family members try to respect the different ways people have of coping, with varying success.Lest I sound too rhapsodic, I will mention a few things I disliked. Kim's friends kind of drift in and out of the story, and there's not a lot of resolution regarding them. I think that was largely intentional, as the book shows the reality of the loss shifting from the community at large, to the circle of friends, to, finally, just the family. however, that did mean there were some loose ends that I would have liked the author to clarify. Again, I think this was a conscious choice on the part of the author, but a bit more info would have been nice. Also, although the pop culture references worked in general, they do also date the book in sometimes strange ways. The characters seem, by and large, reasonably tech-savvy, which made me keep wondering why they couldn't use (or at least discuss) more fancypants forensics. Maybe that's just me watching too much CSI, but it did strike me as odd.All in all, however, I was very pleasantly surprised by what was a highly insightful look at family grief, combined with a gripping story and sympathetic, flawed, human characters. An excellent read.
Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan ... And the World

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As a sometime New Yorker, I have a long-standing relationship with the pigeon. In my last apartment in Queens, a family of pigeons had even nested in the airshaft of my building, using my air conditioner as a ledge upon which to build the ultimate pigeon suburban home. I've also had pigeon poo rain on me from above, so I like to think that I've seen a pretty wide spectrum of pigeon behavior. Still, it never occurred to me that there was a whole history behind these less-than-majestic creatures until a non-fiction history of the pigeon entered my life and changed my whole perspective on my winged neighbors.Ms. Humphries' book took a somewhat different tack than my first pigeon book, choosing to focus on the science of the pigeon a bit more, and the fancying of the pigeon somewhat less. For someone looking to get a more zoological perspective, I suspect that this would be appreciated but for me, non-science person that I am, it was a bit disappointing. This is not to say that the science was not well-written. In fact, Ms. Humphries did an excellent job of making the connections between her pigeon-subjects and her scientific observations understandable, and I quite enjoyed her discussion of Darwin and his unexpected development of love for the pigeon. She also explained how pigeons relate to doves, how feral pigeons relate to wild pigeons, and how we interact with pigeons in our cities. It is, in fact, an expansive book, containing a rather vast quantity of data in a mere 272 pages.This very vastness was actually one of my mild quibbles though, since it sometimes felt like Ms. Humphries was taking me on a whirlwind tour of the pigeon world and didn't want to leave anything out, even in the interest of time. For me, it would have been nice if she had gone a little bit more in-depth with some of her topics (like the Pigeon People and their movements), even if that meant leaving something else out. At times the book was also very funny, and I found myself wishing she had let that humor loose a bit more often, since I felt that it only added to the book.Ultimately, Superdove would be an excellent book for someone looking to get a basic overview of pigeons in the context of their relationship with humans in the modern world. The history prior to the modern era was fairly brief but she did provide a chapter-by-chapter bibliography for any budding ornithologists. Also, any New Yorker (or resident of any other major city, really- the pigeon poo first struck me in Florence, Italy) might find themselves feeling a bit more benevolent towards our "rats with wings" after learning a bit more about the lowly, yet quite fascinating (and delicious), pigeon.
My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past

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Mr. Sabar, a child of '80s Los Angeles, grew up dismissing his immigrant father. Between an unwillingness to spend money on luxuries like eating out, a fashion sense still inspired by his Kurdish childhood, and an accent that never quite faded, Mr. Sabar's father simply seemed to come from a world so foreign to the author's as to be incomprehensible. Eventually, though, the author came to wonder what his father's story really was and, fortunately for us, to ask questions. From his inquiry came this book, a deeply personal yet widely accessible account of the author's family's move from a village in Kurdish Iraq to the emigrant camps of Israel to America.The story of the Kurdish Jews is one that I knew nothing about but this book spoke to me nonetheless. The author intersperses stories about his family, beginning with his grandparents' childhoods, with modern-day information about his father, a renowned scholar of Aramaic. His deft storytelling style brings the stories of these people to life, along with his personal interest in them. As he describes his father leaping across the rooftops of Zakho, the village where the family lived in Iraq, the reader has a clear image of this young boy, so unfamiliar in some ways, yet so familiar in others- he may speak a language most of us think of as long dead, but he still fights with his friends over possession of a shiny trinket. It's clear, as the story of the author's father progressed through starts and stops, that the author himself has gained a profound respect for a man that suffered much and worked very hard to get to where he is today. My Father's Paradise is an excellent book, for anyone, really. It's not just about the history of Kurdish Jews, or even of the author's family, but rather a exploration of family dynamics. How they change, how they change us, and how they continue to influence us long after they're gone. You may learn something about an oft-forgotten people, or about yourself.
The Dracula Dossier: A Novel of Suspense

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In London, 1888, the Jack the Ripper murders occurred. In 1897, Bram Stoker wrote his famous novel, Dracula. In The Dracula Dossier, James Reese asks readers: What if the two events were connected? The Dracula Dossier purports to be a record, kept by Stoker himself, detailing the fabulous, gruesome events of 1888. It begins by setting the scene, describing a Stoker utterly disillusioned with his life- stuck in a loveless marriage, worked like a slave by a demanding master, and left on the sidelines, watching as his writer friends gain fame and fortune. Into this mix comes Francis Tumblety, sent to Stoker by their mutual friend, Thomas Henry Hall Caine, and an initiation into the Golden Dawn that goes awry. When the Jack the Ripper murders begin, Stoker and his friends must decide what to do, and how to stop what they believe thay may have helped start. As they plan a course of actions, the bodies begin to accumulate . . .The case of Jack the Ripper is one of the most famous unsolved crimes of our time, and, as such, has inspired a number of books (fiction and non-fiction alike) movies, and graphic novels. With The Dracula Dossier, James Reese combines some of the typical elements, such as secret societies and hidden agendas, with some less common ones, such as the theater and literary world. Instead of implicating the royal family, as so many other authors have done, Reese focuses on the literati, going so far as to suggest that Dracula itself was inspired by Stoker's personal involvement in the murders. I enjoyed the novelty of this, along with the many literary references thus included- in fact, this book has inspired me to go out and read more stuff by the Wildes, because I was so takem by their characters. The characters are, in general, reasonably well-fleshed out, making it easy for the reader to stay interested in their struggles. The book is also written in the format of a journal, with letters and news clippings mixed in, which worked well both for the narrative style and for historical verisimilitude- readers of Dracula will be familiar with Stoker's use of the epistolary format.While I don't get the impression that Reese is trying to advocate a new pet theory (which is not the case with many of the other Ripper stories), I do get the distinct impression that this book was meticulously researched. Every fact that I looked up matched his claims, and the book is peppered with explanatory footnotes. This level of accuracy made it very easy to fall under the spell of the book; so much so, in fact, that I found myself forgetting that it was fiction at times, and thinking that I would have to look some of the relevant details up.But, of course, what everyone really wants to know is: Was it a good book? Was it enjoyable to read? To those questions, I would give a qualified yes. In my past, I was a bit vampire-obsessed, so I am very familiar with Draula and its kin. Also, although I'm not very interested in mass murderer lore, I seem to find myself dragged along to Jack the Ripper stuff on a distressingly regular basis, so I'm also reasonably knowledgeable about that. I mention this because I actually think that my level of familiarity added a lot to the book. Knowing that Reese referred to many of the people directly involved in the real case added realism, as did his amazing weaving together of historical details from the murders with the plot elements of the book. More than anything else, I am amazed by how well-executed that aspect of the book was. Someone who knew less about the real history, however, might not see that or care about it. The story itself was a little bit slow to start, and I do think that the author gave a bit more background than was truly necessary. Once the story picked up, it was a gripping read, but the action proper didn't really commence until over halfway through the book. That's not to say that the beginning was bad, or even boring- it just wasn't terribly riveting either.In general, I would strongly recommend this book to someone interested in the Jack the Ripper story, historical crime theories, or similar genres. If you liked books/graphic novels (or movies, since both of these have been adapted for film) like From Hell or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you should definitely check this out. If you're squeamish, be forewarned that Reese includes a number of pretty grisly descriptions. Then again, it's a book about the Jack the Ripper murders, so really, what do you expect? If your answer is rainbows and kittens, I don't know what to tell you.
The Aviary Gate: A Novel

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In 1599, an English merchantman prepares to present the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire with the ultimae gift in an attempt to secure a favorable trade agreement. In the Sultan's harem, intrigue abounds and seems to be settling around Celia, a young Englishwoman captured from her father's ship. She left behind a fiancee who, for the last two years, believed her to be dead and who is part of the trading expedition. Little by little, they learn of each other's proximity and struggle to come to terms with their new realities. In the present day, a young graduate student from England flees to Turkey, both to escape an ill-fated relationship and to research the story of Celia after discovering a scrap referring to her existence. As these stories wind on towards their inevitable ends, the reader is drawn into the worlds of the characters, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.The strongest part of this novel is definitely the part set in 1599. Celia is an appealing character and the world of the harem is so filled with intrigue that it's almost impossible not to become invested in the fates of the characters. The very nature of the harem lends itself to deceit and Ms. Hickman does an excellent job of creating characters that leave the reader uncertain as to who is on what side. The modern day story was still interesting, though I found the main character's obsession with a man who is obviously no good a bit annoying. Still, we've all made poor decisions when it comes to affairs of the heart, so maybe I should cut her some slack. Still, it left me a little bit cold. Also, the random mystical throw-ins seemed a bit off to me, both because I found them silly and because they weren't really necessary to the plot. In truth, they seemed unnecessary and even at times took away from the atmosphere. The Aviary Gate is an entertaining story that, by the end, had me fairly invested in the characters. I was sincerely anxious as to Celia's fate and sad to see her story end. It has its flaws but it's still an enjoyable read and I would easily recommend it to someone looking for a light but detailed historical novel.
The White Mary

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This is an ARC I received through Shelf-Awareness.Marika Vecera is a 32 year old war journalist who finds what fulfillment she feels through her job, not through relationships. In fact, her most intimate relationship seems to be with a man she doesn't even know: Robert Lewis, the famous journalist who inspired her to choose the career path she did. Between her emotional scars, which she tries to keep buried as deeply as possible, and her job, which requires her to travel to extremely dangerous locations on a regular basis, it has always just seemed easier to be alone.Then she meets Seb, a Boston psychology student who wants her to talk about her past and to build a lasting relationship. At the same time, she learns that Robert Lewis has committed suicide in Malaysia. Deciding to write Lewis's biography, she buries herself in her relationship and research and, for a while, seems happy and stable. Then, while doing some final research, she finds a letter claiming that Lewis might still be alive somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Torn, Marika has to choose which path to take- whether she should (or even can) try to find stability with Seb or chase after a dream in the jungle. Journalist that she is, she can't resist the lure of a story, no matter how deeply she must enter the jungle to find it.The White Mary is actually a lot less of a romance than my summary (or the other summaries I've read) make it sound, but somehow that's the way it comes out. In truth, this book spends the bulk of its time describing Marika's travels to war-torn countries, both past and present, and the harrowing experiences she has in those places. The story line jumps back and forth, between the present-day, when she's in Papua New Guinea, the recent past, when she's trying to have a relationship with Seb, and the more distant past, when she went on other foreign assignments. It's not actually hard to follow in the least, but it is hard to explain.The strengths of this book are the descriptions of Marika's adventures. The author does a great job of expressing to the reader the utter foreignness of some countries, and the way in which the rules we all take for granted simply don't apply. I think some readers might assume that everything Ms. Salak describes is fantasy, but, having traveled in some pretty out-of-the-way places myself, I didn't find the scenarios she describes implausible. I would hope that others will read this, if only to get a sense of what really is happening in so many parts of the world, a sense that I fear most people in the Western world lack.The weak point of the book is definitely the romantic part. The writer is clearly an experienced writer, but it feels like she isn't used to writing fiction, especially of a romantic nature, and many of the scenes between Marika and Seb come out sounding really false. Seb is, I think, supposed to be a really amazing guy, but he struck me as two-dimensional, and my main reaction was to want to slap him really hard, just to see his Buddha-like response. Maybe I'm a cynic, but he seemed so 'perfect' as to be infuriating. In the end, although the relationship did give the author a way to analyze Marika's psyche, I wish she had chosen another way, since for me it detracted from the rest of the book. In future books, however, one can hope that this promising writer will sort out those kinks and improve her fiction writing, especially in the field of romance, while keeping her passion regarding her subject matter.
The Gargoyle

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Our narrator, a former pornographer and all-around unpleasant guy, finds himself driving off a cliff one night, due to a combination of drugs, alcohol, and fatigue. Naturally, a horrible crash, followed by a fire, ensues and it is only be the slightest of coincidences that he survives. In the burn ward, as he contemplates eventual suicide, he meets Marianne Engel.I tried to explain the plot but somehow I can't seem to avoid making it sound trite, or to prevent myself from giving out spoilers. Suffice it to say: although this is a love story, it's a love story like The Letters of Abelard and Heloise is a love story; like Geek Love was a love story; like Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a love story. The narrator is forced to constantly reassess both himself and Marianna throughout the course of the novel, just as people is a serious relationship must.But there are plenty of great love stories out there already. Why read this one? Well, I can give you a few reasons. First, Davidson's prose is excellent. Personally, I love descriptive writing, and especially smile on the use of unusual yet apt analogies, and Davidson is a master of those. I wanted to include an example, but the book is so filled with great images that I couldn't bring myself to choose just one. Second, the historical details of the story were well-chosen. What I mean by this is that no one reasonable would call this historical fiction, so there's not that elaborate level of detail required to recreate a dead world. Instead, there's just enough detail to create a setting in which the story can proceed, but that setting is well-developed and appropriately three dimensional. Third, how often do you come across a love story between a cynical burn victim and a beautiful schizophrenic sculptor that is neither ironic nor implausible, neither banal nor ridiculous?The Gargoyle is a brilliantly realized vision of unlikely love, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I haven't even mentioned the side stories yet, and they were also wonderful- the main book just drew me in so deeply that they were forced to the side. I will agree with some other reviewers that the graphic depictions of the narrator's burns, burn treatment and even work as a pornographer would no doubt upset people. But just as with The Dracula Dossier, the icky bits should come as no surprise, given the subject matter. Yes, it's graphic. I not only didn't mind, but even enjoyed the descriptions of debridement, since I found them artfully rendered. Your mileage may vary. If you are easily grossed out, or easily offended, then this book may not be right for you. If not, though, The Gargoyle is a carefully-wrought and beautifully rendered commentary on the sometimes mysterious ways of the heart and I hope that you will enjoy as much as I did.
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