Monday, December 26, 2011

I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

Book description:
It’s Christmastime, and the precocious Flavia de Luce—an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry and a penchant for crime-solving—is tucked away in her laboratory, whipping up a concoction to ensnare Saint Nick. But she is soon distracted when a film crew arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ decaying English estate, to shoot a movie starring the famed Phyllis Wyvern. Amid a raging blizzard, the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey gathers at Buckshaw to watch Wyvern perform, yet nobody is prepared for the evening’s shocking conclusion: a body found, past midnight, strangled to death with a length of film. But who among the assembled guests would stage such a chilling scene? As the storm worsens and the list of suspects grows, Flavia must use every ounce of sly wit at her disposal to ferret out a killer hidden in plain sight.

This fourth novel featuring aspiring chemist-cum-sleuth Flavia De Luce is a wonderful addition to the canon with more focus on Flavia than on the murder mystery. Though the mystery of a world-famous actress cruelly killed while prepping to film a movie at cold and crumbling Buskshaw over the Christmas holiday is never really that engaging, it was the insights into Flavia and her relationships with her friends and family that are revealed which kept me reading late into the night. Flavia, determined to use science to capture Father Christmas, is a charming blend of naivete and experience, a mini-adult in some ways still struggling to come to terms with her childhood in others. Flavia is growing up and asking questions, revealing in the process a compelling vulnerability and emotional depth that was less evident in the earlier books. Heck, she didn't even try to poison anyone this time around!

All in all a great addition to any library; certainly a wonderful idea for a gift this holiday season!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massey

Book description:
Born into a minor German noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.

Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”

Though the heft of this book is daunting when you first pick it up, persevere. It only takes a few pages before you lose track of time and find yourself transported into the past. I read almost half the book in one sitting without even realizing it because the narrative was just so engaging. This is an excellently researched and well-drawn portrait of a truly fascinating woman who transformed herself from a pawn to the Empress of Russia. Massie's writing style is accessible and the characters he reveals through his prose create a deep well of interest and empathy. I knew very little about Catherine the Great before picking up this book, and was stunned by how she seized control of her own destiny to save herself and her adopted country.

Highly recommended, 5 stars.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Book description:
Nineteen-year-old Irma lives in a rural Mennonite community in Mexico. She has already been cast out of her family for marrying a young Mexican ne’er-do-well she barely knows, although she remains close to her rebellious younger sister and yearns for the lost intimacy with her mother. With a husband who proves elusive and often absent, a punishing father, and a faith in God damaged beyond repair, Irma appears trapped in an untenable and desperate situation. When a celebrated Mexican filmmaker and his crew arrive from Mexico City to make a movie about the insular community in which she was raised, Irma is immediately drawn to the outsiders and is soon hired as a translator on the set. But her father, intractable and domineering, is determined to destroy the film and get rid of the interlopers. His action sets Irma on an irrevocable path toward something that feels like freedom.

It only took a few pages for me to be completely hooked by this compelling novel- the spare prose and complicated characters make for a wonderful read. The story is told from the point of view of Irma, a 19 year old Mennonite girl in Mexico haunted by family secrets and the decisions she has made in life. When a strange film crew shows up to make a movie about her community, Irma is catapaulted into a new reality, one where she has new choices to make which have far-reaching consequences.

Watching Irma's torment as she tries to come to terms with her relationships with family and with God, I was unable to put this book down. The writing is bare bones which is disconcerting at first but quickly come to highlight the spare lifestyle Irma lives within the confines of her community. As the story of her past unfolds, it is impossible not to feel for Irma as she tries to correct her mistakes.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book Description:
What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last.

The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. Living the last day of her life seven times during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

This book is young adult fiction at its best- a serious message presented as an incredibly engaging story. Sam is one of the queen bees of her high school- pretty, popular and seemingly perfect. And then she dies and she can't figure out why. As she relives the last day of her life over and over, trying different tactics to change the ultimate outcome, she reveals an astonishing depth of character and understanding for both her family, friends and those outsiders whose lives have touched on hers. It is difficult to go into much detail without spoiling this wonderful story, but trust me that once you start this book, you won't be able to put it down.

Samantha has an incredibly authentic voice, one capable of speaking to adults and teens alike. Her revelations about bullying, eating disorders, sex, and peer pressure are sure to strike a chord with any reader. This engaging novel also shares some powerful insights into the sometimes heartbreaking realities of teen life. Highly recommended- the best young adult book I read all year!

Monday, December 5, 2011

How the Mistakes Were Made by Tyler McMahon

Book description:
Laura Loss came of age in the hardcore punk scene of the early 1980s. The jailbait bass player in her brother Anthony’s band, she grew up traveling the country, playing her heart out in a tight network of show venues to crowds soaked in blood and sweat. The band became notorious, the stars of a shadow music industry. But when Laura was 18, it all fell apart. Anthony’s own fans destroyed him, something which Laura never forgot.

Ten years later, Laura finds her true fame with the formation of The Mistakes, a gifted rock band that bursts out of ‘90s Seattle to god-like celebrity. When she discovered Nathan and Sean, the two flannel-clad misfits who, along with her, composed the band, she instantly understood that Sean’s synesthesia—a blending of the senses that allows him to “see” the music— infused his playing with an edge that would take them to the top. And it did. But it, along with his love for Laura, would also be their downfall.

At the moment of their greatest fame, the volatile bonds between the three explode in a mushroom cloud of betrayal, deceit, and untimely endings. The world blames Laura for destroying its rock heroes. Hated by the fans she’s spent her life serving, she finally tells her side of the story, the “true” story, of the rise and fall of The Mistakes.

This wonderful book tells the tale of Laura Loss who grew up in the punk rock scene in the 1980s then lost it all when that scene turned on her brother and their band. Now working in a coffee shop in Seattle and still playing music, she meets two young musicians in Montana and sees a spark. When they turn up at her door and fall into a gig, they accidentally become the hottest new indie band in the country. When the band implodes, torn apart by drugs, sex, and rock & roll, Laura finds herself blamed by the world- this book is her story of how the Mistakes were made.

Told in spare prose from Laura's perspective, this novel is raw and moving. As the band spirals out of control, Laura is forced to look at her life and her history and her music. Caught between the fans, the record companies, and her feelings for her bandmates, Laura has to confront the reality that success is fleeting and that sometimes the music itself just isn't enough. Well-written and ultimately heartbreaking, this novel is an excellent look at the music industry and life and love. Highly recommended.