Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Book of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

If I have an all-time favorite sub-genre of literature it is young adult science fiction. I eat the stuff up. I loved Philip Pullman's Dark Material's Trilogy long before The Golden Compass got made into a decent (but not great) movie . I'm a sucker for books like Lois Lowry's The Giver. One of the books on my to-read list is The Lightning Thief. So when my husband picked up The Book of Ember, I had no doubt it would make it to my reading list sooner rather than later.

I started The Book of Ember on Friday night and finished it Saturday afternoon. It is, after all, a children's/young adult book. But it is also a good engaging story that captures the imagination and encourages devouring the book. One of the appeals of young adult sci fi is that it has to be relatively fast-paced to appeal to a young reader. Plus, the stories tend to be shorter which leaves less room for the much more detailed description that science fiction authors often use to flesh out their storylines.

But shorter does not mean less well-developed. DuPrau has created an interesting and novel world for the first book in her trilogy. The great mystery of the world is not that difficult to figure out. The city of Ember lives in darkness aside from the electric lights that are run by a generator. But the lights are failing, supplies are in short supply, and the mayor is corrupt. Lina and Doon are some of the only citizens who seem to want to fix the problem and find a solution.

The characters in DuPrau's novel remind me of Lois Lowry's characters in The Giver - they question their world and no that something is amiss. They have a greater curiosity than normal which allows them a greater understanding of the world.

I will happily read the rest of the series. My husband asked if it was a good book to read to our 5 1/2 year old son. For some kids I think it would be: it's not too scary, there's nothing inappropriate. My son doesn't love chapter books yet, so I think we'll hold off for a while.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Lost Quilter: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini

Remember back in the day when you would crawl up on your grandma's lap (insert other relevant adult figure here), get comfortable, look up and say, Tell me a story? And grandma would settle in and tell you about her life as a child, or her experiences at work. Some days the story was infinitely familiar; you could have filled in details that grandma missed that day. Other days the story was startlingly fresh and new: "I never knew you jumped out of an airplane grandma?" And once in a while grandma told a story that didn't particularly catch your attention. But no matter what, you loved the stories because it was grandma telling them and she had a certain cadence and rhythm to storytelling that you admired. And the stories were familiar and warm.

Jennifer Chiaverini's novels are like listening to grandma tell a story. When you pick up one of her books you want to curl up on the couch with a cozy quilt (of course), a cup of hot chocolate, and a sweet treat and read from beginning to end. There are only a few authors I have found who have that quality and I will always pick their books immediately off my shelf because I know I will enjoy reading them.

The Lost Quilter is no exception. The story, like all the Elm Creek Quilts novels, splinters off from the basic narrative of Sylvia Bergstrom Compson, master quilter and founder of a quilting haven in Pennsylvania. The stories jump back and forth in time through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, but always return to the foundational contemporary characters. This particular book picks up where the plot of The Runaway Quilt left off. Only in this novel, Joanna, a runaway slave who had found a haven at the Bergstrom farm in pre-Civil War slavery America, is the main character.

I will say, this was not one of my favorite quilt books. I prefer the stories that spend more time with the contemporary characters - in this novel they only make an appearance during the prologue and the epilogue. In addition, I felt that Chiaverini could have focused more attention on the quilts - always integral characters in her books. I understand why they did not play a significant role in this story, but I missed that aspect of the plot. Despite my minimal frustrations, I found myself putting the book down with tears in my eyes. Chiaverini has a great way of pulling at the heartstrings without being overly dramatic or sentimental.

If you are new to Chiaverini, I would strongly encourage you to start from the beginning of the series. It isn't absolutely necessary. However, character development in the course of nearly a dozen books leads to a more nuanced understanding of the interactions between characters. All in all, two big thumbs up.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Deadly Brew by Susanna Gregory

I have discovered that most mystery readers have sub-genres that pique their interest. There are:
  • historical mysteries
  • cooking mysteries
  • hardboiled crime novels
  • vampire mysteries...
to name but a few. I read a variety of types but am always on the lookout for a good academic mystery. There are a handful of good series based on the workings of academia. For the most part I have focused on contemporary academia, but a friend introduced me to Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew books. The stories take place in a fourteenth-century English university and the main characters are the lay Brothers who teach there.

Gregory's fourth book in this medieval series recreates an extremely realistic world through her use of visceral imagery about life in pre-modern England. After reading the book I'm really, really glad that I live in the modern world. Brothers Matthew and Michael spend much of the book hungry, cold, and wet: and they are relatively privileged characters. Gregory's research about life in this era demonstrates an eye for detail and a focus on accuracy about an era which is harder to recreate than a more modern one (eh, maybe that's debatable - a more well-researched contemporary era assumes a greater attention to accuracy. Anyway...).

The plot of the novel is intricate and woven together with cunning examples. It revolves around poisoned wine which has killed a handful of academics at the university where Matthew is a physician. The many interconnected plot points necessary to unravel all of the storylines effectively create a nuanced story. Gregory convincingly weaves together the seemingly unconnected events to create a good book.

I have two minor sticking points with A Deadly Brew. The first is both the failure and the success of a good mystery series. Not having read the previous books in the series, I found myself annoyed from time to time when she continually referred to events that had happened in other books. It's nice that her stories are laced together and it made me want to read more. However, at times I did wish that she did not feel it necessary to refer back to other works.

The second might be a stylistic choice of Gregory's (I'll need to read more to be say for certain.) Unlike some authors who uncover the murderer and then write, The End, Gregory solved most of the mystery with 100 pages left in the book. She continued to unravel more of the story in the remaining pages, but I found myself losing interest once I knew who had poisoned the wine and why.

All in all, a good discovery. I will keep my eyes open for further Susanna Gregory mysteries.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Velocity by Dean Koontz

I have no memory of reading anything else by Dean Koontz. I don't live under a rock, so obviously I have heard of Koontz. But I never had any occasion to read one of his books. Velocity was a free book I received at a book fair about two years ago. It has sat on my bookshelf since. I picked up the book half a dozen times and read the blurb on the back cover but put it back on my shelf, not in the least invested in the storyline.

Last week I needed a good quick read for the airplane. I wanted something I could finish and not feel compelled to bring back from vacation. The bright yellow cover of Velocity screamed out to me as the ideal book. It was the right book given the requirements.

After reading Velocity I have no need or desire to read anything else by Koontz. The book was not bad. It was undeniably engaging. I was happily invested in reading for my entire day of flying and waiting at the airport. I kept reading to figure out the mystery at the end of the book. It just did not fulfill my needs for a book - why would I want to read such an implausible, depressing, downer of a book?

The premise of Velocity is that a man, bartender Billy Wiles, gets a letter on his windshield telling him that if he goes to the cops an elderly woman who works with charities will be killed, if he doesn't go to the cops a beautiful second grade teacher will be killed - the choice is his. The story progresses with further letters and choices for Billy as the crimes fall closer and closer to home. Billy has to solve the mystery of who is writing the letters to save himself and the love of his life.

My problem with the book revolves around all the myriad completely unrealistic coincidences that are necessary to keep the plot moving forward. Billy Wiles has to be a lonesome, unconnected character for him to take the actions that he does. His fiancee suffers from the most arbitrary illness humanly possible. The murderer, while introduced early on, is divorced from the storyline in any consequential way.

Plus, there's enough distrust, death, and disturbing events in real life. Why read about horror in fiction (And yes, I am clearly labeling myself as a non-horror fan here)? If you're already a Koontz fan and haven't read Velocity you would probably enjoy this fast-paced mystery. But, if you like lighter reads, don't buy into suspension of disbelief, and don't want to read about pain and mutilation, I would suggest you pass on Velocity.

Frill Kill: A Scrapbooking Mystery by Laura Childs

I picked up Laura Childs most recent scrapbooking mystery as I got ready to head to New Orleans for the first time in 13 years. I wanted something to get me in the N'Awlins mood. And I wanted to read a post-Katrina novel to see what if anything it had to say about the effects of the hurricane on the beloved Southern city.

The book did fulfill all of the above requirements. I love reading about life in the French Quarter and the quirky characters who live there. Childs also does acknowledge the changes in the city (fewer than one might expect) since the devestating hurricane of 2005. In fact, the shop-owners' quotes in the book mirrored almost exactly the words of shop-owners I talked to while in New Orleans.

The plot of the most recent novel involves high fashion, Halloween, and a circus-performing wolf trainer. Like the other books, Carmela's soon-to-be ex-husband makes an appearance as a royal jack a$$. Ava Grieux remains the perky, attractive sidekick.

Childs' novels are good. They're not great. I enjoy reading them. But they are far from deep. They fulfill the light, summer beach reading qualities quite well. A welcome book for scrapbookers (yes, the back does include both scrapbooking tips and of course the requisite recipes of so many cozy mysteries) and fans of New Orleans.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Knitted Bones by Monica Ferris

One of the books in Monica Ferris' Needlecraft Mystery series. The books take place outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. This story had a unique twist as the main character breaks her leg in the first few pages of the book. She is confined to her apartment which means she cannot do any of the sleuthing herself. Her second-in-command, Godwin DuLac, does the legwork and reports back to Betsy allowing them to solve the crime together.

There is a secondary story involving a wild, injured crow. As with any good cozy mystery, the crow plays an integral role in helping eliminate the bad guy.

All in all, a fun, light read. Not deep. Not particularly difficult to solve. A good summer read.