Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mistress of the Art of Death

by Ariana Franklin
New York : Berkley Books, 2008.

In 1170, a child is found brutally murdered in Cambridge, and the townspeople are quick to blame the Jews. King Henry II doesn't particularly care about the Jewish people, but he does care about his lost income now that they are holed up in a castle for their own protection, and arranges to have someone sent to investigate. Enter Adelia, a woman doctor from Salerno, and her traveling companions Simon and Mansur, who arrive to look into the matter.

The best historical fiction, to my mind, teaches you something about a time period, a people, or a culture while telling a really good story. This book does that in spades, giving such information about the Church at that time, medicine, and more. Yet there's no time for an information dump, because the story reads fast, at first because there is a lot of dialog and short paragraphs and, as the story progresses, an ever-faster pace as we draw closer to the conclusion. I have to say, the identity of the murderer was not all that surprising to me (one of a few people I had on my own suspects list), but exactly how it happened and how everything was resolved was indeed unexpected. In this sort of book, you're always on the lookout for glaring anachronisms. Adelia herself is the biggest anachronism of all - not so much because she's a woman doctor, which is handled believably, but because of her modern ideas and practices. The others are dealt with well in the author's note. The descriptions of the dead and what had been done to them was a bit much for the squeamish side of me. Granted, I was reading so fast much of this washed over me and I only noticed looking back.

If you really enjoy historical mysteries, this is the first in the series and well worth reading. Ariana Franklin is the pen name of Diana Norman, a British journalist and author, who sadly passed away in 2011.

Monday, February 24, 2014


by Neal Shusterman
New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013.

UnSouled is the third book in this series - ***spoiler warning*** for the first two books, Unwind and Unwholly.

Connor and Lev are on the run from the mess that was once the Graveyard. Before he left, Trace had given Connor a bit of information about Proactive Citizenry – the group that seems to be behind quite a lot having to do with unwinding as well as the creators of Camus Comprix, the first person to be made with parts of the unwound – and a mysterious man named Janson Rheinschild. Following that up seems to be all he can think to do, now that Risa is gone who-knows-where. Meanwhile, Cam himself is determined to win Risa's love and trust by demolishing the very organization that made him.

The more I read this series, the more I can believe the premise, that people could get so fed up with “feral” teenagers that they start to think that using them for transplants and saving lives would really be for society's good. In the midst of the future dystopia are real, recent news articles and clippings on related topics, such as black market organ donors and a politician who apparently wrote that he thought there should be a death penalty for rebellious children – not that anyone would use the option, mind you, but that it might scare kids into behaving. This just adds to the believability of what might otherwise sound completely nightmarish and over the top. The various complicated ways in which Proactive Citizenry is working and unwinding has become entrenched in society are further unfolded. I especially enjoyed getting more of Sonia's backstory, that of the woman who first took in Connor and Risa and started them on their way through the safe houses that brought them to the Graveyard. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the series comes together in book four, due to come out next year.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


by Neal Shusterman
New York : Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2013 (hardcover pub. 2012).

Unwholly is the second book in a series: this is a ****spoiler warning**** for the first book, Unwind.

Connor, presumed dead by the authorities, is running the Graveyard, a home to the kids still under 17 who are in danger of being “unwound.” Risa works with him as a medic, in a wheelchair because she refused to accept the spine of an unwind – a teen who has been unwound into a “divided” state, with basically all parts used medically for transfusion and transplant. Lev, the former “clapper” who did not clap and detonate the explosives in his blood, has gone through medical treatment to make himself stable and is now feeling stifled, talking to kids in danger of being unwound but unable to speak out against unwinding either.

The book is hard to describe if you haven't read the first book, and would be hard to follow as a standalone as well. The future civilization Shusterman describes has an element of possibility in it: what if really screwed up teenagers were “unwound” to provide organ and other transplants? What if abortion didn't exist, but you could leave an unwanted baby at a doorstep as long as you weren't caught (a practice known as “storking”), with the expectation that the owners of the house would take the child? This series explores the implications of this dystopia, with no easy answers. Unwholly takes up soon after Unwind left off, continuing the multi-perspective switches between Connor, Risa and Lev, and adding some new characters in Starkey, Miracolina, and the “parts pirate” Nelson, who's after runaway unwinds (also known as AWOLs, the kids whose parents have signed the unwind order but who get away before they are picked up to go to “harvest camp”) for the black market. Another new character, Cam, adds another element to the mix as a sort of Frankenstein creation from the parts of unwound kids. Is he merely a conglomeration of all these parts, or is he more? Does he have his own soul? A creepy, fast-paced, and thought-provoking series I'd recommend to a variety readers.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


by Neal Shusterman
New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, c2007.

Sometime in the future, pro-life and pro-choice groups had a war and the outcome was that there would be no more abortions, but parents could choose to "unwind" a child between the ages of 13 and 18. Connor finds out that his parents have signed the order to have him unwound and runs away; Risa is a ward of the state and budget issues mean they just can't afford her any more; Lev is a "tithe" who knew all his life that he was special and meant to be unwound. When these three teens' lives converge, they will never be the same.

Enjoyed is not quite the right word for this book, but I was deeply engrossed from the get-go. The pacing is fast and the scenario so well-imagined and described that while you're reading the book, you believe events could play out like this. The perspectives switch between multiple characters - usually Connor, Risa, and Lev, but some secondary characters too - which helps keep the tension building and allows you to get to know each of them. Exactly what is going on, what unwinding means, and what it this law has done to society, is slowly revealed and builds to the end leaving you breathless.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Throne of Jade

by Naomi Novik
New York : Ballantine Books, 2006.

Rereading a series has a whole host of difficulties when I'm also trying to review them for the first time. I reviewed His Majesty's Dragon in September and hate to repeat myself here. At the same time, I don't want to give spoilers for each title as I go along, but it's hard to go back to my initial impressions when the stories were new to me. As a result, the following is more like a list of impressions than a proper review.

In the second book in the Temeraire series, Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, must go to China when the Chinese emperor discovers that his gift to Napoleon has gone amiss and a Celestial dragon is serving in the British aerial corps.

The main strength of the series, to my mind, is Laurence and Temeraire's conversations - sometimes bantering, sometimes serious. In this one, the treatment of dragons in Britain is questioned, particularly in reference to the slave trade. Though they don't reach China until well into the book, the journey is a lot of fun because of the well-rounded characters who are so much fun to spend time with.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


by Doug Dorst
conceived by J.J. Abrams
New York, N.Y. : Mulholland Books, 2013.

When a student working at a college library stumbles on a book that a grad student accidentally left behind - The Ship of Theseus by V.S. Straka - she starts writing back to his marginalia. Their correspondence in the margins of the book begins an investigation into who the elusive "V.S. Straka" may be, a mystery that grows all the more menacing as they realize the long arms of the people who worked against the mysterious "S."

The whole conceit of this book is, I have to admit, the most fascinating thing about it. The book is a thing of beauty, an old-fashioned grey hardcover with "The Ship of Theseus" on the spine (the box it comes in, which is pictured above, has the actual title), aged papers and a sewn spine. The design is perfectly in line with the idea that this is an old book, a title from an old high school library, and the second story - of the two students, Jen and Eric - unfolds in the margins in multicolored pen to give readers insight into the order of events. There's a decoder wheel and codes and inserts in between pages of the book. Really, you could spend so much time just trying to pick it apart that I would recommend buying it instead of borrowing it from the library, as I did. Then too, the story is a fun one and the reader does have to do some work as there are some things that Jen and Eric never explicitly spell out in their marginalia. Definitely worth checking out, and I'd read it again just to see if I understood the beginning better now that I know the end.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


by Orham Pamuk
translated by Maureen Freely
New York : Everyman's Library, 2011 (originally published in Turkish in 2002 and in English translation in 2004).

Ka, a Turkish poet recently returned from exile in Germany, travels to Kars to investigate the recent suicides of "head scarf girls," the young women who wear head scarves in protest of the laws that do not allow them to wear them to university. Also, not incidentally, this is where a women he knew in school, Ipek, lives after her divorce. After his arrival, Kars is cut off from the rest of the country by a snowstorm that closes the roads.

This rich tale is hard to explain. It unfolds in such a way that it is hard to describe accurately, since what seems important for the first 50 pages or so turn out not to be the main focus of this exploration of the tension between the secularists and the Islamists, politics and performance, personal happiness and duty. The narrative distances us from events and characters through its layered qualities. Though most of the story is told from Ka's perspective the actual narrator - a friend of Ka's who is unnamed for much of the story - knows the end of events before he begins, and will often speak directly to the reader about these future events. While in Kars (which means "snow"), Ka finds himself able to write poetry even while he is faced with questions about his own identity and faith, or lack of it. He becomes a (possibly?) unwilling participant in events that leave the narrator and reader intentionally fuzzy about exactly what happens. Not for the fainthearted reader, but for one willing to persevere and pick apart the novel, it's a meaty and involving read.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mastiff (Beka Cooper #3)

by Tamora Pierce
New York : Random House, 2011.

Even though I read Terrier in 2010 and Bloodhound in 2011, in took me until late 2013 to finally read the third book in the trilogy. I'm not sure why, except that for some reason in my head I'd finished the series. Now, I finally truly have!

In the final book of the Beka Cooper trilogy, Beka and her partner Tunstall are called away secretly by Lord Gershom to investigate the kidnapping of the Crown Prince of the realm. Her scent hound Achoo is needed, and they are helped by a mage named Farmer who seems out of his element but is one of the few who can be trusted in what seems more and more like a political play by who knows how many mages angered by the king's potential oversight in their craft.

I read the other two books over two years ago, but fortunately didn't suffer much for it. I could generally remember who characters were and what their relationships were to each other; except for the very beginning, the story itself was fairly self-contained, so it didn't matter that I didn't remember 100% of the events in the previous two books and what I really needed to know was introduced in a way that I could follow easily. Beka has developed quite a bit from the shy Puppy she was in Terrier, and it was fun to see her really grow into her own here as a full partner in a Hunt. I don't think the journal format works as well as a simple first-person narrator would have, as mentions of when Beka's finding time to write in her journal or comments that these were written much later than events just became clunky and distracting from the narrative. Even so, this series is a good strong fantasy that I would have no trouble recommending to a variety of readers.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Moon and More

by Sarah Dessen
New York : Viking, 2013.

NOTE: I've fallen quite a bit behind over the last few months, and have decided to intersperse older reviews with new ones until I get caught up. This book was actually read last summer.

In just a few short months, Emaline knows a lot will change. She's always lived in Colby, works for her family at a resort renting out beachfront properties to vacationers and has gone out with Luke since 9th grade. But she's going away to college - granted, not to Columbia, but to a college a few hours away - and change is coming whether she's ready or not.

Nothing says "summer" like a new Sarah Dessen novel, but I wonder if I should give them a rest for awhile. Part of the trouble is I know what to expect - heroine at a crossroads, getting to know herself - and no matter the difference in packaging (in this case, Emaline has a happily blended family, and her father is a more distant figure), it's lost some of its freshness and appeal to me. Or maybe I'm just getting old, and find it harder to relate to the main characters. Still, it wasn't a bad story; I read quickly and enjoyed it. Emaline is a well-drawn, believable character, and I enjoyed her interactions with her step-sisters and mother. Her struggles between what the new boy, Theo, and her father (the distant, biological one rather than her real dad) want for her and deciding what she wants will ring true for teens.