Mini-reviews: Alterations, Hitman, Temptation

AlterationsStephanie Scott, Alterations

I adore the movie Sabrina (the original, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), so I was excited to come across this YA contemporary retelling. Unfortunately, I think the concept was better than the execution…or maybe I’ve just outgrown this particular type of novel, with its focus on teen drama and the prom as the pinnacle of human existence. I did like the main character’s personal journey as she gets a prestigious fashion internship and grows in confidence. But I was less interested in the love triangle, although there are a few cute scenes. Overall, I’m left with a strong desire for more Sabrina-inspired books!

Agnes and the HitmanJennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, Agnes and the Hitman

Part romantic comedy, part gangster movie, this novel is about a food writer named Agnes who accidentally finds herself a target of the local mafia. As a result, her “connected” friend Joey hires a hitman, Shane, to look after her. They are instantly attracted to one another, but their romance is complicated by real estate fraud, several attempts on Agnes’s life, and a flamingo-themed wedding from hell. I didn’t expect this farcical mash-up of genres to be so enjoyable, but I was utterly charmed by it! The plot sweeps along at a dizzying pace, as does the rapid-fire banter, and it’s all great fun. Highly recommended if the idea of a modern screwball comedy appeals to you!

Season for TemptationTheresa Romain, Season for Temptation

After seeing a lot of praise for Theresa Romain over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I was excited to try her debut novel. But I wasn’t as impressed as I wanted to be. The plot is quite typical for a Regency romance: the hero needs to marry quickly, proposes to a proper and elegant lady, then falls in love with the lady’s unconventional younger sister instead. Both the hero and heroine are likable, and it’s a pleasant enough read. I also like that the original fiancée gets some character development and is not just a two-dimensional model of propriety. But the writing was occasionally clunky, and I just didn’t see anything exceptional about the book. Not one for the keeper shelf, but I’ll consider trying more by the author — if I can get them from the library!

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Review: 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

2 a.m. at The Cat's PajamasMarie-Helene Bertino, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, rebellious nine-year-old who also happens to be an aspiring jazz singer. Still mourning the recent death of her mother, and caring for her grief-stricken father, she doesn’t realize that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. After bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who’s just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat’s Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever, unless someone can find a way to quickly raise the $30,000 that would save it.

As these three lost souls search for love, music and hope on the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia, together they will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I think I was hoping to love this book more than I did, but I still found it pretty enjoyable. I don’t really like when a book jumps around between too many characters, because it splits my focus, and I end up not being very invested in any of the storylines. But in this case, I was immediately drawn to Lorca and the other denizens of The Cat’s Pajamas. I’m an amateur musician myself, and I always love reading about music and musicians. So I sympathized with Lorca, whose beloved jazz club is slowly dying, and the literal band of misfits he’s collected. But I wasn’t as invested in the other stories until the end, where all the characters converge on the club. I did get a kick out of Madeleine, whose goal of becoming a jazz singer is so precocious and bizarre, and I warmed up to Sarina as her story unfolded. The book also has a great sense of atmosphere and paints a vivid picture of contemporary Philadelphia. Some people may find the novel too whimsical, but I liked it overall, even though it didn’t completely grab me.

Review: The Queen of the Tearling

Queen of the Tearling, TheErika Johansen, The Queen of the Tearling

Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has just turned 19, and it’s time for her to ascend the throne of the Tearling. But being the ruler of this kingdom is not exactly an enviable position. Competition for power is fierce — so much so, in fact, that Kelsea has been raised in exile and must be escorted to her palace by the Queen’s Guard, an elite group of warriors, in order to protect her from assassination. Her uncle, the regent, almost certainly wants her dead, and he is far from the only person in the Tearling who doubts Kelsea’s ability to rule. Most threatening of all, however, is the menace of the Red Queen, a powerful sorceress who rules the neighboring kingdom and has begun expanding her empire. Kelsea is shy, bookish, and plain — seemingly the last person in the world to make an effective ruler. But her strong sense of justice and the help of a few loyal allies eventually enable her to claim her throne and even — perhaps — to keep it, as she makes her first move to challenge the Red Queen’s supremacy.

I quite enjoyed this sword-and-sorcery novel, although the plot is certainly far from original. Kelsea is a relatable fantasy heroine, not particularly gifted at swordplay or magic, but grimly determined to hold onto her birthright and (essentially) not mess things up too badly. I also loved the basic premise that she has to win a place for herself in a situation where so many different factions are arrayed against her. I’m a sucker for a good political intrigue, and this book sets up a lot of different possible enemies who I’m sure will become more important in the sequels. The actual plot of this book is a little weak, in my opinion. The Red Queen is so over-the-top evil that I found her more annoying than threatening; I’d much rather see Kelsea deal with her internal foes than focus on defeating this “big bad.” But I want to spend more time in this world, especially to learn more about the Queen’s Guard and the Fetch. So I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling, one of these days!

Review: How My Summer Went Up in Flames

How My Summer Went Up in FlamesJennifer Salvato Doktorski, How My Summer Went Up in Flames

It’s the first day of summer, but Rosie Catalano is feeling anything but excited. Her boyfriend Joey, whom she had thought was the one, recently dumped her. In retaliation, Rosie had the not-so-bright idea of burning his stuff in his driveway, which resulted in an accidental car fire — and a restraining order against her! Now Rosie is dealing with humiliation as well as heartbreak, and her parents are more than a little bit concerned. But Rosie’s next door neighbor and best friend Matty has a solution: he and his two friends, Spencer and Logan, are driving from New Jersey to Arizona, where Logan will be attending college. He invites Rosie to come along, and her parents, worried about the consequences of her remaining in town, encourage her to go. Rosie is very reluctant about the trip at first, and her quick temper results in some very uncomfortable moments, especially with the standoffish Logan. But as she and the guys travel west, stopping at various landmarks around the way, Rosie reflects on the choices she’s made in the past and learns a little bit about herself. She may even find herself getting over Joey and falling for someone new.

This book was a gift, and while I probably wouldn’t have picked it up myself, I love a good road trip story! Overall, though, this book didn’t quite meet my expectations. First of all, it’s much more a coming-of-age story than a romance. While Rosie does eventually end up with one of the guys from the road trip, it’s very unclear whom she’ll choose for most of the book. On the plus side, this means the love story wasn’t predictable; on the minus side, I had absolutely no investment in the outcome of the relationship because I didn’t know whom I was supposed to be rooting for! I also wasn’t a huge fan of Rosie as a character. She makes a lot of bad decisions in this book, especially towards the beginning, and she never really stops to think about the consequences of her actions. Maybe I’m judging her unfairly because I can’t relate to her at all, but I found her antics more annoying than adorable. And finally, I was somewhat disappointed in the road trip aspect of the story. I can’t even remember the places they visited, except they might have gone to Graceland and/or Dollywood. Overall, the book’s not a bad read, but it just didn’t do anything for me.

Review: I’ll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the SunJandy Nelson, I’ll Give You the Sun

This novel is the story of a family tragedy and its aftermath, narrated in alternating chapters by twins Noah and Jude. Noah’s narrative begins when the twins are 13. He’s the quiet one who dodges school bullies and spends all his time painting; Jude’s the outgoing one who is popular and daring. Despite their very different personalities, Noah and Jude are incredibly close. But Jude’s story, which takes place three years later, reveals that something terrible has happened, and she and Noah are no longer speaking. Noah is living in denial, trying to act like a “normal” teenager, and Jude is trying as hard as possible to be invisible. As the novel alternates between Noah’s story and Jude’s, the nature of their tragedy is revealed, and it becomes obvious that each twin only has half the story. In order to move past their family’s secrets, both twins will have to forgive themselves as well as each other. Meanwhile, Noah falls in love with the boy next door and must come to terms with his sexuality, while Jude searches for redemption through art.

You may not be able to tell from my woefully inadequate summary, but I loved, loved, LOVED this book! And I honestly wasn’t expecting to…YA contemporary is a genre that varies widely in quality, and I hadn’t heard much about this author, so I was quite wary going in. But I was almost immediately captivated by the energetic, vivid writing style and unexpected imagery. I usually think that the best writing style is the least obtrusive, but this book made me sit up and take notice, in a good way! I also felt deep sympathy for both Noah and Jude, who are each trying to figure out who they are, while being burdened with a huge weight of guilt. Despite their overly precocious voices, they felt like real human beings to me. I loved the book’s focus on visual art and was fascinated by Jude’s quest to make a sculpture out of stone, something that is apparently a dying art nowadays. There’s even a touch of magical realism, as Jude often talks to her Grandma Sweetwine’s ghost. In short, if the premise of this book seems at all appealing to you, I HIGHLY recommend it!

Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Girls at the Kingfisher Club, TheGenevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

The Hamilton sisters have been trapped all their lives. Their father is a harsh, cruel man who desperately wanted a son but got twelve daughters instead. He keeps them locked in the house at all times, never allowing them to catch a glimpse of the outside world. As the girls grow up, the eldest, Jo, finds a way to make their lives bearable: they sneak out of the house every night and go dancing. In the murky underworld of 1920s New York, it’s easy to blend in with the crowd, to trade a dance for some champagne or gin, to stay out all night just to feel young and alive. But Jo knows that her sisters’ freedom is incredibly fragile, and she is always watching to make sure that no girl reveals her true identity, gets caught in a police raid, or (worst of all) falls in love. When her father announces that he wants to marry off the girls to various business associates, Jo must take desperate action. She reaches out to a man from her past, a bootlegger who almost stole her heart. But her need to protect her sisters may cost Jo her own chance at happiness.

The premise of this book intrigued me immediately — a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set during the Roaring Twenties? Sign me up! And thankfully, the novel more than lived up to my expectations. One of my favorite things about it is the setting; New York City in the 1920s really came alive for me. The book captures the glamor and freedom and excitement of dancing all night in a smoky club, listening to a hot jazz band, and drinking exotic cocktails. But it also evokes the dangers of the era, where alcohol was illegal and nightclub raids were commonplace (unless you paid off the right cops). This setting is perfect for the Hamilton sisters’ story, as they are trying to break free but also to stay safe. I was also impressed by the characterization of the sisters; there are twelve of them, so obviously some are more fully developed than others, but they all have at least one unique quality. I also enjoyed the romance in the book, which was bittersweet but ultimately satisfying. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or fairy tale retellings!

Review: The Green Man

Green Man, TheMichael Bedard, The Green Man

O (don’t call her Ophelia) is a 14-year-old girl who is visiting her Aunt Emily for the summer. The plan is for Emily to take care of O while O’s father is off researching Ezra Pound in Italy; but O will also be taking care of Emily, who recently suffered a heart attack. When O arrives at Emily’s bookstore, the Green Man, she immediately senses something unique about it. The place is disorganized and covered in dust, but O learns that it was once a site for weekly poetry readings and that it may just be haunted by some literary ghosts. As O gets used to the Green Man and to her stubborn aunt, she eventually discovers that Emily is tormented by a secret from her past. But what does this secret have to do with an ancient flyer for a magic show, a collection of valuable old books, or the mysterious boy O befriends at the bookstore? Together, O and Emily must uncover the secret and allow their poets’ souls to believe in magic and mystery.

This book was apparently written in 2012, but it has a timeless quality that reminds me of the books I read in childhood. There are no references to computers or cellphones, and aside from one use of the word “hipster” (which was actually quite jarring), there’s nothing that really anchors the story to a specific place and time. I also think the book would be most enjoyed by a younger audience. Protagonist O is 14 or 15, but based on her actions in this book, she could be much younger. There’s a hint of romance with her mysterious male friend, but certainly nothing overt, and O’s main internal conflict involves her desire to write poetry. I personally found the book well-written and interesting, but I also found it easy to put aside. That said, I think 12-year-old me would have loved it! So I would recommend this book to teens and pre-teens who enjoy reading and magic, but I don’t think it’s a particularly great read for adults.

Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, TheGabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

A.J. Fikry is going through a rough time. He is still grieving the loss of his wife, who died in a car accident two years ago. His small independent bookstore on Alice Island (somewhere off the coast of New England) is steadily failing. And someone has just stolen his most valuable possession, a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane. A.J.’s current method of dealing with these problems is to isolate himself from everyone, even Ismay, his sister-in-law, and Officer Lambiase, a compassionate policeman. But everything changes when someone leaves a baby girl in the bookstore, along with a note placing her in A.J.’s care. At first, A.J. wants nothing to do with this situation, but he eventually bonds with the child and decides to adopt her. The more time he spends with baby Maya, the more cracks appear in his cantankerous facade. He slowly opens up to Ismay, Lambiase, and the rest of his community, even finding the courage to fall in love again. A.J.’s story ultimately illustrates that good friends and good books make a good life.

I actually started this book on New Year’s Eve, but I stayed up past midnight to finish it, so I’m officially counting it as my first book of 2015! For obvious reasons, I’m drawn to books about bookstore owners, especially cranky ones with very particular literary tastes. As a result, I really liked A.J. as a character, even when he was being rude and obnoxious (which was often). His romance with publisher’s rep Amelia Loman is absolutely adorable, especially in its early stages when he’s being tentative and embarrassed. Their teasing, slightly awkward banter is a pleasure to read. I also liked Maya’s character, which surprised me a bit, since I usually find children in novels tiresome. But I enjoyed watching her grow up and absorb her father’s love of literature, which culminates in her own desire to be a writer. The book is somewhat disorganized, jumping into the heads of several different characters, and the stakes aren’t particularly high. But for a pleasant read about people who love books, I’d definitely recommend this novel!

Review: Young Miles

Young MilesLois McMaster Bujold, Young Miles

This omnibus of two novels and a novella tells the story of Miles Vorkosigan’s first adventures. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles has just flunked out of the Imperial Academy, where he’d hoped to distinguish himself like his father, the Prime Minister of Barrayar. Instead, he consoles himself by going on a mission to help his bodyguard’s daughter (and secret love), Elena. Of course, things quickly go wrong, and he finds himself at the head of a troop of space mercenaries. In The Mountains of Mourning, Miles is sent to a remote Barrayaran village to investigate the murder of a deformed child, a case that has special meaning for him. And in The Vor Game, Miles rejoins his army of mercenaries after a simple intelligence-gathering mission goes awry — with Gregor, the Emperor of Barrayar, in tow. Miles just can’t seem to stay out of trouble; but his brilliant strategic mind always keeps him one step ahead of his enemies.

I read the two books about Miles’ parents, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, several years ago and really liked them. So I’m glad I finally picked up these next books about the beginning of Miles’ career. I liked all three stories a lot, mostly because Miles is such a wonderfully entertaining character. In these books he’s often immature, and he still has a lot of growing up to do; but he does start to change for the better when he encounters some of the harsh realities of being a commander. Miles has a tendency to bluff his way from one situaton to the next, and he eventually learns that this approach often has dangerous consequences for his subordinates. I think the weak link in this omnibus is the first half of The Vor Game; not much happens that’s relevant to the later plot, and there is also a loose end with a corpse in a drainpipe that I wish had been more developed. But overall, I really enjoyed these books and would recommend them to anyone who likes space opera. I look forward to reading more about Miles and his adventures!

Review: The Giver

Giver, TheLois Lowry, The Giver

Eleven-year-old Jonas lives with his parents and sister in an idyllic place called simply the Community. The Community is governed by a set of Rules covering all aspects of life, which results in a peaceful, orderly society. Everyone has a specific role to play in the Community, with the Elders evaluating the children on their twelfth birthday in order to determine how they will serve the Community as adults. Jonas is looking forward to his Ceremony of Twelve with great excitement, wondering which job he’ll be assigned to perform. But when the fateful day finally arrives, Jonas is stunned to learn that he’s been chosen for the most prestigious and mysterious job of all: he will be the Community’s new Receiver. At first Jonas doesn’t even know what being the Receiver entails, but he soon learns that it will isolate him from everyone he knows, even his family. And as his training with the former Receiver (now called the Giver) continues, Jonas realizes that the supposedly benevolent Community is hiding some very dark secrets.

Despite the fact that this book came out during my childhood, I somehow never read it before. So I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t enjoy it, reading it for the first time as an adult. Fortunately, my fear was groundless — I thought this was an absolutely fantastic book! Of course, some of the more sinister aspects of the Community will be unsurprising to adult readers, who have presumably encountered other dystopian novels and can guess what’s coming. But Lowry does such an amazing job of peeling back the seemingly perfect facade of the Community bit by bit, slowly revealing surprising tidbits of this allegedly ideal world. I also really loved the character of Jonas, who reacts to his new discoveries in such an understandable way. I practically got chills at the scene where he gets his list of Rules for how to be the Receiver — it perfectly encapsulates the confusing new world he’s been thrust into. Finally, I liked the ambiguity of the ending; Jonas decides to take a stand, but the outcome of this decision remains uncertain. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes dystopian novels!