Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Couple of ARC Reviews

Among other exciting things going on in my life, I attended my first ALA Annual this year where I presented on digital libraries with my good friend Julie Judkins. The bonus was the conference happened to be across the street (literally) from Disneyland but more about that later this week.

One of the fun things about ALA is its exhibit hall where publishers come to share their upcoming publications with the thousands of librarians who attend the event. ARCs, or Advanced Reader Copy, are just how they do that and it is a sight to see the ARCs stacked in piles in the publishers' booths. Some take tons of ARCs during their time at ALA, so much so that there is a temporary post office set up on the exhibit floor so that people can ship things home as needed. However, I did not need the post office as I kept to books I thought I would enjoy and that I would like to review to get the word out about them which meant I only came home with about 10 new books to read. I was impressed with myself because the temptation to grab up books like candy is there.

I also got two books signed. The Disney geek in me squealed when I got to meet Dave Smith, Disney Archivist Emeritus and have him sign his new book, Disney Trivia from the Value: Secrets Revealed and Questions Answered. The next day, I got to meet R. L. LaFevers, author of the Theodosia books that I adore and she signed the first book in her new series, Grave Mercy (a completely fabulous read about a female assassin in medieval France). It was fun to get to meet authors and talk with them about their books and work. But enough about that, I've finished three of the ARCs I brought back so I wanted to share my thoughts.

In Need of a Good Wife, Kelly O'Connor McNees

From Goodreads
The first sentence on the back of this book included mail-order brides so I knew I needed to read it. I love arranged marriage/marriage of convenience stories. I know most of them have major women's issues in them as well but I still love them - I figure a guilty reading pleasure is OK to have. McNees' story follows a group of New York City women as they journey to Destination, Nebraska and their future husbands. Three of the group are the focus for the narrative: the women who came up with the plan, a woman trying to escape debt and an older immigrant who is just coming to be a housekeeper. They find life on the frontier to be anything but what they expected and each faces her own trials upon arrival. As I said in my Goodreads review, I am ambivalent about this book. I liked the premise of it but the narrative was very fractured; I think the author tried to use way too many points of view. It would have been stronger if she had chosen one protaginist to focus on for the entirety of the story. The three main women are approachable, representing various points on a morality scale and quite black and white which makes them interesting, but not intriguing. In fact, all her characters are black and white; the "villain" of the town was like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The religious undertones are clear but not overwhelming and McNees brings it across strongest in her most likable character so I didn't mind that aspect as much as I could have.

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling: A Novel, Michael Boccacino

From Goodreads
Charlotte Markham has been followed by Death all her life. Now a governess for two boys whose mother has recently died, she thinks that perhaps she has no one left for Death to come for..until her good friend and the boys' nanny is found brutally murdered on the grounds of the estate and suddenly there is a door into the House of Darkling where the boys' mother is waiting for them. The boys' mother  has made a deal with the master of the house for a second chance at motherhood but the more time she spends in Darkling, the more Charlotte is worried about the game she's gotten them all into. This is a delightfully creepy gothic fantasy tale with a likable heroine and fantastic visuals. Boccoacino's imagination is a fun curiosity cabinet of the amazing and grotesque and he's able to envelope those visuals into an interesting story, full of adventure and mystery. I would perhaps have wished for a more drawn out ending, the story seems to end abruptly and there are times I wish he'd spent a little less time describing the setting and more on the story and character development but overall, the atmosphere of this book is too wonderfully rendered to lament a little less character development.

The Midwife of Hope River, Patricia Harman

From Goodreads
I was iffy about this book; midwifery isn't really an interest but it was in my bag at the HarperCollins preview so I figured if it had their stamp of approval it must be good. And it was; I haven't like a book this much in a long time. Patience Murphy is a midwife in rural West Virginia. Her past is violent and tragic and she's been running from it for a long time. The book opens as she delivers the child of a mine owner of Liberty, West Virginia the day after the stock market crashed in 1929. The book is Patience's journal over the next year as loss and love comes into her life and with the crash, the mines shut down, racial tensions rise and people looking for work pass through Liberty at an alarming rate. I kind of loved Patience. She is too naive at times but the book always acknowledged that shortcoming by its other characters. Patience perhaps had too much tragedy in her life but she's fictional so I forgave her for the backstory that seems to have one tragic event after another. I think because of that backstory, her naiveté was charming, rather than annoying. She'd had so many awful things happen to her and seen so many terrible things but she was still naive, and I think hopeful, about the human character. All the characters in this work were likable and relatable; all had their secrets and their backstories, making them multi-dimenstional and also active characters throughout the story. Harman handled her large cast well which isn't always the case with authors who'll forget about characters sometimes in a large cast. I rooted for Patience - sympathized with her and liked that common sense always won out with her. She's the first main character in awhile that I never really wanted to reach in and smack at any point and if she did start to get ridiculous, one of the other characters would call her out on it. I like an author who understands her character that well but also the audience. The story itself is fairly predictable really but I loved the characters and the setting Harman put them in so much, I wanted the happy ending I could see coming a mile off.

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