Friday, March 06, 2015

This Star Won't Go Out: Surviving Thyroid Cancer is Almost Guaranteed—Except When It Isn't

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer back in 2009, I heard a lot of people say, "Well, if you have to have cancer, that's the best kind to have."  This is true.  With a survival rate of 97-100%, it's a whole lot more common to survive it than otherwise.  There are, however, exceptions.  Like Ester Earl, a 12-year-old girl from Massachusetts, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2006.  Four years later, it killed her.  

Famous because of her friendship with popular YA author John Green (although The Fault in Our Stars is not based on Ester's life, it is dedicated to her), Ester became known for her bubbly personality, her positive outlook on life, and her courage in the face of a devastating illness.  She was a prolific writer, crafting many journal entries, as well as stories and letters, in her short life.  These pieces, along with some of Ester's sketches, many photos, and essays from family and friends have been collected into a thick, inspiring book titled This Star Won't Go Out.  Published last year, it quickly became a New York Times bestseller.  My 13-year-old daughter begged me to get it for her for Christmas because it's one of her all-time favorite books.

Although This Star Won't Go Out has been touching people's hearts for awhile now, I only read it a few months ago.  For a book about a kid with cancer, it's surprisingly upbeat.  It's also heartfelt, affecting, and deserving of the hype it's received.  Ester's writing emphasizes the fragility of life and the importance of holding on to faith, family, friends, and hope when trials come into your life.  As someone whose world has been changed forever by thyroid cancer, I appreciated these words of wisdom that helped me remember never to take life for granted.  It's an important message delivered by a talented writer who continues to share her experiences for the good of others (see tswgo.org).  

(Readalikes: Hm, nothing comes to mind except The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), mild sexual innuendo, and intense subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, March 05, 2015

If I Had To Choose a Favorite Morton Novel, It Would Probably Be This One ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

On a lazy summer afternoon in the English countryside, 16-year-old Laurel Nicolson hides in her backyard treehouse.  High above her seeking sisters she lounges, dreaming of her secret boyfriend and the rendezvous they've planned for the evening.  In that moment, anything—and everything—seems possible.

Laurel has no idea just how much this ordinary afternoon will change her life until she spies a stranger in her yard.  Unseen by him or her mother, Laurel witnesses a shocking crime that throws everything she knows about her family and their seemingly perfect home life into question.  Unable to process what it all means, Laurel flees to London, with no intention of ever going back.

Fifty years later, Laurel's sisters are organizing a birthday party for their mother, who is turning 90.  Reluctantly returning to her childhood home, Laurel vows to finally get the truth about what happened that long ago summer afternoon.  Her mother's frail, with a memory that's fading fast—it's now or never.  As Laurel probes for answers, she learns the incredible story of three people, whose lives intertwine in ways that will change all of them forever.

Considering the fact that I've raved about every book she's ever written, it's not going to surprise you that I loved The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton.  The Australian author just knows how to write the kind of stories that capture not only my attention, but also my heart.  Her family sagas are full of everything I look for in a novel—rich, atmospheric settings; complex, empathetic characters; intriguing, mystery-filled plot lines; and vivid, flowing prose.  I adore all her books, but The Secret Keeper might be my favorite of them all.  Really, the only complaint I have with this author is that she writes too slowly (although she does have a new book coming out in October).   


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated: 


for language (no F-bombs), violence, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Secret Keeper at Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

The Giver Finale Heartbreaking, But Triumphant

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers from Son, it may inadvertently spoil plot surprises from The Giver, Gathering Blue, or Messenger.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

No one in the community knows who she is or from whence she came.  They only know that she washed up on their shore one day, with no knowledge of her life before.  Except for her name—Claire—the girl knows nothing of herself.  Then, vague memories start floating through her mind.  It's only then that Claire recalls the place of her birth—a bland, colorless world devoid of affection and personal choice.  A place where children are Assigned a duty which they must fulfill.  Even if it means becoming pregnant at 14 years old with a baby who will be given to an appropriate family, never to be known by his Birthmother.  As a Vessel, Claire should have borne the infant and forgotten him, moved on with her life.  But, even now, she can't forget her son.  She'd give anything—anything—to see him again.

The road to Gabriel is an impossible one.  It will require everything Claire has—and more.  Can she make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of love or will she, finally, allow herself to let go of the son she's never forgotten?  

Son, the final installment in The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, ties up a lot of unanswered questions from the first three books in the series.  It is, however, Claire's story.  She's a courageous young heroine, one whose desperate plight the reader can't help but care about.  As Claire fights to see her son again, we can't help but ponder the questions Lowry's been forcing us to ask all throughout this series, questions about freedom, personal choice, imagination, consequences, pain, and passion.  It's a satisfying finale about the fierceness of a mother's love, the war between good and evil, and the beauty that exists in the world even in the midst of pain.    


(Readalikes:  The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger by Lois Lowry)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and vague references to sex/sexual abuse

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Son from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Third Giver Book Full of Important Messages

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Messenger by Lois Lowry, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from The Giver and Gathering Blue.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Village used to be a peaceful place, a place that welcomed outcasts into its fold.  No more.  A strange wind is blowing through the once utopian town, bringing with it the stink of greed, envy, and suspicion.  When the decision is made to close Village to outsiders, Matty panics.  If no one is allowed in, the blind, old Seer will never get to visit with the beloved daughter with whom he's only recently been reunited.  Matty cannot allow the kind old man to have is heart broken again.  He must traverse the deadly Forest to bring Kira home to her father—before it's too late.

As if to prove just how different things have become, Forest has grown hostile even to Matty, who's always been able to move through it safely.  Without that special ability, he may not be able to make it through to Kira.  He cares too much for the Seer not to at least try.  Armed only with a peculiar gift that he's only beginning to understand, Matty must make a perilous journey in order to help his friend, and his community, heal.  Will he reach Kira in time?  Will he even make it out of Forest alive?  

Readers who felt frustrated with the open endings of the first two books in Lois Lowry's unsettling dystopian series will be happy to know that Messenger, the third volume, connects at least a few dots.  We finally learn what happened to Jonas and Gabe, as well as Seer and other characters from the previous books.  Really, though, this is Matty's story.  Brave and loyal, he's an easy hero for which to root.  Allegorical in nature (as are all of The Giver books), Messenger is a cautionary tale about what happens to people (and communities) when the evils of the world are allowed overcome their better natures.  As always, I can't help but find Biblical parallels in Lowry's stories—Matty could be seen as Adam leaving the Garden of Eden or even a type of Christ.  The best part about this series is probably the fact that Lowry leaves it all open to the reader's interpretation.  Regardless of which lessons you find for yourself in Messenger, it's a compelling read.  If you loved The Giver, you definitely don't want to miss it. 

(Readalikes:  The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Son by Lois Lowry)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), intense situations, and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Messenger from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Luminous Station Eleven A Unique Post-Apocalyptic Must-Read

(Image from author's website)

On an otherwise ordinary winter's night in Toronto, Canada, a famous actor dies onstage during a performance of King Lear.  Jeevan Chaudhary, a papparazzo turned EMT, rushes from his seat in the audience to pump the man's heart back into action.  He fails, while Kristen Raymonde, an 8-year-old actress, looks on in horror.  The night is memorable not just for the actor's death, but because it's the night a devastating flu epidemic begins to spread with deadly speed.  The carnage is only beginning.  

Fifteen years later, Kristen is traveling the ruined, post-apocalyptic world with a band of actors and musicians.  For them, life isn't just about survival, it's about preserving the art and music that once flourished all around them.  It's about sharing beauty, spreading joy even in desperate circumstances.  Risking their own safety, the Traveling Symphony performs concerts and plays in makeshift settlements all around the Great Lakes region.  While the area is mostly safe, danger always lurks around the corner in this strange, new land.

As the Traveling Symphony encounters a chilling menace, the tale sweeps back and forth in time, filling in the back stories of the main players.  As their pasts and presents intertwine, it's their relationships that sustain them, their bravery that saves them, and their desire for a life beyond mere survival that elevates them.

It's tough to describe the plot of Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel's award-winning novel.  It's even harder to explain its luminous, elegiac beauty.  To say it's unique, different from other post-apocalyptic stories, just doesn't seem quite adequate.  It's true, though.  Most dystopians rely heavily on dramatic plot surprises to keep the reader turning pages—Station Eleven leans on its characters.  They're complex enough, interesting enough, to command the reader's attention all on their own.  It's the discovery of who the characters are at heart, plus finding the clever twists of fate that connect them that makes this novel such a pleasure to read.  I wish I could capture the magic of this book in words, but I just can't.  Luckily, there's an easy (and enjoyable) solution—Read Station Eleven for yourself. 

(Readalikes:  Um, I can't really think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence, depictions of illegal drug use, and mild sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Station Eleven from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Second Madman's Daughter Novel Brings New Twist to the Series

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Her Dark Curiosity, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, The Madman's Daughter.  As always, I recommend reading series in order.)

Months after escaping the island of horrors created by her father, the infamous Dr. Moreau, Juliet is back in London.  The 17-year-old has been taken in by an old family friend, giving her the stability to remake her life.  As much as she longs to forget her dark legacy altogether, Juliet finds that at least some of its pieces have followed her back to England.  Edward Prince, now known as Dr. Jakyll, makes a disturbing appearance, as does his alter ego, a vengeful beast.  It can't be coincidence that Juliet's acquaintances are falling victim to a murderer who appears to claw them to death.  As if this weren't enough to deal with, Juliet's barely managing to keep her own inner beast under control.  Her father's corrective serum is becoming less effective every day.  If she can't recreate it for herself, her own animal instinct will surely take over.

As Juliet's world devolves into chaos and violence, she must figure out how to save not just herself, but also all the people she loves most.

Just like The Madman's Daughter spun a classic horror novel (The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells) in a new direction, so does Her Dark Curiosity, the second installment in Megan Shepherd's popular Gothic trilogy.  Weaving elements of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the narrative gives the story another layer of intrigue.  Atmospheric and eerie, the tale is both chilling and exciting.  Juliet continues to annoy with her fickleness, especially when it comes to romance.  Love triangles are almost always irritating—this one is no exception.  All in all, though, I enjoyed Her Dark Curiosity.  The twist at the end pushes the series in a new direction, which convinced me to give the final book a chance even though I haven't been as impressed with the first two as I'd hoped to be.

(Readalikes:  The Madman's Daughter and A Cold Legacy by Megan Shepherd)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence/gore, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Odd, Disquieting Grief Novel Tells a Thought-Provoking Story

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

To celebrate Greta Woodrow's seventh birthday, her parents take her and her younger brother to the circus.  When Mike the Clown asks for a volunteer from the audience, all the Woodrows are shocked that James raises his hand.  The five-year-old is painfully shy, so much so that his mother is considering therapy for the odd child.  The family is even more astonished when James seems to be not just comfortable onstage, but also an effortless crowd pleaser.  When, for his final act, Mike the Clown makes James disappear, the audience roars its approval.  

The Woodrows can't wait to congratulate their son on his brilliant performance.  They wait for him to join them in the lobby.  And wait.  And wait.  And wait.  James is nowhere to be found.  Mike the Clown insists he never saw the boy after the big finale.  A search of the theater produces no clues.  James Woodrow has simply disappeared.  

As the days wear on with no sign of the missing child, the Woodrow Family slowly falls to pieces.  Greta knows it's up to her to find out what happened to her brother.  She uses her vivid imagination to conjure up scenarios that help her cope with the loss.  Still, the questions linger:  Where is James?  Did someone kidnap him or did he truly disappear in a puff of magical smoke?

The Disapparation of James by Anne Ursu starts with a simple question:  What if a circus vanishing act really worked?  The unsettling inquiry offers a fresh avenue for exploring the effects of loss on a normal, everyday family.  Still, this isn't not your average grief book—The Disapparation of James is undeniably odd.  It's also depressing.  Overall, though, it's a well-written, character-driven novel that brings something new to the table.  I didn't love it, but I found it very thought-provoking.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find  

Monday, March 02, 2015

Brilliantly Crafted Big Little Lies Lives Up to the Hype

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The back cover copy for Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty's bestselling novel, describes the book so perfectly that I'm not even going to try to put my own spin on it.  I'm just going to give it to you straight:
Sometimes it’s the little lies that turn out to be the most lethal. . . .
A murder… . . . a tragic accident… . . . or just parents behaving badly?
What’s indisputable is that someone is dead.  
But who did what?
Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads:
Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).
Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.
New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.
Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.
You've probably seen all the rave reviews this novel's gotten ever since it was published last year.  I'm always a little hesitant to trust hype, but in this case?  Believe it.  Big Little Lies is a hilarious, heartbreaking, spot-on story about the lengths to which we will go to protect our fragile images from the prying eyes of others.  It's compelling, compulsively readable, and a lot deeper than it seems on the surface.  Brilliantly crafted, Big Little Lies is one of those novels that simply should not be missed.

(Readalikes:  I can't think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, sexual content, and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, February 28, 2015

When All YA Paranormal Sleuth Books Feel Exactly the Same ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Maddie Flynn possesses a unique gift, although it feels more like a curse than a blessing.  When the 16-year-old looks at a person, she sees a date hovering near their head.  As a small child, she doesn't pay much attention to these random-seeming numbers.  It's only after her father dies—on the exact date Maddie predicts—that she and her mother finally understand what the numbers really mean.  Spying a golden opportunity to make a pile of cash, Maddie's alcoholic mom forces her to do readings for desperate clients.

When Maddie foresees the death—the date, not the cause—of a 13-year-old murder victim, she quickly falls under police suspicion.  As more teens are killed in a similar fashion, Maddie becomes their prime suspect.  Now, she and her best friend, Stubs, must find the killer not just to stop the violence and clear their names, but also to avoid becoming the next victims.

Although I've read about a million YA books with pretty much this same setup, I hoped the whole death date thing would set When by Victoria Laurie apart.  No such luck.  Its story and characters felt too familiar, too generic.  Add tell-y prose and gaping plot holes and yeah, it just wasn't that great.  I wanted something memorable.  When wasn't it.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Body Finder series [The Body Finder; Desires of the Dead; The Last Echo; and Dead Silence] by Kimberly Derting and the Bang [Crash; Bang; and Gasp] and Wake series [Wake; Fade; Gone] by Lisa McMann)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, and intense/scary situations

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of When from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Mormon Mentions: Jodi Picoult

If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain:  My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?).  As a member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media.  Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here.  Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying.  It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture. 

***

In Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult, 13-year-old Jenna Metcalf is trying to find her mother, who disappeared ten years ago.  While reading a book about how to become a P.I., she sees this:

"The book had other suggestions, too: searching prison databases, trademark applications, even the genealogy records of the[sic] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  When I tried those, I didn't get any results." (Page 23)

I talked a bit about genealogy in yesterday's post, but I'm happy to revisit the topic.  The LDS Church is well-known for its interest in families—both in strengthening present bonds and linking current generations with their ancestors.  Why?  Because we believe that family bonds endure not just through mortal life, but throughout all eternity.  Families are Forever is a statement familiar to all members of the church (you're pretty much guaranteed to find it stamped, painted or cross-stitched somewhere in an LDS home).  

Because of this interest, the LDS Church has amassed a huge amount of family history resources.  Many of the records are digitized and available to the public for free on FamilySearch.org.  Thanks to the enormous amount of hours volunteers (including Yours Truly) spend transcribing such documents, more are being added all the time.  With a couple clicks of your mouse, you can access records of all kinds—birth, death, marriage, census, passenger lists from immigrant ships, etc.  You'll be amazed at how much information you can find (even if Jenna Metcalf wasn't)! 

While Googling a disgraced psychic, Jenna comes across this (fictional) news story:

"In January 2004, Jones told Yolanda Rawls of Orem, Utah, that her missing five-year-old daughter, Velvet, had been brainwashed and was being raised by a Mormon family, touching off a wave of protests in Salt Lake City.  Six months later Yolanda's boyfriend confessed to the girl's murder and led police to a shallow grave near the local dump." (Page 35) 

I'm sure everyone's heard the rumor that the LDS Church is a cult.  It's not, although considering some of the practices of Mormon spin-off groups, I can understand the misconception.  I belong to a regular, old church, I promise.  Don't believe me?  Find a Mormon chapel near your home and attend a meeting or two (or three or five or ten ...).  You can see for yourself.     

Orem is kind of a wonky place, though—just ask Suey over at It's All About Books.  Kidding, Suey!  I love the Provo/Orem area.  The six years I spent living there were some of the most memorable in my life.    

Beautiful Elephant Book Unique, But Still Vintage Picoult

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Jenna Metcalf can't stop thinking about her mother, an elephant researcher who disappeared ten years ago after a tragic accident at the family's animal sanctuary.  The 13-year-old can't ask her father—his mental breakdown after the incident landed him in a psychiatric ward, from which he's never left.  Jenna's grandmother refuses to discuss what happened at all.  Jenna's clandestine Internet searches provide few clues to her mother's whereabouts.  Poring over Alice Metcalf's old journals, which are mostly filled with notes on elephants, doesn't seem to be helping either.  Jenna knows her mother is alive; she just has to find her.

Desperate, Jenna enlists the help of two unlikely people—Serenity Johnson, a once-famous psychic now exposed as a fraud, and Virgil Stanhope, the alcoholic P.I. who was the lead detective on the original Metcalf case.  As the trio investigates every lead they can find, they discover shocking secrets about the Metcalf Family.  The closer they get to the truth, the more complex and devastating the case becomes.  And yet, it all ends with a twist so surprising none of them see it coming.

Oscillating between the present and the past, Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult unfolds in the voices of four intriguing narrators—Jenna, Alice, Serenity, and Virgil.  Each brings a different perspective, adding another layer to the already suspenseful plot.  The elephant element gives the novel even more depth as it explores themes of memory, grief, love, and family bonds.  With a hint of the supernatural mixed in with the author's usual mystery/family drama blend, Leaving Time is both unique and vintage Picoult.  As a long-time Jodi Picoult fan, I'd grown a little bored with her novels' trademark formula—this book made me believe again.  It's Picoult at her very best.  I know some readers felt a little gypped by Leaving Time's unconventional ending, but it proved to me that Picoult always has another trick up her sleeve.  I've longed look forward to her new books, but now I really can't wait to see what she does next!

(Readalikes:  Larger Than Life (a Leaving Time novella) by Jodi Picoult, Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Leaving Time from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Because I Haven't Procrastinated Quite Enough Already, I Give You ... A Little This and That

I feel like I'm always behind on something when it comes to this blog.  I've got books I read back in November sitting on my desk still waiting to be reviewed, emails I haven't answered, scheduled reviews I'm not getting to ... heck, I haven't updated my All Reviews list since 2013!  Yikes.  I'm still plugging along, though, clinging to the dream that one day I will be all caught up.  Think it will ever actually happen?  Yeah, me neither.  Oh well, a girl can dream ...

For now, we're going to do a little this and that:

First of all, I should mention that a couple weeks ago, my husband and I took a fun road trip.  Our destination:  Salt Lake City, Utah.  In the LDS church, we all have "jobs" (I use the term loosely, since it's voluntary) we do to help our congregations (known as "wards") run smoothly.  In addition to being a Cub Scout den leader, I'm also a family history consultant, as is my husband.  Even if you're not LDS, you probably know what an emphasis the church places on families—not just strengthening the bonds we have in the present, but also creating links between us and our ancestors.  Thus, each ward has 2-3 people assigned to help others work on their genealogy.  Since the husband and I are still learning the ins and outs of this job, we decided to head to SLC for the annual RootsTech genealogy conference.  It's a big deal (like, 20,000+ attendees big).  We spent the days going to classes, listening to some great speakers (A.J. Jacobs, Laura and Jenna Bush, Donny Osmond, Nicole Pikus-Pace, Al Fox, etc.), and enjoying performances by local celebs like Alex Boyé, David Archuleta, and Studio C.  It was fun.  A great trip.

Even though we spent time relaxing at our very comfortable B&B, I didn't get tons of reading done.  However, I did have a very cool bookish experience.  Salt Lake City boasts the biggest family history library in the world.  As you can imagine, it has a huge collection of family history books, including one my cousin wrote about our Clark/Cochran ancestors.  I've been interested in learning more about these early adventurers for awhile now and couldn't wait to see what information the book contained.  Since SLC has the only physical copy of the volume, I insisted we drop by the family history center so I could copy some of its pages.  I worried there might be copyright issues, but the kind, helpful senior missionaries who serve at the center assured me that—if I had the time—I could copy the entire tome onto a thumb drive without risking jail time.  As I gleefully scanned the pages, my husband did some Googling and discovered that the author of the book had, in fact, died ten years ago—almost to the day.  We figured there was no better way to honor this cousin I never knew than by sharing his life work with the next generation of our family.

I know this will make me sound like a senior citizen, but genealoy is a fun, exciting work.  If you're at all interested in learning about your family's history, check out: www.familysearch.org.  You don't have to be LDS to use this free service.  It's an incredible resource, available to everyone, anywhere in the world.  

***

Speaking of all things LDS, I've signed up once again to participate in the Whitney Awards Read 'Em All Challenge.  The Whitney Awards are given out annually for the best novels published in a given year by authors who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Hosted jointly by the lovely ladies at New LDS Fiction and LDS Women's Book Review, this challenge encourages people to read all of the books that have been nominated to receive a 2014 Whitney. This is no small task as there are—wait for it—40 novels in total.  As part of the Whitney Academy, I get the privilege of casting my vote to help determine the winners, so I'm going to read as many as I can.  Wish me luck!

While you have to be a member of the Academy in order to vote for the winners, you don't have to be part of the Academy or even LDS to participate in this challenge.  Anyone can sign up.  The finalists are, in general, not LDS novels at all, just general fiction that can be enjoyed by readers of any—or no—religion.  You can win weekly prizes and a nice grand prize.  If you're interested, hop on over to this post and sign up.

***

Last but not least, you may recall the giveaway I had going for a copy of Fairest by Marissa Meyer.  It seems like ancient history, but I'm finally going to announce the winner!  Rafflecopter picked a random entrant, sooo ... Congratulations to:

Kimberly Goon   

Look for an email from me in your inbox, Kimberly!

***

Okay, I think that's it for now.  I've got an appointment I'm super excited to get to (that's sarcasm, friends—my dentist is trading out my old gold onlay for a new porcelain crown, a procedure I'm not looking forward to) and I might get some strange looks if I arrive unbathed, still in my PJs!

***

P.S.  Photo creds go to my husband, Eric.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Easy, Breezy, Beach-y Romance An Enjoyable Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Lila Alders has it all: a steady job as the host of a late-night television program, a large, lavish home, the perfect husband, and a loving set of parents who dote on their only child.  Then, in the blink of an eye, most of it vanishes.  Grieving the loss of her father, the collapse of her marriage, and the end of her career, the 29-year-old has no idea what to do with herself.  Her sudden cash flow problem leaves Lila little choice but to move in with her widowed mother.

Hoping to lay low and lick her wounds under the guise of helping her mom, Lila soon realizes that there is no hiding for the former golden girl of Black Dog Bay, Delaware.  Everywhere she looks, she sees old friends, former classmates, and a small army of ex-boyfriends.  Lila longs to start fresh, but how can she when her old life is staring her in the face every single day?

When Lila discovers her parents' fortune has disappeared, forcing the sale of  their beloved seaside home, she knows it's time to take drastic action.  Money has to start flowing—and soon—or the Alders women will be living on the street.  Lila has no idea how to manage a business, but opening a vintage clothing store seems to be an answer to their problems.  Although the plan leads to some major challenges, it also teaches Lila some of the biggest, most surprising lessons of her life.  It also guides her toward a boy whose existence she barely registered in high school who's somehow becoming the man she can't forget—not even for a minute.

Lila knows the time is ripe for taking chances, but is she willing to risk everything, even her fragile heart, for a life she never imagined?  Even if it might be the one she's been after all along?

I don't read a lot of romance novels, but I do find something alluring about a good shattered-woman- returns-to-her-hometown-to-start-over story.  Sure, they're cliché and overdone and, yet, apparently, I'm a fan.  Which explains why the premise of New Uses for Old Boyfriends by Beth Kendrick appealed to me.  Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the book.  It's warm, funny, upbeat, and just a fun, fluffy read.  Yes, it's predictable.  Yes, things go too smoothly for our heroine.  Yes, it's unrealistic.  No, I don't care.  When it comes to easy, breezy chick lit, I just want an entertaining story.  New Uses for Old Boyfriends fits the bill quite nicely, thank you very much.

(Readalikes:  the first Black Dog Bay book, Cure for the Common Breakup by Beth Kendrick; also reminds me of Robyn Carr's Virgin River and Thunder Point books)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), sexual innuendo, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of New Uses for Old Boyfriends from the generous folks at Penguin via those at BookSparks PR.  Thank you!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Another Just-Okay Read—and I Love NOLA Novels!

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Although her professor father can hardly contain himself at the prospect of studying history from the inside, 17-year-old Lucy Aimes isn't quite as enthusiastic.  She'd rather be hanging out with her friends in Chicago than playing Gone With the Wind all summer in hot, humid New Orleans.  Lucy promised her family she'd give life in Louisiana a shot and there is one thing she's excited about—interning with the preservation department of Le Ciel Doux, the antebellum sugar plantation/living history museum of which her father is the new curator.  It's impossible not to be intrigued by the elegant old mansion with its stately columns and ancient secrets.  Capturing it all with her trusty Canon is the one thing Lucy is looking forward to doing.

Le Ciel Doux's otherworldly atmosphere invades not just Lucy's camera, but also her dreams.  At night, she's plagued by vivid, unsettling scenes from a distant past she shouldn't recognize, but somehow remembers.  When she spies a mysterious stranger she's seen only in her night visions roaming the grounds of Le Ciel Doux, Lucy thinks she might be going crazy.  How can she feel so much for a person she doesn't know, a boy she's not even sure actually exists?

When a local girl is brutally murdered, Lucy knows the incident is somehow related to her strange visions.  Evil has descended on Le Ciel Doux once again and it's up to her to stop it, before it destroys everyone she loves—in the past and the present.

You may have noticed that I have a thing for novels set in The Big Easy.  The colorful, atmospheric portrayals of the city, with its unique history, culture, and customs, always capture my fancy.  So, when a book fails to bring all that richness to life, I feel a bit let down.  Which might explain why I found Sweet Unrest, a debut YA novel by Lisa Maxwell, disappointing.  The book's premise is intriguing enough, though not very original, so I had high hopes for a good read.  While the mystery did keep me flipping pages and I did enjoy the back-and-forth in time narration, Sweet Unrest just wasn't anything special.  The characters felt flat and cliché; the prose did a whole lot more telling than showing; the plot had some big holes; and the setting failed to come alive for me like it usually does in a NOLA novel.  I definitely wanted more from this book—better character development, a stronger voice, more dynamic writing, etc.  In the end, I felt this one was just okay.  Not horrible, not wonderful.  Okay.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Transcendence by C.J. Omololu and Ruined by Paula Morris)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Sweet Unrest from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Mesmerizing Genre-Twister Difficult to Describe, Even Harder to Put Down

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Some books are so hard for me to describe that I don't even bother trying to write my own plot summary.  Such is the case with Laura Ruby's newest YA novel, Bone Gap (available March 3, 2015).  I don't have the words to tell you just how original and mesmerizing it is.  So, I'm just going to whet your appetite with the book's official back cover copy:
Bone Gap  is the story of Roza, a beautiful girl who is taken from a quiet midwestern town and imprisoned by a mysterious man, and Finn, the only witness, who cannot forgive himself for being unable to identify her kidnapper. As we follow them through their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures, acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.
While the text doesn't seem to say a whole lot, it actually does a nice, succinct job of outlining the story without giving too much away.  I don't want to be spoiler-y either, so I'm just going to say that I loved this compelling, genre-twisting mystery.  The plot kept me guessing and the ending stunned me with its never-seen-it-done-before brilliance.  Bone Gap may be difficult to describe, but reading it was no trouble at all.  I sped through the book as fast as I could, hardly daring to breathe for fear I'd miss something.  Putting it down?  That was the hard part! 

(Readalikes:  I can't think of anything, can you?)

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language (a few F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence, and depictions of underage drinking/partying

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Bone Gap from the generous folks at HarperCollins via those at Edelweiss.  Thank you!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Brown Girl, Inspiring

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I've long been a fan of Jacqueline Woodson, an African-American author who writes books about race relations in a way that's realistic, but also fresh and thoughtful.  Her novels always make me think.  Several of them are written in verse, so it's not too surprising that her newest book is as well.  Brown Girl Dreaming is not, however, a novel.  It's a memoir.  The tale of Jacqueline Woodson herself.  And it's just as impacting as any of her other stories. 

Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, not far from where her slave ancestors toiled from sunup to sundown in someone else's fields.  She came into the world on an ordinary day in 1963.  At that time, the South was simmering, about to explode.  People like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were stirring the pot, calling for equality, for new laws that would ensure little brown girls like Jacqueline would grow up with the same rights as their white counterparts.  

In the middle of all that, Jacqueline had her own, more personal trials.  Moving from a mixed neighborhood in Ohio to a colored one in North Carolina brought new experiences.  When her mother took off for New York, leaving her children to be raised by their maternal grandmother, Jacqueline was introduced to the Jehovah's Witness religion.  A later move to Brooklyn, New York, caused her to feel even more displaced.  

As Jacqueline struggled to make sense of her world and the unique circumstances of her life, she realized she had a gift.  Her ability to capture thoughts and ideas in words helped her to discover who she was, where she'd been, and who she was meant to be.  

Like Woodson's previous work, Brown Girl Dreaming exudes warmth and tenderness.  It's a touching book, but one that's surprisingly funny.  Although it discusses serious subjects (racism, child abandonment, etc.), it's uplifting, encouraging and hopeful.  Woodson's poetry has a richness to it that just shouldn't be missed.  As soon as my own little girl gets old enough, you can be sure I'll be thrusting this remarkable, Newbery Honor-winning memoir into her beautiful brown hands.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for some mature themes (racism, child abandonment, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, February 06, 2015

Dystopian-Horror-Psychological Thriller Mash Up Makes For a Nice, If Terrifying, Blend

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Something has been unleashed on the unsuspecting world.  Something that makes people turn, causing them to lash out like feral, bloodthirsty animals.  A mere glance at the monster is all it takes.  Violent, horrific deaths are always—always—the result.  The few people who are left know there's only one way to survive in a world gone mad: blind.  Wearing blindfolds at all times, they must learn to navigate the treacherous new landscape using their less finely-tuned senses.  But while they're vigilant about protecting their eyes, there's no way to safeguard their even more delicate minds ...

Malorie, the young mother of 4-year-old twins, knows its time for her to leave the abandoned house in Detroit where she's been hiding for the past four years.  She's heard of a safe house for refugees like herself.  For the sake of her children, she knows she must get them all there.  Against every instinct—everything she's been taught about survival—Malorie leaves the house to brave the vast, unknown world.  Blindfolded against the terrifying presence that stalks them at all times, the trio must make a long, death-defying journey that they can only hope will lead to safety.  

While Bird Box by singer/songwriter Josh Malerman might seem to be just another run-of-the-mill horror/dystopian, it definitely brings something new to the table.  The whole blindness thing takes it to a different level, giving the novel a psychological thriller aspect that sets it apart.  Something about never knowing quite who/what your enemy is (Human?  Monster?  A figment of your overwrought imagination?) makes this story so much more terrifying than others I've read.  If you're down for a taut, horrifying read, pick this one up—just make sure you leave the lights on :)

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  Ideas?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence/gore, intense situations and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

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