Friday, August 28, 2015

Let Me Die in His Footsteps a Tantalizing, Southern Gothic Mystery

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Myth and superstition swirl through the Kentucky hills, adding a sinister bewitchment to the daily lives of those who live there.  Especially folks like Annie Holleran, who've been blessed/cursed with the "know-how," which "floats just above the lavender bushes, trickles from the moss hanging in the oaks, drifts like a fallen leaf down the Lone Fork River, just waiting for someone ... to scoop it or snatch it or pluck it from the air" (2).  Like her mother before her, Annie "feels things that aren't hers to feel" (13-14), a spooky skill that makes even the silliest of mountain rituals seem heavy with meaning.  Naturally, then, Annie's a little apprehensive about what she's about to do.  When girls in Hayden County reach their ascension day (exactly halfway between their 15th and 16th birthdays), it's time to gather at the nearest well.  According to legend, when they gaze into its depths, at precisely midnight—the face of their future husband will be revealed.  It's ridiculous, of course, and yet, Annie can't resist this bit of foolish fortune-seeking.

The nearest well to Annie's home lies in a place she's forbidden to go.  Hollerans do not cross the lavender fields, don't dare to step onto Baine property.  Not since Juna Crowley, Annie's mother, came of age 16 years ago and used her particular mountain magic to ensnare the best of the Baine boys.  Ignoring every warning, Annie heads for the well.  What she discovers there is not the identity of her intended, but a dead body.  The corpse of a Baine.  

Annie's grisly discovery stirs up an old mystery that cuts to the heart of the Holleran/Baine feud.  As the lavender harvest nears and the past comes calling, she knows trouble isn't far behind.  Terrified that Juna will return to cause even more damage, Annie waits with dread.  Somehow, she must save her family and her community from the witch who cursed them all, but how can Annie do that when she carries her own horrifying secret fear—that she is just like her mother, the infamous Juna Crowley.

Atmospheric and haunting, Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy is a tantalizing Southern Gothic mystery.  With a vivid, evocative setting; authentic, interesting characters; and plenty of complex, compelling family drama, if offers a tense, suspenseful story.  Overall, its a sad story, almost overwhelmingly depressing.  That, plus the sometimes confusing back-and-forth-in-time narration, made the novel difficult to read at times.  In the end, I found Let Me Die in His Footsteps intriguing, but not as enjoyable as other books I've read in this genre.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little of American Ghost by Janis Owens)

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 received an ARC of Let Me Die in His Footsteps from the generous folks at Dutton (an imprint of Penguin).  Thank you!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sophomore Spellman Novel Inspires Repeat Public LOL-ing

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

A plot summary that captures the essence of a novel in a few succinct, but hilarious paragraphs is a thing of beauty.  Whoever writes the cover copy for the Spellman mysteries by Lisa Lutz nails it every time.  As a tribute to his/her genius (and a nod to my laziness), I give you the perfection that is his/her description of Curse of the Spellmans:

In this sidesplittingly funny follow-up to the New York Times bestselling The Spellman Files, San Francisco’s own highly functioning yet supremely dysfunctional family of private investigators are back on the case in another mystery full of suspicion, surveillance, humor, and surprise from award-winning author Lisa Lutz. Curse of the Spellmans was nominated for both the Edgar Award and the Macavity Award, and the Izzy Spellman Mysteries have earned comparisons to everything from Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich to Veronica Mars and Bridget Jones.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               When Izzy Spellman, PI, is arrested for the fourth time in three months, she writes it off as a job hazard. She’s been (obsessively) keeping surveillance on a suspicious next door neighbor (suspect’s name: John Brown), convinced he’s up to no good—even if her parents (the management at Spellman Investigations) are not.                                                                                                                                                     When the (displeased) management refuses to bail Izzy out, it is Morty, Izzy’s octogenarian lawyer, who comes to her rescue. But before he can build a defense, he has to know the facts. Over weak coffee and diner sandwiches, Izzy unveils the whole truth and nothing but the truth—as only she, a thirty-year-old licensed professional, can.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             When not compiling Suspicious Behavior Reports on all her family members, staking out her neighbor, or trying to keep her sister, Rae, from stalking her “best friend,” Inspector Henry Stone, Izzy has been busy attempting to apprehend the copycat vandal whose attacks on Mrs. Chandler’s holiday lawn tableaux perfectly and eerily match a series of crimes from 1991–92, when Izzy and her best friend, Petra, happened to be at their most rebellious and delinquent. As Curse of the Spellmans unfolds, it’s clear that Morty may be on retainer, but Izzy is still very much on the case...er, cases—her own and that of every other Spellman family member.
As you may remember, The Spellman Files, the first book in Lutz's zany series about a family of private eyes working in San Francisco, made me laugh out loud.  More than once.  In public.  It's that hilarious.  Curse of the Spellmans, the second book in the series, inspired a repeat performance.  There's just something about Isabelle, our lovable anti-hero, that I find wholly appealing.  Not only is she hapless and hilarious, but she's so real.  Her madcap adventures make for fun, addicting reading.  Every time.  After the first Spellman novel, Curse of the Spellmans does feel a little formulaic and predictable.  Still, the novel kept me royally entertained.  I'm not usually a big fan of screwball comedy, but I make an exception for the Spellmans.  I don't care how goofy these mysteries get, I adore them.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Spellman series [The Spellman Files; Revenge of the Spellmans; The Spellmans Strike Again; Trail of the Spellmans; and The Last Word])

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language and depictions of underage drinking and illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find




Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Despite Lovely Prose, Hawthorne Historical a Long, Dull Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Crippling headaches, brought on by her painting, keep Sophia Peabody out of society.  Although she remains isolated because of her health, her artwork and lively journals attract attention from the outside world.  Most especially from a shy, reclusive writer named Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The couple fall quickly in love.  Although Sophia pines for marriage, Nathaniel hesitates because of financial concerns.  Finally, the two wed, joining their lives and artistic temperaments.  It's a coupling beset by the usual challenges, not the least of which is trying to balance their creative lives with the requirements of home and family.  Through the trials, their love endures, sustaining them both ...

It's difficult to describe The House of Hawthorne, a fictional imagining of a real-life marriage .  Indeed, the story, written by Erika Robuck, runs very thin on plot, even thinner on action.  While the book's quiet prose is quite lovely, poetic in many places, the narrative drags, making for a long, often dull read.  The fact that I found Sophia whiny and annoying didn't help matters.  The House of Hawthorne has many beautiful passages, as well as some intriguing thoughts on how art and love mingle—or don't—but, overall, the book put me to sleep.  I finished it, but it felt more like a feat of endurance than enjoyment.   

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for sexual innuendo and content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The House of Hawthorne from the generous folks at Penguin.  Thank you!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Newest Tempe Brennan Mystery Gives Me Everything I Want—and Expect—From This Always Appealing Series

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Speaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Tempe Brennan thrillers.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Keeping cool under pressure comes with the territory for forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan.  No matter what kind of crazy she's dealing with in her personal life (with a daughter fighting in Afghanistan; a bi-polar mother ridden with cancer; and a marriage proposal from her on-again/off-again boyfriend Andrew Ryan, crazy might be an understatement), her professional focus never wavers.  So, when Hazel "Lucky" Strike, an eccentric websleuth, comes to Tempe with a chilling recording that may be a clue in the disappearance of a teenage girl, she listens.  While Tempe doesn't approve of amateur investigators nosing into police business, she also can't quite dismiss what Lucky's saying.  Especially when the other woman's instincts appear to be right on track.  Is Lucky correct in her theory that the bones of 18-year-old Cora Teague are sitting, unidentified, in Tempe's lab?

With the help of Zeb Ramsey, a local deputy, Tempe heads into the Blue Ridge Mountains to investigate Cora's disappearance three years ago.  Her inquiries turn up more questions than answers.  Especially from the teenager's parents, religious zealots who never bothered to report their daughter as missing.  When Tempe makes more macabre finds in the mountains, she becomes even more determined to find out what happened to Cora.  The closer she comes to the truth, the more dangerous her quest becomes.  Even with her own life on the line, Tempe persists in her dogged pursuit, but can she keep herself alive long enough to determine Cora's fate?  If she does, she's still got a confusing proposal to deal with.  How will she answer Andrew Ryan, when he's got both her heart and her head in a very complicated tangle?  

If you read this blog with any frequency, you're well aware of my obsession with the Tempe Brennan series by Kathy Reichs.  The author, who is herself a forensic anthropologist, writes with authority about bone analysis, doing so in a way that is both intriguing and accessible to the average person.  While the science is undeniably fascinating, it's not what makes these books stand out.  They shine because of Tempe herself.  Not only is our heroine smart and devoted, but she's also warm, funny, and self-deprecating.  Which isn't to say she's perfect.  She's realistically flawed, which only makes her more appealing.  While I would read this series just to hang with Tempe, I also love that it's full of pulse-pounding action, can't-look-away suspense, entertaining characters, and plenty of interpersonal drama.  

As with any series, some of the Tempe mysteries are better than others.  Speaking in Bones, the newest, hovers right up there with my other favorites.  The novel presents an intriguing mystery, some compelling new story people, and surprising plot twists, not to mention developments between Tempe and Ryan.  What more can a Tempe fan ask for?  Not much, really.  Speaking in Bones satisfies in every way.  My only disappointment comes from having to wait a whole year to see what Tempe does next.  Boo hoo!

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Tempe Brennan series [Deja Dead; Death du Jour; Deadly Decisions; Fatal Voyage; Grave Secrets; Bare Bones; Monday Mourning; Cross Bones; Break no Bones; Bones to Ashes; Devil Bones; 206 Bones; Spider Bones; Flash and Bones; Bones Are Forever; Bones in Her Pocket (novella); Bones of the Lost; Swamp Bones (novella); Bones On Ice (novella); Bones Never Lie)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder invectives), sexual innuendo and violence/gore

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Speaking in Bones from the generous folks at Bantam (an imprint of Random House) via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Small Town Setting the Only Appealing Piece of Canadian Mystery


With a population of less than 10,000 people, Trafalgar, B.C. is not exactly a hub of criminal activity.  Yes, the town's divided over the issue of whether or not to build a community peace garden honoring the area's Vietnam War draft dodgers.  The conflict has caused tension in the bucolic community, sure, but it's not like someone would kill over it.  Or would they?  When Reg Montgomery—an overbearing developer who's bent on building a large resort on the community garden land—is murdered, it looks like tempers over the polarizing issue have finally blown up. 

Because she knows Trafalgar, 26-year-old Moonlight "Molly" Smith is assigned to the case.  A constable who's only been with the police department for six months, she's ecstatic about this fortuitous opportunity to prove herself.  John Winters, a seasoned detective sergeant from Vancouver, is not exactly thrilled with his new partner.  Molly's green, overeager, and not exactly objective, considering her mother is the peace garden's most ardent supporter.  

As the duo investigates Montgomery's murder, they must dig deep into the town's secrets, which produces some shocking—and nasty—surprises.  The more they nose around, the more dangerous the situation becomes.  Can Smith and Montgomery find the killer before one, or both of them, become the next victim(s)?  

Mystery series set in small towns are my very favorite kind.  I always love to see what these quaint little communities are hiding, the secrets they keep hidden behind their peaceful facades.  Naturally, then, I found the setting of In the Shadow of the Glacier by Vicki Delany, appealing.  Unfortunately, that's about all I liked about this book.  Not only are the characters flat and clichéd, but they're just not likable.  Most of the men are, quite simply, jerks.  The novel's plot offers nothing new, which makes it both predictable and dull.  Add a whole lot of typos/errors, bland prose, sloppy story construction, stiff dialogue and, yeah, you can see where I'm going with this.  I only paid a couple bucks to get In the Shadow of the Glacier on my Kindle, but man, what a waste of 200 pennies.  

(Readalikes:  The setting reminds me of Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series—definitely read that one instead of this one.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and blood/gore

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

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for Wayward, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Pines.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Ethan Burke, a former Secret Service agent from Seattle, now knows the truth about Wayward Pines, Idaho.  He knows what's hiding behind its quaint facade.  He knows what lurks beyond the razor-topped electrified fence that circles the village.  He knows the 461 people living in the town may be the only humans left on the planet and that those people, himself included, are being watched every second of every day.  He's seen what happens to residents who rebel, or complain, or simply can't conform.  David Pilcher, the megalomaniac in charge of Wayward Pines, will do anything—anything—to preserve the dream he's fulfilling with his post-apocalyptic version of Mayberry.

Few are brave enough to break the rules.  Even Ethan, now the town sheriff, worries about the repercussions of standing up to Pilcher.  Still, he can't stand the lie he's being forced to live.  Torn between protecting the people he cares for and fighting for the freedom they all deserve, Ethan will have to make some life-or-death decisions.  The fates of 461 people hanging in the balance.   

Wayward, the second thriller in Blake Crouch's exciting Wayward Pines trilogy, is not quite as mind-blowing as the series opener.  Still, the novel draws the reader in just as quickly as its predecessor and keeps the suspense going until the very last sentence of its very last page.  The story moves quickly, with lots of thrills and chills, making it pretty much impossible to put Wayward down.  Literally.  Although I didn't find it as jaw-dropping as Pines, I still devoured it in one sitting.  After which I promptly started The Last Town.  Did I mention this series is *slightly* addicting?  Don't say I didn't warn you ... 

(Readalikes:  Pines and The Last Town by Blake Crouch)

Grade:


If this were a movie (and the trilogy has been turned into a mini-series on Fox), it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A YA Western? Why Not? It's Good!

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Life in 1849 St. Joseph, Missouri, is tolerable for Samantha Young and her father—even if both of them dream of being somewhere else.  Samantha, a 15-year-old violinist, longs to return to New York City with its vibrant, sophisticated culture.  Her father, a Chinese immigrant, wants to see the Pacific Ocean and make his fortune in California.  When the family's dry goods store burns to the ground, killing Mr. Young, it becomes apparent that neither one of them will be getting what they desire.  

Penniless, Samantha has little choice but to take their landlord up on his offer of lodging at a hotel he owns.  When he makes it obvious just what he expects in return, she reacts in self-defense, killing the odious man.  With the help of a slave housekeeper named Annamae, Samantha flees.  Disguised as boys, the two girls join other travelers headed west on The Oregon Trail.  Desperate to get as far away from St. Joe as possible, the pair brave danger of every kind as they become unwitting pioneers.  
When "Sammy" and "Andy" meet up with a trio of young, would-be gold prospectors, they worry their precious secrets will be discovered.  Will the boys find out their new companions are really girls in disguise?  Can Samantha and Annamae keep their real identities under wraps until they reach safety in California?  Does a safe place even exist for two fugitives on the run from some very powerful enemies?  

While historical fiction for teens isn't hard to come by, YA westerns are practically unheard of.  Maybe that's what makes Under a Painted Sky, a debut novel by Stacey Lee, stand out.  Or, maybe it's because of the diverse characters she creates—not only are they sympathetic, but they're also complex and intriguing.  Or, it could be Lee's vivid, engaging prose.  Or the novel's perfect balance between adventure, suspense, romance, and humor.  Or, the warmth the story exudes, despite its treatment of tough subjects.  Take your pick.  All of these elements come together in charming, compelling harmony in Under the Painted Sky.  At its heart, it's a story about friendship, but it's also so very, very much more ... I loved it.  

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

Grade:

  
If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence (including an attempted rape scene)/gore, and sexual innuendo

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Pines: Tense, Twisty Series Opener Impossible to Put Down

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


When two Secret Service agents go missing while on assignment in Idaho, 37-year-old Ethan Burke is sent to investigate his colleagues' disappearance.  Wayward Pines, an idyllic little town that could give Mayberry a run for its money, seems an unlikely place for anything untoward to happen.  And yet, Ethan's in town only a few minutes when he's involved in an accident that puts him in the hospital.  He wakes up with no wallet, no luggage, no phone.  No matter how disoriented he may be, Ethan knows who he is and why he is in Wayward Pines, but none of the overly-friendly townspeople believe him.  With no way to leave, no way to contact the outside world, he decides to focus on finding the missing agents.  The more Ethan investigates, however, the more concerned he becomes.  As he tries to make sense of his bizarre situation, he must ask some disturbing questions:  What is really going on in Wayward Pines?  Is the quaint mountain village hiding something sinister behind its bucolic facade?  Or did the accident leave Ethan more incapacitated than he thinks?  Is the Secret Service agent, in fact, going clean out of his mind?  Whatever the explanation, Ethan knows one thing for sure: something is very, very wrong in Wayward Pines.

The less I say about the plot of Pines, the first novel in a chilling trilogy by Blake Crouch, the better.  Giving you only the skimpiest of summaries will keep the book mysterious and suspenseful—two elements that make it a taut, compelling read.  Brilliantly crafted, Pines is a creepy little tale that offers surprises around every corner.  I don't want to say too much for fear of giving away any of its secrets, so let me just say that I loved this book.  It's tense, it's twisty, it's a thriller so addicting you won't be able to stop reading until you've finished not just Pines, but also the entire series.  Then, and only then, will you finally be able to breathe again.  Maybe.  

(Readalikes:  Wayward and The Last Town by Blake Crouch; also reminded me a little of the t.v. show LOST)

Grade:

    
If this were a movie (the books have been made into a mini-series on Fox), it would be rated:


for strong language and violence/gore

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Not Enough Conflict Makes Celebrity, On-Set Romance Novel Surprisingly Blah

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


One of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood, Emma Taylor is used to life in the limelight.  And that's before the 18-year-old is cast in a lead role on Coyote Hills, a new t.v. drama.  The series also stars bad boy Brett Crawford, who's been Emma's crush for years.  As if the thought of working with him isn't making her nervous enough, she also has to deal with snooty Kimmi Weston and Jake "The Bod" Elliott, a famous model who's so down-to-earth he's making Emma rethink her feelings for Brett.  Although Emma's made a vow not to date another co-star (been there, done that), Brett's proving very hard to resist.  Then there's Jake, whose humble kindness makes him even more attractive.  
Try as she might, Emma can't seem to help falling for Jake.  The more she does, the guiltier she feels, as she promised her childhood BFF that she'd set her up with The Bod.  With the paparazzi recording her every move, Emma has to decide what—and who—she wants before the media spins its own story about her.  At risk of hurting everyone she loves, Emma needs to straighten out her confusing life—and fast.

There's lots to love about Not in the Script, a debut novel by Amy Finnegan.  The story's light and fun, with an interesting, behind-the-scenes peek at life on a t.v. set (Finnegan mined her brother's experiences working on-set for Fox to make the tale authentic).  Minus a little violence and innuendo, it's a clean book that maintains a bright, upbeat tone.  As a lover of teen books as well as a mother who worries about the content my 13-year-old daughter finds in popular YA offerings, I consider all these elements plusses.  

Why, then, didn't I love Not in the Script?  Let's start with Emma.  I appreciate good girl heroines, but it annoys me when these fictional lasses have perfect little lives where nothing ever goes seriously wrong.  Without conflict—real, tough, life-changing conflict—Emma doesn't have a story.  Sure, she hits little bumps here and there, but overall, everything sails along smoothly for her.  Because of this, I had trouble empathizing with Emma.  I just didn't care that much.  Since the other characters felt really cliché, I felt the same way about them.  This ambivalence about the story people and their situations made Not in the Script seem like a really, really, really long book.  Overall, I found the novel boring and, because it was really just a romance that worked from the start, kind of pointless.  If I hadn't been reading Not in the Script for The Whitney Awards, I probably wouldn't have finished it.

To be fair, I seem to be in the minority on this one.  Not in the Script gets mostly excellent reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads.   

(Readalikes:  Not in the Script is part of Bloomsbury's If Only line; although the books are all standalones, presumably they're similar?)

Grade:




If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for sexual innuendo and violence 

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Winner, Winner, (Back to School) Chicken Dinner!

My giveaway for a hardcover copy of The Night Sister, a new thriller/chiller by Jennifer McMahon, ended a couple of days ago and I'm pleased to announce the winner.  Congratulations to Margie Shaw!  She says she's never won anything, so I'm glad Rafflecopter.com/Random.org chose her for the prize :)  I've already heard from Margie, so the book will be on its way to her soon.

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway.  Thanks, especially, go to the generous folks at Doubleday who provided the book and will be paying for shipping costs.

I enjoyed The Night Sister a lot (read my review here) and I think you will, too.  Those of you who entered to win, but didn't, be sure to get yourself a copy of the book from your library or favorite bookstore.

Happy reading!  

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bedtime is the Best Time ... for a Story

In case you somehow missed the most important holiday of the year, Happy (belated) National Book Lover's Day!  This special day is celebrated annually on August 9th.  Although I scoured the Internet looking for some sort of history behind the holiday, I found nada.  So much for the whys and wherefores of National Book Lover's Day.  Oh well.  I've never needed an officially-sanctioned reason to read, have you?

The folks over at Casper—a sleep startup that has created one perfect mattress—believe that bedtime is the best time.  They also realize how much better it is to rely on stories to help ease you into sleep rather than doing something lame and ineffective like counting sheep.  They've even got a hotline that reads bedtime stories to the listener!  To share the bedtime story love (and because they just know how to party), the folks at Casper are celebrating National Book Lover's Day all week long.  Fun!  They asked me to participate by writing up a little somethin' about bedtime stories I love to read.  How could I resist?


It's been a *little* while since I've had a bedtime story read to me by my mother, but not very long (last night) since I read one.  I know the point of spinning tales before bed is to help children drift off to sleep.  There are many wonderful picture books that do just that with their soft rhythms, whimsical illustrations, and affirming morals.  I love gentle stories like Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd; The Napping House by Audrey and Don WoodI'll Love You Forever by Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw), but the books I never tire of reading to my kids are more of the "wild rumpus" variety.  My favorites offer upbeat tempos, exciting adventures, and lines that make listeners squeal with delighted laughter.  Although these kinds of stories tend to perk kids up rather than slow them down, they remain the best kind, in my humble, bedtime story-loving opinion.

Because my oldest child is 16 and my youngest only 6, I can tell you which nighttime tales have endured in our household.  The following five have been enjoyed by all four of my children as well as their book-obsessed mother:


1.  The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss—These zany books have stood the test of time, not just at my house, but throughout the world.


2.  Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault—There was a time when I knew this one by heart.  I'd recite it when my toddlers were restless in the car as well as at their bedtime.  It's a fun book that teaches the alphabet while making kids smile with its lively cadence.



3.  We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen—Not only is this one a joy to read, but it captures kids' imaginations with its dream-like illustrations and dramatic adventure story.



4.  Click Clack Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin—This book is hilarious.  'Nuf said.



5.  Anything written or illustrated by Eric Carle—My kids have all loved listening to Carle classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (by Bill Martin, Jr.); and The Mixed-Up Chameleon.  More recently, my youngest's favorites are: 10 Little Rubber Ducks; Dream Snow; and The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.

Reading to your children is essential, not just for their intellectual development, but also for their emotional well-being.  Is there a time when young kids feel more loved than when they're cocooned in their beds, receiving the direct attention of a busy parent, who has paused for a moment to read a favorite story?  I don't think so.  No matter how ridiculous you feel tripping over your tongue reading a nonsensical Dr. Seuss story, creating silly voices to amuse your pint-sized audience, or half-snoozing through yet another recitation of The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room, do it anyway.  These precious moments won't last forever; cherish them while you can.

So, what are your favorite bedtime stories?  Which books did your parents/grandparents read to you?  Which do you enjoy with your own children/grandchildren?      

(Book images from Barnes & Noble; bedtime story painting by Gary Daly)

Friday, August 07, 2015

Light, Warm-Hearted Holiday Novel Engaging, Enjoyable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Things can't get much suckier for Chloe.  She's stuck working her cashiering job at GoodFoods Market on Christmas Eve, all day long.  Not only will she be dealing with cranky customers for hours on end, but—thanks to getting caught in a snowstorm—she'll be doing it while looking like a drowned rat.  On the upside, she'll be working with her very hot crush, Tyson Scott; on the downside, drowned rat.  

As the day goes on, things go progressively wrong for Chloe, until something truly awful happens:  the charity box, into which GoodFoods customers have been putting cash donations all month, is almost empty.  An estimated $10,000 is missing. Since no one is fessing up to the crime, the store manager makes the "Younglings"—Chloe, Tyson, and four other teenage cashiers/baggers—stay after closing for questioning.  With every extra minute Chloe has to spend in the break room, she grows increasingly frustrated.  Not only does she want to get home and enjoy the holiday with her family, but she's worried about her plummeting blood sugar.  On top of everything else that's happened, a diabetic coma is definitely not what she needs right now.  It's pretty clear to Chloe that the only way out of the mess they're all in is to find out who stole the charity money.

Chloe doesn't know any of her fellow suspects very well, but she has certain suspicions about each of them.  The more she gets to know them, however, the more she realizes how wrong she's been to stereotype them.  As the Younglings work together to solve the mystery of the stolen money, Chloe makes some startling discoveries and some surprising friendships.  Is it possible that a day she thought would be the worst of her life might turn out to be the very best? 

You can probably tell from the description of Top Ten Clues You're Clueless by Liz Czukas that it's a fun, warm-hearted novel.  Just because it's a light read, though, doesn't mean it doesn't have an important message.  As Chloe gets to know a group of kids who are diverse in ethnicity, culture, and experience, she realizes the dangers of making broad assumptions about people.  Through seeking help with her diabetes, she also learns to trust others with her own secrets.  It's the relationships between the characters that stand out in this novel, especially since the charity money thief is fairly obvious from the get-go.  Being a Type 1 diabetic myself, I did find some inconsistencies with how Chloe deals with her condition (like, if she's together enough to have a glucometer in her locker, why doesn't she have some glucose tabs stashed in there, too?).  Petty issues aside, I enjoyed this engaging holiday novel, which brought back fond memories of working at the BYU Creamery as a college student.  Just like Chloe and her co-workers have games they play to pass the time, we had a whole lot of fun with Guess the Major ...

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (two F-bombs, plus milder invectives) and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Top Ten Clues You're Clueless from the generous folks at HarperCollins via those at Edelweiss.  Thank you!

Kiss Kill Vanish A Rare and Worthwhile Read

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Valentina Cruz's pampered life as the daughter of a wealthy Colombian art dealer ends the minute she witnesses something she was never supposed to see—a murder ordered by her father and executed by her boyfriend.  Sickened to her core, the 17-year-old flees Florida, ending up in Montreal.  There, "Jane" lives in a rented closet, earning enough to live on by posing for a pretentious young painter and busking with her mandolin.  Valentina's bare bones existence in Canada is a far cry from the glittering world she left behind, but it's a much more honest life than she's ever known before.  

When a face from her past shows up in Montreal, Valentina doesn't know what to do.  Should she return to Florida and face her father?  Or keep running, knowing his henchman will never stop looking for her?  After a shocking death rocks her world, Valentina must make some fast, life-altering decisions.  With no one to turn to, she has to put her trust in the most unlikely of allies.  Will the risk pay off?  Can she save herself and those she loves?  Or, is she walking right into a trap that will leave her as anyone else who dares to cross her father?

Kiss Kill Vanish, the newest novel from YA author Jessica Martinez, is an exciting, fast-paced thriller.  Valentina's hard-scrabble battle to create an honest existence for herself makes her not just sympathetic, but also admirable.  It's easy to root for her, even if she sometimes seems ridiculously naive.  While I found the plot of Kiss Kill Vanish to be a *little* far-fetched, it definitely kept me engrossed.  Martinez's vivid, engaging prose makes up for what the novel lacks in believability.  Solid YA thrillers are difficult to come by, so, while this one has its flaws, it remains a rare and worthwhile read.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, depiction of illegal drug use, and sexual innuendo/references to sex

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

Thursday, August 06, 2015

What Alice Forgot Another Humorous, Heartfelt Gem From Moriarty

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When Alice Love tumbles off her exercise bike during her weekly spin class, she knocks her noggin so hard she's thrown back a decade.  She wakes up from the accident convinced she's a frazzled, frumpy 29-year-old, who's happily married to the man of her dreams and pregnant with their first child.  Imagine her surprise when she discovers the truth—she's actually 39, a fit and formidable mom of three, and in the middle of a nasty divorce.  With no memory of anything that's happened over the last ten years, Alice is completely flummoxed.  How can her life have gone so completely awry in such a short period of time?  What happened to her marriage?  Her relationship with her sister?  And, most disconcerting of all, who is the stranger Alice sees when she looks in the mirror? 

As Alice struggles to make sense of her "new" life by piecing together vague recollections of the past decade, she makes some startling discoveries about herself.  Not all of them pleasant.  Alice isn't sure she likes who she's become, but she can't turn back the clock.  Or can she?  Is it too late to salvage the life she once loved?  Will she get a second chance to make things work between her and Nick?  Or will mistakes Alice doesn't even remember making launch her into a future she's too terrified to contemplate?

Although Big Little Lies remains my favorite of Liane Moriarty's novels, I've thoroughly enjoyed all of them.  What Alice Forgot is no exception.  Filled with the Australian author's trademark warmth and humor, it's a thought-provoking novel that asks some very intriguing questions.  Moriarty's deft exploration of familial relationships keeps the reader engrossed, while forcing them to examine their own priorities and choices.  Both funny and poignant, What Alice Forgot is a heartfelt novel about forgiving, forgetting, and fighting for what's most important.  I loved it.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Moriarty's other novels, including Big Little Lies and The Husband's Secret)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Angry Feminist Ranting Makes To-Thine-Own-Self-Be-True Novel Especially Repugnant to This SAHM

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When her husband announces—out of the blue—that he's accepted a new job outside the city, it throws Lainie Smith Morris' life into a tailspin.  A consummate New Yorker, she can't imagine leaving Manhattan for some boring, land-locked suburban town.  The energy of the city thrums through her veins, feeding her soul like her apartment's view of the Hudson River inspires the seascapes that have brought her notoriety as an up-and-coming artist.  Lainie knows how important it is for her husband, an orthopedic surgeon who grew up on an upstate dairy farm, to prove that he's "made it," but she can't help resenting a move that will tear her away from the life she loves.

To keep the peace, Lainie moves to Elliot, New Jersey, with her husband, four children, and the kids' nanny.  It doesn't take long for her to feel completely intimidated by the snooty, image-obsessed suburbanites who now surround her.  Even the local art community seems to be snubbing her, with her pedestrian little collages.  Although she soaks herself in the town pool every chance she gets, Lainie feels like a fish out of water—no matter how hard she flaps her fins, she's just not making any headway.  As Charles becomes increasingly hostile over his wife's apparent refusal to fit in, Lainie feels hurt, angry, and lost.

Enter Jess Howard.  A beautiful, wealthy socialite, Jess is not thrilled to find that Lainie Smith Morris—of all people—has moved to Elliot.  Having spent summers in Cape May together as teenagers, Jess has always been envious of Lainie's passive-aggressive charm and talent.  Although she would love to watch Lainie continue to flounder in Elliot society, she takes pity on her old rival.  Taking Lainie and her children on as charity projects gives Jess a sense of satisfaction—as does seducing Lainie's husband.

As Jess becomes more and more entrenched in the Morris Family's drama, Lainie finds herself slowly suffocating.  Between the daily pressure of being married to an ambitious doctor, raising four demanding children, and trying to further her art career while doing her best not to embarrass herself every time she steps outside her front door, Lainie feels strangled.  Can she ever find balance and a sense of peace for herself?  Or will she slowly dry up and wither away, like a selkie who sheds its true identity to live, always trapped and smothered, on the land?

The premise behind Between the Tides, a debut novel by Susannah Marren, sounds so innocuous that it's difficult to describe why I found almost everything about the story so repugnant.  Let's start with the characters.  With the exception of some of the kids, every single one of Marren's stereotypical cast members is selfish, immature, unsympathetic and decidedly unlikable.  The adults are indulgent and/or neglectful parents; cruel and/or disloyal spouses; as well as self-absorbed and/or conniving people.  Lainie is especially ridiculous—she leaves the care of her children to the nanny or to 12-year-old Matilde, then whines (constantly) about how little time motherhood gives her to pursue her real passion: art.  While any wife/mother can relate to feeling exhausted and used-up by her family at times, Between the Tides takes the theme to an extreme level, making the whole novel feel like an angry feminist rant against marriage/motherhood ("Husbands are husbands, placate them as best you can.  Children are the glue; cherish them and comfort yourself for their benefit." [175]).  The cluttered prose adds to the problem.  Not only does Marren use very stilted dialogue, bogged down by the overuse of conversation tags ("Please pass the salt, Carl."; "I'd be happy to, Stephanie."  "Thank you, Carl."  "Oh, Stephanie, you're so welcome."), but the writing never feels very dynamic.  Overall, the story is dark, depressing, and dull.  I finished the novel because I was promised a doozy of a surprise ending.  It didn't surprise me, but what happened and how flippantly the characters reacted did make me say, "What in the world?"  For me, the odd finale just reinforced my dislike of Between the Tides.

I know I'm being a serious Negative Nelly here (Between the Tides actually gets pretty good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads; maybe it's just me who hated it ...), so I'll tell you what I did like about the book: the whole selkie thing gave it a unique spin that felt almost like magical realism.  It wasn't developed as much as it could have been, but it was an interesting element in an otherwise unpleasant novel.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, sexual content, violence, and depictions of the illegal use of prescription drugs

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Between the Tides from the generous folks at Meryl Moss Media/BookTrib.  Thank you!

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

For Clever, Screwball Adventures and Laugh-Out-Loud Hilarity, the Spellmans Can't Be Beat

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If you read this blog with any kind of regularity (If you don't, you really should!), you know I generally prefer to write my own plot summaries for the books I review.  Sure, it's a reinventing-the-wheel kind of thing, but hey, I'm just a masochist that way.  By torturing myself in this manner, I've gotten a small glimpse of how tough it is to write brilliant back cover copy.  So, when I come across a summary that captures the essence of a book as perfectly and fetchingly as this one does, I have to share:
The Spellman Files is the first novel in a winning and hilarious mystery series featuring Isabel “Izzy” Spellman (part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry) and her highly functioning yet supremely dysfunctional family of private investigators.                                                                                                                                                         Meet Isabel “Izzy” Spellman, private investigator. This twenty-eight-year-old may have a checkered past littered with romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism; she may be addicted to Get Smart reruns and prefer entering homes through windows rather than doors—but the upshot is she’s good at her job as a licensed private investigator with her family’s firm, Spellman Investigations. Invading people’s privacy comes naturally to Izzy. In fact, it comes naturally to all the Spellmans. If only they could leave their work at the office. To be a Spellman is to snoop on a Spellman; tail a Spellman; dig up dirt on, blackmail, and wiretap a Spellman.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Izzy walks an indistinguishable line between Spellman family member and Spellman employee. Duties include: completing assignments from the bosses, aka Mom and Dad (preferably without scrutiny); appeasing her chronically perfect lawyer brother (often under duress); setting an example for her fourteen-year-old sister, Rae (who’s become addicted to “recreational surveillance”); and tracking down her uncle (who randomly disappears on benders dubbed “Lost Weekends”). But when Izzy’s parents hire Rae to follow her (for the purpose of ascertaining the identity of Izzy’s new boyfriend), Izzy snaps and decides that the only way she will ever be normal is if she gets out of the family business. But there’s a hitch: she must take one last job before they’ll let her go—a fifteen-year-old, ice-cold missing person case. She accepts, only to experience a disappearance far closer to home, which becomes the most important case of her life.

See what I mean?  You want to read this book now, don't you?

As soon as I read the above description of The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz, I was sold.  The novel sounded quirky, charming, and hilarious.  And guess what?  That's exactly what it is.  I'm not sure I've read a more hysterical mystery novel.  Seriously.  This one had me chortling, snorting, and just loving every minute of Izzy's screwball capers.  Clever, engaging, fun, addicting—all of these adjectives describe The Spellman Files.  For pure entertainment, you really can't go wrong with this one.  There's not tons of substance here, but who cares?  Engrossing fluff that makes me laugh-out-loud is a rare and beautiful thing.  I simply could not get enough of this book.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Spellman series [Curse of the Spellmans; Revenge of the Spellmans; The Spellmans Strike Again; Trail of the Spellmans; and The Last Word]

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:



for language, sex, depictions of illegal drug use, and mature subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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