Monday, January 23, 2017

Rain Reign a Sweet-Sad Tale of Friendship and Forgiveness

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Rose Howard isn't like the other fifth graders at her school.  At 12, she's older than her classmates.  Being held back isn't her most significant obstacle, however.  As a high-functioning autistic, she's obsessed with things her peers seem to care little about, like homonyms, prime numbers, and following rules.  Because she has difficulty reading social cues and always keeping her emotions in check, Rose has trouble making—and keeping—friends.  She has an aide who's paid to stay by her side all day, but that's not the same thing.

The only one who really understands Rose is her dog, Rain.  When the yellow Lab gets out during a hurricane, Rose becomes frantic.  She can't survive without her only real friend, the creature who anchors her in a world she often can't understand.  She just can't.  As soon as the storm damage allows Rose to leave her house, she launches a plan to locate her dog.  She won't give up until Rain is back at home, safe and sound.  

Even the most logical, well-organized plans sometimes go awry.  As Rose puts hers into action, she'll have to learn some important lessons about flexibility, forgiveness, and navigating a world that doesn't always makes sense.  Following the rules, as Rose soon finds out, can sometimes lead to the biggest heartaches of all.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin tells a story that is both sweet and sad, tender and heart-wrenching.  It's impossible not to sympathize with Rose, a misfit who is trying her hardest to please those around her, few of whom really "get" her.  Her voice rings achingly true.  There's nothing the reader wants more than a happy ending for Rose, but that's not exactly what we get.  Rain Reign does not tie up neatly.  It ties up realistically.  Hopefully, not perfectly.  Because the tale is so authentic, it pierces the heart.  Painfully, at times.  It's not unrelentingly sad, though.  Overall, it's a positive tale about acceptance, determination, and finding one's way in a confusing world. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Rules by Cynthia Lord)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and disturbing subject matter (alcoholism, child abandonment, animal cruelty, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Mormon Mentions: Rae Carson (Part II)

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 the first chapter of Like a River Glorious by Rae Carson, Lee and Jefferson talk about going to Mormon Island for supplies.  The name, which I'd never heard before, naturally made me curious.  I did a little Internet research and this is what I discovered:


In March of 1848, three former members of the Mormon Battalion stopped at the confluence of the north and south forks of the American River near Sacramento, California. There, they found gold.  Their discovery brought other settlers to the area.  A town grew up on the site; by 1853, more than 2500 people lived on Mormon Island.  It had a school, motels, saloons, a winery, a post office, and other small shops.  That population dwindled as the Gold Rush waned.  When a fire burned down much of the town, it was never rebuilt.  By the 1940s, only a few families remained.  In the 1950s, the remains of the town were razed to make way for the Folsom Dam.  What's left of Mormon Island is now under Folsom Lake.  When the water there is very low, however, building foundations and other artifacts from the outskirts of the early settlement can be seen.  

*Book cover image from Barnes & Noble; Mormon Lake photos from website for the Folsom Lake Marina

Second Gold Seer Novel Almost as Good as the First

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Like a River Glorious, it might inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Walk on Earth a Stranger.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After a perilous journey across the United States, 16-year-old Leah "Lee" Westfall is glad to be rooted in one place again.  She and her small band of friends have chosen to settle in a spot that keeps Lee's gold sense buzzing.  There's plenty of precious ore to be had in California; if she's careful to conceal her mystical prospecting methods, she can keep nosy miners away from her treasure-filled mountains.  Of course, her nefarious Uncle Hiram hasn't stopped hunting her.  And "luck" as good as Lee's can't really be kept secret.  It's not long before strangers come sniffing around, eager to get their hands on her prize.

Naturally, Hiram catches wind of his niece's success.  Desperate to use her special skills to his advantage, he kidnaps Lee and Jefferson, imprisoning them both at his sprawling camp.  Lee will do anything to keep her friends safe, even witching for her hated uncle.  She's escaped Hiram once, she can do it again.  All she needs is time to figure out a plan.  She doesn't have much in the way of advantages, but there is something Hiram doesn't know—Lee's powers are growing, becoming stronger every day.  The gold rush inside of her is so powerful she's not sure she can control it anymore.  

With everything that matters to her at stake, can Lee save herself from her uncle's clutches?  What will it take for her to be free of him—forever?

Like the first book in Rae Carson's Gold Seer Trilogy, the second—Like a River Glorious—is an action-packed adventure full of danger, daring, and drama.  Lee continues to be an admirable heroine, awash in bravery, loyalty, and heart.  I don't always love second installments in series, but this one doesn't feel like a filler book.  The development of Lee's magic adds significantly to the plot, which already has lots to offer.  Like a River Glorious isn't quite as good as Walk on Earth a Stranger—still, I enjoyed it.  A lot.  The final book in the trilogy comes out later this year and I can't wait to see what happens next in this excellent series.

(Readalikes:  Walk on Earth a Stranger and Into the Bright Unknown [available October 2017] by Rae Carson; also reminds me of Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee and Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore, and vague references to prostitution

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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Mormon Mentions: Rae Carson

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.

**

Most Western or Western-ish novels mention Mormon pioneers, as they played an indelible part in the settlement of the western United States.  So, it's no big surprise that these iconic travelers make an appearance in Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson.  

Warning:  The following may be a little spoiler-y.  Proceed with caution!

Toward the end of the novel, Leah and company approach Independence Rock, a large, granite monolith in Wyoming.  Many real travelers carved their names in the rock.  Some of these inscriptions can still be seen today.  While discussing the rock, Jefferson says:

"The Mormons came this way.  And folks going to Oregon.  People have been passing by this rock for a long time." (quote at Location 4077 in e-ARC).

Independence Rock was often mentioned in journals kept by Mormon pioneers.  My own ancestors passed by it.  Although I've never visited the site, I'd love to someday.

*Book cover from Barnes & Noble; Independence Rock image from Wikipedia

Clean, Compelling Adventure an Exciting Start to a Golden YA Series

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"When there's gold to be had, you can't trust anyone.  Not a single soul" (15%).

Like a dowser is drawn to water, Leah Westfall can sense gold.  It's a handy skill to have.  And a dangerous one.  Although her peculiar magic helped the Westfalls buy their large Georgia homestead, Leah has to keep her abilities secret.  If no one knows what the 15-year-old can do, no one can exploit her.  

Then, Leah's parents are brutally murdered, their home ransacked.  It's obvious that someone knows about the Westfalls' secret stash of gold.  But who?  When Leah's oily Uncle Hiram conveniently appears on the scene, Leah can't contain her disgust.  She can't prove he's responsible for her parents' death, but that doesn't make it any less true.  With Hiram as her guardian, Leah knows she'll never be free.  She refuses to become his gold-finding pet.  

Disguising herself as a boy, "Lee" takes off for sunny California, where she hopes to blend in with other prospectors hunting their fortunes.  In a place where gold lust prevails, she should be able to camouflage her secret skill sufficiently.  Leah's best friend, Jefferson McCauley, is somewhere along the trail; she prays that, somehow, fate will allow them to meet up again.  In the meantime, she must fend for herself on a long, hard journey filled with dangers of every kind.  With Hiram hot on her tail, it's a desperate run for her life.  Can she escape her uncle's greedy clutches?  Will she make it to California unscathed?  And what of Jefferson?  Can she find the boy who's always loved her in the vast wilderness of an untamed land?  Anything can happen on the long, perilous trek—especially to a girl with a priceless, golden gift.

I love books like Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first novel in Rae Carson's Gold Seer Trilogy.  Starring a brave, hard-working heroine, it's a story brimming over with action, adventure, romance and, most important of all, heart.  Who cares if it's not the most original tale in the world?  I loved it from start to finish.  The story is engaging, the characters endearing (with a few exceptions), the historical details intriguing.  It's an excellent novel that will appeal to teens and adults, while being clean enough to hand to tweens.  Did I mention that I adored it?  Well, I did.

(Readalikes:  Like a River Glorious and Into the Bright Unknown (coming October 2017) by Rae Carson; also reminded me of Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee and Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore, and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Walk On Earth a Stranger from the generous folks at HarperCollins via those at Edelweiss.  Thank you!

Intriguing Coming-of-Age Story Based on Author's Real Life Mixed-Race Experience

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After a traumatic event that leaves her an orphan, 11-year-old Rachel Morse moves from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, to live with her paternal grandmother.  Having been raised by her white-skinned Danish mother, not her African-American father, the bi-racial tween experiences culture shock living in the "black" part of her new city.  With her light brown skin and blue eyes, no one's quite sure what to make of Rachel.  Least of all herself.  As she struggles to deal with not just her grief, but also finding her identity—racially, socially, emotionally, economically—she will make some startling discoveries about herself, her family, and what really happened on that rooftop in Chicago.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a debut novel by Heidi W. Durrow, is loosely based on a real news story and strongly based on the author's experience as a person of mixed race.  Because of the latter, Rachel's voice exudes authenticity, making her an intriguing narrator.  Her story is compelling not just because of the mystery that runs through the novel, but also because it's a tender tale about growing up and all the confusion, chaos, and consternation that comes along with that rite of passage.  Race and identity are big themes in the PEN/Bellwether Prize-winning book (2008); the points it makes on the subjects are both interesting and very discussion-worthy.  Although The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is sad and depressing, overall I found it engrossing.  Not amazing, but absorbing enough to keep my attention, meaningful enough to make me think.

(Readalikes:  Reviews compare it to The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, which I haven't read.)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Re-Booted" Fairy Tale Series Comes to an Exciting, Satisfying End

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Winter, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Lunar Chronicles novels.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Queen Levana's mesmerizing beauty is legendary.  So is that of her stepdaughter, Princess Winter.  Despite the scars that mar her face, Winter is lovely to look upon.  Even more appealing is her kind, gentle nature—her natural sweetness endears her to royals and commoners alike.  Levana can't stand her simpering young charge.  The feeling is mutual, but Winter keeps her true feelings for her stepmother carefully concealed.  As she has observed countless times, crossing the queen never ends well.

Winter isn't as cautious with her feelings for Jacin Clay, her royal guard.  She has loved him—her protector, her confidante, her only true friend—for as long as she can remember.  Queen Levana knows the depth of Winter's feelings for him and uses the younger woman's romantic longings in the cruelest ways possible.  Is Winter strong enough to fight back against her evil stepmother?  Is anyone?

A revolution against the heartless queen is already in progress.  Can Linh Cinder and friends succeed in overthrowing Levana?  Will aiding them help Winter win her own freedom?  Or will the all-powerful Levana be victorious in her scheme to bring the entire world under her iron-fisted rule?  

If you're a fan of The Lunar Chronicles—and I most certainly am—then you will not want to miss Winter, the exciting conclusion to the series.  Reading the mammoth 823-page novel is a daunting task, I know.  I put off reading it for a year!  In the end, though, Winter was totally worth the read—as I knew it would be.  My only complaint is that the series is now over.  Marissa Meyer totally captivated me with fun characters, action-packed plot lines, unique interpretations of age-old fairy tales, and engaging storytelling.  I know there are many exciting things to come from this author, but I don't know if anything she does from now on will enthrall me quite as much as The Lunar Chronicles has.  I hope she proves me wrong.  In the meantime, I'll miss this enjoyable series, one of my favorite YA series ever.

(Readalikes: Other books in The Lunar Chronicles series, including Cinder; Scarlet; Cress; Fairest; Stars Above; and Wires and Nerve)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence; blood/gore; brief, mild language (no F-bombs), and mild sexual innuendo/sensuality

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

"Kinder, Gentler Wimpy Kid" Series A Hit


(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for My Life as a Cartoonist, it may inadvertently ruin plot surprises from earlier My Life As ... books.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

When a new kid comes rolling into Derek Fallon's classroom in a wheelchair, a brilliant idea lights up Derek's brain.  The Fallons have been fostering a capuchin monkey who will eventually be trained to help assist disabled people with daily tasks (a real thing, by the way—check out Helping Hands Monkey Helpers).  Umberto is disabled; maybe Frank the monkey could be his companion!  It really is a perfect plan.

So, why isn't Umberto into the idea?  And why is the new kid picking on Derek?  It makes no sense.  Things go from bad to worse when Umberto starts stealing Derek's cartoon ideas.  Even more annoying is that Umberto draws Super Frank better than Derek, the comic strip's creator.  Derek is at the end of his rope.  What should he do?  He's being bullied by a boy in a wheelchair—he can't fight back against a disabled kid.  Or can he?

I haven't read the first two books in Janet Tashjian's My Life As ... series, but I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed the third installment, My Life as a Cartoonist.  I love that the author features a disabled character who feels real.  Umberto isn't a tragic figure or a saint or anything but a normal kid with personality traits that are both charming and annoying.  Derek is likewise flawed.  As the two of them learn to appreciate each other, they teach the reader some valuable lessons about kindness, acceptance, and putting someone else's needs before your own.  The story doesn't feel preachy, though.  In fact, it's fast, it's funny, and it's full of heart.  Simple cartoons drawn by Tashjian's son, Jake, enhance the tale.  Jeff Kinney fans will find much to love about My Life as a Cartoonist and its fellows.  One reviewer described the series as "a kinder, gentler Wimpy Kid with all the fun and more plot."  I couldn't agree more.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the My Life As ... series by Janet Tashjian and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Burning Air An Intense, Suspenseful Page Turner


(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Still mourning the loss of Lydia, their matriarch, the MacBride Family gathers at their country home for some peace and quiet.  The arrival of a stranger in the isolated locale is a surprise.  Disconcerted by the presence of an outsider, the MacBrides nevertheless try to make her feel welcome.  Unbeknownst to the family, Darcy Kellaway has a history with the MacBrides.  And not a pretty one.  When Sophie MacBride Woods' 8-month-old baby disappears while under Darcy's care, they realize a fatal error has been made.  What happened to the child?  And who is Darcy, really?  

The Burning Air by Erin Kelly is a complex, well-plotted psychological thriller that asks just how far a person might go to exact revenge on the people who have hurt him/her.  It's a chilling question to contemplate—especially if you're part of the MacBride clan.  The novel explores the idea using complex, interesting characters and a tense, suspenseful story line.  Although the last section seems tacked on, the rest of the tale is fairly taut, making The Burning Air an engrossing page turner.  It's a compelling read, one I didn't love but ended up liking well enough.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of books by Sharon Bolton and Tana French)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

I Can't Explain It, But I Loved It

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Some books are impossible to describe.  Judging from the skimpy plot summary, even the publisher had a tough time explaining Dark Matter, the newest book by Blake Crouch.  I'm not even going to attempt it because like I said ... impossible.  
“Are you happy with your life?”                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Dark Matter is a brilliantly plotted tale that is at once sweeping and intimate, mind-bendingly strange and profoundly human—a relentlessly surprising science-fiction thriller about choices, paths not taken, and how far we’ll go to claim the lives we dream of.
Maybe I can't tell you exactly what Dark Matter is about, but I can tell you that I loved it.  Why?  It's unique, it's surprising, it's intriguing, it's engrossing, it's impossible to put down.  In a word: stunning.  I devoured the book, reading well into the night to see what would happen to Jason Dossen.  If you like mind-bending sci fi adventure stories, this one's for you.

(Readalikes:  Honestly, nothing I've ever read comes to mind!)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, sexual content, and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Monday, January 16, 2017

Victorian Sleuthing Sequel Not As Charming As Predecessor

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for A Perilous Undertaking, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, A Curious Beginning.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After Veronica Speedwell's recent madcap adventures, she's settled into a rather routine life in London.  Along with her friend Stoker—a disgraced gentleman and naturalist—she spends her hours sorting through a friend's vast collection of artifacts, readying them for museum display.  It's not un-interesting work, but the intrepid lepidopterist is much more interested in solving mysteries.  Lucky for her, one has practically fallen into her lap.  

A mysterious woman has asked Veronica to do the impossible—stop the upcoming execution of Miles Ramsforth, a patron of the arts who's been accused of murder.  His mistress, 26-year-old Artemisia, was found in his bedchamber with her throat slit.  Despite the conclusive evidence, some insist he's innocent.  Veronica is only too delighted to look into the case.  It's just the kind of diversion for which she's been longing.  Still, the investigation has her digging in places she never could have imagined going—everywhere from an opium den to a subterranean pleasure palace.  These shadowy locales hold secrets certain members of high society would kill to keep under wraps.  Did Artemisia learn something dangerous, something that led to her murder?  Veronica intends to find out—despite myriad warnings to back off.  Can Veronica save Miles from the hangman's noose?  Or will she become the next victim of a desperate killer?

Coincidentally enough, it was a year ago today that I posted my rave review of A Curious Beginning, the first book in Deanna Raybourn's new Victorian mystery series.  The novel delighted me so much that I couldn't wait for a sequel.  I was thrilled, then, to receive an early copy of the second installment in the series, the finished version of which came out on January 10, 2017.  Is A Perilous Undertaking everything I imagined it would be?  Well, no.  I didn't find it nearly as charming as its predecessor.  It's still an enjoyable book, don't get me wrong, but its unsavory subject matter and not-all-that-likable minor characters made it less satisfying for me.  Veronica and Stoker, however, continue to shine.  With their colorful personalities, witty banter, and the sexual tension that crackles between them, they're fun to follow.  The mystery they're chasing in A Perilous Undertaking is full of twists and turns, making for a tense, exciting story.  I definitely could have done without the novel's discomfiting focus on underground Victorian sexual practices; in fact, I would have enjoyed the story a whole lot more had it stayed within the PG-13 realm.  Still, it's a clever page turner that will leave Speedwell/Stoker fans begging for more.  I'm clamoring for the next book as well; I'm just hoping it will focus more on the suspenseful than the sensual.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of  A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn and The Mangle Street Murders by M.R.C Kasasian)  

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of A Perilous Undertaking from the generous folks at Penguin Random House via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!


Friday, January 13, 2017

Whitewater Wilderness Adventure Far-Fetched, But Engrossing

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

There's no doubt that Winifred Allen needs a vacation.  Grieving both the loss of her brother and the end of her marriage, the 39-year-old could use a break.  An extreme river rafting adventure isn't quite what she had in mind, but when her BFFs suggest it for an upcoming girl's trip, Wini can't talk her way out of going.  Reluctantly, she joins her three besties as they head into Maine's Allagash Wilderness.  

Wini's concern grows when she meets the river guide, 20-year-old college student Rory Ekhart.  He's nice to look at, sure, but does he know what he's doing?  It's not long before they find out.  A freak accident leaves the group stranded in the woods.  Soon, they're struggling to survive—against nature, each other, and a host of other dangers lurking in the wilderness.  Can they all make it out alive?  Or will their gal pal adventure mean the end of their friendship forever?

I enjoy a good man vs. nature survival story where ordinary people have to dig deep for the will to survive an extraordinary situation.  The River at Night, a debut novel by Erica Ferencik, tells just such a story.  Naturally, it's an exciting, fast-paced adventure tale full of twists and turns, danger and drama.  Yes, it's far-fetched—I mean, would a group of inexperienced middle-aged women really sign up for an extreme, week-long outdoor adventure led by a kid they know little about?  And what is the likelihood that everything would go wrong pretty much right from the start?  Well, it makes for a thrilling story, anyway.  In the end, I didn't love The River at Night, but it did keep me engrossed and guessing—two hallmarks of a good, gripping page turner.   

(Readalikes: I can't think of any specific books, but The River at Night did remind me of the movie The River Wild)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, blood/gore, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received an e-ARC of The River at Night from the generous folks at Scout Press/Simon and Schuster via those at Wunderkind PR and NetGalley.  Thank you!  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Cape Cod Family Drama Satisfying, But Not Super Memorable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Brett has been entranced with Charlie Moss ever since she met him as an 18-year-old college student.  Even now, after marriage and the birth of their first child, she's still swayed by his magnetic charm.  His blasé attitude and perpetual joblessness, however, are becoming a bit of a problem.  Struggling to hold their little family together, Brett is at the end of her rope.  She doesn't want to hurt Charlie, but it might be time to call it quits.  For her sake and for that of 15 month-old Sarah.

Then, the unthinkable happens.  Charlie is murdered, his throat gruesomely slit on the back deck of the Moss' seaside Cape Cod cottage.  Wracked with grief, Brett struggles to understand what has happened.  Who could have done such a heinous deed?  The most obvious suspect is Charlie's mentally unstable brother, Eli, who had shown up unexpectedly the day before.  But he's not the only one with motive, opportunity.  Was Charlie killed by a passing stranger?  Or someone he knew?  His own brother, perhaps?  As the investigation wears on, Brett will have to face some shocking truths—about her marriage, her family, and herself.

Although The Last September by Nina de Gramont is a murder mystery, it's really more of a family drama than anything else.  Its focus remains on the characters and their relationships, not the crime.  Brett, Charlie, Eli, and the rest are complex story people.  All realistically flawed, only Eli is truly sympathetic.  Neither Brett nor Charlie are super likable, both being fickle and selfish.  Overall, the novel is depressing, but it's also compelling enough that I wanted to know what really happened to Charlie.  The Last September is a satisfying read, in the end, just not a super memorable one.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, and sexual content

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

Based-On-TV-Series Mystery Novel Tells Fuller, More Compelling Story

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When the dead body of an 11-year-old boy is found on the beach in the sleepy, seaside hamlet of Broadchurch, it rocks the small Dorset community to its core.  Danny Latimer had grown up in the town, was well known by many.  Did he purposely jump off the cliffs in order to end his own life?  Did he fall?  Was he pushed?  These are the questions that haunt Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller.  For her, it's a very personal case—Danny was her son's best friend.  Ellie knows the Latimers well.  Their grief pierces her to the soul.

Ellie's keen to solve the case, knowing closure will do the Latimers a world of good.  She's not thrilled, however, when a brusque outsider—Detective Inspector Alec Hardy—is brought in to help the local police investigate Danny's death.  Not only does DI Hardy harbor his own secrets, but he's certain the good folks of Broadchurch keep plenty of their own.  He's not wrong.  As the detectives pummel Ellie's friends, neighbors, and acquaintances for answers, she's shocked by what they uncover.  Someone killed Danny.  Someone from Broadchurch.  Who would do such a thing?  And why?  As the Latimers slowly fall apart, it's up to Ellie—their friend and confidante—to figure out what really happened to their little boy.  The truth will bring an already outraged town to its knees.  It always does when the monster is one of your own ...

You may have heard of Broadchurch, a British crime drama that ran on ITV for three seasons starting in 2013.  Starring David Tennant (best known as the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who) as DI Hardy and Olivia Colman as Ellie, the series is available to view on Netflix.  Interestingly, Broadchurch the show is not based on Broadchurch the novel, but the other way around.  This is so odd because, to me, the latter is much better than the former.  Perhaps this simply has to do with my preference for print over film, but Broadchurch by Erin Kelly tells a much fuller story than the t.v. version.  In fact, if I hadn't read the book first I think I would have been a bit lost watching the series as its filmed in an artsy way with a choppy storyline and lots of moody, melodramatic scenes that offer more in the way of creativity than clarity.   Still, both versions are complex, compelling, and well-plotted.  The twists mostly caught me off-guard.  As did the identity of the murderer.  I did not see it coming at all.  While I always like a small-town-with-big-secrets story, some are more disturbing than others.  I'm not going to lie—Broadchurch was difficult to read (and watch) at certain points.  It's depressing.  And the ending made me sick to my stomach, truth be told.  Overall, though, the book's an engrossing page turner that I had trouble putting down even when I really, really wanted to.  I'll definitely look for more of Kelly's work at my local library.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Blackbird Fly An Important Story About Fitting in and Finding Yourself

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Analyn "Apple" Yengko and her mother moved from The Philippines to Louisiana eight years ago.  Eight years.  So, why does Apple's mother still insist on cooking weird Filipino foods, speaking in Cebuano, and acting so different, so un-American?  All 12-year-old Apple wants is to be like the other kids.  Isn't it enough that she has brown skin and black hair when everyone else is white and blonde?  Does her mom have to emphasize the fact that they're not born-and-raised Americans?

Apple already feels like a misfit, but when she lands on the Dog Log—a list of the ten ugliest girls in her middle school—things go from bad to worse.  No one in Louisiana can understand her humiliation, so she turns to the only people who can make her feel better: the Beatles.  Escaping into music (Apple wants to be a songwriter) is helpful, but what she really needs is to escape for real.  She already has an exit plan, one that involves busking in the Big Easy.  All she needs to live out her dreams is a guitar.  As soon as she can convince her mother to buy her one (ha!), Apple will leave Chapel Spring forever.  And she'll never feel out of place again.

Of course, dreams are never that easy to achieve.  There will be some major bumps along the way.  Also, some new friendships that just might change everything for a lonely Filipino girl who just wants to belong ...

Back in the Stone Age (the 90s seem so long ago!), I spent my junior year of high school as an exchange student in the southern Philippines.  That year abroad changed me—it broadened my view of the world; introduced me to a place marked by awe-inspiring beauty, loving people, and stark poverty; and gave me experiences I couldn't have gained anywhere else (yes, eating dog was one of them).  The Philippines will always have a special place in my heart because of my year there.  Thus, I'm always excited when I come across a book about the country and its culture.  There aren't many, so I was thrilled to hear about Blackbird Fly, a debut novel by Erin Estrada Kelly, who is, herself, Filipino-American.  The story echoes her experience growing up in Louisiana as one of very few Asian people.  Apple's tale is heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful as she finds acceptance and comes to terms with her complex culture and identity.  As Kelly says in a blog post on the subject, "Otherness is universal."  Kids will empathize with Apple because they understand feeling different.  They will root for her because they long for acceptance, too.  Through Apple they will learn valuable lessons about empathy, inclusion, and celebrating the differences that define each of us.  For all these reasons, I enjoyed Blackbird Fly.  It's an important book, one that will strike a chord with anyone who's ever felt "other"—and, really, who hasn't?


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Blackbird Fly from the generous folks at Harper Collins.  Thank you!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Creepy, Claustrophobic Mystery-At-Sea Another Page Turner From Ware

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In the ten years journalist Lo Blacklock has worked for Velocity, a travel magazine, she's gone exactly nowhere.  Both literally and figuratively.  So, when Lo's pregnant boss passes on the opportunity to sail through the Norwegian fjords on a brand new luxury liner, Lo is thrilled to go in her place.  A little R&R is just what she needs after a break-in at her apartment that has left her shaken and paranoid.  Plus, the experience should be just the thing to give her lagging career a much-needed boost.

From the moment Lo steps on the boat, she's captivated by its opulence.  From the glittering chandeliers to the glamorous guests, the small ship is everything it's been advertised to be.  On her first evening at sea, something strange occurs—a tipsy Lo witnesses a body being thrown overboard.  At least she thinks she does.  Although she spreads her concern to the crew and passengers, no one believes her as everyone on board is accounted for.  Lo might not be sure exactly what she saw that night, but she knows there was a living, breathing woman in Cabin 10.  Even if the room has always been vacant.  Lo borrowed makeup from a real person.  Where is that person now?  

As Lo tries to convince her fellow travelers—and herself—that something sinister has happened, she comes to realize just how cut off she is from the outside world.  She knows something's not quite right aboard the Aurora Borealis.  But what is it that's off?  And how can she prove that something fishy is going on?  Especially when she can't quite persuade herself.   

I love the premise behind The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware's sophomore thriller.  It's intriguing, it's chilling, it's a conundrum that kept me flipping pages to find out what was going to happen.  The creepy, atmospheric setting added to the novel's claustrophobic vibe making it an even more intense mystery.  While its plot could definitely have been more complex, The Woman in Cabin 10 tells an exciting, engrossing story.  I didn't find it quite as compelling as In a Dark, Dark Wood, but I still enjoyed the read overall.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, sexual content, and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Woman in Cabin 10 at Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

In a Dark, Dark Wood An Addicting Page Turner

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Nora Shaw hasn't spoken to her childhood best friend, Clare Cavendish, in ten years.  A reclusive crime writer, Nora avoids social interaction with just about everyone.  Which is why she's so shocked when she gets an email from Clare's new BFF inviting her to Clare's upcoming hen party.  Not having received a wedding invitation, Nora was unaware of the looming nuptials.  The last thing she wants to do is spend a long weekend with someone she hasn't seen in a decade, but feelings of both curiosity and guilt convince her to accept the invite.  

The party venue—an isolated glass house in the English countryside—does nothing to relieve Nora's anxiety about the hen weekend.  Nor does its hostess, a nervous, eager-to-please woman named Flo.  The other party guests—virtual strangers to one another—seem almost as ill-at-ease as Nora.  As the gathering gets going, things soon go horribly awry.  When Nora wakes up in the hospital with only fractured memories of what has occurred, she must connect the fuzzy dots to figure out how someone in the glass house ended up dead.  And why she's being accused of murder.  

In a Dark, Dark Wood—a debut novel by Ruth Ware—has gotten a lot of buzz since its publication in 2015.  Inevitable comparisons to The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl made psychological thriller fanatics (like Yours Truly) take notice.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance to read an ARC of the book.  Although its big finale was a little predictable, on the whole, I was not disappointed with Ware's freshman effort.  The author excels at creating a spooky, unsettling atmosphere that gives a shivery vibe to the whole story.  Plotwise, it's a tense, taut tale that's twisty enough to keep the reader on edge.  The big reveal at the end isn't all that surprising, true, but the book's still engrossing and suspenseful.  Dark, yes.  Disturbing, yes.  Depressing, yes.  And yet, overall, I enjoyed this addicting page turner.  It kept me reading in a dark, dark bedroom way, way past my bedtime.  


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of In a Dark, Dark Wood from the generous folks at Simon and Schuster via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!)
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