Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cover Reveal: Spark by Holly Schindler

I've loved Holly Schindler ever since I read her debut novel, A Blue So Dark.  It is a haunting, memorable story told in vivid, skilled prose.  It made me want to read everything she wrote.  I'm a little behind on that goal, but I've continued to enjoy the author's books over the years.  Holly's not just a talented writer, but she's also a great champion of book bloggers.  Really, what's not to love about her?

Naturally, I was thrilled to be a part of the cover reveal for Holly's forthcoming YA novel, Spark.  Published by HarperCollins, it comes out on May 17, 2016.  You can pre-order it now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  Isn't it pretty?

  When the right hearts come to the Avery Theater—at the right time—the magic will return. The Avery will come back from the dead.

Or so Quin’s great-grandmother predicted many years ago on Verona, Missouri’s most tragic night, when Nick and Emma, two star-crossed teenage lovers, died on the stage. It was the night that the Avery’s marquee lights went out forever.

It sounds like urban legend, but one that high school senior Quin is now starting to believe, especially when her best friend, Cass, and their classmate Dylan step onto the stage and sparks fly. It seems that magic can still unfold at the old Avery Theater and a happier ending can still be had—one that will align the stars and revive not only the decrepit theater, but also the decaying town. However, it hinges on one thing—that Quin gets the story right this time around.

Holly Schindler brings the magic of the theater to life in this tale of family ties, fate, love, and one girl’s quest to rewrite history.

Sounds incredible, right?  I think so.  May, come quick!

Mormon Mentions: Melissa DeCarlo

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 Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo, Mattie Wallace and her friend go to visit a man, looking for information about Mattie's mother.  He invites them in.  Then:

Mr. Hambly clears his throat, "Latter Day Saints?  Jehovah's Witnesses?"

Luke and I both laugh.  I think he's laughing out of surprise, but I'm laughing because Luke, in his white dress shirt and dark tie, really does look like a religious door-knocker, which is probably what gained us entrance into the Hambly home in the first place. 

(Quote taken from Page 258 of an uncorrected proof)

-- The Church's missionary program is legendary all around the world.  Mormon missionaries are easily recognizable by their white shirts and ties (men), conservative skirts and blouses (women), and black name tags (all).  They're also well-known for going door-to-door delivering messages about Jesus Christ.  Or trying to, anyway.  Mattie's assumption that she and Luke are allowed inside because they're religious representatives is pretty optimistic, since I'm pretty sure most people run and hide when they see the LDS missionaries (or Jehovah's Witnesses) coming.  A pity, since everyone can benefit from an uplifting religious discussion.  Unless, of course, your visitors are of the Mattie/Luke variety—people who look like missionaries, but are actually nosy strangers wanting to know all your secrets ...

Wickedly Funny Family Secrets Novel Surprisingly Poignant

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Despite her vow never to be like her bitter, alcoholic mother, Mattie Wallace has pretty much become her mini-me.  Newly homeless, she's got all of her earthly possessions stuffed into a half dozen trash bags in the back of her mom's ancient Chevy Malibu.  With nothing in her wallet, but a definite something growing in her womb, Mattie's reached an all-time low.  At least her mom—who's been dead for five years—isn't around to say, "I told you so."  Although Mattie's aging stepfather is willing to take her in, she can't bear for him to see how badly she's screwed up this time.  It's just as well, then, that he has news—Mattie's grandmother has died, leaving a possible inheritance for her next of kin.  Mattie never knew her mother's mother, but she's not opposed to taking whatever money the woman left behind.  With nothing to keep her in the Florida Panhandle, Mattie high-tails it to little Gandy, Oklahoma, hoping to leave with some cold, hard cash.

The good news: Mattie has inherited her mother's family home.  The bad: she can't take possession of it for several months.  With the Malibu out of commission, she's stuck in Gandy until she can find the money to get it repaired.  A kind paralegal allows her to squat in her grandmother's house, but that only solves one of Mattie's problems.  As she tries to straighten out her many dilemmas, Mattie settles into the rhythm of life in Gandy.  Thanks to the quirky townspeople, her days are filled with plenty of drama and entertainment.  Still, the only story she really wants told is that of her mother.  Why did Genie Wallace, a pretty young woman with a bright future, suddenly up and leave Gandy?  Why did she never return?  How did the popular, well-loved Genie turn into the broken, boozed-up woman who raised Mattie?  

With more questions than answers, Mattie determines to shake the truth about her mother out of the reticent Gandy-ans.  Considering how shaky her relationship with Genie was, Mattie's surprised by how much she wants to know who her mother really was.  But how many people will she have to hurt in order to get the real story?  And what does it matter, after all, when the real problem is what to do about Mattie's own downward spiral?  As Mattie unearths clues about her family's past, she finds shocking revelations—astonishing truths that might be the keys to salvaging her own future.

As you probably know by now, I'm a sucker for a good homecoming/family secrets story.  The Art of Crash Landing, a debut novel by Melissa DeCarlo, certainly fits the bill, although it's a far cry from the Kate Morton-ish fare I usually read.  Feisty Mattie is the kind of irascible character that shouldn't be as likable as she is.  Still, her wicked sense of humor; her bold, reckless personality; and her refusal to back down make her a fun heroine.  Her pain, so authentic and raw, makes her sympathetic.  I couldn't help but love her.  Mattie's madcap adventures made me laugh, while her family mystery made me race through the pages, eager to see how the puzzle pieces all fit together.  Although our heroine (anti-heroine?) is undeniably hilarious, The Art of Crash Landing isn't a light, fun kind of novel.  Not by a long shot.  It's a sad, poignant read, but one that manages to be both real and hopeful.  Despite the excessive profanity and other R-rated bits, I surprised myself by enjoying this novel quite thoroughly. 

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Art of Crash Landing from the generous folks at HarperCollins via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Earthbound An Enjoyable Supernatural Thrill Ride

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As the only survivor of a plane crash that killed 255 people (including her parents), Tavia Michaels is confused.  Sure, it could be the traumatic brain injury (TBI) talking, but that only explains some of what the 18-year-old is now experiencing.  She sees strange shapes on historic structures, people who seem to flicker, and now, a guy who dresses in Revolutionary War-era clothing appears to be stalking her.  Tavia doesn't know what to make of it all.  Her small circle of confidantes—her guardians, her psychiatrist, and Benson Ryder, the boy who makes her heart beat double-time—doesn't think she's crazy.  Not exactly.  But Tavia's beginning to wonder ...

When Tavia confronts her stalker, Quinn Avery, she's unnerved by the things he says.  Also intrigued.  Desperate for answers, she continues to communicate with him, becoming more and more attracted to the handsome blonde.  After overhearing an alarming phone conversation at her aunt's house, Tavia's convinced Quinn knows exactly what is happening to her.  And that she's in grave danger.  With Benson's help, she flees to Camden, Maine, following the clues the mysterious man has left for her.  As Tavia puts together the pieces of the mind-boggling puzzle that will reveal the answers to all her questions, she finds herself caught not just in a heady, supernatural time warp, but also in a love triangle that is pulling her heart in two different directions.  Can she untangle the mystery of who she really is and what she really wants in time to save the world from imminent disaster?  What about her own life?  What about her heart?

I usually shy away from paranormal YA novels because they all seem to feature the same tired, cookie-cutter plots.  Earthbound by Aprilynne Pike is no exception.  And yet, I didn't hate this first book in the Earthbound series—in fact, I liked it.  With solid prose and a tense, exciting storyline, it kept me engrossed.  Although the tale starts out confusing, it's a good kind of puzzlement, the kind that makes everything more suspenseful.  Earthbound does get melodramatic, insta-lovey, and predictable at times, but overall, I found it to be a compelling page turner.  If you can overlook the been-there-done-that-a-million-times plot summary, Earthbound makes for an enjoyable read.

(Readalikes:  Every other oh-my-gosh-I-can't-believe-I'm-really-a-vampire/mermaid/goddess/witch/angel/devil/dragon/demon slayer, etc. YA book; also the other books in the series, Earthquake and Earthrise)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Earthbound (in 2013!) from the generous folks at Razorbill (a division of Penguin Random House).  Thank you!

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

If She Writes It, I Will Read ... (with a Giveaway!)

(Image from Amazon)

The last thing Hannah Becker needs is another big brother.  She's already got Dave hovering and sticking his nose in her business—even if he does it from Qatar via Skype.  She definitely doesn't need Dave's best buddy, Will Hallerman, babysitting her from his apartment down the hall.  Hannah wouldn't mind the handsome rocket scientist keeping an eye on her if he did it not out of duty, but because he had (finally!) fallen in love with her.  Ever since she started pining for him at thirteen, Hannah has longed for Will to see her as something other than a kid sister.  If only he would open his eyes, he'd discover that she's become a smart, successful, 28-year-old woman, who just happens to be perfect for him.  If only.

Will and Hannah have such a comfortable, easy relationship that he turns to her for help when he decides to use an Internet dating site to find himself a wife.  Seething on the inside, Hannah does everything she can to sabotage Project Marriage.  Everything except telling him how she really feels.  Been there, done that—with disastrous results.  As all of Hannah's plans fail miserably, she begins to wonder if she's the one standing in the way of his happiness.  Is it time to put her Will obsession to rest, allowing both of them to move on?  Her own Internet dating exploits have landed her with the perfect rebound guy.  Can Hannah's heart beat for anyone but Will?  Or is she doomed to watch the man she's loved for fifteen years walk down the aisle with someone else?  

Some authors love to keep readers guessing by experimenting with different genres, characters, and themes.  That's great.  But, there's something to be said for a writer who sticks with what works.  That's one of the things I love about Melanie Jacobson.  I can always count on her for a fun, upbeat romance that will make me laugh and swoon in equal measure.  Always Will, the author's newest, is no exception.  Like all of Jacobson's heroines, Hannah is no shrinking violet.  She's a smart, successful professional who's proud of both her brains and her beauty.  Not to mention her physique, which she maintains with a rigorous running schedule.  While Hannah's confidence and good humor make her both likable and admirable, her self-absorption gets annoying.  Will's constant thoughtfulness toward Hannah shines a harsh, contrasting light on how little she does for him (or anyone else for that matter).  Still, I enjoyed the duo's warm friendship, with its realistic irritants and slow-burning tension.  If felt real.  The banter between the two is especially engaging.  Plot-wise, the story isn't very original, but it does take a turn I didn't see coming.  I appreciated that little twist because it made the whole story more authentic, more mature, more true-to-life.  All in all, then, I found Always Will to be an easy, fun romance that sparkles with the typical wit and warmth I have come to expect (and always find) in  a Jacobson novel.  This is what keeps me coming back to her books.  I've said this before and I'll say it again:  If Melanie Jacobson writes it, I'll read it.   

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Melanie Jacobson's other novels:  The List; Not My Type; Twitterpated; Painting Kisses; Second Chances; and Smart Move


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Always Will from the generous folks at Covenant in exchange for my participation in the book's virtual tour.  Thank you!


If you (like me) are a big Melanie Jacobson fan, you'll love the following extras ...

Follow along on the Always Will blog tour:

Join in on the book's online launch party:

Enter to win a copy of Always Will and a $25 Amazon gift card:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Lowly Spider Can't Be A Hero—Or Can He?

(Image from Shadow Mountain)

Even though Westly doesn't look quite like his caterpillar friends, he knows that one day, he'll be the Monarch ruling them all.  That's his destiny—his right—as a butterfly prince.  He'll reign from the glittering chandelier at the top of the glass menagerie that encapsulates his entire world.  As his peers emerge from their cocoons with bright, beautiful wings, Westly becomes even more excited.  It's almost his turn!  But when he breaks out of his wrapping, everyone gasps.  Unlike the other young butterflies, he has eight legs and no wings.  Shocked and shamed, Westly runs away from the only home he's ever known.
As a very confused Westly navigates the outside world, he encounters strange creatures, scary places, and all kinds of other dangers he's never faced before.  While having these adventures, Westly slowly begins to understand that he's not a butterfly at all, but a spider.  Before he's had time to really comprehend what this means, Westly makes a giant mistake.  One that puts every insect in the menagerie at risk.  Can he fix what he's done before it's too late?  A lowly spider can't be a hero—or can he?

Written and illustrated by Bryan Beus, Westly: A Spider's Tale tells an exciting story about one spider's quest to find himself.  There's plenty of action to engage young readers.  Beus' drawings as well as his menagerie setting, with its intriguing hierarchy, add depth to the narrative.  Most important, though, are the lessons Westly learns about loyalty, forgiveness, teamwork, and embracing one's uniqueness.  Any child who's ever felt different from his peers will empathize with Westly's plight.  While Westly: A Spider's Tale doesn't bring anything really new or original to the table, it's a quick, enjoyable tale that teaches life lessons valuable not just to children, but to us all. 

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

If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for some scary scenes

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Westly: A Spider's Tale from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain in exchange for my participation in the book's virtual blog tour.  Thank you!

Friday, October 02, 2015

Dark, Brooding Circus Tale Absorbing and Memorable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Simon Watson spends his days trying to keep his job as a librarian while his family home slowly crumbles into the Long Island Sound.  Built in the 1700s, the house has been witness to plenty of history, including the drowning of Simon's mother and the subsequent grief that tormented his father until he, too, passed away.  All 29-year-old Simon has left is his younger sister, Enola.  Following in the footsteps of their mother, who once earned her living as a circus mermaid, Enola works as a fortune teller for a traveling carnival.  She hasn't been home in six years.  Until a series of disturbing tarot card readings send her back in a panic.  

The librarian is already unnerved by the surprise arrival of an old book on his doorstep.  Sent by a stranger who bought it on speculation, the tome is a log kept by Hermelius Peabody, troupe master of the once great Peabody's Portable Magic and Miracles Show.  Peabody's mention of a mysterious mermaid, who drowned on July 24 just like Simon's mother, convinces Simon that his family history is somehow tangled up in that of Peabody's strange circus.  Worried about the disturbing pattern of women in his family dying by intentional drowning, Simon can't help but fret for his unstable sister.  Has Enola come home only to throw herself in the sea?  Can Simon stop her before she does something terrible?  With his job gone, his house falling into the Sound, and his sister unraveling before his eyes, Simon becomes obsessed with the circus log.  Can he pull himself out of his own manic study long enough to save Enola?  Himself?  Or will the ruined house watch more Watsons die in the churning sea below?  

The Book of Speculation, a broody, atmospheric debut by Erika Swyler, tells an intricately woven story about the dark history of Simon's family.  Moving between the present and the past, it offers a compelling then and now tale that gets increasingly tense as July 24th approaches for Simon and Enola.  With vivid portrayals of circus life, the novel exudes a strange, potent magic.  The author's evocative illustrations only make it more intriguing.  While The Book of Speculation isn't exactly a page turner, it is utterly absorbing.  And memorable.  Overall, I found myself quite mesmerized by it.  If you enjoyed The Night Circus (which I did) or Water for Elephants (which I actually didn't care for that much), give this one a shot.  Chances are, it will bespell you just as thoroughly as it did me.  


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Bitter River Another Complex, Compelling Thriller

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for Bitter River, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from the first Bell Elkins mystery.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Despite its quaint appearance, Acker's Gap, West Virginia, is no stranger to violence.  Especially not the rough, desperate kind that grows from the hopeless, soul-sucking poverty so common in down-on-their-luck mountain towns.  Still, no one can quite comprehend how a girl with such a bright future ended up dead on the bottom of the Bitter River.  A 16-year-old honor student, Lucinda Trimble could have really gone places—unlike the average Acker's Gap high schooler.  The discovery of her hidden pregnancy just adds to the shock.  Did the baby's father freak out and murder Lucinda?  If not, then who did?

It's up to Sheriff Nick Fogelsong to figure out what happened to Lucinda Trimble.  As Nick's longtime friend and confidante, prosecuting attorney Belfa "Bell" Elkins will play his unofficial assistant.  The case is consuming enough, but Bell's got other problems.  Her older sister, who spent three decades in prison for killing their abusive father, is out on parole.  Bell wants to help Shirley reenter society—Shirley wants nothing to do with her.  Then, there's Carla, Bell's 17-year-old daughter, who's living in D.C. with her flashy lobbyist father.  Carla's already fragile emotionally—how is Bell going to break the news about Lucinda, who was her good friend?  To add to her troubles, Nick's acting weird and Bell's own emotions are all over the place when it comes to her new relationship with her much younger boyfriend.  As trouble in town escalates, Bell must put her personal problems on the back burner and focus on finding a killer.  The closer she gets, of course, the more dangerous things become.  Can Bell keep an eye on everyone she loves while watching her own back?  Or will she become the killer's next target?

I fell in love with Acker's Gap and its fearless prosecuting attorney after reading A Killing in the Hills, the first book in the Bell Elkins series by Julia Keller.  Bitter River, the second, continues her story in a novel even more compelling than its predecessor.  Like the first book, it offers a twisty plot (my guesses about the murderer's identity were ALL wrong), a complex heroine (her very human flaws make her even more appealing), and an intimate (but unflinching) portrait of West Virginia's mountain people.  All of these elements combined to create another deep, affecting thriller that kept me riveted to the page—and eager to continue on with this excellent series.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Bell Elkins series, including A Killing in the Hills; Summer of the Dead; and Last Ragged Breath)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, violence/gore, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Video Game Bounty Hunter Adventure a Fun, Imaginative Yarn

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For people who crave intense, interactive gaming experiences, the MEEP represents the ultimate playground.  While players lie unconscious at home, they use their minds to enter the massive virtual world, where all kinds of simulated experiences await their eager avatars.  Although teens are only allowed to stay inside the MEEP for up to four hours, illegal hacks let them stretch their time and experience.  The result?  Frustrated, angry parents.  That's where Phoenix "Nixy" Bauer comes in.  Because her parents work for the company responsible for the MEEP, she has even better tricks, which allow her to sneak inside the virtual world and snatch errant avatars at a much lower price than the cost of an official retrieval.  Although working as a bounty hunter (aka, a Leveller) makes Nixy less than popular with her peers, it's a quick, easy way to pad her college fund.

Nixy gets a fair amount of business, but when she's contacted by Diego Salvador, the billionaire who developed the MEEP, she's shocked.  Also nervous, as her little levelling business isn't exactly kosher. Mr. Salvador isn't busting Nixy, but giving her an assignment.  His teenage son, Wyn, has gone missing inside the game.  Worse still, the boy left a suicide note in the real world—clearly, Wyn has no intention of returning to his home in the Florida Keys.  If anyone can bring him back, it's Nixy.  

The job won't be easy, Nixy knows that.  Still, she's confident she'll succeed.  Then, she discovers the truth—Wyn hasn't barricaded himself inside the game, he's being held against his will.  Together, they have to fight their way out of the MEEP, not knowing who or what is after them.  As the stakes rise higher and higher, Nixy realizes this is no game.  This time, she's playing for keeps.  This time, it's her life—and Wyn's—that is at stake.  Can she beat her unseen enemy at its own game?  Or will she be lost forever in a virtual world that grows more dangerous with every passing second?

As you can probably tell, The Leveller by Julia Durango is a fun, fast-paced story.  Its setting—the exciting, imaginative MEEP—will appeal to gamers, reluctant readers, and anyone who enjoys a good action/adventure yarn.  Although the novel will probably make readers consider the perils of spending too much time in virtual reality vs. reality reality, its lessons are subtle.  Really, The Leveller is all about entertainment.  It's exciting, it's funny, it's upbeat, it's engrossing.  Does the whole MEEP thing seem a little far-fetched?  Yes.  Am I still confused by all its rules?  Sure thing.  Was I totally satisfied with the book's ending?  No.  And yet, I enjoyed this one immensely.  It's just fun, you know?  If you—or your favorite teen—is looking for a light, diverting read, give this one a go.  It won't disappoint.      

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs—at least not in English); violence/gore; and mild sexual innuendo

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mystery Series Brings Appalachia Alive in All Its Brutal, Complex Beauty

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Like much of Appalachia, Acker's Gap, West Virginia, is a place marked by paradox.  Nestled between two craggy mountain peaks, the tiny town fairly glows with the kind of lush, natural beauty that steals people's breath away, surprising even the most frequent viewer with its stunning vistas.  No matter how verdant the hills, however, the sweet smell of mountain laurel and black huckleberry can't hide the rancid stink of poverty that pervades the area.  It's a desperate, soul-sucking thing that breeds "a thoughtless, automatic, knee-jerk violence" (28) that's becoming all too familiar to Acker's Gap's salt-of-the-earth citizens.  

As the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, Belfa "Bell" Elkins sees the result of this reckless brutality every day.  Tasked with protecting her vulnerable hometown, the 39-year-old feels the crushing pressure that comes with fighting a losing battle.  And yet, she refuses to give up.  The youth of Acker's Gap deserve a better future, something more than the bleak hopelessness that defined Bell's growing-up years.  With the help of Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, the 52-year-old who took Bell under his wing after the shocking death of her abusive father, her burden feels a little bit lighter.  Some days, their long-time friendship is the only thing that keeps her coming back to the peeling courthouse where they both work, with the fate and faith of Raythune County resting on their shoulders.  

When three elderly men are gunned down while sipping coffee at a local diner, it shocks the whole town.  Carla Elkins, Bell's 17-year-old daughter, is especially tortured by the event, since she witnessed it firsthand.  Determined to find the shooter, not just to bring the killer to justice, but also to calm Carla's fears, Bell resolves to solve the case.  With no leads, that will be a tough job.  The deeper Bell's investigation goes, the more frustrated she becomes.  When Carla realizes she may be the key to closing the case, both women find themselves in harm's way.  Will the murderer be caught in time?  Or will Bell and her daughter become the next victims?  

Back in the Dark Ages, I spent a lot of time browsing library shelves, looking for enticing books to lug home and enjoy.  These days, I rarely roam the stacks.  It's much more convenient to find the titles I want online, place them on hold at my library, whip them off the reserved shelf when they come in, check out, and be on my merry way in 5 minutes flat.  That's my usual M.O.  But one day, not so long ago, I was searching for another mystery in the K section when I came across A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller.  Because of its appealing cover and intriguing premise, I plucked it off the shelf.  Not only did I read it, but I enjoyed it, so much so that I immediately put the next two books in the series on hold at the library.  Why did I find A Killing in the Hills (as well as the subsequent novels) so absorbing?  Let me give you three reasons:
  • Bell Elkins.  Our heroine is a complex woman, haunted by her past and the pervasive ways it still affects her in the present.  Her flaws make her realistically human.  Bell makes mistakes, she gets angry, discouraged, and bitter, but she always presses on, determined to do her best for the town she loves.  It's this doggedness that makes her so compelling.
  • Acker's Gap.  I like stories with rich, vivid settings, especially when authors dig beyond surface beauty to show the reality of a place in all its complicated, conflicting charm.  At this, Keller is truly a master.  
  • The mystery.  Keller creates mysteries as twisty as a West Virginia mountain road.  I never see the surprises coming.  The suspense keeps me riveted to the page.        
Is that enough to convince you?  It should be!  A Killing in the Hills sucked me in and made me care about Bell, Acker's Gap, and, most importantly, the poverty epidemic in so many of America's small mountain towns.  Keller's debut novel stuck with me because of its complexity in plot, characters, and sense of place.  Despite the quaint setting, this is no cozy—it gets gritty (note the R-rating).  Still, the story feels somehow hopeful.  A Killing in the Hills isn't an easy read, but it is an affecting one.  As are its sequels.  It's always exciting to find such treasures in the stacks.  Maybe I should browse more often, eh?

(Readalikes:  Other mysteries in the Bell Elkins series—Bitter River; Summer of the Dead; and Last Ragged Breath)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, violence/gore, sexual content, and depictions of prescription and illegal drug abuse

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, September 26, 2015

At the Water's Edge An Absorbing, Atmospheric Tale of Transformation

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Maddie Hyde has never gotten along with her disapproving in-laws, even (especially?) after living with them for the past four years.  Col. Hyde is already embarrassed by his son's inability to serve in the war due to color blindness—he's even more outraged when Ellis, Maddie, and their best friend, Hank Boyd, cause an embarrassing ruckus at a high-profile New Year's Eve party.  Tired of the spoiled socialites with their ridiculous, juvenile antics, the colonel throws his son and daughter-in-law out.  Cut off financially, Ellis and Maddie aren't sure what to do next.  Already alarmingly reliant on the anxiety pills Maddie takes occasionally, Ellis becomes even more addicted as his despondency grows.  Then, he hatches out a marvelous plan that brightens him so much Maddie's afraid to voice her concerns about traipsing across the U-boat laden Atlantic in search of a fantastical creature that exists only in her husband's imagination.  Determined to win his father's affection by doing what the colonel could not—proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster—Ellis sets off on his expedition.  Always up for an adventure, Hank tags along willingly; Maddie, only with great reluctance.

Finding herself in an inhospitable Scottish village, lodged at a rough inn whose staff has little patience for the haughty Americans, Maddie's misgivings are only growing.  She should have talked Ellis out of this little misadventure, even if he seems to be having the time of his life.  Stuck at the inn while Ellis and Hank go monster-hunting, Maddie feels adrift.  As the weeks wear on, with her constantly being left behind, she becomes increasingly bored and disillusioned with her often inebriated companions.  It's only when Maddie allows herself to start getting to know the salty Highlanders around her that she feels a sense of peace, even purpose.  Learning hard truths about herself and her oblivious self-indulgence isn't easy for Maddie, especially since it helps illuminate the most distressing revelation of all—her life is a complete fabrication.  As Maddie makes these startling discoveries about herself, tension between Ellis and the villagers reaches a violent boiling point.  When everything erupts, what will Maddie do?  With whom will she stand?  When the true monster rears its ugly head, will she become its ultimate victim?  

I didn't love Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen's popular 2006 novel, so I haven't given any of her other books a try.  When At the Water's Edge, her newest, started getting excited buzz, I hesitated to read it.  Even a chapter or two into it, I vacillated between continuing and putting it down.  Once the story got going, though, I felt nothing but riveted.  Although the novel kind of centers around good ole Nessie, it's really not about the monster hunt at all.  It's about Maddie.  The gradual, convincing way her character transforms makes this story memorable and affecting.  Gruen creates secondary story people who are likewise complex, making their plights just as absorbing as Maddie's.  The intertwining of everyone's problems and personalities work together to build conflict that explodes in a tense, satisfying climax.  While At the Water's Edge gets depressing at times, overall it's a triumphant, hopeful tale about finding oneself in the least likely of places.  Despite my ambivalence at the novel's beginning, I ended up really enjoying this one.

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, violence, sexual content, and depictions of alcohol and prescription drug abuse

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of At the Water's Edge from Changing Hands Bookstore with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Friday, September 25, 2015

Heart's Journey Tells A Familiar, But Overall Enjoyable Pioneer Tale

(Image from Amazon)

A wealthy city girl, Rachel Hamilton knows nothing about trekking through the wilderness.  And yet, she's doing just that.  She can't let her older brother declare their father—who left Toronto five years ago to open a gold mine in British Columbia—officially dead until she knows it's true.  It's been three years since Rachel received a letter from him, but she refuses to believe he's no longer living.  She just needs to see him with her own eyes.  

At Fort Garry, Rachel joins a company of rough-and-tumble miners heading west.  Feeling satisfied with her progress, she settles in for the long, arduous journey to Bellefontaine.  They haven't gone far before one of the men scares Rachel.  She runs off, soon finding herself hopelessly lost in the flat, endless prairie.  Without food, water, compass, or any survival skills whatsoever, Rachel realizes for the first time how helpless she is and how foolish she was to embark on such an impossible quest.  If she knew which way to turn, she'd stomp her way right back to Toronto, where she belongs.

When Rachel is rescued by an enigmatic cowboy who promises to escort her to the nearest fort, she's grateful.  Peter doesn't say much, although he makes his annoyance with Rachel well known.  With his educated speech, she knows Peter is more than a crusty cowboy.  As the pair, along with Peter's young charge, make their slow way across the plains, Rachel tries to pry away his secrets without giving away any of hers.  Will the two learn to trust each other as they make their way toward B.C.?  

Rachel wouldn't have chosen Peter as a travel companion, but the more time they spend together, the more afraid she is of having to say goodbye to him.  What will happen to them when they reach their destination?  Will Rachel find both her missing father and the love she never knew she was missing?  Or will the journey leave her empty-handed still?

As with most road trip novels, Heart's Journey by Kristen McKendry, is less about the character's destination and more about what she learns along the way.  Rachel, who's lived a privileged, but confined life, discovers just how big the world really is and how very little she understands it.  Her hike across Canada also shows her the many things she can do without—and the one thing (person) she can't.  Although its setting is not the American West, Heart's Journey tells the typical pioneer story, complete with all the usual trappings—inclement weather, threatening wildlife, Indian trouble, mind-numbing exhaustion, desperate hunger/thirst, and blooming romance (in spite of everything else).  While both Rachel and Peter are likable, neither really stand out as unique.  Their adventures keep the story plodding along, but the novel feels overly long.  Rachel's plight seems too easy, as she gets rescued almost every time she's in trouble, instead of finding her own way out of difficult situations.  Although the story gets dull at times (there was rarely a point when I couldn't put it down), overall, I enjoyed this clean, hopeful tale.  I wouldn't call it memorable, but it's a decent read. 

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of other pioneer-ish tales, like In the Company of Angels by David Farland, These Is My Words by Nancy Turner, Borrowed Light by Carla Kelly, etc.)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for violence, scenes of peril, mild sexual innuendo, and vague references to prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Heart's Journey from the generous folks at Covenant in exchange for participating in the book's virtual tour.  Thank you!


Other stops on the Heart's Journey book tour:


Enter to win a copy of Heart's Journey and a $25 Amazon gift card:

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Haunting and Memorable, New YA Gothic Thriller Explores the Madness Inside Us All

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I think we're all quite mad.  Some of us are just more discreet about it."
-- Dr. Melanithon Thornhollow
Although she's been locked away in a Boston insane asylum, Grace Mae is not crazy.  But she is pregnant.  Her condition must be hidden in order to protect the reputation of her father, a powerful senator.  If his supporters knew of his unnatural and unwanted attention toward his own daughter, his political career would be over.  Overwhelmed by the bleakness of her surroundings, Grace keeps her anger, her fear, her despair locked inside.  Posing as a mute, she swallows all her words and feelings, hardening her heart so it can't be broken any further.

By the time Dr. Thornhollow arrives at the asylum to treat troublesome patients, Grace is ready to volunteer for a lobotomy.  Anything to distance her from the mad world in which she now lives.  Thornhollow hesitates when he recognizes how different Grace is from his other patients—her quick intelligence, he realizes, could be very useful.  An amateur criminal profiler, the doctor makes Grace his assistant.  Continuing her ruse as an insane mute, she accompanies him to crime scenes, gathering clues from sources that see her as less than human.  The scenes are gruesome, but fascinating.  As gory as Thornhollow's hobby may be, helping him gives Grace a new lease on life.  But the more involved she becomes, the more she's exposed to the darkest, bleakest parts of life, the more she feels her own sanity slipping.  Will Grace's new-found freedom be the thing that finally tips her over the edge?  Or will it be the saving grace for which she's been so desperately searching?

Yes, A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis (available October 6, 2015) is as dark as it sounds.  This gothic thriller delivers plenty of chills—not of the supernatural kind, but of the disturbingly real variety.  With its bleak setting and macabre subject matter, this is no warm, fuzzy novel.  It is, however, tautly written and totally compelling.  Disturbing, but memorable.  Grace is a complex, interesting heroine—she's wholly sympathetic, yet not entirely admirable.  She's intriguing, for sure.  Overall, A Madness So Discreet offers an absorbing story that explores the fine line between sanity and insanity as well as the madness that lurks not so deeply inside us all.  These fascinating ruminations give this haunting tale an extra depth.  As repugnant as this story can sometimes get, it remains a riveting, shivery tale perfect for Halloween reading.

Don't believe me?  Check out the book's spine-tingling trailer:

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Madman's Daughter series [The Madman's Daughter; Her Dark Curiosity; A Cold Legacy] by Megan Shepherd; and a little of Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  

for violence, blood/gore, language (no F-bombs), and disturbing scenes/subject matter

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TTT: When Fall Eventually Arrives in Arizona, I'll Totally Be Reading These ...

As much as I love Top Ten Tuesday, it's not always easy to come up with answers to the weekly prompts.  Sometimes I'm so stumped, I can't even think of one book that fits the bill.  When it comes to seasonal TBR lists, though, I always have to force myself not to make Top One Hundred lists!  Fall/Winter-ish reads are my favorite, so I'm definitely looking forward to seeing lots of great picks around the book blogosphere today.

Want to join in the fun?  It's easy.  Click on over to The Broke and the Bookish, read the instructions for participating, make your list, share it, and boom, you're done!  Super simple.

Since Fall here in the Phoenix area really doesn't start until November, I'm going to throw in a few titles that don't come out until "Winter," just to keep things interesting.  In no particular order, here are the Top Ten Books on My Fall(ish) TBR List:

1.  Winter by Marissa Meyer—This much-anticipated finale to The Lunar Chronicles series comes out in November.  I can't wait.  I've loved all these books and can't wait to see what happens next in the story.

2.  Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs—The lovely folks over at Quirk Books are sending me a copy of the third installment in the Miss Peregrine's series to review in November.  Before then, I'm going to be re-reading the first book and enjoying the second for the first time.  Spine-tinglers always make for fun Fall/Winter reading.

3.  Backstage Murder and Foul Play at the Fair by Shelley Freydont—I just finished A Gilded Grave, the first novel in Freydont's Newport Gilded Age Mystery series, and enjoyed it immensely.  It barely came out, so no sequels are available yet (boo hoo).  Thus, I'm going to give the author's other series a go.  I'll pick up both these books, which are first books in two different series, from the library today.  They and their sequels should tide me over until the next installment in the Newport series becomes available.

4.  A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn—This mystery, which sounds like so much fun, is also the first in a new series.  I haven't read anything by Raybourn and I'm excited to give her a try.

5.  Blood and Salt by Kim Liggett—I get shivers just reading the plot summary of this one!  It sounds like a perfect read for a cold, blustery day.

6.  Banished by Kimberley Griffiths Little—Okay, so this one doesn't come out until February, but I can't wait so I put it on this list.  I loved Forbidden and am anxious to see what happens next in this exotic, exciting YA series.

7.  Always Will by Melanie Jacobson—Melanie's fun romances always make me smile.  I'm excited for this one, her newest, which comes out in a couple of weeks.  A light read will be welcome between these darker, heavier reads.

8.  Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson—I've had an ARC of this book about a girl with the magical ability to find gold for a while now, but I've yet to crack it open.  It sounds so intriguing that I must get to it—and soon!

9.  The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich—This haunting tale about a school tragedy sounds like a perfect Halloween read.

10.  The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young—This Southern gothic mystery sounds super intriguing.  I'm on the waiting list for it at the library—we'll see how long it takes for it to become available.  Until then, I'll TRY to be patient ...

So, there you have it, my picks for intriguing Fall-ish reading.  What will you be reading in the upcoming months?  I really am excited to see what everyone has chosen!  Leave me a comment and I'll happily return the favor.

Happy TTT to you!  

*Book images from Barnes & Noble and Amazon
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