Tuesday, May 19, 2015

TTT: Heading Back to School ... Wait, What?

A Top Ten Tuesday post is probably the last thing I should be publishing today, considering how behind I am on reviewing books.  But, yeah.  I just couldn't resist today's topic since it's a freebie.  Yay!

My friend messaged me a bookish question on Facebook yesterday and I thought a Top Ten list would be the perfect way to answer her query.  She will be starting her first year of teaching this Fall.  As she's trying to collect books for her classroom library, she asked which titles I would recommend stocking for her upcoming 6th graders.  This is a little tricky as kids this age want to read more mature books, but (in my opinion, anyway) they're not necessarily ready for hard-core YA novels yet.  In fact, there's been a bit of a brouhaha at my kids' elementary school about the recent availability of teen books in the library.  So, in thinking of volumes for a 6th grade classroom, I tried to come up with stories that are exciting/complex enough to hold an older reader's attention, while still being appropriate, especially for a school library.  Be sure to let me know whether you agree or disagree with my choices and what additional books you would suggest to my friend.  I'm sure she'd appreciate as much feedback as possible.

Before we get to that, though, why don't you join in the Top Ten Tuesday fun?  It's super easy.  Just go on over to The Broke and the Bookish, read the easy-peasy instructions, and jump on the bandwagon.  It's a good time, I promise.

Now, on to my list.  First of all, I would make sure I stocked lots of great classic lit, like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery, etc.  

Assuming I already had those on hand, these are the Top Ten Books/Series I Would Buy for a Sixth Grade Classroom Library:

1.  Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling—Most kids discover the wonders of Harry Potter long before sixth grade.  If they haven't, they need to.  This is also a series that kids (and adults!) love to re-read, so the more copies of the books a school has, the better.

2.  The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins—Although these books are pretty violent and grim, it's a YA series that definitely appeals to middle grade readers.  While it doesn't provide the most uplifting reading in the world, the series features books with tight prose, lots of action, and thought-provoking moral questions.

3.  The Percy Jackson series (and spin-offs) by Rick Riordan—These books are popular with readers of all ages.  Sixth graders love them as much as fourth graders do.  Also, watch for Riordan's new series based on Norse mythology—the first book will be coming out in October, I believe.

4.  The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer—Although this is a YA series, it's squeaky clean.  It's also got memorable characters, vivid writing, plenty of action/adventure, and a sci fi twist that makes it stand out from the crowd.  Sure, the books are "re-booted" fairy tales, but there's plenty for both girls and boys to love about this series.

5.  The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz—When my son was in 5th and 6th grade, these books were his absolute favorite.  Alex Rider is sort of a young James Bond.  I haven't read any of the novels, but they're very popular at my kids' elementary school and come highly recommended by my son.

6.  The Maze Runner series by James Dashner—Like #5, these books will appeal to reluctant readers, especially those of the male variety.  With dystopian elements, a mystery, and lots of action/adventure, this series is another really popular one.

7.  The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter—I don't know how much literary merit these books have, but who cares?  They're clever, upbeat, and tons of fun.  My 13-year-old daughter and I both adore this series.

8.  The Unwind series and, really, anything by Neal Shusterman—If you read this blog on any kind of a regular basis, you already now that I'm a huge Shusterman fangirl.  His books are complex, imaginative, and thought-provoking.  I love the Unwind series best of all, but I also really recommend his Skinjacker series.

9.  Anything by Margaret Peterson Haddix—Haddix is another author who will appeal to reluctant readers.  Most of her novels are short, quick reads that still manage to be suspenseful, exciting, and thought-provoking.  Every 6th grade library needs a little Haddix in it.

10.  The Al Capone books by Gennifer Choldenko—I adore this trilogy about families living on Alcatraz Island during the time it housed a working prison (and a very famous inmate).  It's a fascinating historical series that is unique, interesting and full of heart.  I love it.

I could seriously go on and on about this subject!  So, what do you think of my choices?  Which books/series would you buy/not buy for a 6th grade classroom?  I'd love to hear your answers and I know my friend would, too.

Happy TTT!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"I Know You Again Because You Read to Me"

Who are the people in your life that have most influenced your love of the written word?  Are they family members?  Friends?  Teachers?  Librarians?  For me, three people come immediately to mind: my mom, my dad, and my paternal grandmother.  All of them love books.  A recent trip back to the Motherland (the beautiful Columbia River Gorge) made me reflect on my grandma, especially, and how our shared love of reading and writing has influenced and strengthened our relationship.  I don't often get personal on this blog, but I hope you won't mind if I share a little something about what I learned from her this last weekend.  

Grandma, who's been a widow for over two decades, once told me that she would never be bored or lonely as long as she had something good to read.  One of the hardest parts of aging, for her, has been the loss of her eyesight.  For a few years now, she's been too weak to hold a book, let alone read one.  Last week, on her birthday, someone asked her to describe in one word what it was like to be 100 years old.  She said, "Difficult.  I can no longer read.  I can no longer write.  I'm not the person I used to be."  I think this says a whole lot about the importance of reading and writing, not just in her life, but in all of ours.

My grandma and I used to bond all the time over our shared love of books and writing.  Sadly, she can no longer remember those conversations.  She can't remember me.  During my three day visit, I had to remind her every 15 minutes or so of what my name was, who my parents were, and that yes, we were in fact related.  These exchanges were sad and sometimes bizarre, but also hysterical.

On Mother's Day, my younger brother and I had the privilege of grandma-sitting while my parents, her primary caregivers, went out to dinner with my sister and brother-in-law.  Not surprisingly, my bookworm of a grandma enjoys it when people read aloud to her.  When I assured her it would be my pleasure to spend the evening performing that task, she settled in her bed to listen to the mystery novel my parents were in the middle of reading to her.  For two hours straight, I read.  I read until the words on Dad's Kindle blurred and my already sore throat felt raw and achy.  After about an hour, Grandma fell asleep, her mouth wide open as she snored.  When I paused, thinking I should sneak away and let her rest, she jolted upright and exclaimed, "This is such a good book!"  I kept reading.

In her old age, my grandmother has grown very paranoid about being left alone.  She kept telling me that she thought she would be really scared with "the kids" (meaning my parents) gone, but that, since I was reading to her, she didn't feel frightened.  A little later, I was explaining to her how much I loved to read and write.  She said, "We have so much in common!  I'm glad to meet you."  I chuckled and reminded her that we've known each other for almost forty years.  "If you say so, honey," she replied, "but now I know you again because you read to me."

The two hours I spent reading to my grandmother are precious to me.  I cherish the fact that we were able to get reacquainted (even if I had to re-introduce myself to her a few more times the next morning) because we shared that experience.  It wasn't the book that was so good, but the company.

Grandma's words made me think about the power of reading together, be it a parent to a child (I can't count the number of times I've shared classics like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom or Green Eggs and Ham with my kiddos), an older sibling to a younger sibling (as a teenager, my husband spent many nights reading Jurassic Park to his wide-eyed little brother), a wife to a husband (my mom used to read Jack Weyland books aloud to my dad while he drove on family road trips), or a granddaughter to a cherished grandmother.  That time spent together is special, valuable, the stuff of which fond memories are made.  What could be better than stolen moments like these when we're wrapped in the warmth of the love we share and bound together by the kind of magical spell only a story well-told can cast?  If you don't read to your children, do.  Start today.  Right now.  And if your grandmother needs a little help to feast on the written word she loves so well, help her out.  Maybe she can't remember your name, but she'll know you again because you read to her.  What could be more priceless than that?  In the immortal words of Strickland Gillilan:

You may have tangible wealth untold; 
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you could never be—
I had a mother [father/sibling/spouse/granddaughter] who read to me.  

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Black Returns to Faerie Tale Roots with The Darkest Part of the Forest

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Fairfold may look like an ordinary town, but it has something other villages don't—the Folk.  Here, faeries and other fantastical creatures co-exist with humans, sometimes peacefully, other times not.  Locals know to be wary of the Folk, whose "generosity ... was as great as their cruelty" (19).  Tourists, however, can't stay away from the living, breathing fairy tale that is Fairfold.  No amount of warning can convince them to stay away or to, at least, watch their backs.  For, as everyone in town knows, the Folk can be tricksy.  Very, very tricksy.  After all, "that was why Fairfold was special, because it was so close to magic.  Dangerous magic, yes, but magic all the same" (19). 

Hazel Evans and her older brother, Ben, are especially enamored with the mysterious boy in the woods.  For as long as anyone can remember, he's slept inside a glass coffin in the woods.  With horns on his head and sharp, pointy ears, the boy is mesmerizing in his otherworldly beauty.  For years, Hazel and Ben have visited him, made up stories about his origin, and pretended to be knights, protecting him with their valor and might.  Now 16, Hazel's ready to put aside the silly, childish playacting.  The boy in the woods will likely sleep on for centuries.

Except he doesn't.  He awakens, unleashing an ancient evil on unsuspecting Fairfold.  Drawn into the dangerous conflict between the Alderking's son and the monster who hunts him, Hazel must finally become the knight she's been pretending to be for years.  But, can she understand the clues she's being given?  Can she, a mere human, stop a murderous, bloodthirsty beast?  And how does she know she can trust the horned boy, never mind that she's been in love with him since she was a child?  As Hazel puzzles out the mystery playing out in her town, she must be as brave and daring as any knight—for her life and those of everyone she loves hang in the balance.

Well-known for penning dark, fantastical tales, Holly Black returns to her faerie roots with her newest YA novel, The Darkest Part of the Forest.  The novel is not a Sleeping Beauty retelling, not really, it's more of a twisted fairy tale.  By flipping gender roles around, Black keeps the story fresh.  With intriguing characters, an exciting plot, and moody, atmospheric prose, she makes it memorable.  I loved some aspects of this original novel, others not so much.  Overall, though, The Darkest Part of the Forest is both compelling and enjoyable.  Creepy, but what else would you expect from the likes of Holly Black?

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language (a few F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence/gore, sexual innuendo, and depictions of underage drinking/illegal drug use

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Imaginative Hugo & Rose A Haunting Novel About Fantasy vs. Reality

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ever since the day Rose knocked herself out in a childhood bicycling accident, she's dreamed of a magical island.  Each night when she falls asleep, she's transported to this wonderland, where exciting adventures wait behind every palm tree.  She's never alone in these dreams.  Hugo, a brave, handsome hero, is always by her side.  Over years of countless nocturnal exploits, Rose has watched him grow from an exuberant child into a fearless, capable adult.  He's her best friend, literally the man of her dreams.  If only he actually existed outside of her vivid, slumbering imagination.  

In reality, Rose spends her days tending to her nice suburban home, her three small children, and her surgeon husband.  With Josh constantly at the hospital, the bulk of the work falls to her.  Overwhelmed and bored with the mundane life she leads in her waking hours, Rose longs to feel as alive as she does in her dreams.  To be the beautiful, bold woman she is when she's with Hugo.  

As she grows increasingly discontent, Rose makes an incredible discovery—Hugo is real.  The man she sees at a local fast food restaurant may not look exactly the way he does in Rose's dreams, but it is him.  She's sure of it.  When her curiosity about this real-life Hugo turns into an all-consuming obsession, Rose risks everything she holds dear to connect with a man she's met only in her dreams.  Is he really Hugo?  Does he share her mysterious island dreams?  With him in her life, can she finally rise above her humdrum existence to embrace her real self, the one she inhabits in her island dreamworld?

Hugo & Rose, a debut novel by screenwriter Bridget Foley, tells an intriguing story about one woman's quest for fulfillment—not just in her dreams, but in her normal, everyday life.  It's about the lengths to which one might go to make fantasy match reality and the disparities that often exist between the two.  Ultimately, Hugo & Rose is about what is truly real, truly important, truly worth fighting for.  The book's unique premise, as well as its relatable characters, make it both haunting and memorable.  This one might not be blow-you-away amazing, but it's definitely the kind of novel that you'll keep thinking about long after you finish it.  

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, sexual content and violence

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Hugo & Rose from the generous folks at St. Martin's Press.  Thank you!

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Lengthy Fragments Just Okay

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

After discovering that she's an unlinked Partial created by the scientists at ParaGen, Kira Walker struggles to accept the truth of her identity.  It doesn't matter that she has found the cure for RM—the virus that has been killing every newborn human for years—if her friends find out she shares DNA with the enemy robots who are trying to destroy humanity, they'll turn their backs on Kira.  Even Kira doesn't know what to think.  All she knows is that she needs answers.  And she's not finding them in Manhattan.  No one knows what lies beyond the human settlement in New York—anything could be lurking in the untamed, post-apocalyptic western wilderness.  Or worse, there could be nothing out there.  No survivors, no information, no life, no answers.  But Kira has to try.  

In the old world, ParaGen was headquartered in Denver, Colorado.  If there's any information to be had, that's where it will be stored.  If the building is still standing, if the computers can be made to work, if Denver still exists, if ... It's a long shot, but there's where Kira plans to go.  Samm, the Partial boy who confuses Kira's every emotion, insists on going with her.  As does Heron, a combative Partial spy model.  The trio must also drag along Afa Demoux, ParaGen's once-brilliant IT manager.  Now a rambling drifter, he's a necessary, albeit unbalanced companion.

As the group moves further into the ruins of a forgotten world, they encounter every kind of challenge imaginable (as well as some they never could have conjured up).  With the fate of their world hanging in the balance, they must mount every obstacle, fight every battle, and above all, survive.  Before time runs out for them all.

Although I enjoy Dan Wells' unsettling adult novels, I haven't been particularly wowed by his YA offerings.  Partials kept me reading, but not rushing to find out what was going to happen.  I had a similar experience with its sequel, Fragments.  While the novel has flashes of tense, exciting action, not just between the principal characters and their environment, but between the story people themselves, the plot drags.  Quite a lot.  There are a few surprises, sure—I just felt that a good 100 pages could have been chopped from the book without losing anything important.  Character development would have been a good way to use those extra words.  Even after two (long) books, Wells' cast still feels flat to me.  Overall, then, Fragments was just an okay read for me.  If you enjoyed Partials, you'll probably like this one just fine.  If Partials didn't do it for you, this one likely won't either.  A lot of readers adore this series; for me, it's just been so-so.

(Readalikes:  Partials and Ruins by Dan Wells)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), violence, and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Fragments from the generous folks at HarperCollins.  Thank you!

Friday, May 01, 2015

Compelling Mystery Would Have Benefited From Subtlety, Tighter Structure

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ridgedale, an idyllic New Jersey college town, has its share of minor crimes.  Break-ins, domestic squabbles, robberies, etc. aren't uncommon, but murder?  In the last two decades, there have been only two.  When the body of a dead baby is found in a wooded area on university property, it appears as though that stat may be changing.  Cause of death will take some time to determine, but in the meantime, everyone has a theory.  

As a reporter for the local newspaper, Molly Sanderson covers the fun, artsy side of Ridgedale.  Focusing on lively arts/lifestyle/human interest stories has helped lift her out of the oppressive grief she's felt ever since the loss of her own child.  It's only a fluke that she's assigned the story of the newborn's death, but Molly's determined to find out what happened to the infant.  Even if it kills her.

The more clues Molly uncovers, the more sinister the story becomes.  Ridgedale may look like a peaceful little hamlet where nothing bad ever happens, but she's beginning to see the truth—the townspeople are keeping some pretty dark secrets.  Unlocking them will put everything Molly holds dear at risk.  It may even cost her her sanity or, worse, her life.

Where They Found Her, Kimberly McCreight's sophomore novel (Reconstructing Amelia was her debut), tells a chilling, suspenseful story about a grieving mother's desperate search for redemption.  The sorrow and guilt that plague Molly make her a sympathetic character, one with whom it's easy to identify.  As for the supporting cast, they all seem pretty stereotypical and bland.  Plotwise, Where They Found Her has a clumsy, choppy structure.  While some of its twists are well-crafted, others seem to come totally out of left field.  The novel could definitely benefit from tighter plot structure and more subtlety.  Although it's depressing, Where They Found Her is a compelling novel.  It kept me turning pages, but in the end, I just didn't love it.

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Where They Found Her from the generous folks at HarperCollins via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!   

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Caught Red-Handed (Haired?)

When I saw the topic for this week's Top Ten Tuesday list, I was in the middle of a book my 13-year-old daughter recommended to me—Top Ten Clues You're Clueless by Liz Czukas.  The main character is Chloe Novak, an adorkable redhead who gets caught up in a mystery on Christmas Eve at the grocery store where she works.  Since I'd just read two other books about women with auburn hair, it got me thinking about other fictional carrot tops.  Gingers are rare in the real world, so it's kind of funny to realize how often they turn up in literary ones.  I thought it would be a fun subject for this week's list about Top Ten Books Which Feature Characters Who _____ (are musically inclined, have lost someone, have depression, who grow up poor, etc.).

One of the funnest things about fill-in-the-blank lists is that they're all different.  I love to see the variety of answers everyone comes up with.  If you've got a great idea for this week's list, be sure to join in the fun.  All you have to do is click on over to The Broke and the Bookish for instructions.  It's a good time, I promise!

Okay, here we go with Top Ten Books Which Feature Characters Who Are Redheads:

1.  Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery)—I'm sure Anne (with an e!) is the first literary redhead who pops into most people's minds.  Her personality matches her fiery locks—she's passionate, stubborn, and quick to lose her temper.  She's also a fun, spunky dreamer who's fiercely devoted to her family and friends.  What's not to love about unforgettable Anne?

2.  Ron Weasley and family (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)—Loyal Ron is another beloved redhead, as are all the members of his kind, loving family.

3.  Pippi Longstocking (series by Astrid Lindgren)—I used to love the Pippi books!

4.  Nancy Clancy (Fancy Nancy series by Jane O'Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser)—Ooh la la, it's hard to ignore this little redhead who's enamored of all things glam.

5.  Scarlet Benoit (The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer)—a "rebooted" Little Red Riding Hood

6.  Clary Fray (The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare)—a kick-butt, demon-fighting red-haired heroine

7.  Amber Sterlington (A Heart Revealed by Josi S. Kilpack)—This Regency romance is all about a beautiful socialite dealing with the sudden, inexplicable loss of her thick auburn locks.

8.  Jacinda (Firelight series by Sophie Jordan)—In her human form, she's a beautiful redhead.  In her true form, she's an even more beautiful dragon.

9.  Gemma Doyle (series by Libba Bray)

10.  Chloe Novak (Top Ten Clues You're Clueless by Liz Csukas)—Lastly, the one who started it all!  Chloe's a fun character.  Her story is predictable, but cute.                  

So, what do you think?  Did I miss anybody?  Who should I add to my list?  I couldn't think of ten, after all, so I cheated a little bit, using this fabulous article from The Huffington Post.  Also, in my Googling of redheaded heroines, I came across a blog devoted to the subject.  Who knew, right?

What did you fill in the blank with this week?  I'd love to see your list.  Leave me a comment and I'll be sure to return the favor.

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

P.S.  Book images are from Barnes & Noble; others were "borrowed" from around the Internet)

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Girl on the Train A First-Rate, Couldn't-Put-It-Down Psychological Thriller

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Still grieving the death of her marriage, lonely Rachel Watson finds comfort in routine.  Every weekday morning, she boards the 8:04 train that runs to London from her home in Buckinghamshire.  Every evening, she returns on the 5:56.  As the familiar rhythm of the ride lulls her, she sips an early drink (which will be followed later by another and another and another ...) and watches the landscape blur outside the train's window.  She pays close attention as her old neighborhood rolls past, drinking in the sight of her former home, where her ex-husband lives with his new wife.  It's not him who Rachel really wants to see, though—it's Jason and Jess, the golden couple that lives down his street.  She's never met them, doesn't even know their real names, but she can tell just from observing them that they have a beautiful, fulfilling life together.  "They're happy, I can tell," she thinks.  "They're what I used to be, they're Tom and me five years ago.  They're what I lost, they're everything I want to be" (10).

Rachel's spent so much time spinning a perfect life for the couple that she's shocked by what she sees one day from her seat on the train.  She's even more surprised to spy a familiar face on the front page of the newspaper a few days later.  It's "Jess"—really 29-year-old Megan Hipwell, who has gone missing from Rachel's old neighborhood.  Worried about her "friend," especially in light of what she saw from the train, Rachel determines to find out what happened to Jess.  Not an easy task when your mind is as muddled from alcohol and depression as is Rachel's.  Still, she has to know.  But the more she persists, the more discomfited she grows.  Although she has little memory of it, Rachel was there the night Megan disappeared.  In fact, she just may be the reason Megan Hipwell is missing—or worse.

I don't want to say too much about the plot of Paula Hawkins' popular psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train, for fear of ruining plot surprises.  Trust me, it's best to go into this one knowing as little about the story as possible.  Suffice it to say, The Girl on the Train is a mesmerizing tale of suspense, full of intriguing characters, taut narration, and didn't-see-that-one-coming plot twists.  Maybe the book's a tad predictable, maybe it doesn't quite live up to all the hype it's gotten, but still, it's a riveting, first-rate mystery.  I literally could not put it down. 

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

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


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Distancing Non-Fiction-y Novel A Plodding, Difficult Read (For Me, Anyway)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Despite Kläre Ente Kohler's Jewish ancestry, she's never been a particularly devoted practitioner of Judaism.  Her Jewishness exists mainly in fond memories of sumptuous Sabbath dinners with her extended family at her grandparents' luxurious home.  As an adult, her connection to the Jewish community has been tenuous at best.  With the Nazis rising to power in her homeland, however, Kläre has reason to worry.  All around her, Jewish businesses are being ransacked, their proprietors beaten in the streets.  The worse things get, the more terrified she becomes.  Many Jews are fleeing Germany.  Kläre knows her ailing husband and elderly mother can't make such an arduous journey, even if they did have visas.  But what of her two sons?  Can she find a way to keep them safe?  Unable to leave, Kläre must do what she can to help her children, her friends, and herself stay alive.  With Nazi brutality against the Jews growing more deadly every day, that will not be an easy task.  It will take every ounce of strength, courage, and tenacity Kläre possesses just to survive.  

Having grown up hearing dramatic tales about her grandfather's family's former lives in Europe, Barbara Stark-Nemon became especially fascinated by the experiences of her great aunt, Kläre.  Her debut novel, Even in Darkness, is based on the life of this indomitable Jewess who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, after which she spent many years as the unlikely companion to a much younger Catholic priest.  While Kläre's war story is (unfortunately) not all that unique, it definitely has potential to be the stuff of good fiction.  Unfortunately, Stark-Nemon bogs the story down with so much extraneous detail that the action in the novel feels anticlimactic and dull.  The characters never felt real to me, so I had trouble immersing myself in their conflicts.  Lacking a real plot, Even in Darkness seems aimless and unstructured.  While I appreciated Stark-Nemon's quietly assured prose, I also longed for more dynamic storytelling.  For me, Even in Darkness has the stiffer, more distancing feel of non-fiction instead of the enveloping warmth of a well-constructed novel.  Overall, then, this was a plodding, difficult read for me.  I enjoyed the book's message (beauty and love can be found even in the ugliness of war), but found the novel itself not to be my particular cup of tea.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of other WWII novels, although no specific title comes to mind)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Even in Darkness from the generous folks at PR By the Book.  Thank you!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Forbidden Romance Leads to Violence in Thrilling, Thought-Provoking Culture Clash Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Thanks to an athletic scholarship, Shahid Satar has been in the U.S. for three years studying business at a college in Massachusetts.  A starter on Enright's men's squash team, the Pakistani knows the importance of bonding with the other players, most of whom hail from countries as foreign as his.  He's also learned to tune out the jeers and racist slurs often hurled at himself and his mostly dark-skinned teammates.  It's all part of the culture clash he experiences every day as an international student at a liberal American school.  He's used to it by now.

The experience, however, is all new for Afia Satar, Shahid's 19-year-old sister.  Because of Shahid's promise to guard her honor, the young Pashtun woman has been allowed to study in the U.S. as well, although she attends a nearby women's college instead of her brother's co-ed school.  Despite the wild Western ways she encounters daily, Afia remains as she always has been—shy, studious, modest and mostly obedient to the traditional rules of her religion and culture.  She's not without her secrets, however.  Her brother does not know—cannot ever know—about Afia's shameful grocery store job or about her increasingly intimate relationship with his redheaded American teammate.  The latter is dangerous, much more so than earnest Gus Schnieder realizes.

When an innocent photo of Afia and Gus turns up on the Internet, it sets off a series of explosive reactions, especially from Afia's jihad-obsessed stepbrother.  Embarrassed and furious by his sister's betrayal of his trust, Shahid worries how far his family in Pakistan will require him to go to avenge Afia's honor.  Afia fears not just for Gus, but also for her own life—and rightly so.  As events come to a terrifying head, she must face the deadly consequences of falling in love with the wrong man, in the wrong country, in the wrong way.  Will things ever be right for her again?

A Sister to Honor by Lucy Ferriss is a heartbreaking novel about the often violent clash between Eastern and Western cultures.  It's a book about honor, with all its various definitions.  Mostly, though, it's a story about family, friendship, and giving up everything for a chance to live a different kind of life.  Although the tension builds slowly, the tale soon becomes a taut thriller, as horrifying as it is pulse-pounding.  Told from various viewpoints, A Sister to Honor is a compelling novel with intriguing, sympathetic characters; a timely, complex conflict; and an engrossing, well-crafted plot.  My only complaint is that the characters' roles/actions seemed to reinforce all the common clichés about Pakistani and Islamic culture.  I don't pretend to know anything about either, but I still would have liked a broader perspective on both.  Despite that, I enjoyed this thrilling, thought-provoking read.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A Sister to Honor from the generous folks at Penguin.  Thank you!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Clipped, Quirky YA Grief Novel Memorable And Affecting

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Best friends aren't supposed to die.  Especially when they're beautiful, vibrant and only 14 years old.  Elderly people have trouble with their hearts, not teenagers.  That's why it's still so hard for Emmy Anderson to believe her BFF Kim Porter is dead.  Kim, on the other hand, embraced her impending demise, even making vehement promises to visit Emmy from beyond the grave.  Emmy has clung to those vows, but apparently, Kim has forgotten her.  Aching with grief and loneliness, Emmy can't let her friend go.  She has to find a way to talk to Kim.

Then, Emmy—who assumed she just sucked at communicating with departed souls—gets a shock: she can see dead people.  She spies her nasty science teacher, Emmy's uncle (who is thankfully not naked), even a teenage boy who perished in a tragic roller coaster accident.  It seems the only ghost she can't see is the one she desperately needs to find.  As Emmy comes to term with her new talent as well as her old pain, she finally realizes that the only way to move forward might be to let Kim go.  If only it were that easy ...

Kids-dealing-with-the-loss-of-a-loved-one books are a dime a dozen.  Thus, it takes a lot to make one stand out.  With her newest, The End Or Something Like That, Ann Dee Ellis succeeds in creating a grief novel that's both memorable and affecting.  I've thought a lot about why this one stands out; I think it boils down to three things: writing style, setting, and an overall quirkiness.  Although The End or Something Like That is billed as a YA book, it's got more of a middle grade tone.  Emmy's clipped, choppy narration makes her seem younger than her years, while at the same time giving her a more realistically teenage thought process than is usually found in YA novels.  This, coupled with the intensity of her pain, makes her a wholly sympathetic (although not always likable) heroine.  As for setting, there's just nowhere quite like Las Vegas.  Its boisterous falsity provides the perfect backdrop for this story about what is real and what is truly important.  The unique setting gives The End Or Something Like That part of its quirkiness, but the rest of it comes from larger-than-life characters and the oddball situations they find themselves in.  Although the novel deals with familiar themes, it's these three things, coupled with Ellis' strong prose, that makes this story stand out.  While it didn't blow my mind, I definitely enjoyed this quick, quirky read.    

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The End Or Something Like That from the generous folks at Penguin.  Thank you!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Vietnam War Novel in Haiku Makes Me Feel Every One Of Its 16, 592 Syllables

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For 17-year-old Ashe Douglas, 1968 is a year of confusion, fear, and anxiety.  With war raging in Vietnam, killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers every day, it's difficult to feel hope about the country's future.  At home, his parents' constant battles are escalating.  Ashe's mother is a peace-loving protester, while his father's fierce patriotism manifests itself in hot-blooded, racist outbursts.  They're opposites, still married for the sake of their only child.  Not only does Ashe worry about their increasing eruptions at home, but he's terrified of being drafted into a violent conflict of which he wants no part.

When a pretty new girl walks into Ashe's Tempe, Arizona, high school, things start looking up.  The blonde "goddess" has her own war woes, but together, she and Ashe might be able to make it through their challenges.

Then, a new crisis bombs Ashe's family.  This time, he fears total destruction.  With things coming to a head both at home and abroad, Ashe will have to make some very, very tough decisions about life, love, and what it truly means to be a hero.

By all rights, Death Coming Up the Hill, a new YA novel by Chris Crowe, should feel gimmicky.  The entire thing is, after all, written in haiku, with each  poetic syllable representing one of the 16, 592 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War during 1968, its deadliest year.  The book really should feel gimmicky.  And yet it doesn't.  The story's unique format gives it a clean freshness that makes it both impacting and memorable.  Maybe it's because of my uncle, Joe Whitby (pictured at left), who was killed in Quang Tri Province in 1967, but I really felt each of those syllables.  In addition to the book's format, I liked its sympathetic characters, its plot surprises, and its setting.  It was fun for me to read about local hot spots like Pete's Fish and Chips (I was just at the Mesa location a few hours ago!).  Overall, the book's pretty depressing (especially the last two lines, which were taken from a real Vietnam soldier's letters home), but its authenticity touched me.  Deeply.  Death Coming Up the Hill is a quick, compelling read, one I highly recommend.       

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), violence, and references to sex and illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Death Coming Up the Hill from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Thank you!
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