Saturday, November 22, 2014

Haunting Sarah's Key A Powerful Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

On a summer night in July of 1942, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski awakens to the sound of someone pounding on her front door.  A bolt of fear races through her.  She's heard her parents whispering about round-ups and camps and Jewish men being forced from their homes.  Have the police found her father, who spends every night hiding in the cellar?  Are they going to take him away?  Sarah's shocked when the policemen—French policeman, no less—demand that she and her mother come with them.  In the few minutes she's given to pack her things, Sarah locks her little brother in a secret cupboard, promising he'll be safe until she can come back for him.  

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond—an American journalist living in Paris—is researching the Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup in order to write a story for the upcoming anniversary of its occurrence.  Although the Parisians she talks to are reluctant to speak of it—if, indeed, they've even heard of it—Julia is fascinated by this little known event in the city's history.  The more she discovers about the roundup, which involved the arrests of around 12,000 Jews, mostly women and children, the more horrified she becomes.  When she finds a personal link to one of the roundup's young victims, Julia vows to find out what happened to little Sarah Starzynski and her family.  

Urged by her family and friends in Paris to leave the matter alone, Julia becomes even more determined in her quest.  As her search for the truth becomes an obsession she can't let go of, she finds herself reevaluating her own life, from her marriage to her work to her own future.  

Since I'm probably the last blogger on Earth to read Sarah's Key, Tatiana de Rosnay's bestselling novel, I don't have to tell you what a powerful read it is.  The rave reviews the book's garnered speak for themselves.  Although the events related in the story are similar to those in other Holocaust novels, de Rosnay brings something new to the genre.  Her prose feels a little stiff, but other than that, she tells the kind of compelling, haunting tale that stays with you long after you close the book.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other adult novels about the Holocaust, including Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Intriguing Premise, Disappointing Execution

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Stillwater Bay, Maine, is the kind of tiny, close-knit community where nothing bad ever happens.  Until it does.  

It's been a month since a local teen barged into the elementary school, shooting ten kids and two teachers before turning the gun on himself.  Although the residents of Stillwater Bay are still reeling from the shocking incident, Mayor Charlotte Stone thinks it's time for the town to move past the tragedy.  Re-opening the school, she reasons, will bring some peace to the grief-stricken town.  Her husband, the school principal, feels the same.     

Her best friend, Jennifer Crowne, does not agree.  The thought of innocent children streaming through the halls where her son died so horrifically fills her with a rage so fiery and deep, she can barely suppress it.  Alcohol numbs her fury, but only so much—and only for so long.  Jenn wants the school torn down; it's the only thing that might ease her suffering.  

While residents clash over the school closure/opening issue, Charlotte struggles to keep the community together.  Not only is she losing her best friend, but her husband seems to be hiding something as well.  Jennifer knows she may be giving up everything—and everyone—she loves to fight a battle she can't win, but she has to do it for herself, for her son.  Nothing is more important.

As friends and neighbors chose sides, tempers flare and relationships are put to the ultimate test.  Can a town already so scarred come out unscathed?  Can it weather this most devastating of storms?  The odds are not looking good ...

I'm always interested in books—fictional or otherwise—that look at how communities deal with crises.  The human drama fascinates me.  That's why the premise of Stillwater Rising, Steena Holmes' newest, piqued my curiosity.  But, while the book definitely has drama, what it doesn't really have is a plot.  The story is more reaction than action, which makes it dull.  The central conflict (to close the school or not) just isn't big enough to carry a whole novel.  Plus, the characters remain pretty flat throughout the book.  Jenn is so childish and self-centered that it's difficult to empathize with her.  The other characters run together, making it tough to keep track of who's who.  Even the Big Reveal isn't much of a surprise.  It's predictable and comes so late in the story that the whole novel feels not just unresolved, but unsatisfying.  So, while I liked the idea of Stillwater Rising, overall, I found the read a disappointing one.     

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf, and a little of And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  

for mild language (no F-bombs), intense situations, and vague references to sex

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Stillwater Rising from the generous folks at Lake Union Publishing (a division of Amazon Publishing) via those at Booksparks PR.  Thank you!

Friday, November 14, 2014

It's No Secret, French Mesmerizes Me—Every Time

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For most of his 32 years, police detective Stephen Moran has been trying to rise above his "working class Dub" background.  Earning a spot on the Dublin Murder Squad would help his efforts immensely.  If only breaking into the old boys' club were that easy; Stephen might as well be wishing for a seat on the next shuttle to the moon.  In all likelihood, he'll be stuck investigating cold cases from now until forever.

Then, 16-year-old Holly Mackey walks into the police station with a tip she's only willing to share with Stephen.  Knowing this could be the golden ticket that gets him on his dream squad, he hears her out.  What he discovers is chilling.  Holly has brought him a card plucked from a bulletin board, where she and her classmates at St. Kilda's are encouraged to anonymously post their most tantalizing secrets.  The message on the card reads:  I know who killed him.  Him being Chris Harper, a 16-year-old student at a boy's school near St. Kilda's, whose head was bashed in last year.  With the crime still unsolved, Stephen smells a big opportunity to prove his worth—not just to his derisive colleagues, but also to Holly Mackey, who, in all her young innocence, believes him capable of sniffing out a murderer.  

With the help of tough, caustic Detective Antoinette Conway, Stephen hightails it to St. Kilda's to begin his investigation.  The posh boarding school in Dublin's quiet suburbs looks as benign as a sleeping kitten, but it soon becomes clear that dangerous secrets are hiding behind its gentle facade.  Unfortunately for Stephen, the biggest ones circle back to Holly and her small group of close-knit friends.  With the school's headmistress breathing down his neck, an irate Frank Mackey (Holly's father, the star of Faithful Place) watching his every move, and a gaggle of flirtatious, but reticent girls to crack, Stephen's beginning to feel as if he's in way, way over his head.  Who killed Chris Harper?  The frustrated detective is determined to find out.  Even if it means putting Holly Mackey—the girl who trusted him enough to come to him with evidence of a killer on her school campus—behind bars.

As much as I love murder mysteries set in boarding schools, I admit, the premise of The Secret Place, the newest in the Dublin Murder Squad series, does sound a little generic.  But, consider this: Tana French wrote it.  As far as mystery writers go, I've never found her equal (despite repeated Google searches for authors like Tana French) in clever plotting, intriguing characters, and tight, magnetizing prose.  She one-ups herself in The Secret Place, though, because she gives her detectives only one day to solve the puzzling crime at the center of the novel.  Given the tight timeline, you might expect a similarly narrow reading experience.  Not so.  French is skilled enough to not only create multi-layered characters, but to allow us time to know and understand them, even within the framework of a fast-paced murder investigation.  She's that good.  Her books always mesmerize me—this was no exception.  I could do without French's ever-present potty-mouth and the fact that she only writes one book every two years, but other than that, no complaints.  She's a gem.  I can't wait to see what she does next.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Dublin Murder Squad series [In the Woods; The Likeness; Faithful Place; and Broken Harbour])


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Secret Place from the generous folks at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Atmospheric and Alluring, Bayou Bridge Books Should Not Be Missed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Some kids might find living in a dusty old antique store fun.  Not 12-year-old Larissa Renaud.  She thinks it's embarrassing.  And creepy.  Especially when she receives a mysterious call from a girl who refuses to identify herself on an antique telephone that's not even hooked up to an outside line!  Impossible.  Unless the anonymous caller is not of this world ...

As crazy as chatting it up with a ghost may sound, that's not even the strangest thing that's happening to Larissa.  There's the creepy porcelain doll that moves when no one's watching, the swarm of magical fireflies that surrounds her on the banks of the bayou, and an intriguing plantation home that simply cannot exist.  All of them are messages, giving her clues to the secrets of her family's past.  Larissa wants to listen, but she's scared.  Then, her mother disappears.

Larissa's desperate to keep the tragedies of the past from repeating themselves in the present, but what can she do?  Listen to a ghost?  Rely on an old swamp witch?  Only by uncovering her family's long-buried secrets can she change its curse-ridden course.  The task will take every ounce of courage, trust, and determination Larissa possesses—the only question is, can she do what needs to be done?

Ever since I read the first of Kimberley Griffiths Little's middle grade books set in Bayou Bridge, Louisiana, I've been fascinated by the world the author's created in these inter-related stories.  With a rich, vibrant setting; memorable characters; and plots that are part mystery, part magic, they're infused with a whimsical warmth that continually enchants me.  Like its predecessors, The Time of the Fireflies offers some chills with its charms, but that only makes the story more appealing.  Atmospheric and alluring, the Bayou Bridge books offer something for everyone.  Trust me when I say they should not be missed.

(Readalikes:  Little's other Louisiana books—The Healing Spell; Circle of Secrets; and When the Butterflies Came)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for intense/scary situations

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Time of the Fireflies from the always generous Kimberley Griffiths Little.  Thank you!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New Regency Romance Surprisingly Substance-full (With a Giveaway)

(Image from Jennifer Moore's blog)

With all the possibilities the opening of her London Season will surely bring, Lady Emma Drake should be looking forward to it with glee.  Her mind should be swirling with thoughts of fancy gowns, glittering balls, and catching the eyes of the city's most eligible bachelors.  Instead, she's pining away for a man who's as unattainable as the moon—her brother's best friend, Sidney Fletcher.  Emma's been infatuated with the charming sea captain since she was 11.  The problem?  Sidney still sees her as a pesky child, the kid sister he never had.  Even if she could convince him that she's all grown up now, it's not as if he would give up his exciting sea-faring life in exchange for a dull gentleman's existence.  Emma knows the union she dreams of will never be, knows she should give up childish fantasies and find herself a more practical match, but she simply can't erase Sidney from her mind.  
When Emma receives news that Sidney's been captured by French soldiers in war-torn Spain, she's frantic.  Knowing she can't sit around doing nothing while the man she loves is in danger, she stows away on her brother's ship, determined to be part of the rescue mission.  Surely, such a heroic gesture will show Sidney just how much she loves him.  It doesn't take long for Emma to realize what a foolish decision she's made—a war zone is no place for a sheltered, well-bred lady.  With death and destruction all around her, Emma has no idea how she is going to survive Spain, let alone help rescue Sidney.  As the violence escalates all around her, her courage, her cunning, and her conviction will be put to the test.  Will Emma escape unscathed?  Will Sidney?  Most importantly, will Emma's secret desires ever come to fruition?  

Although I don't read a lot of Regency romance, I generally find the genre entertaining with its genteel settings, frivolous plots, and witty banter.  It's the kind of light reading I like to sandwich in between "real" books.  Lady Emma's Campaign, Jennifer Moore's second novel, surprised me by going deeper than the usual parlor dramas.  With its treatment of war violence, PTSD, physical abuse, and other weighty subjects, it offers a lot more substance than I was expecting.  All the derring-do kept the story exciting, heightening the romantic suspense to create a fuller story.  A few things kept me from loving Lady Emma's Campaign, namely Moore's tendency to tell rather than show, which made her characters and setting seem a bit flat.  Overall, though, I enjoyed this one, especially that there's more to it than just a silly romance.

(Readalikes:  Although I haven't read it yet, I assume Becoming Lady Lockwood, Moore's first book [starring Emma Drake's sister-in-law] is similar)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for violence and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a copy of Lady Emma's Campaign from the generous folks at Covenant Communications.  Thank you!


Interested in reading more reviews of Lady Emma's Campaign?  How about entering a giveaway for a $75 gift card to Sweet Salt Clothing?  Stop at each of the following blogs to get more opinions on the book and a chance to win the big prize!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Warm Southern Novel Kind of a Hot Mess (Not Unlike Its Heroine)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Joy Talley, the 40-something-year-old spinster of Spavinaw Junction, Oklahoma, decides to fetch a secret something out of her crumbling chimney, she ends up in a coma.  Talley luck being what it is, no one really expects her to come out of it.  What her family and friends don't know is that while Joy might not be able to talk or open her eyes, she's aware of her surroundings.  She can hear her siblings planning her funeral, see the hopeful face of her handsome young doctor, and feel her heart beat a little (okay, a lot) faster when her high school sweetheart walks into the room.  All of these things make her realize how much she needs to wake the heck up and change her pathetic little life.  

As soon as Joy is back on her feet, she plans to come to terms with the secret she's been hiding since she was a teenager.  To do that, she'll have to be honest about all the pain, the ache, and the bitterness that's been corroding her heart for so long.  Once that happens, maybe the old town spinster can even start making decisions for her future, like choosing a man to spend it with—will it be the kind doctor or the very man for whom she's been pining away for two decades?  With her daddy's ghost whispering reassurances into her ear, Joy's determined to put the past behind her and start living again.  If only it were that easy ...

I agreed to read/review Waking Up Joy by Tina Ann Forkner because the book's premise sounded cute.  Plus, I always dig a good Southern yarn filled with warm prose, quirky characters and, most of all, lots of juicy skeletons molding behind genteel facades.  Forkner does include these genre staples in Waking Up Joy, which she also infuses with lighthearted banter, humorous situations, and an inspirational message about forgiveness.  Still, these promising elements just aren't enough to camouflage a rambling, overlong plot; a flat, forgettable cast; and some really, really poor editing.  My biggest beef, though, was with Joy herself—for a "beloved" member of Spavinaw Junction society, she's awfully petty, vindictive, and self-absorbed.  In the end, this novel reminded me of a first draft:  the bones of a great story are there, they just needed to be honed and polished into a tighter, more focused narrative.  As is, I'm sad to say, the novel's kind of a hot mess (not unlike Joy herself), which is a pity because it truly did have a lot of potential.    

(Readalikes:  The tone and setting [not the writing] of this book reminded me of novels by Karen White, Dorothea Benton Frank, and Anne Rivers Siddons)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), violence, mild sexual innuendo/content, and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Waking Up Joy from the generous folks at Tule Publishing via those at BookSparks PR.  Thank you!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Gasp! Another Exciting Series-Ender for McMann

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Gasp, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from Crash and Bang.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After two traumatic experiences with visions predicting deadly, catastrophic events, Jules DeMarco knows not to fool around with the strange gift/cure she and her friends have been given.  That's why the 17-year-old refuses to wait around; she's determined to figure out who will be the next person plagued with the disturbing visions.  Yes, they'll think she's insane.  No, they won't believe her.  It matter—the sooner Jules finds out who's seeing crazy images of a future disaster, the sooner she can stop the tragedy from happening.

With the help of her older brother and her boyfriend, Sawyer Angotti, Jules seeks out all the survivors of a recent school shooting.  But, even when they find the next visionary, they're still stuck.  How can you prevent something awful from happening when you don't know when or where it will occur?  As the teenagers try to make sense of the visions, the horrible scenes become more and more intense, signalling the imminent arrival of a terrible tragedy.  Can they stop it in time?  Can they save innocent lives?  Will rescuing people from certain death mean becoming victims themselves?

If you enjoyed the first two books in Lisa McMann's fun, fast-paced Crash series, you're certain to find this one just as compelling.  The final book in the trilogy (waaahhh!), Gasp follows the same formula as the others.  With a mix of humor, suspense, action and romance, it follows Jules & Co. as they race against the clock to solve a mystery using only the hazy clues they see in strange, supernatural visions.  The I-see-the-future thing is not a terribly original plot device, but McMann uses it well, creating another fast, exciting story that will appeal to even reluctant readers.  I enjoyed Gasp as much as the first two books and am sad to see the series end.  Here's hoping McMann starts up another great teen series—and soon!

(Readalikes:  Crash and Bang by Lisa McMann, as well as McMann's Wake series [Wake; Fade; Gone]


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence, and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Get Happy Brims With Warmth, Humor (With a Giveaway)

(Image from Egmont USA)

Minerva Watson knows not to expect too much for her sixteenth birthday.  Even though she's been hinting for months about the beautiful ukulele she's dying to possess, her mother's the queen of clueless gift-giving.  When the FedEx man shows up with a surprise present, Minerva is shocked to see that it's from the father she hasn't seen since she was three years old.  Seeing the name Keanu Choy blows all thoughts of ukuleles from her mind.  According to the return address on the package, Minerva's dad lives in nearby Chicago.  According to the card he included, he wants to get to know her.  Unsure how to feel, Minerva hides the gift in her closet, knowing her mother would explode if she knew about it.  

While Minerva's trying to decide what to do about her father's sudden, out-of-the-blue interest in her life, she's got other things to worry about.  There's her exhausting new job as a birthday party princess, the money she still needs for her precious uke, and the confusing gymnastics her heart performs every time she's near Hayes Martinelli.  As if that weren't enough to give her an ulcer, she also needs to find the courage to ask her mom for the truth about Keanu Choy.  But, does she really want to know?  Does she dare let the man who walked out on her over a decade ago back into her life?  When she woke up on her birthday morning, Minerva thought the only thing she needed to be happy was a ukulele; now she wonders about the things she's been missing all her life and if it's worth risking everything to get them.

For a YA novel that clocks in at under 230 pages, Get Happy by Mary Amato, is surprisingly difficult to summarize.  Why is that?  Probably because Minerva has no real story goal, so the plot feels unfocused, more episodic than purposeful.  Which isn't to say the novel isn't entertaining.  It is.  Get Happy brims over with warmth, heart and humor, making for a bright, fun tale—with substance.  Still, the novel's flimsy plot, coupled with its selfish, whiny heroine stopped me from loving this one. In the end, it was only an okay read for me.  I did appreciate the book's clean, hopeful tone—something that's rare in YA books—I just wish Get Happy had been a little better crafted.  Ah, well.

Note:  One of the fun things about Get Happy is that it includes lyrics for songs Minerva makes up throughout the book.  Amato, who not only sings and plays guitar and ukulele, but also writes songs, has paired the lyrics with chords so that you can actually play/sing Minerva's songs yourself.  You can find the music in the back of the book.  If you'd like to hear songs from both Get Happy and Guitar Notes performed, visit Amato's website at: .

Also:  If you want more opinions about Get Happy, follow along on its blog tour.  You can check out the tour page here.  Be sure to visit Unorthodox Mama, who is also reviewing the book today.)

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for intense situations and brief mention of prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Get Happy from the generous folks at Egmont in exchange for my participation in the book's blog tour.  Thank you!


Now, for the exciting part.  Egmont is providing one copy of Mary Amato's Get Happy for a giveaway here at BBB.  If you want a chance to win, please comment on this post and tell me what makes YOU happy.  Be sure and include a working email address so that I can contact you if you win.  Also, please note that the giveaway is only open to readers with a U.S. or Canadian mailing address.  I will choose a winner on Wednesday, November 11.  Good luck!      

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Warm, Witty Painting Kisses Gives Me All the Feels (With a Giveaway)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After the devastating scandal that broke her heart and shattered all the illusions of happiness her fancy Manhattan life seemed to offer, Lia Carswell came home.  Six years later, she's still too paralyzed to paint the pictures that made her famous.  Instead, she throws her energy into less lucrative projects—slinging hash at a local diner, babysitting her 3-year-old niece, and soaking fresh mountain air into her soul.  She's too busy helping her younger sister make ends meet to worry about petty things like romance and art.  But both are about to come crashing back into her life.  With a vengeance.

When Lia receives word that a wealthy buyer would like to commission a painting from her, she wants—desperately—to refuse.  She promised herself she would never again allow pieces of her heart to be sold to the highest bidder.  And yet, her niece needs expensive therapy to help with her developmental delays.  Lia can't afford to say no to any paycheck, let alone one that could send Chloe to the best school around. 

Crippled by fear and doubt, Lia picks up her brush.  While she struggles to find the muse that turned her art into the most sought after in New York, she's got another problem:  Aidan.  A regular at the diner, he's determined to break her hard shell.  Lia's not into players and their games.  Maybe her laidback, ski-obsessed neighbor has a better chance of warming her heart?

As Lia rides the ups and downs of her suddenly complicated life, she must re-discover who she really is and what she truly wants.  But knowing her heart means finding the courage to follow where it leads, a risk Lia's not sure she can ever take again ...

Melanie Jacobson has published six novels.  I've read them all.  I've liked them all.  But, this one?  My favorite.  Hands down.  At less than two hundred pages, Painting Kisses is a quick, enjoyable read.  Unlike her other books, Jacobson's newest is written for a mainstream audience instead of an LDS one—still, aside from a little innuendo, it's as clean and uplifting as her previous novels.  Filled with her trademark warmth and wit, this one seriously gave me all the feels.  It made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me swoon ... Was the story predictable?  Absolutely.  Contrived?  Yep.  Did I care?  No.  (Okay, a little.)  Overall, though, I loved this one.  It spoke to me.  Jacobson once told me she was determined to write a story that would earn an A from me.  Guess what, Melanie?  You did it.  

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Falling Home by Karen White)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for sexual innuendo

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


Want to win a copy of the book for yourself, plus a $25 Amazon gift card?  Of course you do!  Use the Rafflecopter below to enter.  Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Riveting Winterkill Feels Familiar, But Fresh

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's a little silly to try to write my own plot summary for a book when a perfectly good one—actually, a great one—already exists.  Since re-inventing the wheel is just so last century, I'm going to give you the publisher's version.  Both concise and precise, it offers a brilliant overview of Winterkill by Kate A. Boorman:
Emmeline knows she’s not supposed to explore the woods outside her settlement. The enemy that wiped out half her people lurks there, attacking at night and keeping them isolated in an unfamiliar land with merciless winters. Living with the shame of her grandmother’s insubordination, Emmeline has learned to keep her head down and her quick tongue silent.

When the settlement leader asks for her hand in marriage, it’s an opportunity for Emmeline to wash the family slate clean—even if she has eyes for another. But before she’s forced into an impossible decision, her dreams urge her into the woods, where she uncovers a path she can’t help but follow. The trail leads to a secret that someone in the village will kill to protect. Her grandmother followed the same path and paid the price. If Emmeline isn’t careful, she will be next.   
Taut and compelling, Winterkill is an intense, atmospheric novel that kept me riveted from its first page to its last.  Although it contains many familiar dystopian components, it's really more of a psychological thriller than the usual post-apocalyptic survival drama.  The novel isn't all that original, really, but it's so well crafted that it feels fresh and unique.  In a word (okay, three):  I loved it.

(Readalikes:  The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for violence, intense situation, and brief nudity

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, October 20, 2014

Remake: Promising Premise, Not-So-Subtle Execution

As Nine approaches her 17th birthday, she—like most teens—is concerned about the decisions she will have to make as she nears adulthood.  She doesn't know what career she should choose.  She's not even certain about the look she's sporting—should she keep her red hair and freckles or change them to something more exotic or, maybe, less so?  And then there's the biggest choice of all: male or female?  Like the other members of her batch, Nine will soon be Remade with whatever alterations she chooses.  She can become tall or short, curvy or petite, blonde-haired or purple-eyed, feminine or masculine.  It's her choice.  She's free to make herself into anything she wants to be.  As long as the Prime Maker approves, of course.

Although Nine is a little apprehensive about the coming changes, she's looking forward to the operation that will allow her to finally become an individual.  But when the plane carrying the batchers to the Remake facility crashes into the sea, Nine finds herself washed up on a shore she's never seen before.  She's rescued by strange people (they claim to be a family, whatever that is) who live simple lives full of hard work and pain.  Hidden away from the eyes of the Prime Maker who rules Nine's world, the islanders toil away with imperfect bodies and inadequate supplies.  Nine can't understand their contentment with such a crude way of life.  Still, the more time she spends with them (especially 18-year-old Kai, who's as irritating as he is hot), the more she realizes that the islanders are more free than she's ever been or ever will be.  Which is precisely what makes them so happy.

When Nine's former life comes calling, she must make the toughest decision of her life—stay on the island as a rebel against the Prime Maker or return to her own world, where she can be Remade into whatever she wants to be?  It's time for her to finally decide who she is, what she wants, and how she's going to make it happen.

I was drawn to Remake, a debut novel by Ilima Todd, because although its premise sounded similar to that of Scott Westerfield's Uglies series, the whole idea of choosing one's gender seemed to bring something new to the YA dystopian table.  Knowing that Todd is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (in other words, a Mormon) made me even more curious to see how she would explore such an ambitious story question.  Open-mindedness, as it turns out, is not the novel's strong suit.  Its message—that marriage is sacred, family essential, and freedom to choose crucial—is absolutely one I believe in, I just think it comes across in the story as very heavy-handed.  Subtlety would have been a much more effective approach, especially in a book aimed at mainstream teens.  But then, subtlety is not something that's plentiful in Remake either.  The story has a very tell vs. show feel to it.  That, along with a confusing, underdeveloped dystopian world, flat characters, and a dull, saggy middle made this a rather disappointing read for me.  Remake isn't bad for a first novel; it just doesn't do enough to stand out.  For me, it ended up being just okay.
Although she lacked a lot in the personality department, I do think teens will empathize with Nine's anxiety about her future.  I also think they'll enjoy her romp on an exotic island, even if it sets up yet another annoying YA dystopian love triangle.  They will probably also appreciate (as did I) Todd's bravery in boldly tackling big issues that are as timely as they are divisive.  And yet, I think they, like me, will long for a more vivid story world, stronger characterization, and a fresher plot.  Don't get me wrong,

(Readalikes:  Remake's premise and plot reminded me of the Uglies series [Uglies; Pretties; Specials; Extras] by Scott Westerfeld and a little of the Under the Never Sky series [Under the Never Sky; Through the Ever Night; Into the Still Blue] by Veronica Rossi)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for sexual innuendo and references to sex, female anatomy, prostitution, etc.

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Remake from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain Publishing as part of the blog tour they're hosting to promote the book.  Thank you!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Vivid Technicolor Details Bring Understanding of Jewish Girl's Plight in Yolen's Holocaust Classic

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Hannah Stern isn't looking forward to another boring Passover Seder with her extended family.  The 12-year-old would prefer to skip it all—the lipstick-laced kisses from Aunt Eva; the senile ravings of her grandfather; the endless droning about Egypt and plagues and the children of Israel.  The traditions force them all to remember the past and Hannah is so tired of hearing about things that happened so long ago they hardly matter in the present.

Opening the door of one's home to symbolically let the prophet Elijah inside is a silly tradition only babies believe in.  When Hannah reluctantly receives the honor of performing the task, she certainly doesn't expect anything unusual to happen.  But it does.  As she steps through the door, her family's modern New York apartment disappears.  Hannah finds herself in a village she doesn't recognize with people she doesn't know.  Everyone calls her "Chaya" and acts like there's nothing strange about her being trapped in a Polish village in 1942.  They laugh when she speaks of magical doors, but Hannah doesn't find her predicament funny at all.  She's studied the Holocaust in school, she's heard her family's terrible concentration camp stories, she knows what's going to happen to the Polish Jews.      As Hannah experiences all the confusion, all the injustice, all the fear her ancestors felt during World War II, she begins to understand why her parents insist on remembering their heartbreaking plight.

Can Hannah use her knowledge from the future to save her ancestors from their devastating fate?  Can she stop the horrors of the Holocaust from happening at all, at least to the people whose blood she will someday share?  And, most importantly, can she find her way home to Hannah Stern's nice, safe life in present-day New York?  Or will she die as Chaya, another victim of senseless Nazi brutality?

I've heard parents say that The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen is too violent, too vivid, for young readers.  And, yet, it's one of the most compelling children's books I've read about the Holocaust.  Why?  Because it comes to such brilliant life with all its rich, Technicolor details.  As you read, it's impossible not to feel as if you're walking in Chaya's clunky black shoes.  Just as it did for Hannah, the modern world falls away, giving you a little bit of an understanding for what a young Polish Jew might have seen, heard and felt as her gentle world crumbled into a ghastly, irrevocable nightmare.  This small book may, at times, be difficult to digest, but, trust me, the understanding that comes from it is worth every hard swallow.  Everyone, children included, should read this touching classic.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books about the Holocaust/concentration camps written for children/teens, including The Diary of Anne FrankNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs); violence; intense scenes; and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Haunting, Hopeful Classic Endures for Good Reason

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kit Tyler's unconventional upbringing makes her an oddity in colonial Connecticut.  Having been raised on the island of Barbados with little supervision from the grandfather who reared her, she's a fun-loving, free spirit who bucks against the strict Puritan society in which she finds herself after her grandpa's death.  The aunt and uncle who have taken Kit in, despite her surprise appearance on their doorstep, hardly know what to do with a 16-year-old who refuses to behave like the other girls in Wethersfield.

Developing a secret friendship with Hannah Tupper—an elderly Quaker woman who has not only been shunned by "polite" society, but also labeled a witch—brings even more trouble for Kit.  Kit's being courted by Wethersfield's most eligible bachelor; if she can just conform and learn to follow the rules (which includes stopping her visits to Hannah's house), she can become one of the most enviable women in town.  Can she resist her natural willfulness?  Or her outrage at the mistreatment of people like harmless old Hannah?  Should she let go of everything that makes her unique, just to fit into a society that fears anything different?  

When a vicious illness strikes the settlement, Kit and Hannah stand accused.  Desperate to clear her good name, Kit must make the most difficult decision of her life—bow to the rigid community leaders or risk death by standing up for what (and in whom) she believes.

It's been a long, long time since I first read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare's Newbery Award-winning masterpiece.  No matter.  I enjoyed it just as much as an adult as I did when I was a kid.  Originally published in 1958, the book tells a haunting story, which plays out against a vivid historical backdrop.  Speare brings Colonial America to life with fascinating detail, giving readers a rich, realistic sense of the setting, in terms of both place and time.  With a blend of adventure, romance and suspense, the plot keeps the story moving right along, making for an engaging, exciting read.  Sympathetic and brave, Kit is a heroine who dives right into the reader's heart, ensuring that they will care deeply about her plight.  Although The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in the late 1600s, it will appeal to anyone—in any decade—who's ever felt out-of-place, misunderstood, or suffocated by a society that doesn't appreciate their particular brand of different.  Compelling and hopeful, it's a classic that should be read again and again.    

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of books about the Salem witch trials, including I Walk in Dread by Lisa Rowe Fraustino; Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill; and Father of Lies by Ann Turner)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Gritty But Gratifying, The Walled City Not to Be Missed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Hak Nam Walled City is no place for children.  With its toxic brew of "humanity's darkest ingredients—thieves, whores, murderers, addicts," it's a 6 1/2-acre hell "so ruthless even the sunlight won't enter" (5%, uncorrected e-galley).  Kids don't belong here and yet, the city's teeming with them.  Survival of the fittest demands they do jobs that steal their innocence, scar their bodies, and snuff out all the hope they might foolishly harbor in their young hearts. 

Sun Dai Shing runs drugs for the powerful gang leaders who rule the Walled City.  The 18-year-old longs to bring the worst of the overlords to justice in the outside world, but accomplishing that task is impossible.  Even with his position on the "inside" of their nefarious enterprises, Dai can't figure out how to bring them down.  Not without sacrificing his own neck.  With only 18 days left to accomplish his purpose, he's becoming more and more desperate ...

Jin Ling is the fastest, most slippery thief in town.  Disguised as a boy, the 14-year-old girl ekes out a meager existence on the streets of the Walled City.  Always hungry, always on guard, always ready to run, Jin survives for one purpose—to find her older sister.  

Trapped in a brothel run by the most dangerous overlord in the Walled City, Mei Yee longs for freedom.  She dreams of the sea, of her long-lost sister, of flying away from her miserable life.  Sold into slavery by her desperate father, Mei Yee knows she can never return home, but surely, she can find happiness beyond the walls which keep her prisoner.  But, how?  How can she ever escape?  She's seen what happens to the girls who try.  Forced prostitution has to be better than enduring punishments that are far, far worse than death.  

As the fates of the three teenagers entwine, they must learn to break the most important rule of the Walled City—trust no one.  It is only together that they can accomplish their individual purposes, but can they work together without getting all of them killed?  Pitted against the most ruthless gang in the city, they will have to use all of their combined wit, strength and courage to triumph.  The only question is, will it be enough?

YA dystopians are a dime a dozen these days, making it almost impossible to find one that really stands out.  While The Walled City by Ryan Graudin (available November 4, 2014) isn't wholly original (not wholly dystopian either), it's absolutely memorable.  The main characters are well-rounded and sympathetic.  Rooting for them is as natural as despising their enemies.  Vivid descriptions of the Walled City make it come alive as fully as its inhabitants.  These elements, combined with a tense, nail biter of a plot, equal a first-rate thriller.  Horrifying but hopeful, gritty but gratifying, intense but inspiring, The Walled City is not to be missed.  Unfortunately for my dishes, my laundry, and my pile of uncut coupons, I could not put it down.  It's that compelling. 

(P.S.  If the setting of this novel sounds familiar, that's because it's based on Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City, which was demolished in the 90s and turned into a park.  For some unsettling, but eye-opening info on this true-to-life place, click here and here.  

Also, you can read the first 90 or so pages of The Walled City for free on your Nook or Kindle.  You're welcome.)  

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (one F-bomb plus other invectives), violence/gore, and depictions of illegal drug abuse and prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-galley of The Walled City from the generous folks at Hachette Book Group via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!)
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