Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Rollicking Western Yarn Has Heart

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Placid, Wisconsin; 1871—When 13-year-old Georgie Burkhardt lets a juicy secret slip, it sends her shocked older sister off in a huff.  A long ways off.  Two weeks later, the sheriff returns from his search for Agatha with nothing but a corpse.  The body is that of a young woman, but beyond that, the remains are unidentifiable.  Because it's dressed in a distinctive blue-green ball gown that belonged to Agatha Burkhardt, everyone assumes the dead girl is Agatha.  Everyone except Georgie, that is.  As guilty as she feels over the part she played in her sister's disappearance, Georgie refuses to believe Agatha is dead.  She can't stand the thought that "Agatha—sister, friend, guide to life, and the eighth wonder of my world" (15) could be gone for good.

Armed with her trusty Springfield rifle and mounted on a not-so-trusty mule, Georgie sets out on a quest to find her sister.  She knows only that nature-loving Agatha ran off with a suspicious-looking group of "pigeoners" following the birds' migration.  What happened after that is anyone's guess.  Despite her well-deserved reputation as a sharpshooter, Georgie's not as confident as she appears to be.  As she confronts all the dangers the western frontier has to offer, she'll have to harness every ounce of strength within her in order to find the sister she loves.  Even if—especially if—the trail leads straight back to a freshly-dug grave in Placid, Wisconsin.  

I can't remember which blogger recommended One Came Home by Amy Timberlake, but her review of the book immediately sparked my interest.  It sounded like a unique middle grade adventure story with a quirky heroine and a vivid historical setting.  Which it is.  Georgie brings a lot to the table with her strong personality, wry sense of humor and unwavering devotion to her sister.  She makes the story.  Her various adventures keep the tale interesting, as does the mystery of Agatha's fate.  For all the build-up, the ending of One Came Home did strike me as a bit anti-climactic.  Still and all, I enjoyed this rollicking Western yarn.  

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and vague references to prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, August 25, 2014

Southern Novel Enjoyable Despite Cliché, Predictable Plot

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Cassie Madison never planned to stay in her backwards little hometown.  At twenty, she shook the Georgia clay off her shoes for good and headed for the bright lights of New York City.  Fifteen years later, she's pleased with the life she's managed to create for herself.  From her Upper East Side apartment to the successful ad agency she helps run to her polished fiancé—it would be obvious to anyone that Cassie's living the good life.  She's attained the existence she always wanted for herself, a glamorous life far, far away from the tiny hick town where she was reared.

A late-night phone call shatters Cassie's carefully-constructed life in the Big Apple.  It's from Harriet Warner, her estranged younger sister.  Cassie's barely spoken to Harriet since she stole the boy Cassie loved since she was twelve years old—and married him.  After almost two decades of silence between the sisters, Harriet's calling with tragic news: their father is dying.  Nothing else could force Cassie into returning to Walton.  Going "home" to say goodbye is hard enough, but Cassie can't stand the thought of seeing her sister enjoying the perfect family life that should have been her own.  Along with the pain, though, Cassie's stunned to realize that there are some things she still loves about little ole Walton, Georgia—things that might just convince her to stay.  

Torn between her old life and her new one, her family and her fiancé, her heart and her mind, Cassie must decide who she really is, what she really wants, and how to heal her aching heart, once and for all.

As much as I enjoy Karen White's novels, I have to say that Falling Home is not one of my favorites.  Although it's written with White's trademark warmth and sincerity, it becomes awfully cliché awfully quick.  Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it—I did—I just would have liked some surprises here and there.  Overall, I found Falling Home engaging, but not all that original or impressive.  I liked it, didn't love it.        

(Readalikes:  Other books by Karen White, especially A Long Time Gone)

Grade:  


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Falling Home from the generous folks at Penguin via Joan Schulhafer Publishing & Media Consulting.  Thank you!


Friday, August 22, 2014

Karen White's Newest Another Absorbing, Atmospheric Family Drama

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Nine years ago, Vivien Walker Moise fled the Delta, vowing never to return.  That was before her disastrous marriage, before the miscarriage that brought her to her knees, before she became an addict, dependent on pills just to get through the day.  Now, with nowhere left to go, 27-year-old Vivien returns to the one place she knows she'll always be received, if not exactly welcomed—Indian Mound, Mississippi.  If anything can heal her, it will be the tender ministrations of the beloved grandmother she left behind almost a decade ago. 

Soon after arriving, Vivien receives shocking news:  not only has her grandma passed away in her absence, but her estranged mother is now living on the family estate.  Vivien has some choice words for the parent who abandoned her, not that it matters—plagued with dementia, Carol Lynne Walker Moise doesn't recognize her daughter, let alone remember the hurt she caused her.  As if things aren't bad enough already, Vivien also learns that human remains have been unearthed on the Walker property.  Unable to rest, Vivien throws herself into finding out to whom the bones belong and how they came to be hidden in the dark, rich soil on her family's land.  As she discovers puzzling secrets from the past, Vivien realizes the truths they reveal could be the key—not just to solving the mystery, but also to healing her own battered heart. 

A multi-generational novel featuring all my favorite elements (mystery, romance, family secrets, a Southern setting, etc.), A Long Time Gone by Karen White offers a vivid, compelling story about one woman's quest to heal the hurts of her past.  Absorbing and atmospheric, it keeps the reader's attention through complex characters, smooth prose, and enough twists to keep you guessing.  The back-and-forth-in-time format did get confusing at times, but overall, I found this to be an engaging and enjoyable read.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Kate Morton's books and others by Kate White)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, mild sexual innuendo/content, and depictions of alcohol/drug abuse

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Easy, Breezy, Beach-y Read as Warm as Summertime Itself

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As the only remaining girl in a family of boys (one father, three older brothers, one honorary older brother/neighbor), Charlotte "Charlie" Reynolds really can't help being a tomboy.  Without a mother around (the car accident that killed her still haunts Charlie's nightmares), there's no one to teach her about the frilly things in life.  Not that the 16-year-old wants lessons on how to color coordinate her wardrobe (everything goes with jeans) or correctly apply a bunch of goop on her face (she would sweat it all off on the playing field, anyway).  Charlie would much rather spend her time running, massacring her brothers at mud football, and driving too fast along curvy oceanside roads. 

It's this last bit that changes things for Charlie.  Forced to get a job to pay off her speeding tickets, she begins working at a tony little boutique, which leads her down a path strewn with all the girly things she eschews.  Pleasant side affect to acting like a girl?  The attention of an über attractive boy who thinks of her as a delicate feminine flower, not a trash-talking jock.  Not so pleasant side affect?  Having to hide her new-found girliness from the men in her life (they would so not understand).  Leading a double life is starting to wear on Charlie—between that and the haunting flashbacks of her mother's accident that plague her dreams, she's going a little crazy.  The only thing that helps is her late-night chats with her brothers' buddy, Braden, across the fence that separates their houses.  Problem is, the more time she spends with him, the faster she's falling for him.  Will Braden ever see her as more than a bratty little sister?  And exactly how quick will her brothers pulverize him if he does start coming around?  As life grows ever more complicated, Charlie has to decide what she wants—and how much she's willing to risk to get it.  

Between its summer-y cover art and July release date, you can probably tell that On the Fence, the newest contemporary YA from Kasie West, is an easy, breezy, beach-y kind of book.  The plot never gets too complicated, the themes too dark or the characters too angsty.  With an equal mix of the constant ribbing and intense loyalty that defines the best brother/sister relationships, the Reynolds family feels strong and real.  Their bond lends the whole story a warm, playful overtone that makes it a happy, hopeful novel.  Sure, it's cliché and predictable, but On the Fence is also lots of fun.  As long as you don't expect too much depth, you'll enjoy this light, easy read about not just discovering who you are, but also finding the courage to be that person, in spite of the consequences. 

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of the Dairy Queen novels [Dairy Queen; The Off Season; Front and Center] by Catherine Gilbert Murdock and a little of Playing Hurt by Holly Schindler

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for mild sexual innuendo

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

'Hatchet for a New Generation'? Why Yes, Yes It Is.

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Jane Solis is done—done with the mental hospital she's been confined to since she tried to kill herself last year, done with pretending she's cured, done with life.  This time, her suicide will be successful.  Not to mention special.  She'll wait to swallow her toxic mix of pills until she's on the plane headed home to New Jersey, then just fade out while soaring above the clouds.  It's fool-proof.  Perfect.  

Before Jane gets the chance to put her plan into action, however, the plane hits some serious turbulence.  As the aircraft takes a nosedive, everything goes black.  When Jane wakes up, she crawls out of the wreckage into a wilderness covered in snow.  She's horrified to find she's one of only two survivors—the other is a cocky Canadian ski instructor named Paul—and that they're stranded in Montana's remote Bob Marshall Wilderness.  As the weather worsens, it becomes clear that help won't be coming.  Their survival is up to them—and suddenly, unexpectedly, Jane realizes how much she wants to live.  But will her new-found determination be enough to save her, let alone both her and Paul?  As the days wear on, that's looking less and less likely ...

The back cover blurb calls Survive, a debut novel by Alex Morel, "Hatchet for a new generation."  I'd have to agree.  It's a gritty survival story that pits two determined teens against a storm-ravaged wilderness that's ready and willing to claim both their lives.  Exciting and unexpectedly heart-breaking, Survive tells a tense, action-packed tale about a girl who's facing her imminent death even as she's finally learning to live.  Although the story and prose are sparer than I would have liked, I still enjoyed this quick, compelling read.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Raft by S.A. Bodeen and a little of Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, sexual innuendo, and intense situations

 To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Survive from the generous folks at Razorbill.  Thank you!

Friday, August 08, 2014

Relatable Premise Just Not Enough to Earn My Undying Love

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Ivy Darling enjoys all the trappings of a successful life.  She's been married for three years, works at a job she likes, and thrives on the strength of her tight-knit family (if not her in-laws, who've never quite warmed to her).  There's only one thing she needs to be truly happy:  a child.  Her struggles with infertility have left her feeling raw and vulnerable.  Ivy's ready to move on, ready to grow her family through adoption.  If only her husband would agree.  Determined to have "his own" child or none at all, Nick has become increasingly distant and hostile.  Ivy can't stand the constant tension between them, but she's not willing to give up on her dream of being a mother—even if it means doing it without Nick.

When an African-American family moves into the ramshackle house next door, Ivy's interest is piqued.  The single mother and three children look like no one else in tiny Copper Grove, Maine, which doesn't stop Ivy from trying to welcome them to the neighborhood.  She soon realizes why her friendly overtures are being rebuffed—the kids don't want her to know how often they are left by themselves.  When their mother fails to return from work one day, leaving her children scared and locked out of their home, Ivy can't stop herself from intervening.  Taking the trio into her own home, Ivy pours all the love in her mothering heart into their well-being.  Despite Nick's vehement protests, the situation is looking more and more permanent.  Ivy couldn't be happier with the arrangement, but what will it do to her fracturing marriage?  And how will her heart heal if the children are taken from her?  Does Ivy dare risk it all in the hopes of finally creating the family she's always wanted?

The first in a planned series revolving around the Darling Family, All Right Here by Carre Armstrong Gardner, is a hopeful, inspiring novel.  Although it's classified as Christian fiction, the religious aspects of the story feel natural, not heavy-handed.  The story's focus really is family—the warmth, the conflict, the joy, the jealousy, the love, etc. that exist in every large brood.  It examines some weighty issues, but does so in a way that is both realistic and PG-rated.  While I appreciated all of these elements, there were a few things that bugged me about the story.  The altering viewpoints, for one.  I get that, while All Right Here zeroes in on Ivy's story, it's meant to be an introduction to the whole Darling clan.  Which is all well and good, as long as all the different narrators have distinct voices and problems that are intriguing in their own right, something that doesn't really happen here.  I was most interested in the story's main conflict and found it distracting to head-jump.  As the adoptive mother of a bi-racial child, I identified most with Ivy, although there were definitely aspects of her experience that didn't ring very true.  Still, my biggest problem with All Right Here is that, in general, I found the Darlings—the whole lot of them—underdeveloped and just not rounded enough to really live and breathe inside my head.  Considering all of this, the novel ended up being just an okay read for me.  Disappointing, because I wanted to love this one.  Ah, well.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for intense/adult situations

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-galley of All Right Here from the good folks at Tyndale House Publishers via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Vivid, Compelling YA WWII Novel A Tense, Exciting Page Turner

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As a loyal member of the National Socialist Party and a pure-blooded German, Gretchen Müller knows to stay away from Jews.  They're dirty, sneaky, subhuman—so insists her Uncle Dolf.  Without a father to look to for advice, the 17-year-old must put her trust in the man he died to protect.  Adolf Hitler dotes on Gretchen, his favorite "niece," the daughter of Germany's famed martyr—in return, the 17-year-old owes him her respect and absolute obedience.  Gretchen knows her beloved "uncle" would never steer her wrong, but when a handsome Jewish reporter comes to her with accusations against him, she begins to wonder.  Did her father really die the hero's death for which he's been lauded, or did something much more sinister lead to his demise?  Can she trust Daniel Cohen, who's both a stranger and a Jew?  Especially over the word of Adolf Hitler, the most powerful man in Munich, maybe even all of Germany?

Against all reason, Gretchen finds herself falling for Daniel.  And believing the things he's telling her.  The more she searches for the truth behind her father's death, the more Gretchen questions what her Uncle Dolf has told her—not just about the martyrdom, but also about the Jews.  Fraternizing with Daniel is dangerous enough, but harboring traitorous thoughts against Adolf Hitler?  That could get her killed.  One wrong move and Gretchen's sadistic older brother will turn her in.  In an increasingly tumultuous time, she can't risk losing her uncle's approval.  But, what if Hitler's been lying to her all along?  What then?  Torn between loyalty to her protector and a growing dissatisfaction with his teachings, Gretchen must decide what—and who—she believes.  Even if it means putting herself and everyone she loves in grave danger.

Prisoner of Night and Fog, a debut novel by Anne Blankman, brings the fear and uncertainty of 1930s Munich to vivid life.  With tight prose, an engaging heroine, and a tense, compelling plot, it's a fast-paced page turner that will appeal to anyone who loves historical fiction.  Sure, there are some holes in the story, but overall, I enjoyed it.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Pam Jenoff's adult novels about WWII, The Kommandant's Girl and The Diplomat's Wife)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, sexual innuendo and references to sex/prostitution, etc.

To the FTC, with love:  I received both a finished copy and an e-galley (via Edelweiss) of Prisoner of Night and Fog from the generous folks at Harper Collins.  Thank you!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Whisper Compelling, But Floppy

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Although Whisper's cleft palate makes her an outcast in the outside world, the 15-year-old lives a peaceful, happy life in the woods with a group of other disfigured children.  Cared for by a kindly old man, the kids have all been abandoned by their parents—except for Whisper, who still receives yearly visits from her mother.  While Whisper longs to be able to live with her parents like a "normal" child, she knows it's not possible in a society that fears and abuses people who look like her.  She's content with her lot in life, even if she can't quite understand it.

Everything changes when Whisper's mother dies and the father she's never met takes Whisper away from her forest home.  He wants her to live with him—as his house slave.  When she fails to please the hateful man, she's sent to an even more horrifying place: the city.  Forced to beg on the mean streets in order to keep a roof over her head, Whisper fights just to stay alive.  Only one thing brings her comfort: the music she creates with the violin her mother gave her.  

As Whisper learns to survive in the harsh, unkind world, she finds glimmers of hope in the most surprising places.  While being shunned for her "ugliness," she discovers great truths about family, friendship and beauty.  Is it possible that she can find the happiness she desires even in such a cruel place?   

So, I've discovered that the most difficult books for me to describe are those that skimp on plot.  Things happen in these novels, yes, but because the various scenes aren't tightly and skillfully woven together, the whole story feels floppy.  Such is the case with Whisper, a debut novel by Chris Struyk-Bonn.  While the book offers an intriguing futuristic/dystopian setting as well as a very sympathetic heroine, the story drags along in an aimless, unfocused manner.  Why?  Because Whisper lacks a strong, clearly-defined story goal.  Without one, her tale feels too episodic and disjointed.  While this bugged me throughout the book, I did find the overall story fairly compelling.  I also appreciated the lessons it teaches about the true nature of beauty and accepting people for who they are instead of what they look like.  Still, I ended up liking this one, but not loving it.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Wonder by R.J. Palacio)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


for language (no F-bombs), violence, mild sexual content, and references to sex/prostitution

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

Friday, July 25, 2014

Leavitt's YA Vegas Romance a Little Thin

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When Holly Nolan's beloved Grandpa Jim dies during bypass surgery, the 17-year-old is devastated.  She can't imagine how she's supposed to go on with her life, let alone her "part-time" job without his guidance.  For as long as she can remember, Holly's been as devoted to saving her grandfather's wedding chapel—a crumbling icon on the Las Vegas strip—as he always was.  Lately, it's been a losing battle.  Now that Jim's gone, Holly can't bear to see it close, or worse, get bought up by her grandpa's jerk of a business rival.  What will become of The Rose of Sharon Wedding Chapel now?

At the reading of her grandfather's will, Holly gets the shock of her life: she is the new owner of the wedding chapel.  She's been working there forever, sure, but she knows nothing about steering a failing business back into the black.  Or, does she?  As Holly pulls out all the stops to save the chapel she loves, she finds herself sacrificing everything—her sanity, her social life and, quite possibly, the love of her life (who just happens to be the grandson of her Jim's rival/mortal enemy).  The harder she battles to save The Rose of Sharon, the more she wonders if the fight is worthwhile.  Which will win out in the end—the chapel that symbolizes everything Holly loves about her past or Dax, the guy who just might hold the key to her bigger, brighter future?

The Chapel Wars, the newest offering from Lindsey Leavitt, gives readers everything they've come to expect from the popular YA author.  The quirky, upbeat story is filled with humor, romance and colorful characters.  A vibrant, unique setting, brought to life by a Las Vegas native, definitely adds to the novel's appeal.  As much as I enjoy a fun, breezy read, especially one written by Leavitt, this one disappointed me a little bit.  The plot felt thin and far-fetched.  Dax didn't strike me as all that likable—I get that he's hot, but he's got to have at least a little substance to make me want to root for him.  Speaking of substance, I think that's what was really missing in this one for me.  It was a little too breezy, you know?  All in all, the book kept me entertained, but in the end, it was just an okay read for me.  

(Readalikes:  The Romeo and Juliet/business rivals aspect of the story reminded me of Lisa McMann's Visions trilogy [Crash; Bang; Gasp], although the plots don't have a lot in common.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo, and depictions of underage drinking/partying

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Chapel Wars from the generous folks at Bloomsbury via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Favorite Teen Pirate Sails (And Charms) Once Again in Mississippi Jack

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Mississippi Jack by L.A. Meyer, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Bloody Jack novels.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

What is it about a great character that makes us want to follow them wherever they go?  Is it because they're brave?  Mysterious?  Sympathetic?  Hilarious?  Unpredictable?  Loyal?  Whatever the magic formula is, "Bloody" Jack Faber's got it.  In spades.  She's one of my very favorite characters in children's/YA lit—ever.  No matter how many tales I read about her, I just cannot get enough.  She's that vibrant, that engaging, that delightful.  If you haven't "met" Jacky yet, you need to introduce yourself.  ASAP.

Just what is the illustrious teen pirate up to these days, you might ask?  Well, I've heard tell that the last book in the series (WAAHHHH!) will be released on November 4, 2014.  In the meantime, I'm playing catch up.  So, here's a little plot summary for Mississippi Jack, the fifth installment:

After a (very) narrow escape from the British authorities who want her head, Jacky flees into the American wilderness.  Hoping to lose herself on the wild frontier, she vows not to do anything to attract attention to her fugitive self.  Not an easy task when you're world-renowned for your daring theatrics.  True to form, Jacky can't stay out of trouble for long.  She out-foxes a bellowing riverboat captain, creates her own floating casino, battles vicious bandits, and breaks (not) a few hearts along the way.  Her ultimate goal?  Reuniting with her beloved Jaimy—who, unbeknownst to Jacky, is only days behind her.  Which is just enough time for both of them to get themselves into a whole lot of trouble.  Will those missteps keep the pair apart forever?  Jacky's gotten herself out of some big scrapes before, but keeping both her head and her heart intact might be an impossible feat, even for her.

There's so much to love about the Bloody Jack books by L.A. Meyer.  Not only is the heroine an enormously appealing character, but her escapades just get bigger and bolder with every book.  Who cares if the loosely-plotted stories are about as believable as the unlikeliest tall tale?  They're tons of fun.  As with all its predecessors, Mississippi Jack offers a rip-roarin' yarn filled with action, adventure, romance, and humor.  Their colorful, larger-than life characters make them even more entertaining.  This continues to be one of my favorite YA series of all time—give it a try and I'm pretty sure you'll agree.  Jacky Faber is simply unforgettable!

(Readalikes:  The other books in the Bloody Jack series, including: Bloody Jack; Curse of the Blue Tattoo; Under the Jolly Roger; and In the Belly of the Bloodhound)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chinese Adoption Tale Needs Something More

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I'm not sure quite how to describe The Year She Left Us, a debut novel by Kathryn Ma, so I'm going to take the lazy way out and give you the official plot summary:
The Kong women are in crisis.  A disastrous visit to her "home" orphanage in China has plunged eighteen-year-old Ari into a self-destructive spiral.  Her adoptive mother, Charlie, a lawyer with a great heart, is desperate to keep her daughter safe.  Meanwhile, Charlie must endure the prickly scrutiny of her beautiful, Bryn Mawr-educated mother, Gran—who, as the daughter of a cultured Chinese doctor, came to the United States to survive Mao's revolution—and her sister, Les, a brilliant judge with a penchant to rule over everyone's lives.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         As they cope with Ari's journey of discovery and its aftermath, the Kong women will come face-to-face with the truths of their lives—four powerful intertwining stories of accomplishment, tenacity, secrets, loneliness, and love.  Beautifully illuminating the bonds of family and blood, The Year She Left Us explores the promise and pain of adoption, the price of assimilation and achievement, the debt we owe to others, and what we owe ourselves.  Full of pathos and humor, featuring a quartet of unforgettable characters drawn from real life, it marks the debut of an important new voice in American fiction.    
As you can probably tell, plot is not something this novel has in abundance.  The story relies on the strength of its characters—not just their individual conflicts, but also the vibrancy of their separate and distinct voices. While the Kong women offer this, to some extent, the fact is, none of them are very likable.  Interesting, yes; engaging enough to want to know better?  Not so much.  This, combined with the novel's weak plotting; caustic tone; and disjointed storytelling made for a disappointing read.  Truth is, I put The Year She Left Us down several times, with no intention of finishing the book.  I did complete it, but, in the end, I found it dull and depressing.  I'm not saying Ma can't write.  She can.  It's just that this particular story needed something more—like a plot—to pull it all together.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Year She Left Us from the generous folks at Harper Collins.  Thank you!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Genre Mish-Mash Novel Exciting, If Not Gush-Worthy

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It's been 20 years since the Visitors came, splintering the moon and creating a world of eternal sunset.  No one's seen an alien since—although it's difficult to be sure, since word is, they're capable of hijacking human bodies to use for their own nefarious purposes.  Why are the Visitors making such an obvious return now?  To finish the job they started, to erase the human race for good.  Only one man might be able to stop them—too bad he's been gone, presumed dead, for years.

With the threat of annihilation hanging over her head, Megan Bridgwater knows it's time to leave Marfa, Texas.  The 15-year-old has been meaning to do it for a long time, anyway.  Ever since her father, an experienced tracker, disappeared into the lawless Zone, she's been aching to go find him.  Now, it's not just her who needs him—the fate of their entire world may depend on the success of Megan's mission.  With her trusty steed, Cisco, and Luis, the boy who would risk anything to catch her eye, she sets off into the wild unknown with only a sketchy map to guide her.  

No one knows exactly what secrets the Zone hides, but the rumors are frightening enough to keep sane people far, far away from it.  Now, Megan is plunging right into its heart.  With danger of every possible kind lurking around each bend, there's little chance of her making it out alive, let alone finding her father or saving the world.  But she has to try.  No matter what the cost—which just might mean everything and everyone she loves.  

Where the Rock Splits the Sky by Philip Webb is a difficult book to describe.  It incorporates such a mish-mash of genres that it's not accurate to label it just a Western or just a dystopian or just a sci-fi adventure.  It's all of those things.  Which makes it unique and memorable, if not gush-worthy.  The novel, which only stretches to 262 pages, offers thrills aplenty, making it an exciting, edge-of-your-seat kind of read.  Character development suffers a bit in favor of world-building, which I found disappointing.  I also thought the story's big twist was cliché and thus, very predictable.  All in all, though, I enjoyed this Western/dystopian/sci fi/supernatural thriller.  

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs) and violence/gore

To the FTC, with love:  I received a hardcover, finished copy of Where the Rock Splits the Sky from the generous folks at Scholastic/Chicken House as well as an e-ARC via NetGalley.  Thank you!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Bless Me Father, For I Have Sinned ...


I know, I know.  You don't hear from me for days and, suddenly, I post four times within a 24-hour period.  What's up with that?  Um, yeah.  Apparently, the long, lazy days of summer have zapped my blogging energy—I've read lots of books, I just haven't gotten around to reviewing them.  Now that I'm back from a week of vacation in Utah, I'm trying my hardest to catch up.  So, I really shouldn't "waste" time on Top Ten Tuesday, but you guys, I just can't help myself!  This is my favorite bookish meme, especially when our lovely hosts over at The Broke and the Bookish give us fun topics like this one—Top Ten Blogging Confessions.  Without further ado, here are mine:

1.  UPS/USPS deliveries still make me squeal—After eight years of book blogging (eight years!), the thrill of getting free books in the mail should probably be gone.  It's not.  Not at all.  I still get excited when I find packages on my doorstep or in my mailbox from Harper Collins, Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, etc.  If my reaction to that ever sours, I guess I'll know it's time to start drafting a goodbye post.

2.  I still can't be trusted in a bookstore—Because I've been doing this book blogging thing for almost a decade, I've accumulated a lot of books.  Thousands.  They're stacked on my desk, crammed into bookshelves, packed into boxes that fill the closet in my guest room ... I've got more books than any person could possibly read in two lifetimes and yet, I can't resist buying more.  Seriously, I think I need an intervention.

3.  Someone needs to cut me off.  Like now—Closely related to the above two confessions is this one:  I need another review book like I need a hole in the head.  I have so many, I literally do not know what to do with them all.  Over the years, I've become much more selective in what I choose to accept for review, but I still have no control at all when presented with new books from my favorite publishers.  My greedy little book bloggin' heart wants to read them all.

4.  It's all about the numbers—Okay, it's not.  It's really not.  But Megan's confession #2 reminded me of how hard I always try to reach my reading goal of 200 books a year.  I've yet to accomplish it, but I still find myself avoiding chunky books and embracing quick, children's reads—especially toward the end of the year when I'm racing to get as many books read as I can.  How neurotic is that?  The only person who cares about my numbers is me.  Major head slap.

5.  I really, really want to be nice—Over the past eight years, I've earned a reputation as the Simon Cowell of book bloggers.  People describe my reviews with words like honest, brutal, scathing, pulls-no-punches, etc.  And those are compliments (if not entirely accurate ones)!  But, here's the thing, I'm really a very nice person.  I hate conflict.  I go out of my way to avoid offending people.  The truth is, I wish I could review every single book I'm offered and do so with raving, gushing excitement.  I wish I could make every author happy.  As a veteran book blogger, I've learned something:  it just doesn't work that way.  The only way I can do this "job" is to tell it like it is.  And you know what?  I'm not going to apologize for that.

6.  I spend a lot less time in the library than I used to—Maybe this has nothing to do with book blogging at all, but I find myself spending very little time in the library these days.  I used to love to roam the stacks, spending long hours browsing and spine-gazing.  Nowadays, I'm much more efficient—if I see a glowing review of a book that looks interesting, I reserve it online, then go grab it from the library, and proceed on my merry way.  Most of my visits to the library take less than 5 minutes (ironic, since I make a point of driving to the county library that's about a 15-minute drive from my house because I like it better than the city library, which is a whole lot closer).  This turn-of-events makes me sad because I truly love libraries.

7.  Long waits don't bother me none—Most people complain about having to spend hours and hours in waiting rooms and airport lobbies.  Not me.  I embrace the uninterrupted reading time.

8.  I'm a reading vs. socializing hypocrite—I love that my preteen adores reading, but watching her choose books over interacting with friends, family and classmates sometimes gives me pause.  While I completely understand, I find myself lecturing her a lot about putting her book down and engaging in the world around her—all the while, ignoring my own advice.  I'm an adult, so that's okay, right?  Right?

9.  I'm getting choose-y in my old age—As I mentioned before, I'm a nice person.  So, I felt terrible when I had to pare down my list of book blogs on Bloglovin'.  Well, I didn't get rid of any, I just shifted my favorites into their own section.  While I still read tons of book blogs, usually they are only the ones on this exclusive list.  I know, I'm an awful person!  The guilt is killing me (but I feel a whole lot less overwhelmed by my list of blog posts to be read).

10.  Uh ...—Okay, I can't think of any other scandalous secrets to spill, so I'll just end my confession here.  What do you think?  Do I have some repenting to do?  A Hail Mary or two?  How about you?  What are your deepest, darkest blogging confessions?  I promise I won't tell.  I'm a book blogger, so I'm totally trustworthy ...          

Riveting Mystery Taut, Atmospheric

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

With paper mills closing all up and down the Androscoggin River, everyone knows it's only a matter of time before the one in little Titan Falls, New Hampshire, follows suit.  Not that anyone dares to voice such an opinion.  Or to imagine a future without the steady pulse of the mill pumping its lifeblood into the small community.  Without its only industry, Titan Falls is poised to become another "hollowed-out settlement stuck at the wrong end of nowhere" (5) just like all the other failed paper towns in the North Woods.     

As the wife of the mill's owner, June McAllister must keep a stiff upper lip at all times, despite her many worries.  The other mill wives might not fully accept her—since June was not, after all, born and bred in Titan Falls—but they look to her for guidance and leadership.  In spite of her misgivings, she must give it to them, must keep up the image of being in control of what is, by all appearances, a picture-perfect life.  This becomes especially important after June learns the truth about the cause of a school bus accident that stole the life of a young girl.  She will do anything to cover up what really happened.  Anything

Unlike the McAllisters, the Snow Family has never had much—no money, no education, no standing in the town that has always shunned them.  Accused of vagrancy, witchcraft and all manner of evil-doing, the Snows have never been able to get ahead.  Nineteen-year-old Mercy Snow wants nothing to do with Titan Falls, but she has little choice.  With nowhere else to go, she, her older brother, and her younger sister come looking for their estranged father, who still lives on his family's land.  What they find is what the Snows always find—trouble.  Accused of causing the school bus crash, Zeke Snow is jailed.  Mercy knows—or thinks she knows—that her brother is not responsible.  But, who is?  It's up to her to clear her brother's name.  

At cross-purposes, June and Mercy clash in a vicious battle between rich and poor, influence and ruin, truth and lies.  The fate of two families, a dying town, and a boat-load of long-buried secrets hang in the balance as the women face-off in a war that only one can win.

When Gerard Zemek—one half of the married couple that writes Grab a Book From Our Stack—posted a rave review of Mercy Snow, I knew I had to read the novel.  ASAP.  As promised, Tiffany Baker's newest is indeed "an enjoyable page-turner."  It's more than a run-of-the-mill (see what I did there??) thriller, though.  Baker infuses her tale with rich, complex characters; a vivid, multi-layered setting; and sharp, atmospheric prose.  True, none of the book's characters are all that likable and the whole story's pretty darn depressing, but still, Mercy Snow is a taut, engrossing mystery that kept me riveted from start to finish.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Crooked River by Valerie Geary [available October 14, 2014])

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

  To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, July 07, 2014

Charming Book About Books Makes Me Gush—With Reservations

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In the nearly two years since his pregnant wife died in a car crash, grief has dragged 39-year-old A.J. Fikry down into a black pit of despair.  He has little hope of escaping it and no real reason to try.  A.J.'s business—a small bookstore—slides closer to bankruptcy every day; he has few close friends; and even the great literature that used to keep him company seems to be losing its appeal.  The curmudgeonly bookstore owner feels lost in a world that used to make sense.

As if A.J.'s life is not miserable enough, his most prized possession, a valuable antique book, disappears from its climate-controlled display case.  In its place, he receives a delivery.  And not of the bookish variety.  The two events, especially the latter, shake his world to its very core.  As he learns to cope with these unexpected changes in his life, A.J. feels—for the first time since his wife's death—not just a purpose in living, but an enthusiasm for it.  As he re-learns to embrace the world beyond the covers of his books, A.J. discovers the surprising joy of community, caring, and sharing his passion for great literature with other people (even if their definition of "great" differs quite a bit from his).  

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a charming adult novel by Gabrielle Zevin, is a difficult tale to describe.  Plotwise, it's not much to sneeze at—it's the narration that makes this story such a delight.  Fikry has a way of seeing things that is at once unique and familiar, especially to book lovers.  I couldn't help but snicker at passages like these:
A.J. has never changed a diaper in his life, though he is a modestly skilled gift wrapper ... he figures diaper changing and gift-wrapping must be related proficiencies ... The whole thing takes about twenty minutes.  Babies move more than books and aren't as conveniently shaped (50).  
If Jenny were a book, she would be a paperback just out of the box—no dog ears, no waterlogging, no creases in her spine.  A.J. would prefer a social worker with some obvious wear.  He imagines the synopsis on the back of the Jenny story:  when plucky Jenny from Fairfield, Connecticut, took a job as a social worker in the big city, she had no idea what she was getting into (64-65).
How can you not love a voice as rich and droll as this one?  It captivated me.  Fikry's story, though not all that original, is also compelling.  As are those of the other characters.  In fact, the only thing that kept me from not outright adoring The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was its R-rated elements (F-bombs, sexual content, etc.), which seemed out of place in a tale that otherwise brims with an old-fashioned, classic type of charm.  If it weren't for these "aberrations," I would be gushing about this book right and left, pushing it on every bibliophile I know.  As is, I can only recommend it with reservations.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry has such appeal, I just wish Zevin had stripped out all the "mature" elements and kept it clean enough for book lovers of all ages to enjoy this homage to reading—and to life.

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

Grade:


 If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, sexual content, and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Mormon Mentions: Gabrielle Zevin

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. 

****

On the very last page of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Gabrielle Zevin describes a sales rep named Jacob Gardner like this:  "He even walks like he has a calling.  He could be mistaken for a missionary.  In point of fact, he was raised Mormon, but this is another story" (258). 

- If there's one thing we Mormons are known for throughout the world, it's our missionary program.  While many senior couples and older single women serve missions for the LDS church, the majority of its proselyting force are men and women between the ages of 18 and 21.  Despite the fact that these young people are spending 18 to 24 months away from their families, friends, educations, careers, etc., they are well-known for their enthusiasm and zeal.  LDS missionaries love teaching and testifying of Christ through both their words and their deeds.   That kind of passion gets noticed, hence Zevin's description of Jacob Gardner's zest for literature being missionary-like in its fervor.  

To learn more about missionary work—including why members of the LDS church serve missions, what they teach, and what day-to-day missionary life is like—please visit LDS.org.   

(Book image is from Barnes & Noble; missionary photos are from the LDS Media Library)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bohjalian's Newest Engages, But Doesn't Satisfy

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When a nuclear reactor blows up in Vermont's Northeastern Kingdom (NEK), killing wildlife, destroying forests, poisoning rivers, and polluting the air, 16-year-old Emily Shepard is just as horrified as everyone else.  Maybe more so, since both her parents are presumed to be among the human casualties of the tragic explosion.  With the entire area under emergency evacuation, the shell-shocked teenager should be fleeing, following orders from the social workers whose job it is to figure out what happens to her now.  Emily's as confused about the future as the other NEK-ers, but she knows one thing: she's not going into foster care.

Alone, Emily heads toward Burlington, where she hopes to blend in with other "Walkers" who have been displaced by the catastrophic event.  No one can know the truth—she's the daughter of the reactor's chief engineer, the man responsible for the devastation of the NEK.  As Emily does whatever it takes to survive on the mean city streets, keeping her secret identity intact, she becomes more and more despondent.  What really happened at the nuclear reactor?  Was her father drinking on the job or did he just make an honest—albeit fatal—mistake?  And, the most important question of all:  Could her parents possibly be alive?   

Torn between protecting a young homeless boy in Burlington and sneaking back into the toxic NEK to search for her parents, Emily must decide what really matters in a world forever changed by the actions of the people she loves most.  

Chris Bohjalian writes about a variety of intriguing issues, which leads to novels that are both absorbing and affecting.  I've enjoyed the few that I've read.  The former holds true with his newest, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands (available July 8, 2014), the title of which is taken from the advice Connecticut police gave to the terrified children after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.  It's a gritty, depressing survival story, but one that pulls the reader in and doesn't let go.  Emily's tough, haunted voice is spot-on, making her tale compelling, if not uplifting.  Did I enjoy it?  That's the real question.  And the answer is no, not really.  The book held my interest, for sure, but I kept asking myself, "Why am I still reading this?  It's so bleak."  Overall, then, the read engaged me—it just didn't satisfy.

(Readalikes:  Even though this isn't technically a post-apocalyptic novel [the NEK is uninhabitable, but the rest of the world hums along as usual], it still reads like one.  It reminded me a little of Safekeeping by Karen Hesse)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, sexual content and depictions of harmful behavior (drug use, prostitution, cutting, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands from the generous folks at Doubleday via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!
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