Monday, June 29, 2015

Magical Illusions of Fate an Enjoyable Romp

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As a native of tropical Melei, Jessamin Olea longs for the warmth and brightness of her island home.  She can't stand the dark dreariness of Albion, the city where she attends school.  Its inhabitants, obsessed with wealth and status, aren't anymore enamored of Jessamin as she is of them.  As an "island rat," she's considered a second-class citizen, useful only as a servant to her high-brow betters.  Even her father, a professor in Albion, can't be bothered with her.  Despite all this, she's determined to make something of herself using her natural gifts of intelligence, quick-thinking, and spunk.

When she draws the attention of Finn Ackerly, a handsome 19-year-old aristocrat, Jessamin is introduced to the glittering world of Albion high society.  Not only is it filled with bulging pocketbooks, fancy gowns and sparkling jewels, but it's also defined by a potent blood-magic that runs through noble veins.  Because of her growing friendship with Finn, Jessamin also attracts the attention of the sadistic Lord Downpike, who will stop at nothing to recover what she's taken from him.  Caught in a deadly game against a dangerous opponent, Jessamin will have to rely not on magic, but on her own wit and spunk.  Can she save herself and Finn before it's too late for both of them?  Or will she, like so many of her island countrymen, be trampled under the boots of Albion's powerful gentry? 

Filled with adventure and magic, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White is a fun, enjoyable novel.  Although it's clever and imaginative, it's true the story isn't all that original.  Still.  It's clean, it's engaging, it's an easy, entertaining read that can be enjoyed by both teens and adults (my 13-year-old daughter and I both liked it).  Jessamin's the kind of heroine anyone will find compelling —it's as easy to sympathize with her plight as it is to cheer on her brave fight against Albion's evils.  All in all, then, Illusions of Fate tells a satisfying story that's just plain fun to read.  

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:



for violence, intense situations, and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Illusions of Fate from the generous folks at HarperCollins as part of my work as a judge for the Association of Mormon Letters Awards.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ruins An Exciting, Satisfying Finale to Partials Series

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

As the tension between humans and Partials reaches a deadly breaking point, Kira Walker knows it's up to her to bring the two sides together.  Half human, half Partial, the 17-year-old wants nothing more than peace between the two species.  It won't be easy to stop the killing, the hate, the prejudice that is driving the two sides to war.  Especially when both have weapons capable of annihilating the other.  Even with the help of friends from both species, the outcome for Kira—as well at the world at large—looks pretty bleak.  If she gives everything she has, everything she can, will it be enough?  Or is this the end of it all?

Like the first two books in the Partials trilogy by Dan Wells, Ruins offers a high-stakes, adrenaline-fueled apocalyptic survival story.  Laced with humor, romance, and a whole lot of blood, it's engrossing for sure.  In this finale, all the story's loose ends are wrapped up neatly—probably too neatly—making for a satisfying end to an exciting series.  Still, I have the same complaints about Ruins that I did about Partials and Fragments—the characters remain pretty flat and the prose is more tell than show.  Overall, then, I liked Ruins, but didn't love it.  Same with the series as a whole.  It's entertaining, just not my favorite.

(Readalikes:  Partials and Fragments by Dan Wells)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Ruins from the generous folks at HarperCollins as part of my work as a judge for the Association of Mormon Letters Awards.  Thank you!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Holmberg's Magical World Not Developed Enough to Enthrall

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

All through her years at Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony Twill has dreamed of becoming a Smelter.  Manipulating metal is important work.  She longs to learn all the secrets of the intriguing, exciting craft.  Since graduates are allowed to choose the medium (metal, plastic, rubber, or glass) to which they will bond themselves, 19-year-old Ceony has no reason to believe she will not get her wish.  Until she doesn't.  Thanks to an anonymous donor, she will be apprenticed to a paper magician, of all things.  Ceony cannot think of anything more useless and dull than paper magic.  And now she's stuck with it.  For life.

As Ceony gets to know her new teacher—30-year-old Emery Thane—she begins to understand that there is more to paper magic than meets the eye.  She'd still rather be working with metal, but her assigned medium does have its surprises and wonders.  The same is true of the enigmatic Thane.  Before Ceony has time to learn much at all from him, however, his evil ex-wife rips out his heart.  Left with a dying teacher, Ceony must use all her new skills to save him.  Does she have even a fraction of the knowledge and talent she needs to triumph against a powerful practitioner of the dark arts?  Or will her education in paper magic end (tragically) before it's begun?  

YA fantasy is such a saturated genre that it's always refreshing to find a book that stands out from the norm a little.  The Paper Magician, the first novel in Charlie N. Holmberg's new trilogy, certainly does that.  While the magical world she creates is imaginative and different, it's also confusing.  Its rules were never very clear to me.  Likewise, the characters (especially Ceony and Emery) aren't developed enough at the outset to make me really care about what happens to them throughout the rest of the novel.  As far as plot goes, there's some action to liven things up, but much of the story is told through memories and flashbacks, meaning the tale has little momentum to keep it moving forward.  In the end, while I appreciated the fresh aspects of Holmberg's story, I was disappointed by its weak world-building, flat characters and lackadaisical plot.  There just wasn't enough to The Paper Magician to enthrall me.  Too bad, because I really, really, really wanted to love this one.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a teensy bit of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling)

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-copy of The Paper Magician from the generous folks at Amazon Publishing because of my position as a judge for the Association of Mormon Letters Awards.  Thank you!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Crooked House Sometimes Sluggish, Sometimes Surprising

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Crooked House, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Erica Coleman mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

When Megan Kemp calls Erica Coleman with a plea for help, Erica responds immediately.  She can't leave her best friend's daughter in the lurch, no matter how crazy Megan's story sounds.  And it does sound a little loony.  Megan, a sophomore at Delaware State University, is convinced someone is trying to kill her roommate, Liz Johnson.  After the deaths of her parents, Liz inherited a ramshackle old mansion aptly named Crooked House.  The recent victim of several "accidents," the young home owner seems to have become a target for someone with deadly intentions.  But why?  Has Liz's failure to restore her historic home finally pushed her impassioned neighbor over the top?  Is an angry ex-boyfriend out for revenge?  Or is Megan reading too much into a few unlucky mishaps?

As a former police officer and current private eye, Erica is in a unique position to help Megan and her roommates get to the bottom of Liz's recent misfortunes.  Leaving her police officer husband in charge of the kids at their home in Farmington, Utah, Erica moves in with the college girls at Crooked House.  Living with the roommates (while spoiling them with her scrumptious baking and obsessive cleaning rituals) gives Erica a chance to observe their goings-on firsthand.  Something fishy is definitely going on.  As Liz's "accidents" escalate in severity, Erica knows she must find out who's responsible for them—and quickly.  One person has already died.  Any one of the women at Crooked House could be next.  

While I'm not huge on cozy mysteries, I do appreciate a story that's both entertaining and clean.  So, when I read the plot summary for Crooked House, a new mystery by Marlene Bateman (Sullivan), I thought, why not?  Not realizing it's actually the third book in a series, I dove right in.  Maybe it's because I "met" Erica Coleman mid-series, but I didn't feel much of a connection to the obsessive-compulsive private investigator.  She struck me as a pushy, overbearing, annoying know-it-all.  I just didn't like her that much.  Plot-wise, Crooked House moves along fairly quickly, offering a few surprises here and there.  Prose-wise, however, the storytelling feels sluggish because of Bateman's over-reliance on telling rather than showing.  The inclusion of LDS doctrine in the story gives it a unique slant.  Although it's dropped in rather abruptly at times, the religious aspect never gets preachy, keeping the novel accessible to non-LDS readers.  Another fun element is the recipes included in the book; they sound different and delicious.  A winning combination, for sure.  Overall, then, I found Crooked House entertaining, if not wholly satisfying.  While I appreciated its PG-ness, its uncommon setting (not many novels are set in Delaware), and its yummy-sounding recipes, I would have liked tighter plotting, more dynamic writing, and a warmer, more likable heroine.  Crooked House can definitely be read as a stand-alone, but I think I would have enjoyed it more had I started with the first book in the series.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of the Sadie Hoffmiller culinary mysteries by Josi S. Kilpack [Lemon Tart; Pumpkin Roll; English Trifle; etc.])

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and very mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-copy of Crooked House from the generous (and patient!) Marlene Bateman.  Thank you! 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Summer Readin'

Even though I live in a place where it's pretty much summer all year round, I'm not much for warm weather.  I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, on the shores of the Columbia River—my natural habitat involves cloudy skies, blustery winds, and a constant drizzle.  I'm a fish out of water in this hot, dry desert.  Needless to say, I don't look forward to Arizona summers.  The scorching temperatures keep me inside, air conditioning and ceiling fans on full blast.  I'm lucky to have a sparkling swimming pool in my backyard for quick dips, so I guess you don't have to feel too sorry for me :)

Anyway, while summer is not my favorite, it does inspire some fun reading material.  I'm not one of those people who only reads light, fluffy beach novels during these warmest of months, but I do think my summer reading choices tend to be a little frothier.  Maybe?  I'll let you be the judge, as this week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is the ten books on my summer TBR list.  I'd love to see your list as well, so why don't you join in the fun?  All you have to do is click on over to The Broke and the Bookish and follow the instructions.  Easy, peasy.

Alright, here we go with the Top Ten Books on my TBR Pile for Summer 2015:


1.  The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler—I've never read anything by Ockler, but this contemporary retelling of The Little Mermaid looks fun.  I especially love that its heroine is a young woman of color.


2.  Eeny Meeny by M.J. Arlidge—Forget light and fluffy, this thriller about a deadly game orchestrated by a sadistic fiend is described as dark and twisted.  Perfect summer reading?


3.  Remember Mia by Alexandra Burt—I'm in the middle of this thriller about a mother with severe post-partum depression who wakes up one morning to find her baby missing.  Suffering from traumatic memory loss, she has no idea what's happened to the infant; she can't help but wonder if the police are correct in naming her as the prime suspect ...


4.  The Tide Watchers by Lisa Chaplin—I just received an ARC of this historical adventure/espionage novel, which looks excellent.


5.  Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee—I know I'm not the only one looking forward to the July 14th release date of this novel about a grown-up Jean Louise Finch.


6.  The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi—Although Ship Breaker is one of my favorite watery dystopian novels, I've yet to read anything else by Bacigalupi.  His newest, The Water Knife, looks promising.  Set in the American Southwest, it highlights a very real and timely threat to man's survival—severe drought.  


7.  The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler—This quirky family saga about a mysterious book and a drowned circus mermaid looks intriguing.


8.  The Melody Lingers On by Mary Higgins Clark—I've loved Clark since I first read her as a teenager.  Although the quality of her writing has declined, I still enjoy her quick, clean mysteries.


9.  The Leveller by Julia Durango—I love the premise of this YA novel.  The MC is a bounty hunter who is hired by parents to go into the virtual reality gaming world and retrieve their missing children.  Sounds like a fun sci fi thriller.


10.  The Lost Daughter by Lucretia Grindle—This mystery about an American high school student who goes missing in Italy sounds like a good summer read.

So, what do you think?  Have you read any of these?  What great stories will you be digging into this summer?  I'd love to know.  Leave a comment/link to your list and I'll be sure to stop by.

Happy summer reading!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Twisty Bellweather Rhapsody An Odd, Haunting Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Minnie Graves is not thrilled about being a bridesmaid for her sister's wedding.  The 12-year-old is trapped in a huge, creepy hotel in an itchy dress and shoes that pinch her feet.  Torture.  Then, things take a turn for the worse.  Much worse.  In an event that will haunt Minnie for the rest of her life, she witnesses the murder-suicide of a new bride and groom.

Fifteen years later, Minnie returns to the Bellweather Hotel to face her fears head-on.  She's not the only one in residence.  The old hotel is, in fact, teeming with guests.  Hundreds of high school musicians from around New York have converged there for the annual Statewide festival.  Among them are 17-year-old bassoonist Bertram ("Rabbit") Hatmaker and his dramatic, self-absorbed twin sister, Alice.  Running the event is cold, cruel Olivia Fabian.  Among those scarred by Olivia's sharp tongue are her daughter Jill, a flute prodigy; Natalie Wink Wilson, a pianist who is now the music director at the Hatmakers' school; and Fisher Brodie, a flamboyant Scottish symphony conductor.  Add in the Bellweather's ancient concierge, Harold Hastings, and you have a full cast of odd, intriguing characters whose individual stories play out as a snowstorm threatens to strand them all at the crumbling hotel.

When Alice discovers her roommate, Jill Fabian, hanging from the ceiling in the same room where the infamous murder-suicide took place fifteen years ago, it throws everything—and everyone—into a panic.  Especially when Jill's body, along with any evidence of her suicide, mysteriously vanishes.  While the Bellweather is searched for signs of the young flautist, the weather worsens, bringing with it the terrifying prospect of being snowed-in with a killer or, worse, the ghost of a murderous bride.

Bellweather Rhapsody, a sophomore novel by Kate Racculia, is a difficult book to describe.  It defies genre, really, with its mixture of high school drama, classic horror, dark comedy, and twisty mystery.  Some reviewers have said it's like Agatha Christie meets The Shining meets Glee.  Works for me.  All I know is, Bellweather Rhapsody tells a strange, haunting story that's full of didn't-see-that-one-coming twists and turns.  It's wholly compelling, though thoroughly depressing.  And weird.  While I didn't love the novel, it's one that's definitely stuck with me, if just because of its oddness.

(Readalikes:  a little like The Shining by Stephen King)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence/gore, and depictions of underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Delightful Rosie Makes Me LOL (in Public)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Don Tillman, a 39-year-old associate professor of genetics, lives his life according to a rigidly structured schedule designed to ensure his time is spent in the most logical, efficient way possible.  He has little patience for any activity that forces him to deviate from his impeccably-organized itinerary.  Dating, thus, presents a bit of a problem.  Although he desires a wife, and should—statistically speaking—have no trouble finding one, Don cannot seem to attract the perfect partner.  Even a suitable one, it seems, is impossible for the professor to attain.  Wasting time getting to know females who simply will not do as potential mates is making Don crazy.  Since he is not the type of man to let a conundrum go unsolved, he vows to find himself a bride using the parameters he knows best: logic, efficiency, and hard, provable data.

Thus, The Wife Project is born.  Don comes up with a brilliant, 16-page tool for finding the perfect woman:

A questionnaire ... A purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time time wasters, the disorganized, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessive, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the homeopaths, leaving ideally, the perfect partner or realistically, a manageable short list of candidates.  (Page 17)

Rosie Jarman, an unpredictable barmaid ten years his junior, is the exact kind of woman the questionnaire is designed to eliminate from Don's dating pool.  Still, he's intrigued by her passion, especially when it comes to seeking out her biological father.  As Don lends his expertise to The Father Project, he finds himself falling (illogically, irrationally) for the exuberant Rosie.  Does such an unconventional pairing have any hope of lasting?  Can someone as unbending as Don ever be happy with someone as pliable as Rosie?  Only one thing is certain:  Don's rational attempt at finding a wife has turned into a messy affair that proves love is rarely logical, never predictable, and always ready to turn your life upside down. 

The Rosie Project, a debut novel by Australian playwright Graeme Simsion, is one of those books that's embarrassing to read in public.  Not because of risqué cover art or a suggestive title, but because I couldn't stop laughing—out loud—at the antics of its main character.  This hilarious rom com is so delightful that I could hardly restrain myself from smiling, chuckling, and sharing the best bits with the room at large.  It's just a fun all-around read.  I loved the unique premise, the sparkling prose, the intriguing characters, and especially, the growth that Don's character shows throughout the novel.  Hype usually steers me away from a novel—in this case, it drew me to one of the most delightful books I've read all year.  

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, May 28, 2015

New "Ghost Squad" Novel Full of Surprises

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for The Shadow Cabinet, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from previous Shades of London novels.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

When Stephen Dene dies, Rory Deveaux doesn't think.  She just acts.  As a human terminus, the American teen has the power—well, she's pretty sure she has the power—to save a dying person.  Not to bring him back to life, but to turn him into a ghost.  It's a desperate action, the only way Rory can keep the man she loves in her life.  The question is:  did it work?  If Stephen is one of the many spirits who wander the streets of London, why can't she find him?  And, what if her plan failed?  How will Rory live with her grief and guilt if Stephen is really, truly gone?

While keeping an eye out for Stephen, Rory and the other supernatural detectives have another problem.  Charlotte, Rory's boarding school classmate, is missing.  She was last seen in the company of Jane Quaint, her therapist.  As Rory has come to realize, Quaint is more than just a psychiatrist.  Also a possessor of "the sight," she recruits teens who are likewise gifted into what Rory suspects is a cult.  The group may, in fact, be responsible for a number of deaths.  Whatever power Jane may possess, though, pales in comparison to that of a dangerous pair of ghosts recently arrived in London.  It's up to Rory and her team to stop them all from hurting anyone else.  Can the "ghost squad" stop Jane and her cohorts before it's too late?  Or will they, like Stephen, go missing in action?

I've loved Maureen Johnson's Shades of London series since it began (with The Name of the Star).  It's not the most original YA supernatural series out there, but it's one of the only ones that combines all of my favorite things—intriguing characters, an atmospheric setting, vivid prose, and pulse-pounding action—in one elongated story line.  Each of the books brings something new to the table, which keeps me anxious for sequels.  Since The Madness Underneath ended in such a torturous cliffhanger, it felt like I waited a decade for The Shadow Cabinet to come out.  This third book in the series begins where the last one left off, answering the question of Stephen's fate, while adding in lots of new thrills.  Like its predecessors, The Shadow Cabinet is a perfect blend of creepy and funny.  It's compelling, thrilling, and satisfying.  My only complaint is that I now have to wait another decade for the fourth and final book in the series.  Waaahhh!

(Readalikes:  The Name of the Star and The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, scary images, depictions of illegal drug use, and sexual innuendo

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Keep It Real ... You Might Learn Something

(Image from author's blog)

My kids have been out of school for a couple days now and, let me tell you, parenting just got a lot more real around here!  For the past ten months, all four of my children have been spending most of their day at school.  Now that summer break is here?  They're home.  All day.  With assorted friends in tow.  My quiet halcyon days are no more—now they're filled with the sounds of video games, cartoons and whines of "I'm bored" and "Mooommmm, he/she's teasing me!"  Every summer I wonder if I'm going to survive the next couple months, let alone the remainder of my parenting career (which, as you know, is pretty much a life-long thing). 

Enter Julie K. Nelson, a blogger, college professor, and (most importantly) the mother of five children.  Her new book, Keep it Real and Grab a Plunger, offers some tried-and-true, down-to-Earth advice about how to maintain your sanity while working "the toughest job you'll ever love."  Parenting isn't for wimps, after all.  Nelson's 25 Tips for Surviving Parenthood are a little random—they run the gamut from how to soothe your child's fears to inspiring kids through learning their family history to controlling Internet use at home to the importance of having a pet.  Each section offers expert advice pulled from Nelson's own experience, quotes from prominent members of society, and suggestions from other moms who have spent some time in the parenting trenches. 

Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger doesn't say anything new or revolutionary.  You've heard it all before.  But, Nelson says her piece in an upbeat, encouraging manner that makes her book very readable.  Truthfully, I wasn't expecting any big a-ha moments while reading it, so the chapter on yelling (Keep It Real ... and Take a Time-Out) surprised me with its aptness.  It offered some great tactics that I hadn't necessarily considered (Let your kids record your tirades with a cell phone?  That would be sobering.)  As parents, we need all the help we can get (even if we've been on the job so long we think we know everything), and Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger offers that.  Maybe you won't learn anything new from it, but maybe you'll find a nugget or two of useful information.  I did.  So, while this book won't revolutionize the parenting world, it's definitely worth a read.  


(Readalikes:  Other parenting books, although no specific title comes to mind)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished e-copy of Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger from its generous author, Julie K. Nelson.  Thank you!

A Handful of Stars Another Heartwarming Winner From Lord

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ever since her longtime best friend became obsessed with boys (specifically, the "Amazing" Brandon), 12-year-old Lily's felt like the only pea left in their pod.  Hanging out with Hannah isn't the same anymore.  Lily's tired of hearing about Brandon and Hannah, apparently, is just tired of Lily.  Without Hannah, Lily's got only one real friend, her blind black Lab, Lucky.  Funny enough, it's him who leads her to the surprising friendship that will transform not just her summer, but also her whole outlook on life in small-town Maine.

When Lucky makes a crazy dash across the blueberry barrens, his vision too blurry to see the big farm truck barreling toward him, it's Salma Santiago who saves him.  Salma's a Hispanic migrant worker, who's spending the summer working alongside her parents picking blueberries.  Lily's seen kids from migrant families before, but she's never spoken to one.  Local kids and the children of seasonal workers don't really mix.  Nevertheless, Lily's immediately drawn to Salma.  Outgoing and kind, Salma's just the kind of pal Lily would like to have.  As the girls grow closer, though, their friendship creates a stir in town.  Especially when Salma decides to enter a local beauty pageant, the same one Hannah's hoping to win.  

As the crowning of the Downeast Blueberry Queen draws closer, Lily will learn some hard lessons about prejudice, belonging, and standing up for what's right, even when it means losing everything. 

No one writes heartwarming middle grade novels quite like Cynthia Lord.  I've loved all of her books because of their vivid settings and authentic characters, as well as their focus on family, friendship, and doing the right thing even when (especially when) it's difficult.  A Handful of Stars, Lord's newest, is just as touching as her other books.  Lily is a sympathetic character whose big, but broken heart makes her very real.  Readers can easily relate to her concern for her aging dog, her worries about her friends, and her grief over her mother.  As Lily helps Salma break barriers, she also becomes a brave, admirable heroine.  While A Handful of Stars touches on some heavy themes, it's a hopeful book, one that's affecting without being melodramatic or sentimental.  Not surprisingly, I loved it.   

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-galley of A Handful of Stars from the generous folks at Scholastic via those at Edelweiss.  Thank you!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Teens Trapped in a Human Zoo Makes for Stomach-Turning, But Engrossing YA Thriller

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Cora Mason is supposed to be on the slopes skiing with her family.  In fact, the last thing the 16-year-old remembers is composing song lyrics in the passenger seat while her brother drove to the ski resort.  But what she sees now isn't snow.  She's alone in a vast sea of sand.  Cora's a senator's daughter—maybe this is a kidnapping?  Except her surroundings don't even seem real.  There's something off about them, something surreal and dream-like to the whole situation.  The more Cora explores the land around her, the more confused she becomes.  A patchwork landscape like this can't exist.  Farms don't sit next to jungles, nor tundras next to deserts.  Where in the world has she landed?  And why is she here?

Soon, Cora discovers other teenagers, all wandering the strange terrain in various states of astonishment and fear.  As they learn to regard each other with a wary trust, they also discover the chilling truth about their new living quarters:  the odd habitat has been designed especially for them, the newest exhibits in a human zoo run by a highly intelligent alien race.  To remain in the safety of the zoo, all they have to do is obey—they must eat, sleep, exercise, and procreate.  If they do not comply, they will be auctioned off to private collectors who use captured humans for their own murky purposes.

While some of her comrades agree, preferring known horrors to the unknown, Cora refuses to be controlled so easily.  Her new-found friendship with one of the alien guards may be the key to escape.  But, as the human captives turn their backs on Cora and her otherworldly captors grow more suspicious of her intentions, life in the zoo is becoming increasingly dangerous.  Can Cora find her way home?  Or will she be forced to live like a caged animal, kept alive only as long as she does what she's told?  

Megan Shepherd, author of The Madman's Daughter trilogy, must have a stomach of steel.  In her debut series, she addressed the bloody art of vivisection in all its fascinating goriness.  Her new YA novel, The Cage (available May 26, 2015), is no less horrifying with its vivid and disturbing depictions of humans being kept as exhibits and pets.  As disconcerting as the idea is, though, I have to admit it makes for an intriguing premise, one that pretty much guarantees an intense, nail-biter of a story, which The Cage certainly is.  Pulse-pounding action isn't the only thing the novel has going for it—mix in interesting, complex characters; thought-provoking philosophical questions (What is real?  What does it mean to truly be free?); and a taut, survivalist adventure tale; and you've got yourself an edge-of-your-seat, can't-put-it-down thriller.  My only real complaint is I wish the kids hadn't met the Kindred quite so soon.  A more anonymous antagonist (a lá LOST or The Maze Runner) would have made the story even more suspenseful.  Despite that small annoyance, I couldn't look away from this one.  It kept me totally engrossed and completely mesmerized.  I'm already dying to read the next book in the series.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Maze Runner trilogy [The Maze Runner; The Scorch Trials; The Death Cure] by James Dashner and a little of the t.v. show LOST)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

Happy TTT!
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