Friday, July 18, 2014

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

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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!

Friday, June 20, 2014

LOST-Ish YA Adventure Novel Enjoyable-Ish

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The last thing 17-year-old Charley Crowder remembers doing is standing in the Target parking lot in Roswell, Georgia, clutching a bag full of clothes she needed to return.  Which makes no sense at all.  How did she go from doing the most ordinary task in the world to waking up naked in a bed of rocks on a deserted island?  It's not an ordinary island either—some kind of weird juju swirls in its tropical air.  But what does it mean?  How did she get to this mysterious place?  Why is she all alone?  And how does she return to her life in Georgia?

Just when Charley's convinced she's going to die alone on the island, she meets Thad Blake, a 17-year-old snowboarder from Whistler, Canada.  The leader of a small, ragtag band of teenage refugees, Thad welcomes her into their village and tries to explain the rules of the strange world they call NIL.  No one understands all the ins and outs of the place, but there is one indisputable point:  each of  the island's residents has exactly 365 days to escape the island or else they die.  Thad's time is running out, a fact that distresses Charley the more she gets to know—and love—him.  If they're going to have any kind of future together, they both need to get back to the real world.  The key to freedom is figuring out how NIL works.  Charley's got some new theories, but can she figure out NIL's mysteries before it's too late?  Or will she lose the man of her dreams just when she's finally found him?

I love the whole LOST meets The Maze Runner premise behind Lynne Matson's debut novel, NIL.  It promises mystery, adventure, romance, suspense—all the ingredients for a perfect YA thriller.  The real question is, does it deliver on its promise?  Not exactly.  The story does offer plenty of mystery and high-stakes adventure, but it's also plagued with insta-love, underdeveloped characters and plot holes.  Not to mention a cheap, anticlimactic ending.  I'm not saying the book's not entertaining—it is—I was just hoping for more complexity, more mystery, and better development of both the setting and the characters.  In the end, NIL disappointed me a little.  Maybe my expectations were too high, but hey, I get excited when I see a premise with such great potential.  And it makes me sad when a book doesn't quite reach it.  I'd still recommend NIL if you enjoy a quick, entertaining adventure/survival story, just don't expect too much from it.

(Readalikes:  reminded me a little of The Maze Runner by James Dashner)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence/gore, mild sexual innuendo/content

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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why? Morbid Curiosity. Conclusion? Never Again.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

True crime stories have never really been my thing, but that changed (at least temporarily) when I read my first Ann Rule book.  Rule—a former Seattle police officer—writes about notorious modern murderers, examining their crimes by looking at their lives, their victims' stories, and the police work that went into bringing the killer to justice.  Her first book, The Stranger Beside Me, chronicles her search for a vicious serial killer who she's stunned to discover is her nice, quiet co-worker, Ted Bundy.  It's gruesome, but fascinating stuff.  Rule is obsessed with figuring out why such people do the things they do.  The question intrigues me as well, which explains why I've read a half dozen or so of her books.    

While I'm still interested in the psychology behind violent crime, I stopped reading these types of books because they are, by nature, graphic and disturbing.  So, why did I suddenly decide to pick up In Cold Blood—a classic of the genre—after all this time?  Simple:  morbid curiosity.  Conclusion?  Never again.  However compelling, true crime is just too gory and too depressing for me. 

You probably know the story behind In Cold Blood, but here's a quick summary:  On November 15, 1959, on a remote cattle ranch near Holcomb, Kansas, two teenagers and their parents were murdered in their home.  The Clutters were a well-respected family, known for their fairness and generosity.  Why four of them were shot at close-range on an otherwise ordinary night, no one could guess.  The brutality of the crime shocked residents of the tiny town, baffling police officers and causing gentle farming folk to look on their neighbors with newly-acquired suspicion and paranoia.  

With few clues to go on, law enforcement officials hardly knew how to proceed.  As they followed the few leads they had, they found only more questions.  A nonsensical crime became even more confounding. 

In Cold Blood, the product of four years of research by Capote, traces the case from beginning to end.  Although Capote insisted that every word in the book was true, he's been criticized for fabricating scenes and misquoting witnesses.  Some call In Cold Blood a "true crime novel."  Whatever the case may be, it's an engrossing book.  That being said, it's also (like I said above) gory and depressing.  Very depressing.  The book focuses less on the psychology behind the killers' actions than on the actions themselves, so for me, it didn't hold quite the same appeal as Ann Rule's books.  All in all, though, it's a fascinating, well-told story about a tragic crime that ruined a family and shattered the innocence of a quiet, Midwestern town.   

(Readalikes:  I haven't read any other historical true crime books, but In Cold Blood definitely reminds me of modern ones like those written by Ann Rule)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

Because She's An Auto-Read Author, That's Why

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Do you have auto-read authors?  You know, writers whose books you grab, no matter what, just because their name appears on the cover?  I do.  Lots of them, in fact.  Case in point:  Mary Higgins Clark.  My dad introduced me to her books back when I was in junior high.  Even though she's always written for adults, Clark keeps her stories pretty much PG-rated, so I could enjoy her novels even as a teen.  And I did.  She writes in short, addictive chapters that kept me up way, way, way too late on many a school night.  All these years later, the format of her books remains the same, but the quality of Clark's writing seems to have tanked.  Or maybe I've just matured as a reader.  Whatever the reason, I'm finding her newer mysteries increasingly formulaic, predictable and annoyingly tell-y (as opposed to show-y).  And yet, I still put my name on the library's waiting list every year when a new Mary Higgins Clark mystery comes out.  Why?  I don't know!  I guess it's because I know what to expect with her—I get a fast, clean, entertaining story that requires little brain work on my part.  Some days, that's a definite win-win for me.  

Having said that, I have to admit that Clark's newest, I've Got You Under My Skin, does change up her usual formula just a bit.  The novel revolves around Laurie Moran, a 36-year-old t.v. producer.  Although she has a successful career and a charming young son, Laurie is still haunted by the murder of her beloved husband five years ago.  Especially since his killer warned that her son would be next.  Half a decade has passed with no threats, but she still can't allow herself to breathe easy.

Given all that, Laurie feels a little uneasy about her newest production project.  The true-crime reenactment program, focused on cold cases, could be the key to boosting her station's ratings.  Not to mention her career.  So, despite her misgivings, she's going forward.  The series premiere will be a doozy, too, reuniting all the suspects in the infamous "Graduation Gala" murder.  Filmed on location at the glamorous mansion where the crime occurred, the show will have enough glitz and drama to attract millions of viewers.  Especially if it leads to the discovery of a killer.  What Laurie doesn't know is that the Graduation Gala killer isn't the only one lurking around the set ... and this one's got his eyes on her.

Like I said before, I've Got You Under My Skin isn't great literature or even a very complex or clever murder mystery.  What it is is mindless entertainment, a fast, easy way to kill a few hours.  If you're looking for a effortless beach or airplane read, you can't go wrong with Mary Higgins Clark.  

(Readalikes:  Other books by Mary Higgins Clark)

Grade:

   
If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Top Ten So Far ...


It's been awhile since I've participated in Top Ten Tuesday and I've missed my favorite weekly meme.  This week's topic didn't require much thought, so it seemed like a good time to jump back into the fun.  This time around, the lovely ladies at The Broke and the Bookish want to know about the Top Ten Books I've Read This Year.  I always keep a running list of the books I've finished, using asterisks to mark those I enjoyed most, so it was a cinch to recall my favorites.  Here they are, in no particular order:






1.  The House at Riverton, The Distant Hours, and The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton—Since these three novels are by the same author, with lots of similarities in theme and story, I'm going to count them as one.  Morton excels at writing lush family sagas and I loved each of these.  If you forced me to choose a favorite from among the three, I'd probably go with The Forgotten Garden, but seriously, I enjoyed all of them.



2.  A Death-Struck Year by Makkia Lucier—Good historical YA novels are not exactly plentiful, so I'm always excited when I find one.  Especially when it's set in the same neck of the woods where I grew up (Portland, Oregon).  The novel concerns a wealthy teenage girl who's left alone in the city during the vicious Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918.  It's a tense, haunting story that kept me riveted.



3.  All The Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry—This spare, but lyrical YA novel centers around a young woman who hasn't spoken since she returned from a mysterious absence.  It tells an intriguing, suspenseful story.  All The Truth That's In Me won a well-deserved Whitney Award for Best General YA novel.



4.  Stung by Bethany Wiggins—Although this YA dystopian wasn't all that original, I still enjoyed the Sleeping Beauty twist on a familiar post-apocalyptic/zombie story.



5.  Cress by Marissa Meyer—The Lunar Chronicles is one of my very favorite YA series.  It's original, it's fun, it's clean, and it gets better with every installation.



6.  In a Handful of Dust by Mindy McGinnis—McGinnis' first book, Not a Drop to Drink, sucked me in so totally that it became one of my favorite books of last year.  While the sequel isn't quite as fresh, it still offers up a taut, harrowing tale of survival told in tight, gripping prose.



7.  A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd—This quirky MG novel is a fun, playful story about the power of words.



8.  Save the Cat by Blake Snyder—I've been hearing about this writer's Bible for years.  I finally read it and, yes, it definitely lives up to the hype.  If you're having trouble plotting your novel, definitely check out this guide for screenwriter's.  It's invaluable.



9.  Mississippi Jack by L.A. Meyer—This is the fifth book in another of my favorite YA series.  Like its predecessors, this novel tells a rollicking adventure tale starring the indomitable "Bloody" Jack Faber.  Jacky's one of my favorite YA characters of all time—it's impossible not to love her.


10.  Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana—An atmospheric MG novel about a young girl living in the Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina.  It's a gritty, but hopeful tale.

How about you?  What are your favorite books so far this year?

*All book images from Barnes & Noble

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Novel Writing: What Does a Cat Have to Do With That? Everything, Believe It or Not.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


If you hang around here a lot (and I really hope you do!), you've probably heard me talk about LDS Storymakers.  The organization, which is made up of writers from the LDS community, hosts an annual writing conference which draws hundreds of attendees from around the country.  It's a fun, informative event that always has great teachers/presenters like Brandon Sanderson, Jessica Day George, Aprilynne Pike, Janette Rallison/C.J. Hill, Dan Wells, Melanie Jacobson, Kimberley Griffiths Little, Sarah Eden, Elana Johnson, Natalie Whipple, Brodi Ashton, Anne Perry, and many, many more.  I attend most years, not just for the writing advice, but for networking opportunities, the chance to see old friends, etc.  While the 2014 conference wasn't my favorite (the keynote speaker soured the experience quite a bit for me, but I won't get into all that drama), it was a good ole time.

My point?  Although the focus of the conference is not religious at all, it's amazing how much time the presenters and attendees spend gushing about the Bible.  I'm not referring to the Holy Bible, oh no.  I'm talking Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, a screenwriter who's hailed (at least at LDS Storymakers) as a kind of writing god.  What, you might ask, does crafting a movie have to do with penning a novel?  Lots, actually.  Especially when it comes to plotting, pacing, and populating your story with all the elements that dazzle moviegoers as well as book readers.

The thing that makes the book so helpful is Snyder's identification of the "beats" that every good movie needs and in which order they should appear to maximize their effectiveness in the telling of the story.  This formula can easily be applied to novels (in fact, I know several authors who use Save the Cat! Scrivener templates every time they draft a book).  Just as Snyder breaks down popular movies into identifiable "beats," you can do the same with any novel, which helps you to understand why they do/do not work.  It's very revealing.  Snyder's beat sheets are especially helpful when plotting a novel, as they help you recognize potential slow, weak spots in your story.  Again, extremely helpful.

So, does the book—and the ideas it contains—deserve the reverence it receives every year at Storymakers?  I think, yes.  I found it to be not just informative, but also entertaining, encouraging, and enlightening.  If you write (or try to write) novels or screenplays and you haven't read Save the Cat!, do it.  Before Snyder passed away in 2009, he wrote two sequels:  Save the Cat Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat Strikes Back.  If you can't get your hands on the books, there's also a fabulous Save the Cat! website as well as frequent Save the Cat! workshops around the country.  Obviously, Mormon writers aren't the only ones extolling the virtues of Snyder and his famous cat :)

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall; also, the other Save the Cat! books)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and references (not graphic) to sex

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

Friday, June 06, 2014

It's a Kate Morton Novel—Of Course I Loved It!

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


Ever since she was a child, Edie Burchill's been fascinated by a dark, vivid fairy tale called The True History of the Mud Man.  Written by a reclusive local author, it's a story that continues to haunt her, even as an adult.  When a lost letter, mailed fifty years ago, finally makes its way to Edie's mother, a surprising connection between the older woman and the author of Edie's favorite book comes to light.  A shocked Edie wonders why her mom never mentioned knowing the famous Blythe family.  Especially considering Edie's fondness for Raymond Blythe's best known book.  In answer to her persistent questions, Edie gets nothing—except a stern admonition to drop the subject.

If only Edie could let it go.  Intrigued by the idea of her dull, predictable mother harboring a deep, dark secret—which she must, considering her odd reaction to the old letter—Edie decides to find out just what happened when her mother stayed with the Blythes during World War II.  When she's asked to write an introduction to a new edition of The True History of the Mud Man, Edie knows it's a perfect opportunity to find the truth.  But, when she visits the Blythe sisters, a trio of elderly women who still live in their family's moldering castle, she leaves with more questions than answers.  She knows the Blythes are hiding something, but what?  And what does Edie's mother have to do with it all?  The deeper Edie digs, the more shocking her discoveries.  As revelations from the past illuminate mysteries of the present, she must decide what to do with her new-found knowledge—knowledge that could have alarming consequences for four women about whom Edie cares deeply.

Like Kate Morton's other novels, The Distant Hours tells a lush, absorbing tale about the secrets family members keep from one another, sometimes for generations.  It feels similar to the author's other books, true, but that's okay, the Morton Formula works for me!  Even though I guessed a few of this novel's plot "surprises," that really didn't detract from my enjoyment of this book.  As I have with the other stories I've read by Morton, I liked this one immensely.        

(Readalikes:  Other books by Kate Morton, including The Forgotten Garden, The Secret Keeper, and The House at Riverton)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Haunting, Hopeful Hurricane Katrina Novel a Vivid, Inspirational Read

(Image from Central Speaks)

A storm is brewing in the Gulf Coast, a squall some say could turn into the biggest, most catastrophic hurricane ever to hit New Orleans.  Armani Curtis could not care less about all the talk, however ominous.  She's got more important things to worry about—like her upcoming birthday party.  She's weathered plenty of storms, but she's never turned 10 before.  She can't wait for the cake, the presents, and all that attention focused just on her.  It's going to be a perfect day.  

Then, the storm starts blowing in earnest.  People begin to panic, not just boarding up their houses, but actually leaving town.  Things don't look good for the party Armani's been looking forward to for ages.  In fact, things don't look good at all.  Especially not for the Curtises, who can't leave their home in the Lower Ninth Ward.  They have nowhere else to go, no choice but to hunker down and pray for preservation. 

As Hurricane Katrina rages on and the floodwater rises, Armani realizes just how desperate her family's situation really is.  Stranded on the rooftop with her sickly grandma, her terrified parents and her four young siblings, Armani yearns for deliverance.  When help fails to come, she knows it's up to her to save her family.  But how?  With fetid water drowning her home and dead bodies floating by in the murderous soup, survival seems like a hopeless dream.  What chance does a brand-new 10-year-old have of triumphing over the vicious storm?  Probably none, but Armani has to try—no matter what the risk.   

A lot of readers avoid books about natural disasters, war, and other cruel events, preferring to spend their leisure hours enjoying lighter fare.  In fact, when I explained the plot of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere—a debut novel by Julie T. Lamana—to my dentist, he exclaimed, "How can you stand to read such depressing books?"  (Yes, I talk books with my dentist.  And my hygienist.  In fact, I think we spend more time exchanging reading recommendations than discussing my teeth.  Which is just fine with me—I'll take a rousing book discussion over an oh-so-scintillating flossing lecture any day.)  It's funny, because although Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere details some pretty harrowing events, I hadn't thought of the book as depressing until my dentist described it as such.  Why is that?  I think it's because the story has such a triumphant feel to it.  Lamana, who lives in Louisiana and worked with children displaced because of Hurricane Katrina, wrote the book to give kids hope in the face of difficult situations.  Through the brave, spunky Armani, she does just that.

While it teaches important lessons, there's more to Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere than just an inspirational message.  With a vivid, atmospheric setting; tight, vibrant prose; complex, colorful characters; and a heart-pounding, action-packed plotline, it's also a riveting story.  Because all these elements are so well fleshed-out, readers get a you-are-there feel for the horror many people experienced for real.  Lamana doesn't shy away from showing scary scenes, but she does infuse them with hope, promising that good can be found even in the face of devastating tragedy.

Maybe the book's subject is depressing, but overall, I found it to be an uplifting novel about the power of family, fortitude and finding the strength you didn't know you had in the instant you needed it the most.      

(Readalikes:  Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and intense/scary images

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere from the generous Julie T. Lamana.  Thank you!

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Snicker of Magic A Splendiforous, Hopeful Tale

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Chances are, you've seen this cover splashed all over the book blogosphere lately.  A Snicker of Magic, a debut novel by Natalie Lloyd, is getting lots of attention.  Not to mention rave reviews.  The story's a little difficult to describe so, once again, I'm going to rely on the professionally-written blurb to do my work for me:
Some people collect baseball cards.  Or hedgehogs.  Or belly button lint.  Not Felicity Pickle.  She collects words—words people are thinking about, or words they want.  Some words glow, and some dance.  Some have wings, and some have zebra stripes.                                                                                                                                                                          
Yet although Felicity has traveled all over the country with her mama and little sister, there's one word she's never seen—home.
                                                                                                                                          Felicity is tired of wandering from place to place.  Making new friends can be harder than fractions ... especially when words like loser and clutzerdoodle fill the classroom every time you open your mouth.
                                                                                                                                          But when her mama's van, the Pickled Jalapeño, rolls into Midnight Gulch, Felicity feels her luck begin to change.  For the first time, she's found a place where she can grow some good memories ... and maybe even make a friend.
                                                                                                                                          That's because Midnight Gulch used to be magical—a town where people could dance up thunderstorms and bake secrets into pie—until a curse drove the magic away.
                                                                                                                                          At least, that's what most people think.
                                                                                                                                          Felicity can tell there's still a snicker of magic in Midnight Gulch.  It hasn't disappeared; it's just been playing hide-and-seek for a very long time.
                                                                                                                                          All she has to do is find the right words to turn it loose.
                                                                                                                                                       

Sounds like a fun story, right?  And it is.  Sure, it gets a little silly at times, but mostly it's a magical, uplifting tale about family, forgiveness, and the power of words.  The characters are as quirky as you might expect.  So is the fictional Tennessee town in which they live.  Readers will relate to the sympathetic Felicity and cheer as she and her BFF, Jonah, seek to find the magic in the people and places around them.  Overall, I enjoyed this one.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Savvy by Ingrid Law and Sway by Amber McRee Turner)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for nothing offensive

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A Snicker of Magic from the generous folks at Scholastic.  Thank you!
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