Tuesday, August 04, 2015

For Clever, Screwball Adventures and Laugh-Out-Loud Hilarity, the Spellmans Can't Be Beat

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you read this blog with any kind of regularity (If you don't, you really should!), you know I generally prefer to write my own plot summaries for the books I review.  Sure, it's a reinventing-the-wheel kind of thing, but hey, I'm just a masochist that way.  By torturing myself in this manner, I've gotten a small glimpse of how tough it is to write brilliant back cover copy.  So, when I come across a summary that captures the essence of a book as perfectly and fetchingly as this one does, I have to share:
The Spellman Files is the first novel in a winning and hilarious mystery series featuring Isabel “Izzy” Spellman (part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry) and her highly functioning yet supremely dysfunctional family of private investigators.                                                                                                                                                         Meet Isabel “Izzy” Spellman, private investigator. This twenty-eight-year-old may have a checkered past littered with romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism; she may be addicted to Get Smart reruns and prefer entering homes through windows rather than doors—but the upshot is she’s good at her job as a licensed private investigator with her family’s firm, Spellman Investigations. Invading people’s privacy comes naturally to Izzy. In fact, it comes naturally to all the Spellmans. If only they could leave their work at the office. To be a Spellman is to snoop on a Spellman; tail a Spellman; dig up dirt on, blackmail, and wiretap a Spellman.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Izzy walks an indistinguishable line between Spellman family member and Spellman employee. Duties include: completing assignments from the bosses, aka Mom and Dad (preferably without scrutiny); appeasing her chronically perfect lawyer brother (often under duress); setting an example for her fourteen-year-old sister, Rae (who’s become addicted to “recreational surveillance”); and tracking down her uncle (who randomly disappears on benders dubbed “Lost Weekends”). But when Izzy’s parents hire Rae to follow her (for the purpose of ascertaining the identity of Izzy’s new boyfriend), Izzy snaps and decides that the only way she will ever be normal is if she gets out of the family business. But there’s a hitch: she must take one last job before they’ll let her go—a fifteen-year-old, ice-cold missing person case. She accepts, only to experience a disappearance far closer to home, which becomes the most important case of her life.

See what I mean?  You want to read this book now, don't you?

As soon as I read the above description of The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz, I was sold.  The novel sounded quirky, charming, and hilarious.  And guess what?  That's exactly what it is.  I'm not sure I've read a more hysterical mystery novel.  Seriously.  This one had me chortling, snorting, and just loving every minute of Izzy's screwball capers.  Clever, engaging, fun, addicting—all of these adjectives describe The Spellman Files.  For pure entertainment, you really can't go wrong with this one.  There's not tons of substance here, but who cares?  Engrossing fluff that makes me laugh-out-loud is a rare and beautiful thing.  I simply could not get enough of this book.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Spellman series [Curse of the Spellmans; Revenge of the Spellmans; The Spellmans Strike Again; Trail of the Spellmans; and The Last Word]

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:



for language, sex, depictions of illegal drug use, and mature subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, August 03, 2015

The 100 Fails to Live Up to the Promise of Its Oh-So-Appealing Premise

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If the juvenile delinquents locked in the Colony's prisons felt expendable before, now they know just how disposable the government considers their lives.  One hundred of the incarcerated teens are being sent on a mission that can only be described as suicidal.  The kids' objective is to recolonize Earth, a planet long ago ravaged by nuclear war.  Abandoned hundreds of years ago, the place may be habitable again.  Or not.  Breathing its radioactive air is a risk no one wants to take.  Who better to embark on an exploratory expedition, then, than one hundred young criminals who are already slated to die?  Either they'll be killed on Earth or they'll succeed in repopulating the planet, creating a new home for the Colonists whose ancestors left it for the safety of space several centuries ago.  

Among the teens are Clarke Griffin, a 17-year-old apprentice medic who was arrested for treason.  Her real crime is much, much worse.  Wells Jaha, the chancellor's son, purposely got himself incarcerated so as to guarantee him a trip to Earth with Clarke, the girl he loves.  Only she refuses to forgive him.  Not a convict, Bellamy Blake breaks into the transport ship to protect his younger sister.  The only set of siblings left in the world, the Blakes refuse to be separated, even if it means dying together.  Glass Sorenson managed to get herself off the doomed ship, only to find the world she thought was secure to be anything but.  

Somehow, the teen convicts must learn to survive in a strange land.  Each hiding their own secrets, they have to figure out how to work together to eke out some kind of civilized existence in a savage wilderness.  With constant danger from without and within, they may perish before the week is out.  If they don't, they may just save their world, becoming the most unlikely of heroes.  What will become of The 100?  Will they unite to build a new future for themselves and the other Colonists?  Or will they die before they even have a chance to start? 

The LOST-ish premise behind The 100, a debut YA sci-fi novel by Kass Morgan, intrigued me from the moment I heard about it.  Poised to enjoy an adventure full of danger, suspense, and drama, I began to read it.  The more into the book I got, though, the more my enthusiasm waned.  Why?  Because while the novel had so very much potential, what it didn't have was a well-developed story world; complex characters; a tight plot structure; and enough conflict to keep things interesting.  I was expecting a taut, riveting survival tale, not a melodramatic, but anti-climatic, soap opera.  Needless to say, The 100 turned into a huge disappointment for me.  Part of my dismay, I'm sure, has to do with the book being way over-hyped.  Still, I had hoped for a better story, one that at least lived up to the promise of its oh-so-appealing premise.  Didn't happen here.  Bummer, that.

(Readalikes:  Premise reminded me of the t.v. show LOST as well as the Gone series by Michael Grant [Gone; Hunger; Lies; Plague; Fear; Light])  

Grade:


If this were a movie (and it is—a t.v. series, anyway), it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, sexual innuendo, and intense situations

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ruth Galloway Continues to Charm in Second Intriguing Mystery

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for The Janus Stone, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, The Crossing Places.  As always, I recommend reading series in order.)

Fresh from helping police find a kidnapped child—and narrowly escaping with her life—forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway isn't expecting to be thrown into another case quite so soon.  But, when a construction crew discovers bones beneath an old mansion they're tearing down, she's called in to help.  Because the remains are those of a child with a missing head, Ruth suspects the bones may be of ancient Roman origin.  She's wrong.  The victim died much more recently, which leads Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson to wonder if he/she could be one of the kids who went missing years ago when the mansion was used as a Catholic orphanage.  

Ruth is eager to help Nelson, who's become a little more than a friend, figure out what happened to the child.  The fact that she's pregnant doesn't slow her down.  Eerie happenings at the construction site, however, give her pause.  Is her spooked imagination working overtime?  Or is someone trying to warn her away from the investigation?  To what lengths might that someone go to stop her from finding the truth?

The Janus Stone, which takes place a few months after The Crossing Places, brings back many of the delightful characters from the first book in Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series.  My favorite is Ruth.  I love that her character is ordinary and understated, but never dull.  Besides her newest mystery, she's got plenty going on in her life, which makes The Janus Stone an engaging and compelling read.  My only complaint with the novel is that it lacks the vivid, atmospheric setting that made the first book so memorable.  Because of that, I liked The Crossing Places better.  Still, I'm continuing to enjoy this series with its exciting puzzles, enjoyable characters, and twisty plotlines.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books in the Ruth Galloway series [The Crossing Places; The House at Sea's End; A Roomful of Bones; A Dying Fall; The Outcast Dead; and The Ghost Fields)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder invectives), blood/gore, violence, and references to sex

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

TTT: Fictional Bookworms, Unite!


I love Top Ten Tuesday, especially when the ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish provide us with a really fun topic to ponder.  This week's certainly fits the bill:  Top Ten Characters Who Are Fellow Book Nerds.  It was actually harder than I thought it would be to come up with ten, but I managed!

Before I get to my list, though, I want to be sure you all know about the giveaway I'm running right now.  Courtesy of the wonderful folks at Doubleday, I'm giving away a hardcover copy of Jennifer McMahon's spooky new thriller, The Night Sister.  It's a shivery, twisty novel that's so well crafted it will keep you reading and guessing 'til the very end.  Trust me, you want to win this book.  The giveaway ends on Saturday, August 8, so enter today.
Okay, on to the list.  I predict that my first five choices are going to be making lots of appearances today.  Maybe the last half will be more unique?  We'll see.  As always, I would love to take a look at your list.  Leave me a comment and I'll be more than happy to return the favor.

Top Ten Characters Who Are Fellow Book Nerds: 


1.  Hermione Granger (Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling)—No surprise here!  Hermione is an unabashed bookworm, and thank goodness for that.  How many times does she save herself, her friends, and the world at large because of something she read in a book?



2.  Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee)—Lee's new book expands the character of Scout's dad quite a bit, which is causing a stir among Mockingbird fans.  Whatever your opinion of him now, one thing is for certain: Atticus loves to read.  He teaches his children the importance of reading, although his choice of bedtime story material concerns Scout's schoolteacher just a tad ...  


3,  Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery)—Anne's very active imagination is fueled, in part, by her love of the written word.  Not only does she love to read a good story, but she writes her own as well. 


4.  Jo March (Little Women series by Louisa May Alcott)—In the very first mention of Jo, she's pegged as a bookworm.  She also writes the plays she and her sisters act out.


5.  Matilda Wormwood (Matilda by Roald Dahl)—Is there any fictional young lady who loves to read more than Matilda?  Probably not.  


6.  A.J. Fikry (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin)—This bookstore owner loves books, even though they fail to give him as much comfort as they did before the death of his wife.  I love his philosophy that "You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to this question, What is your favorite book?"


7.  Madeline Whittier (Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon)—Madeline is allergic to just about everything, so she spends all her time inside her sterile home.  She has to order books to be delivered there in special, germ-free packaging.  Since she can't be around other people, the stories keep her company.  Madeline also gets extra coolness points for being a book blogger :)


8.  Simon Watson (The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler)—Simon Watson is a young librarian living on the Long Island Sound in a house that is slowly crumbling into the sea.  He adores books, of course.  It's the unexpected arrival of a very special one that changes everything he thought he know about his family, his world, and himself.


9.  Jess Brightwell (Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine)—Jess lives in a world where it is illegal for a person to own an original copy of a book.  Although he spends his childhood "running" volumes to wealthy buyers for his father's black market business, books mean more than just money to Jess.  So great is his reverence for the written word that Jess's father accuses him of having ink for blood.



10.  Brick Heck (The Middle t.v. series, played to perfection by Atticus Shaffer)—Okay, this one is a cheat since it's from tv, not literature, but I think my favorite fictional bookworm of all time is probably Brick.  With no social skills at all, he has no reservations whatsoever about keeping his nose pressed into a book 24/7.

So, there you have it, ten fictional bookworms.  Who did you choose for your list?  Do we have any in common?  I can't wait to hop around and find out.

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

P.S.  If you haven't entered me fabulous giveaway, do it now.       

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Twisty, Spooky New McMahon Novel Gives Me All the Chills (and Thrills) [With a Giveaway!]

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Everyone can use a good chill in the middle of a sweltering summer day, right?  Well, Jennifer McMahon delivers just that with her newest thriller, The Night Sister (available August 4, 2015).  While all of the author's novels (at least the five I've read) will send shivers down your spine, her latest and greatest is probably my favorite of the lot.  Thus, I'm thrilled to not only review the book, but also to offer you the chance to win a brand-spankin' new, hardcover copy of The Night Sister from Doubleday for your very own!  Read all the way to the end of this post (no skipping the review!) for information on how to win. 

***

Dear Mr. Hitchcock, 

Do you believe in monsters?

Sincerely yours, Miss Sylvia A. Slater
The Tower Motel

Sixty years ago, The Tower Motel drew travelers from all over the nation to teensy London, Vermont.  Its attractions included the 30-foot tower which gave the lodging house its name, the "World Famous London Chicken Circus," Lucy the State Cow, and 28 comfortable guest rooms. Although Young Rose Slater always loved hearing stories about faraway places from the people who checked into her family's motel, she couldn't think of anywhere she'd rather be than living in the shadow of the tower her father built as a gift for her English mother.  Her older sister, on the other hand, couldn't wait to leave.  Obsessed with the movies, beautiful 11-year-old Sylvia planned to head for Hollywood just as soon as she could. 

When plans for a new highway threatened the future of the motel, the sisters started to feel their safe world unravel.  Sylvia began acting strangely, which frightened Rose, whose sharpened senses told her something sinister and otherworldly was slithering through the motel's increasingly empty hallways ...

By 1989, the once-grand motel had fallen into disrepair.  Abandoned and neglected for many years, it made a spine-tingling playground for Amy Slater (Rose's daughter), her friend Piper and Piper's little sister, Margot.  Intrepid Amy was especially fascinated by the crumbling tower, from which she'd been told repeatedly to stay away.  Since Amy never listened to anyone, all three of the girls were there to make a startling discovery—a mysterious suitcase which held chilling letters hinting at shocking secrets in the Slater Family's past.  The find changed everything between the girls, whose friendship dissolved that fateful summer.

Twenty-four years later, Piper and Margot are shocked when Amy, now 36, decides, apparently out of the blue, to butcher her husband and children.  The bloody crime makes little sense, but the only clue Amy left behind—an old photograph with the words "29 rooms" scrawled on it—is an obvious reference to the old Tower Motel.  Although they haven't spoken to Amy in years, Piper and Margot know the message is meant for them.  They also know they must revisit the odd happenings of Summer 1989 to figure out what made Amy snap.  The more they dig into Slater Family's past, though, the more alarmed they become, for the answers that await them there are so much more terrifying than they ever could have imagined ... 

So, you know how the scariest stories aren't freaky so much because of whatever monster lurks in their depths, but because the author creates such a shivery atmosphere that you're totally creeped out before the ghost/zombie/bloodthirsty serial killer is ever revealed—if it even exists?  A skillful storyteller uses eerie settings, ominous foreshadowing and the power of sinister suggestion to carefully set the stage, scene by scene, so that you're hiding under the covers from the get-go, not just when the hero/heroine finally comes face-to-face with whatever kind of ghoul is threatening them.  Yeah.  That's what McMahon does.  To exquisite, horrifying perfection.  The Night Sister is no exception—it's a can't-put-it-down psychological thriller of a spook novel, so engrossing that I literally could not stop reading it.  Its meticulous craftsmanship guaranteed that I never knew quite what/who to suspect and when I thought I knew, I didn't know.  To call this book twisty is a vast understatement.  If you can't tell, I loved The Night Sister.  It made me gasp, it made me shiver, it made me want to sleep with the lights on.  Yes, it is that good.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of other novels by Jennifer McMahon, especially The Winter People)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), violence, blood/gore, and sensuality/sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Night Sister from the generous folks at Doubleday.  Thank you!

--

Now for the fun part.  Use the Rafflecopter form below to enter for your chance to win a hardcover copy of The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon.  Contest ends on Saturday, August 8th and is open only to readers with U.S./Canadian mailing addresses.  Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, July 24, 2015

Understated Heroine Makes Intriguing British Mystery Series Especially Appealing

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

No one understands Dr. Ruth Galloway's choice to live out on the Saltmarsh, a remote area of coastland near Norfolk.  Sacred to its ancient inhabitants, the marsh is an in-between place—part earth, part sea. Known for its eerie atmosphere and extreme, unpredictable weather, the location suits Ruth just fine.  The 39-year-old delights in solitude, especially when it can be found in a place that stirs her imagination and stokes her soul.  The Saltmarsh is, in fact, the perfect spot for an archaeologist who prefers her cats to human company, ancient bones to live people.  

When remains are found near her home, Ruth is called on by Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson to help identify the bones.  Nelson believes them to be those of Lucy Downey, a young girl who disappeared ten years ago.  Although Nelson is off on the age of the skeleton—by about two thousand years—Ruth can't stop thinking about young Lucy.  When another child vanishes, her abductor sends police cryptic letters with puzzling references to archaeology and mythology.  Out of his depth, Nelson again seeks Ruth's help, this time to decipher the letters.  Obsessed with finding the person responsible for the little girl's disappearance, the detective and his unlikely new partner chase down every lead they see.  With the clock ticking, they will risk everything to solve the case.  Can they do it?  Or will another child suffer the same unknown fate as Lucy Downey?  

Libraries and bookstores are full of mystery novels, some good, some not so much.  When I need help deciding which is which, I rely on one source—Kay's Reading Life.  One of my favorite bloggers, Kay always has great recommendations.  Case in point: the Ruth Galloway series by English author Elly Griffiths.  The first installment, The Crossing Places, offers everything I love in a mystery—a rich, atmospheric setting; complex, intriguing characters; and an exciting plot that keeps me guessing.  I especially love our understated heroine, whose intelligence, generous heart and subtle humor make her very appealing.  All of these elements combined to create a compelling mystery that I had a difficult time putting down.  With its unique, but subtle blend of science, drama, mystery, and even romance, The Crossing Places makes an excellent first book in a series that I've been enjoying immensely.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Ruth Galloway series—The Janus Stone; The House at Sea's End; A Room Full of Bones; A Dying Fall; The Outcast Dead; and The Ghost Fields)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Vivid World + Intriguing Characters + Annoying Love Triangle - Strong Heroine = Not-As-Good-As-It-Could-Have-Been Debut

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As the Sin Eater's daughter and apprentice, Twylla is resigned to her fate.  Like her mother before her, she will spend her life growing fat off the sins of the dead.  It's an important duty in the kingdom of Lormere, but certainly not a glamorous one.  Twylla longs for something different than the lonely, hardscrabble life through which she sees her mother slog every day.  So, when the queen informs Twylla that she's been chosen by the gods to serve her country in an elite position, the 13-year-old jumps at the chance.  Not only will she get to live in the castle, betrothed to Prince Merek, but the queen will see that Twylla's family receives healthy compensation, money they sorely need.

Four years later, Twylla has a better understanding of what it really means to be Daunen Embodied.  Because her blessed blood is mixed with a magical potion every month, her skin is toxic.  Except for the king, queen, and prince, no one can touch her without dying.  Sequestered in the luxurious castle, feared by those around her, Twylla lives a privileged, but lonely life.  Even her fianceé avoids her.  Her special duties as court assassin only make her life more difficult.  Twylla knows she must do her duty for her queen, for her country, and for her family, but she wishes for something more than her isolated world.

Her wish is granted with the arrival of her new bodyguard.  A handsome 18-year-old from a neighboring land, Lief treats Twylla with a charming familiarity that no one else has ever employed with her.  Not only does his presence make her heart pound, but his gentle prodding makes her question everything she's ever known.  As she learns shocking truths about her queen, her belief structure, and herself, Twylla will have to decide what's real, what's not, and—for the first time in her life—what and who she really wants.

The Sin Eater's Daughter, a debut novel by Melinda Salisbury, introduces a vivid, complex world populated by an intriguing cast of characters.  With tight, evocative prose, Salisbury molds all these elements into a slow-building, but engrossing story.  The elements of well-known fairy tales that are woven into the narrative make it even deeper, although I would have liked to see more development of the ones I found most interesting (the Pied Piper, for example), which perhaps will come in the trilogy's subsequent installments.  That being said, there were several things that detracted from my enjoyment of this novel.  The biggest one?  The so-very-annoying love triangle.  Ugh.  I also wanted more from Twylla as a heroine.  While she's a sympathetic character, she's not a very dynamic one.  She spends most of her time reacting instead of acting, letting other people save her instead of saving herself.  Admittedly self-absorbed, she's just not a strong, admirable enough heroine for me.  Plotwise, the story follows a pretty generic things-are-not-as-they-seem pattern.  It kept me reading, yes, but not salivating over the upcoming sequels.  Salisbury is obviously a skilled writer, she just didn't win me over with her freshman effort.  Ah, well.  

(Readalikes:  Nothing is coming to mind.  Suggestions?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for sexual content (not graphic) and violence

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Sin Eater's Daughter from the generous folks at Scholastic via those at Edelweiss.  Thank you!

Heavy-Handed Sermonizing Makes Christian Novel A Whole Lot Less Appealing

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Like all the folks who live in her isolated mountain community, 10-year-old Cadi Forbes is a descendant of a hearty band of pilgrims who came to Appalachia from the wilds of Scotland and Wales.  Along with their heavy brogues, these pioneers brought with them legends, myths and Old World customs.  Some of which still endure.  The Sin Eater, for instance.  Cadi knows all about the mysterious figure who's summoned down from the hills when someone dies.  His duty—which he will perform as long as he lives—is to take upon himself the sins of the dead so that they can ascend to heaven unburdened.  No one dares look the Sin Eater in the face, nor do they seek him out.  The man is sentenced, because of his own misdeeds, to a life of banishment and solitude, welcomed among the villagers only when he is needed.  And only with extreme caution.

Cadi needs absolution from the sin that is eating her up inside, the evil that makes even her mother turn away in shame.  So pained by her affliction is Cadi that she's willing to do the unthinkable.  She knows hunting down the Sin Eater will bring punishment from her parents as well as a curse on her family.  But she can't stop herself.  Cadi can't wait until she's dead to get forgiveness—she needs it now.  

As Cadi defies the orders of her family and village leaders in dogged pursuit of her goal, she discovers some shocking truths—not just about the Sin Eater, but also about her community and the secrets it keeps in the name of tradition.  Can Cadi convince the others of what she now knows?  Will she ever get absolution for her sins?  Her journey of self-discovery will lead her down paths she never could have expected to follow ...

When I picked up The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers, I had no idea it was a Christian novel.  In retrospect, the title probably should have given it away, if not the fact that it's published by Tyndale.  Somehow I missed these clues.  Not that I have anything against Christian/religious fiction, mind you.  I don't.  At least not if its lessons are taught with grace and subtlety through complex characters doing interesting things against vivid backgrounds.  The Last Sin Eater's Appalachian setting intrigued me from the start, as did its sympathetic story people.  All the conflict between Cadi, her family, and the village folk reeled me in as well.  In fact, I quite enjoyed the first half of the novel.  Then, it got preachy.  In an annoying, very heavy-handed way.  It became too much, even for me —and I spend at least three hours a week in church!  While I appreciated what the story had to say about the importance of repentance/forgiveness, letting Christ into our lives, and moving beyond the sins of the past, I didn't care for the novel's too-obvious sermonizing.  In the end, then, The Last Sin Eater was just an okay read for me.

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

Grade:



If this were a movie (and, apparently, it is), it would be rated:


for violence, sexual innuendo and references to rape, adultery, and abuse

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

Monday, July 20, 2015

One Kick An Engrossing Stomach-Turner

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

You may—or may not—have noticed the plethora of reviews I've been posting lately.  I'm trying super hard to catch up.  Not doing too bad of a job, either.  Only one more review after this one and I will have finished reviewing all the books I've read up to April of this year.  Can I get a woot, woot?  Yeah, I know that still leaves four months of reading (44 books + whatever I finish in the meantime) to deal with, but I'm proud of myself nonetheless.  

I am, however, feeling a little overtaxed, so I'm going to skip out on writing my own plot summary of One Kick by Chelsea Cain.  The back cover copy sums the novel up very nicely, while holding enough back to keep things interesting.  I couldn't have done a better job, anyway, so here you go:
From the author of the critically acclaimed Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell thrillers, here is a heart-stopping ride that Cheryl Strayed (author of #1 New York Times bestseller Wild) called “deeply intelligent and grippingly suspenseful…a wickedly brilliant masterpiece.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Kick Lannigan has taught herself to be dangerous. She can pick any lock, fire any weapon, throw any knife, and aim a punch at her opponent’s trachea. She has also taught herself to be safe. So when enigmatic John Bishop shows up asking her to help him rescue missing kids, Kick has every reason to be wary. He appears to have access to limitless money, high-level contacts, and details of Kick’s background long kept sealed by the court. Yet everything he tells her about himself seems to be a lie.                                                                                                                           Headstrong by nature, suspicious by circumstance, and a smart-ass by self-determination, Kick can’t help but see the writing on the wall: together, she and Bishop could make an unstoppable team, willing to do whatever it takes—legal or not—to see justice served…if they don’t kill each other first. For Kick, whose interest in child abduction is deeply personal, it’s a gamble worth taking.                                                                                                                                                 Critically acclaimed as “excruciating…compelling” (Booklist, starred review) and “a propulsive new thriller” (People), One Kick is an engrossing, entertaining new novel you won’t want to miss.
It's tough to resist a summary that intriguing, don't you think?  I certainly couldn't.  Even though the novel concerns child endangerment/abuse through abduction, isolation, and exploitation—subjects which always turn my stomach—I kept reading.  Why?  Believe me, I asked myself that more than once.  The answer is simple: Kick Lannigan is a fascinating character.  After her own traumatic childhood, the now 21-year-old promised herself she would never be vulnerable again.  And she isn't.  She's tough, she's shrewd, she's cool under pressure.  Yet, she makes mistakes.  She's not one of those slick kick butt heroines whose methods and decisions are always spot-on.  No, Kick is very real.  Because of her painful childhood as well as her devotion to those who need protection (her brother, James; her blind/deaf dog; the kids she tracks down with Bishop), she's a sympathetic character.  You can't help rooting for her, even if her tactics are not always admirable.

Besides Kick, the novel's compelling because it's suspenseful, action-packed, and just all-around engrossing.  I couldn't put it down, even though it's seriously disturbing.  Now I'm kinda regretting that I read it, seeing as how the sequel, Kick Back, is coming out in January 2016.  I have no self-control because darn it, I'm going to read it, I'm excited to read it.  I'm just not sure my stomach will be able to handle another wild ride with Kick Lannigan ...

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, sexual content, depictions of child abuse, and other disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Rich, Sweeping The Nightingale An Epic, Emotional Journey

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Viann Mauriac lives a quiet life as mistress of Le Jardin, the country home that's been in her family for three hundred years.  Nestled in France's Loire Valley, it's a safe, lovely spot to raise her 8-year-old daughter, Sophie.  Even when she has to send her husband—gentle Antoine, whom she's loved since she was a child—off to the Front, Viann's convinced her little village of Carriveau will be spared the horrors of the approaching war.  When her worst fears come to pass, Viann does her best to blend into the landscape, making sure she and Sophie do nothing to arouse the attention of the Nazi soldiers who crowd the streets of her little town.  Then, a Nazi captain commandeers Le Jardin, keeping Viann on as his housekeeper.  Terrified for herself and her daughter, Viann must watch herself every minute of every day.  As the war drags on, she has to rely on the inner strength she never knew she had, even as she's forced to do the unthinkable to keep Sophie safe. 

Safety is the last thing Isabelle Rosignol, Viann's younger sister, wants.  The 18-year-old longs for adventure, the chance to do something real, something important.  Kicked out of yet another finishing school, she's living with her estranged father when the Germans bomb Paris.  Running for her life, Isabelle flees the city, heading for Viann's house.  Along the way, she meets a charming Communist; when he betrays her, hotheaded Isabelle does the one thing that feels meaningful—she joins the Resistance.  Isabelle never intends to put her sister and niece at risk with her dangerous activities, but that's exactly what she's doing.  Striking out on her own, the passionate young rebel will face deadly obstacles around every corner in her battle to make a difference in her chaotic, war-torn world.

For two sisters—a decade apart in age and experience—war will test their nerves, their courage, their compassion, and their already tenuous relationship with one another.  As they fight every day to survive in enemy territory, they will become heroes in their own right.  But will they live through the fighting?  Will they survive long enough to reunite with their loved ones?  Even if their bodies make it through the hell of war, will their hearts—scarred and shattered by horrors they can't un-see, un-experience—ever mend?

You may have noticed that "A" grades are a little hard to come by around here.  In order to earn my undying love and praise, a book has to pick me up, sweep me off my feet, and move me in a way that makes certain I'll never forget it.  The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah did all of those things.  With rich detail, complex characters, a dramatic historical backdrop, and a sweeping storyline, it has everything I crave in a novel.  So absorbing is this epic tale that it seems real, like you're taking a Technicolor journey through the same landscape and emotions as the characters.  This is a novel you feel.  Sometimes too much.  I worried right along with Viann, cringed in fear with Isabelle, and wept as I came to the end of their story.  The Nightingale is, at its heart, a story about two sisters, but truly, it's so much more.  It's a meditation on how far one would go to save the people she loves, a celebration of the sacrifices military wives make (then and now), as well as an astute acknowledgement of the importance of families—no matter how imperfect they may be.  In case you can't tell, I loved it.  Although it's a difficult read at times, I can't recommend The Nightingale highly enough.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum and The Kommandant's Girl by Pam Jenoff)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence, mild sexual innuendo/content (although there is a short, but fairly graphic rape scene), and intense situations

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Overhyped Everything I Never Told You Meant to Be Discussed More Than Devoured

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The Lees are an atypical family trying to live an average American life in a small Ohio town during the 1970s.  They're trying so hard to be just like everyone else that 16-year-old Lydia is about ready to explode from the pressure.  Her father, the Harvard-educated son of Chinese immigrants, pushes her to be a peppy All-American girl with a thriving social life.  Her mother, a white woman who gave up her dreams of medical school when she got pregnant with Lydia's older brother, is desperate for Lydia to become the doctor she never had the chance to be.  With no real friends and no great ambition to live out her mom's fantasies, Lydia fears disappointing both of them.  As her parents' favorite child (neither her older brother nor younger sister are malleable enough to warrant much attention), Lydia cannot let this happen.

When Lydia's body is discovered in a nearby lake, it sends her family into a tailspin.  Each member grieves in their own way, while hiding his/her own secrets from the others.  The already dysfunctional Lees become even more so as they try to figure out what really happened to Lydia.  As they search for answers, each will have to turn inward and search the depths of their own complicated hearts to discover some shocking truths—not just about Lydia, but about their family, their ambitions, and what is truly most important in life.

So, the thing about hype is that few books can ever really live up to the kind of grandiose expectations readers are often encouraged to demand of them.  Everything I Never Told You, a debut novel by Celeste Ng, is a perfect example.  While it offers an intriguing premise; spare, but strong prose; and some interesting thoughts on race, it's not blow-you-out-of-the-water amazing.  I appreciate the story for its nuanced and fascinating look at an "ordinary" family, even if none of the characters are particularly likable.  Because the Lees are such a hot mess, the story is a sad, depressing one.  Although it's ultimately hopeful, I'm not sure I can say I enjoyed this novel.  I found it engrossing, yes, but not really satisfying.  It's not a page turner, a gentle family saga or a fun, happy beach read—it's a serious, haunting study of a group of unhappy individuals.  With its emphasis on the damaging nature of secrets, selfishness, and sameness, Everything I Never Told You is, perhaps, a book that's meant to be discussed more than devoured.  In the end, then, I found it to be an evocative story, just not a necessarily enjoyable one.  If that makes any sense ...

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Disapparation of James by Anne Ursu)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a couple of F-bombs, plus milder invectives) and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
       

Thursday, July 16, 2015

... And It's Another "Just Okay" From Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Stella Layne has always been known as the girl with The Voice.  Ever since kindergarten, the 15-year-old has stunned people with her singing.  For shy Stella, it's become a pathway to fitting in, finding her place.  Something she desperately needs now as she deals with both her parents' divorce and a move that lands her in a new high school.  But, just as she's using her talent to make herself known, a freak accident steals one of her most precious possessions—her hearing.  Without it, Stella can't hear herself speak, let alone sing.  The accident has not just robbed her of the starring role in the upcoming school musical, but also of her lifelong goal of singing on Broadway.


Destroyed by the demolition of all her dreams, the last thing Stella wants to hear is that everything is going to be okay.  And yet, that's exactly what Hayden Rivers is trying to tell her.  With his movie star looks, the 17-year-old would probably be the most popular guy in school if it weren't for his persistent stutter.  Stella doesn't care about that—she's been drawn to him ever since she first saw him.  So, when he challenges her to give him 17 days to show her all the things she can do without her hearing, she takes him up on it.

As Stella steps outside her own grief, she realizes that there's more to Hayden than she ever could have imagined.  And that there's no one with whom she'd rather spend her time.  With an operation that could restore Stella's hearing fast approaching, both teens worry that it will change them, change the relationship they've built ever since Stella's accident.  Will Hayden's attention wane if she no longer needs his pity?  Will Stella turn her back on the boy who stutters if her life goes returns to normal and she doesn't need him anymore?  Can the two damaged teens find their happily ever after?

Silence, a new contemporary YA novel from actress/singer/songwriter/lawyer Deborah Lytton, is a clean, compelling novel about one girl's journey to find herself when she thinks everything that defines her is lost forever.  A quick read, Silence was engrossing enough to keep me turning pages, if not racing through them.  That being said, there are some big things in this book that drove me batty.  Stella, for one.  Her obvious pain garnered my sympathy—for a time.  After awhile, though, her absorption with her own suffering bugged.  I liked Hayden, who spent all his time trying to help other people despite his own trials, much better.  Stella also seemed a little aimless since her only concrete goal—making it to Broadway—was so far-off.  Prose-wise, Silence got very tell-y (as opposed to, you know, show-y), which made it feel overwritten and melodramatic.  So, while I appreciated that it told a clean, inspirational story (which isn't easy to find in teen lit), Silence's irritating heroine and lackadaisical writing turned me off this one.  In the end, then, I found it to be just an average, okay read.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little of Playing Hurt by Holly Schindler and When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright)

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for intense situations

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pennsylvania Coal Fires Make Vivid Backdrop For Poignant Coming-of-Age Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

At eleven years old, Brigid Howley already knows the truth about the coal she breathes in every day—it creeps inside, infects every part of you, and never, ever leaves.  Two generations of her Irish immigrant family have crawled through the mines in Pennsylvania's Anthracite Coal Region, squinting in the darkness, hacking at the earth in an effort to make ends meet.  After a mining accident which crushed his arm and left his brother dead, Brigid's father has given up.  Her shrewd, sharp-tongued mother isn't much better.  As fire burns beneath them all, hollowing out not just the ground but also their hearts, the Howleys blame an old family curse for their poverty and misfortune.  The grimness of her hardscrabble life makes a believer out of Brigid, even if her beloved great-aunt, with whom the Howleys are living, thinks it has more to do with choices than chance.  

When Auntie is swallowed by a sinkhole in her yard, a grieving Brigid is forced to relocate with her family to a slightly safer town.  Moving in with her father's parents is hardly an improvement.  Plagued by Black Lung, Gramp is a terrifying, angry presence.  Bitter Gram, whose flagrant dislike of Brigid's mother makes her even more caustic, is worse.  As Brigid tries—unsuccessfully—to keep the peace, she makes a gruesome discovery in an old mine.  Her find brings up long-buried secrets that threaten to ruin the Howleys just as surely as the coal coating their lungs.  Can Brigid defy the family curse and bring some healing to her scarred family?  Or will she, too, be drowned by the sad desperation that defines nearly everything and everyone she's ever known?

As you can probably tell, The Hollow Ground, a debut novel by Natalie S. Harnett, is not a cheery tale.  In fact, it's downright depressing.  It's also a tense, highly atmospheric story inspired by the effects of real-life underground fires burning in Pennsylvania towns like Carbondale and Centralia.  Through Harnett's vivid portrayal of the Howley Family, it's easy to see the devastation that often comes about because of unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness.  Brigid is an entirely sympathetic character, an old soul trapped by her deplorable circumstances.  It's easy to root for her as she tries to keep her family together.  Although the novel does feature a mystery, its most compelling aspect is the family drama at its center.  At its heart, The Hollow Ground is a poignant coming-of-age story set against a stark backdrop.  It's bleak and disheartening, true, but it's also vivid and enlightening.  Overall, I found this gloomy read compelling.  I couldn't look away from the Howleys troubles, even though I really, really wanted to.  Like I said, it's not a happy story.  It is, however, a memorable one.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a bit of Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh and Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), sexual content, violence, and depictions of underage drinking

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

TTT: Where Did All These Books Come From, Anyway?


New books come into my house every day, it seems.  Sometimes I look around and wonder where in the world they all came from.  My husband's cousin once said, "I've never seen this many books in one house before."  Which made me laugh, because she didn't even know about the boxes of review copies that are stuffed into my guest room closet.  Book nerd problems, I tell ya!

Considering my *little* book acquisition addiction (you can never have too much of a good thing, right?), today's Top Ten Tuesday topic du jour seemed especially appropriate.  But before we get to that, I want to make sure you know how you, too, can join the TTT fun.  All you have to do is go on over to The Broke and the Bookish, read the instructions for posting, write up your own TTT list, and share it with the rest of us.  So easy.  And fun!  You want to get in on this, trust me ...

Okay, here we go with the Last Ten Books That Came Into My Possession:



1.  Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton—After watching Jurassic World, which I didn't love (it was exciting/entertaining, but seriously lacking in plot and character development), I realized I'd never actually read the Jurassic Park books.  I tried reserving the first one at my library, but they only had a couple of copies of the novel and both had looonnnggg waiting lists.  So, I bought it.  Read it.  And ... yeah.  Bottom line:  I liked Jurassic Park the movie a lot better.


2.  Still Life by Louise Penny—Lately, I've been really enjoying traditional murder mystery series set in small towns around the globe.  I like the local color just as much (maybe more) than the twisty plots.  I've been hearing about Penny's popular series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and finally decided to give it a try.  Verdict:  I'm loving it.


3.  I Am David by Anne Holm and L.W. Kingsland (translator)—This is an older book, but I just barely heard about it.  It's a survival story starring a 12-year-old boy who's been trapped in a brutal Eastern European prison camp his whole life.  When a chance to escape arises, he takes it.


4.  Open Season by C.J. Box—Like I said (see #2), murder mysteries set in quirky little places have been finding their way into my home a lot these days.  This is another popular series that I've been meaning to read for awhile now.  Open Season is waiting for me at the library—I just need to go pick it up.


5.  Bones on Ice by Kathy Reichs—I love the novella trend.  These short books help tide me over while I wait for the next installments in my favorite series.  This one has my girl Temperance Brennan examining a mummified corpse from atop Mt. Everest.  Sounds intriguing, no?


6.  The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler—This YA contemporary caught my attention because of the brown-skinned, black-haired girl on the cover.  I always love it when books feature characters who look like my beautiful bi-racial daughter.  The fact that the novel is a modern version of The Little Mermaid makes it even more enticing.


7.  Earthquake by Aprilynne Pike—Even though it's a little predictable (at least in some ways), I enjoyed EarthBound.  Thus, I had to comb the library shelves for its sequel.  Voilá!


8.  Summer of the Dead by Julia Keller—This is the third book in the Bell Elkins mystery series and the best, in my opinion.  Set in small-town West Virginia (see #2 and #4), all these books offer didn't-see-that-coming plot twists as well as fascinating ruminations on Appalachian culture.  Can't wait for the next book in the series, Last Ragged Breath, which comes out in August.


9.  A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape From North Korea by Eunsun Kim—I just got a review copy of this book from the publisher.  True survival stories always intrigue and inspire me, so I'm excited to delve into this one.


10.  Weightless by Sarah Bannan—A copy of this contemporary YA about a good girl who gets shunned because of a scandalous video gone viral just landed in my mailbox.  Sounds timely and interesting.

There you go.  So, what do you think of my recent acquisitions?  Have you read any of them?  More importantly, if you have any suggestions for good mystery series set in a small town anywhere in the world, let me know.  Also, I'd love to see your TTT list.  Leave me a comment and I'll gladly return the favor.

Happy TTT!

(All book images from Barnes & Noble)
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