Saturday, December 10, 2016

Much-Hyped Psychological Thriller Compelling, But Hardly 'Amazing' or 'Brilliant'

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Newlyweds Jack and Grace Angel have what looks like the perfect marriage.  Their luxurious Spring Eaton home is one of the finest in Surrey.  Wealthy, successful, and beautiful, they're the perfect couple.  Except that their gleaming facade is a gilded lie.  Jack is a sadistic psychopath, Grace his terrified prisoner.  Desperate to save her sister—a 17-year-old with Down Syndrome—from Jack's clutches, Grace must find a way to break free.  But, how can she escape her personal Fort Knox?  Will anyone believe her incredible claims about her refined lawyer husband?  How can she save her sister when she can't even protect herself?

Behind Closed Doors, a debut novel by B.A. Paris, has been touted as "2016's Answer to Gone Girl" (Women's Health), a chilling psychological thriller that is "Amazing!", "Brilliant!", and "Unputdownable!"  I agree that it's compelling; I had to keep reading just to find out how it would end.  But amazing and brilliant?  Meh.  Not only does the plot lack depth and complexity, but it also gets a little absurd.  Far-fetched.  I prefer my psychological thrillers to take a subtler approach, surprising me with clever twists.  Behind Closed Doors does not do this.  The story is engrossing, there's no denying that.  It's just not very original or satisfying overall.  For me, it didn't live up to the hype it's been receiving.  Not at all.  Bummer, that.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs); violence, and disturbing subject matter

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

Depressing, Disconnected Novel a Disappointing Delve Into a Fascinating Subject

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After her mother dies, 32-year-old Samantha receives a box filled with the dead woman's keepsakes.  Sam is stunned to find, among them, evidence that her mother's childhood was much different than her mother ever let on.  In fact, a young Violet White was placed on an orphan train in 1900.  Stunned by this news, Sam longs to know her mother's real story.

In alternating chapters, the dead woman's tale is told.  It's a sad one, a story of poverty and abandonment sent against a grimy New York City background.  As Sam contrasts her own rocky relationship with motherhood with her mother's experience, she comes to understand some truths about herself and her family.

It's difficult to describe Mercy Train by Rae Meadows because it's a very episodic novel, without a lot of connectivity between elements.  Except for the orphan children, the characters are not very sympathetic.  I didn't feel connected to any of them, which made the whole story seem distant.  Perhaps this was done on purpose to reinforce the book's disconnection theme?  If so, it's not a storytelling device I enjoy.  The book also ended oddly, not pulling things together in a satisfying way.  All of this combined with the overall depressing nature of the novel just made it a difficult read for me.  I find the subject of orphan trains fascinating, but Mercy Train simply did not do it justice.  In the end, I found the book a depressing slog.  Ah, well.


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a dozen or so F-bombs plus milder expletives), violence, and mature subject matter 

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, December 05, 2016

San Francisco Earthquake Novel Engrossing, Enjoyable

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Mercy Wong wants more than the life of poverty and prejudice she's living in San Francisco's Chinatown.  The 15-year-old longs to be a great businesswoman with enough money to elevate her family above its lowly station.  She has the smarts for it as well as the ambition.  But this is 1906 and Chinese people are not exactly welcome in California's hallowed halls of learning.  It will take more than intelligence to get Mercy where she wants to be.

With a lot of pluck (and a little bribery), she lands herself a place at a posh boarding school for wealthy white girls.  Pretending to be an exotic heiress, she tries desperately to keep her real identity a secret from her snooty classmates.  When disaster strikes San Francisco, Mercy sees her bright future crumbling before her eyes.  In a city now dominated by chaos and catastrophe, how will a penniless Chinese girl survive?  As Mercy launches a desperate search for her missing family, she'll find the one person who is truly lost—herself.

Under a Painted SkyStacey Lee's debut novel—impressed me with its compelling mixture of history, adventure and romance as well as its engaging prose and appealing characters.  Because I enjoyed her freshman endeavor so much, I eagerly picked up Lee's sophomore effort.  And I was not disappointed.  Not at all.  Once again, Lee has created a plucky Chinese-American heroine whose courage and compassion make her both likable and admirable.  The novel's plot moves forward at a fast clip, making it as engrossing as it is entertaining.  Although the story focuses more on relationships between the characters than on the great earthquake, it's still an exciting tale that's also vivid, fun, and hopeful.  Having thoroughly enjoyed both of Lee's novels, I'm eagerly awaiting her newest, The Secret of a Heart Note, which comes out in a few weeks.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Dear America: A City Tossed and Broken by Judy Blundell; The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman; and a little of Nancy Herriman's Old San Francisco mystery novels [No Comfort for the Lost; No Pity for the Dead])

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Searing, Plotless I Will Send Rain a Devastating, Depressing Read

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For 19 years, Annie Bell has lived on a farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle with her husband and children.  Of a practical nature, she does what needs to be done.  Foolish notions—like abandoning their failing farm—have no place inside her head.  Instead, she must do what she always does: keep going.  This is becoming increasingly difficult as drought cracks the earth beneath her feet, the farm disintegrates before her eyes, and worry for her starving children and fanatical husband worry her heart.  Annie's neighbors are deserting Mulehead in droves.  Should the Bells follow?

As dust storms continue to swirl around the Bells, each member of the family—rational Annie, visionary Samuel, restless Birdie, and sickly Fred—will have his/her own challenges to face.  With drought strangling their hope, it will take every ounce of determination they possess just to survive.  In a bleak, devastating time and place, what will happen to one ordinary Dust Bowl family?  

A "cheery Dust Bowl story" is an oxymoron, of course, but I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows was even more depressing than I thought it would be.  The setting is so vivid that the reader can feel the characters' heartbreaking despair as well as their desperate hope.  Plot wise, the story doesn't go much of anywhere, making the tale seem extra long and dull.  That, along with its bleak, unflinching tone made this novel a difficult read for me.  I cared about the characters, but the book was so sad and depressing that I couldn't wait to finish it.    

(Readalikes:  Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), sexual content, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, December 02, 2016

Dust Bowl Novel-in-Verse Tells a Gritty, Unforgettable Tale

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More than anything, 14-year-old Billie Jo Kelby wants to leave.  Leave drought-choked Oklahoma.  Leave the crumbling family farm.  Leave her broken father.  Leave behind the grief and guilt she carries over her mother's death.  It's 1934; plenty of folks are abandoning their failing farms for brighter prospects out West.  Billie Jo longs to follow.  If only her hands hadn't been burned to useless stumps in the fire that killed her mother, she could make a living playing the piano.  If only ifs weren't all she had.

As Billie Jo tries to eke out a life in a difficult, desolate landscape, she'll have to rely on her own cunning, bravery, and determination to survive.  Fortunately, she has all of these in spades.

Told in free verse, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse is a raw, powerful read that is as spare as it is evocative.  The setting comes to life so vividly that you can feel the grit between your teeth, taste it in your throat, and feel it stinging your eyes.  This overpowering imagery makes Out of the Dust truly unforgettable.  Billie Jo, herself, is almost as compelling as her surroundings.  She's courageous, real, and wholly sympathetic.  Although this novel is written for young readers, it's not a gentle story.  In fact, it's harsh, haunting, and heartbreaking.  It's also an inspiring tale that will make you think long, long after you finish it.  If you enjoy historical novels, I highly recommend this noteworthy Newbery winner

(Readalikes: I haven't read any other children's books about the Dust Bowl, but Out of the Dust reminded me of adult novels like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows)

Grade: 


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for disturbing subject matter (death, child abandonment, suicide, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Dickens Biography Paints An Intriguing Portrait of a Colorful, Complex Man

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Back in June, I was taking a college class on family history and was given an assignment to research an ancestor by taking a close look at the time and place in which they lived.  One of the methods we could use was to read biographies of famous people who were contemporaries (both in time and place) of said ancestor.  Since my great-great grandfather was born in England less than 20 years after Charles Dickens, I thought it would be intriguing to study up on the well-known novelist.  After reading reviews of a number of biographies, I chose Charles Dickens: A Life by American novelist Jane Smiley.  At just over 200 pages, it's a short but fascinating portrait of one of the most influential men in the history of English literature.

Born on February 7, 1810, Charles was the second of eight children.  His father, a clerk for the Navy Pay Office, was an unscrupulous debtor; when he was imprisoned, Charles had to quit school and work long, grueling hours in a factory to support the family.  This humiliating experience made a lasting impression on Charles, who spent his life championing the poor and unfortunate.  

Despite his low-class background and lack of education, Charles became an almost instant success in the literary world.  While working as a parliamentary reporter, Charles published his first sketch in 1833 at 21 years old.  This and subsequent sketches were unique in that they featured characters and scenes from the lower classes of London society.  Despite the less than highbrow subject matter, Charles' sketches were well-received.  They, along with later writings, proved him to be a keen observer, a philosopher, and a man who knew how to keep readers enthralled.  He went on to pen 15 novels, as well as numerous letters, plays, etc.  A tireless writer and editor, Charles was also a social commentator, an activist, and a philanthropist.  His work, which was popular in his day, continues to be relevant in ours.  Many modern readers adore Dickens, especially his iconic holiday story, A Christmas Carol.  The beloved author died June 9, 1870, in Kent.  

Charles Dickens: A Life draws an intimate, intriguing picture of the acclaimed author.  Although I think I would have preferred a more linear biography, I did enjoy the way Smiley dissected his various works, showing how they were influenced by what was happening in Dickens' life at the time.  Charles Dickens: A Life is not exactly a page turner, but it does make for an interesting read.  Overall, I enjoyed it and learned a great deal about a colorful, complex man.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, non-graphic references to sex and prostitution

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

Eerie, Atmospheric Setting Makes Shetland Murder Mystery Even More Compelling

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for White Nights, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Raven Black.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

It's an unsettling time of year on the Shetland Islands.  Summer daylight stretches past midnight, creating interminable "white nights."  It's enough to drive a person crazy, hence local terms like "midsummer madness" and "summer din."  Perhaps it's the eerie weather that drives a stranger to burst into a local art show, break into tears, then disappear as mysteriously as he appeared.  Later, the man is found dead in a nearby boat shed.  Although suicide is first expected, it soon becomes apparent that the stranger has been murdered.  Who is the dead man?  What was he doing in an isolated community like Biddista?  Who killed him?

Detective Jimmy Perez is tasked with answering these questions.  His investigation focuses on a colorful local artist, although he deems all residents of the seaside community suspect.  The arrival of a slick city detective intent on showing up the local yokel complicates matters.  As does Jimmy's new romance with single mom Fran Hunter.  When more remains turn up, Perez finds himself digging through not just Biddista's present dramas, but also the secrets of its past.

I enjoy a good mystery set in an exotic locale and White Nights by Ann Cleeves certainly qualifies.  The second book in her Shetland series, the thriller is tense and compelling, with a spectral setting that gives it an extra layer of creepiness.  Although the story sags a little in the middle, the plot kept me turning pages.  The identity of the murderer surprised me, which is always a bonus!  All in all, I enjoyed this one and am eager to read the next book in the series.  

(Readalikes:  Other books in Cleeves' Shetland series, including Raven Black; Red Bones; Blue Lightning; Dead Water; Thin Air; and Cold Earth)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb plus milder expletives), violence, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Gentle Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire/September 11th Story Thoughtful and Compelling

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's been ten years since the Twin Towers collapsed, killing hundreds of people including Taryn Michaels' husband.  Although working at a specialty fabric store and raising her 9-year-old daughter have kept her busy, Taryn still grieves the man she lost too early.  When a 9/11 anniversary story in the newspaper gives her a clue to solving the mystery that's haunted her for a decade, she leaps at the chance to do achieve some closure in the hopes of finally being able to move on with her life.  As she traces the history of a lovely, antique scarf given to her by a heroic stranger, Taryn finds herself drawn in to a century-old story with strange similarities to her own.

In 1911, Clara Wood works as a nurse on Ellis Island.  Living in the hospital dormitory means she rarely has to enter New York City, a place too haunted by memories of the man she loved and the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that stole his life.  It's while caring for a feverish patient who's mourning the recent death of his wife that Clara becomes intrigued by a colorful scarf bearing the name "Lily."  As Clara tries to unravel its mystery, she makes startling discoveries about the article, its owner, and herself.

Two remarkable women—separated by a century, but united by a shared mission—will discover truth and rebirth in a city full of both hope and heartache. 

After reading Margaret Peterson Haddix's Uprising, I wanted to learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner came up in a Google search and I'm so glad it did.  It's a compelling novel full of interesting characters with engrossing dilemmas.  The story's gentle, but impacting.  It's an enjoyable read and one that has stuck with me.  This is my first Meissner book and I'm looking forward to exploring more of the author's work.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Gripping YA Novel Brings Historic Workplace Tragedy to Vivid, Mesmerizing Life

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Until 9/11, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire had the dubious distinction of being the worst workplace disaster in New York City's history.  And yet, I knew little about it.  Uprising, Margaret Peterson Haddix's excellent novel about the incident, changed that.  The affecting tale puts a very human face on the fire—its causes, its effects, and the disastrous toll it took on the city's most vulnerable citizens.  It's a fascinating story based on horrifying true events.

Uprising features three very different young women: Bella Rossetti, a starry-eyed Italian immigrant whose dreams of a shiny new American life are quickly being shattered by the grimy reality; Yetta, a 14-year-old Jew from Russia, who attends union meetings in an attempt to create a better working environment for her and the other girls at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; and Jane Wellington, a bored society girl who seeks illicit excitement at the front of the picket line, only to find herself sucked into a cause that will change her forever.  The fates of the three intertwine in the days leading up to the tragedy.  

On March 25, 1911, Bella, Yetta, and Jane are all inside the Asch Building when fire breaks out in its upper floors.  Through their eyes, we see the panic that ensued.  Workers, who were regularly locked inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to prevent theft, struggled to get out of the burning building.  With bulky sewing equipment to dodge, one fire escape for the whole structure, and few other safety features, it was a death trap.  The blaze spread rapidly, ultimately leading to the deaths of 146 terrified employees.  In grim detail, Haddix brings these events to vivid life, creating a picture that will linger in readers' heads long after they finish Uprising.  It's no wonder this preventable tragedy continues to haunt us—even 100 years later, the horror of it all is difficult to process.  Haddix recounts it brilliantly in this mesmerizing, compelling tale featuring a trio of brave, resilient young women who symbolize the real people who suffered poverty, pain, and privation in pursuit of the American dream.  If you're up for a gripping, very affecting historical novel, look no further than Uprising.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly and of A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, sexual innuendo, vague references to prostitution, and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Seventh Armand Gamache Mystery As Appealing as the First

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for A Trick of the Light, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Armand Gamache mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

While the good folks of Three Pines are gathered at the Morrows' home celebrating the opening of Clara's solo art show, something sinister is happening in the garden.  Lillian Dyson, a venomous art critic, is dead, her neck broken.  The woman's presence is almost as shocking as her death.  What was Lillian, an uninvited guest universally hated in the art world, doing at a casual, small town party?  Why did no one see her until her until her corpse was discovered in the garden?  Plenty of people (including Clara Morrow) had reason to want Lillian dead, but who put their murderous thoughts into action?

Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûcreté du Québec, is as flummoxed by the case as everyone else.  In an industry bursting at the seams with ego and artifice, he knows, little is as it seems.  To find a killer, Gamache must do what he does best:  "Gamache went there.  To the end of the known world and beyond.  Into the dark, hidden places.  He looked into the crevices, where the worst things hid" (110).  As he digs into the motives of his Three Pines friends and their colleagues, Gamache will, indeed, discover some shocking secrets.  One of which led to cold-blooded murder.

I adore Louise Penny's Armand Gamache novels, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed A Trick of the Light, the seventh book in the series.  It's always interesting to visit Three Pines and discover more of what lurks beneath its placid surface.  Armand Gamache is a consistent pleasure to be around—his kind, gentleman-ly ways make him a unique character in crime fiction.  I especially liked all the reveals and surprises in A Trick of the Light, even though some of them made me sad.  This series just keeps getting better for me and I can't wait to read the next book.  And the next, and the next ...

(Readalikes:  Other books in the series, including Still Life; A Fatal Grace; The Cruelest Month; A Rule Against Murder; The Brutal Telling; Bury Your Dead; The Hangman [novella]; The Beautiful Mystery; How the Light Gets In; The Long Way Home; The Nature of the Beast; and A Great Reckoning)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, November 07, 2016

Shetland Islands Series Opener A Twisty, Atmospheric Mystery

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

New Year's Eve on the Shetland Islands is a time of cheerful celebration.  On hogmanay night, it's a tradition for friends to call on one another, sharing food, drink, and conversation as they ring in the new year together.  For eight years, Magnus Tait has waited for visitors to call on him.  No one ever has.  Until now.  

The next morning, one of those visitors is found dead.  Catherine Ross, a 16-year-old incomer from Yorkshire, has been murdered.  Is slow, reclusive Magnus to blame for her death?  There seems to be no other explanation.

As Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez investigates the crime, he delves far deeper into town history and Shetland's past than is comfortable for the people of Ravenswick.  Will long-buried secrets explain what happened to Catherine Ross?  Is someone willing to kill in order to make sure they never come to light?

There's nothing I like better than a twisty murder mystery set in a rugged, remote location.  Raven Black, the first in Ann Cleeves' series of thrillers set in the Shetland Islands, is exactly that.  With an atmospheric setting, more-than-meets-the-eye characters, and a complex plot, it makes for a very compelling read.  Cleeves' examination of Shetland history/culture enrich the tale, adding to its originality.  While I saw some of its plot surprises coming, I still found Raven Black to be an engrossing, entertaining mystery.  I've already read several more books in the series and definitely plan to catch Shetland, the BBC drama based on them.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves [White Nights; Red Bones; Blue Lightning; Dead Water; Thin Air; Cold Earth] as well as Sacrifice by Sharon Bolton)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Whistling Past the Graveyard A Compelling Family Drama with a Side of Southern

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Starla Claudelle has already been on restriction twice since school let out.  If her Mamie finds her sneaking out of the house on the Fourth of July, the 9-year-old will surely be grounded for life.  Not willing to risk that fate, Starla makes good on the threat she's been taunting her grandmother with for years—she runs away.  She can't appeal to her father, who works on an oil rig in the Gulf.  He'd side with his mother anyway.  That leaves Starla's mom, who left six years ago to pursue a singing career in Nashville.  Surely, she's a rich, famous crooner by now, one who will graciously welcome home her long-lost daughter.

Before she gets anywhere close to Nashville, Starla is picked up by Eula, a black maid traveling with a white baby.  Little James isn't the only thing Eula's hiding.  Pretty soon, all three of them are on the run, hoping to find safety in Tennessee.  Along the way, they'll encounter plenty of trouble, redemption, and, maybe, a little of the salvation of which all of them are in need.  Marked by adventure, hardship, heartache, and joy, it's a road trip that will forever change Starla's life.  

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall is a warm Southern novel set in 1963 that explores the many meanings of family.  Starla is a bright spitfire of a girl, a mischievous heroine who's pretty much irresistible.  Her spot-on narration, plus an engrossing plot make this novel an enjoyable read.  Although the story brings up some hard issues, for the most part Whistling Past the Graveyard is an upbeat, heartwarming tale that will appeal to anyone who enjoys family dramas with a side of Southern.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Signed, Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams and The Help by Kathryn Stockett)

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder expletives), violence, and disturbing themes (child abuse, racism, attempted rape, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Whistling Past the Graveyard at Target with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Life's Trials Got You Down? Try This Inspirational Collection for a Quick, Encouraging Boost.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In a world so full of chaos and struggle, it's easy to get bogged down by life.  Teens, especially, have a difficult path to navigate.  As they try to figure out the answers to life's big questions while, at the same time, creating their own unique identities, well, it's easy to get lost, discouraged, and depressed.  Sometimes it's a comfort to know that others have trod the same trail.  Often, it's inspiring to hear their stories.  Frequently, it's buoying to learn how others have overcome their own trials.  

The aim of You've Got This!, a new compilation of essays by popular LDS authors/speakers, is to lift up the hands that hang down.  Especially geared toward teens, it features eight selections by a variety of people who've experienced a wide range of life struggles.  From Chad Hymas, who became a quadriplegic after being crushed by a 2000-pound hay bale; to Tamu Smith, who was snubbed after her friends found out her mother was in prison; to Al Fox Carraway, who was shunned by everyone she knew after joining the LDS Church, the writers are well acquainted with grief. They're also familiar with the steps that need to be taken in order to turn that sorrow and despair into triumph over the challenges that have gotten them down. 

Because the authors featured in this collection are religious people, their stories emphasize reliance on God and faith as sources of strength.  Still, you don't need to be LDS to appreciate their counsel.  If you are a member of the Church, you will especially appreciate Zandra Vanes' stories about Mr. Lee and Carraway's stories about feeling like a fish out of water at church.  Really, though, these essays can uplift and inspire anyone, regardless of age or religion.  If you know a teen who's in need of a boost, this short, easy-to-read collection might be just what they need.  Despite a few copyediting issues, it's a gem.

(Readalikes:  Other inspirational essays by popular LDS speakers/writers, including John Bytheway, Brad Wilcox, Hank Smith, Emily Watts, etc.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for nothing offensive

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of You've Got This! from the generous folks at Cedar Fort.  Thank you!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Niven's Newest About Being Yourself, Being Brave, and Being Kind

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Libby Strout has already lived through her worst nightmare.  After a massive weight gain following her mother's sudden death, Libby had to be cut and craned out of her home.  The videos went viral, earning her the nickname "America's Fattest Teen."  A 300+ weight loss has given the 16-year-old some confidence and Libby's ready to give real life a do-over.  At 351 lbs., she knows she'll still be a target, but maybe this time, her classmates will look beyond her weight and get to know her for the smart, spunky person she really is. 

Jack Masselin goes to great pains to be the cool guy around school.  If the 17-year-old can fake it well enough, no one will know about the secrets he hides.  His prosopagnosia makes recognizing people—even his own family—almost impossible sometimes.  No one can know about this freaky little side effect of his screwed-up brain.  He hides it, as well as problems at home, by being smooth, charming, and sometimes, a class A jerk.

When a horrifying prank ends with Libby and Jack in detention together, the two make a surprising connection.  Libby doesn't trust Jack's new attentiveness and Jack's not sure his cool factor can survive an unwitting attraction to the resident fat girl.  Can two very different teens look past their own anger, anxiety, and prejudice to really see each other?  If they're honest with each other, can they finally be real with themselves?  

Holding Up the Universe, Jennifer Niven's newest contemporary YA, tells an affecting story about two teens searching for themselves in the confusing corridors of high school.  Libby, of course, is wholly sympathetic.  Bold and sassy, she's easy to cheer on, easy to root for.  Jack's initial jerkiness makes him a little less appealing, but his vulnerability and changed ways makes up for it in the end.  While Holding Up the Universe definitely has its dark moments, overall it's a bright, encouraging story that teaches important lessons about being yourself, being brave, and being kind.  The plot gets idealistic, also a tad unrealistic as Jack (eventually) shows way more maturity than any high school boy I've ever known.  A PG-13 version of this book would have been more enjoyable for me (and easier to recommend), but all in all, I enjoyed Holding Up the Universe.

(Readalikes:  Wonder by R.J. Palacio; Butter by Erin Jade Lange; Skinny by Donna Cooner; and A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Holding Up the Universe from the generous folks at Penguin Random House.  Thank you!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Colorful, Comic Book-Style Picture Book Urges Kids to Defend Families

(Image from the author's blog)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long championed the family as a sacred institution ordained of God.  It has always urged its members to honor and protect this most precious of God's gifts.  How?  By using the formula reiterated in the Church's 1995 proclamation to the world: "Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities."  Of course, Mormon families vary as much as any others, meaning they don't always fit this LDS "ideal."  And yet, this is what members of the faith try to cultivate, believing that strong families lead to strong individuals, strong communities, and strong nations.  

Benjamin Hyrum White's new book, Defenders of the Family, seeks to bring this message to children.  With bright, comic book-style illustrations (by Jay Fontano) and simple, but direct statements about LDS beliefs, the book provides a solid foundation for learning about subjects that can be both confusing and controversial—gender identification, marriage, gender roles, procreation, etc.  The principles are laid out firmly in black-and-white (so to speak) while still maintaining this overall message:  "We can love and show kindness for everyone while standing up for what we believe."  

While Defenders of the Family makes a point of portraying some non-traditional situations, against-the-LDS-norm families are not necessarily highlighted.  However, any family can benefit from reading this book together—all of the topics presented can lead to open, honest, and enlightening conversations that will promote greater communication and understanding within a family unit.  

If you're looking for an engaging, straightforward picture book about LDS beliefs on marriage and family, you can't go wrong with Defenders of the Family

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

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To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Defenders of the Family from the generous folks at Cedar Fort.  Thank you!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Alaskan Mystery Series Off to an Intriguing Start

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After her throat is nearly slit in a knife fight with a child molester, Aleut detective Kate Shugak retreats to the Alaskan bush to (figuaratively) lick her wounds.  Haunted by her days as a sex crimes investigator in Anchorage, the 30-year-old desperately needs time away.  There's no better place to be alone than the wilderness, where she leads a solitary existence with just her wolf-dog, Mutt.  

When a very green park ranger from Ohio goes missing in the bush, Kate is called in to investigate.  Mark Miller, the 21-year-old son of a U.S. Congressman, is an enthusiastic and naive supporter of opening federal lands to outsiders.  Did he tick off the wrong local?  Or just get lost in the vast and vicious Alaskan wilderness?  Kate suspects the former.  Determined to figure out what happened to the congressman's kid, she sifts through clues that point in an ever more sinister direction.  Can Kate keep her own demons at bay long enough to find the answers she seeks?  Can she solve a mystery, the investigation of which is becoming more and more dangerous every day?  Or will Kate be the next person to mysteriously disappear in the harsh Alaskan bush?

A Cold Day for Murder, the first novel in Dana Stabenow's popular mystery series starring Kate Shugak, brings Alaska to vivid life, introducing colorful characters, complex politics, and a beautiful, unforgiving landscape. The story also offers a pull-no-punches plot with a very intriguing heroine at its center.  A study in contrasts, Kate is tough but compassionate, cold but warm, angry but accommodating (at least when someone needs her help).  It's difficult not to admire her tenacity.  Although A Cold Day for Murder gets slow in places, overall it tells a compelling story.  It's gritty and gruesome, true, but it's also surprisingly funny at times.  For the most part, I enjoyed it.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Wild Inside by Christine Carbo; the Lizzy Snow series [Winter at the Door; The Girls She Left Behind]  by Sarah Graves; the Anna Pigeon series [Track of the Cat; etc.] by Nevada Barr; and the Bell Elkins series [A Killing in the Hills; Bitter River; Summer of the Dead; Last Ragged Breath; Sorrow Road; and Fast Falls the Night] by Julia Keller)

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If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, blood/gore, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter (child abuse, alcohol abuse, poverty, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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