Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Some "Lucky 13" Winners

Thirteen years ago today, my new husband and I were driving from Washington State back to Provo, Utah, where we both attended college at BYU. We were driving a luxurious Chrysler, the nicest car either one of us had ever been inside. A week earlier, we'd gotten up bright and early to pick up our rental car and head to Washington to get married. When the guy at the rental place learned that we were only 21, he explained that we were too young to rent the car we had reserved. Needless to say, we were a tiny bit frantic. When we told him that we were heading to Washington to get married, he not only changed our ages to 25 on the computer, but he upgraded us to a luxury vehicle. The good thing about driving all that way is that we did it in style! We were giddy about getting back to our crappy Provo apartment and starting our "real life" together. Thirteen years have gone by fast and they've been very, very happy. I'm grateful for a loving husband who supports his family, dotes on his kids, always puts my needs before his own, and does it all with kindness and good humor. I think I'll keep him around for a while :)

The hubs likes to call himself my second love (after this blog), so I'll stop gushing and get back to business ... I (Random.org, actually) picked the winners in the two giveaways I've been running:

Susan G. won an ARC of Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

&

FieryIceFantasy won an ARC of Firelight by Sophie Jordan

Congratulations! FIF, if you'll email me your snail mail address, I'll get the book out to you ASAP. Susan, I know where you live (unless you've moved in the past 2 years??) - if you'll shoot me an email, we can arrange a time for me to drop the book off at your house.

Thanks, everybody, for entering! Stay tuned for more fun giveaways.

P.S. Please remember that ARCs are unedited copies of new books. It's illegal to sell or auction them off. They cannot really be donated either. After you've read the ARC, feel free to keep it for yourself, pass it on to a friend or recycle it. Thanks for respecting the ARCs! I, for one, would be devastated if publishers stopped offering ARCs because of people using them irresponsibly.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dairy Queen Udderly Satisfying

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In a perfect world, 15-year old D.J. Schwenk wouldn't spend every waking hour milking cows. She wouldn't be too burdened by farmwork to study, play sports or hang out with her friends. In this blissful fantasy, she would still spend a reasonable amount of time helping out on her family's dairy farm - she would just get to have a life, too. But this isn't a perfect world. It's Wisconsin. Ever since D.J.'s dad messed up his hip moving the manure spreader, her mother got a second job to take up the slack, and her older brothers took off to pursue their football careers, it's been up to D.J. to keep the farm running. She's been doing a pretty good job of it, thank you very much, not that anyone ever acknowledges her hard work. The Schwenks are too busy ignoring their problems to focus on hers.

Like the cows with whom she spends all her time, D.J. does what she's told. Until a football coach helps her come to a startling realization: Not only is she good at farming, she's got some serious football skills, too. She should - as Bill and Win Schwenk's younger sister, she's been watching and playing the game all her life. So, when the coach suggests that she help one of his athletes train, she decides to go for it. Her family wouldn't approve, so she doesn't tell them what she and Brian Nelson are really up to. It isn't just about training either. D.J.'s been crushing on Brian forever - as unbelievable as it sounds, it's starting to seem as if he might like her, too. Then, D.J. has her next big idea, one that's sure to rile up her family, turn Brian against her forever, and make her life about as pleasant as a cowpie in a flower garden. Making her dreams come true shouldn't be this difficult, should it?

Just to complicate matters, D.J. has to deal with her brothers, two of whom aren't speaking to the rest of the family, the other of whom has nearly stopped talking altogether. Then, there's her best friend, Amber, who's acting awfully strange and her mother, who's keeping a potentially explosive secret. D.J.'s not prone to chatter, but even she realizes that there's a whole lot of stuff that's going unsaid. The silent avoidance of, well, everything, is driving D.J. mad. Can she learn to speak up about things that are important to her? Or is she just another cow on a dairy farm, content to stay out of the way and keep chewing her cud?

Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdock's debut novel, is about a lot of things - farming, football, friendship - but mostly it's about finding your voice. It's about speaking up, confronting your fears, and making your dreams come true. All of which makes the book sound more austere than it really is. Luckily, D.J. keeps things from getting too serious by employing her very charming brand of self-deprecating sarcasm. She's tough, funny, and entirely sympathetic. She's not the only character that marched right into my heart, either - I loved the whole quirky lot of them. I could have done without the Amber subplot, but all in all, Dairy Queen's a fresh, enjoyable read that's udderly satisfying (sorry, I had to do it).

(Readalikes: I haven't read the rest of the trilogy yet, but I'm sure The Off Season and Front and Center are similar.)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), depictions of underrage drinking, and references (not graphic) to homosexuality

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Scholastic Loves Me, This I Know ...

My Facebook status for Tuesday read: Scholastic loves me, this I know, for the brand-new, free copy of Mockingjay sitting on my doorstep tells me so! You can imagine how many jealous comments I got, which is exactly why I posted it, of course :) I was thrilled to get the book, especially since so many people didn't receive their copies that day due to shortages. So, a huge shout out to Scholastic. They've always been incredibly generous to me and this just proves what a rocking company they are. Woot!

Considering I've had the book since Tuesday, you'd think I'd have burned through it by now. I tried. I read a few pages before I realized just how forgetful I'm getting in my old age - I could hardly remember the who's who and what's what of Panem. So, in order to do justice to Mockingjay, I'm re-reading the first two books so I can really enjoy the third. It's a testament to the awesomeness of The Hunger Games (and to the lousiness of my memory) that although I've already read it, I still can't wait to see what happens next!

Anyway, the point of all this rambling is to let you know that I may be MIA for the next few days while I concentrate on the Hunger Games trilogy. I'm avoiding all reviews of Mockingjay as well because I don't want any hints about what's going to happen. I'll post my review as soon as I can. Then, you can bet I'll be eager to discuss it.

In the meantime, I leave you with a few morsels to chew on until I get back:

- Don't forget to enter the two contests I have running - one is for an ARC of Paranormalcy by Kiersten White (click here), the other is for an ARC of Firelight by Sophie Jordan (click here). You can enter both and both are open internationally. They end on Monday, August 30 (my wedding anniversay - 13 years!). Good luck!

- Speaking of Facebook, check out that fancy badge on my left sidebar. I really only use Facebook to keep in touch with family and IRL friends, but I'd love if you became a fan of my BBB page. Now that I have the page, I'm not exactly sure what to do with it. Advice?

- My sister is hosting a book giveaway over at her homemaking blog, Martha-wannabe. The titles up for grabs are Once A Month Cooking and Once A Month Cooking Family Favorites. She hasn't had too many entrants, so the odds of winning are very good. While you're over there, give her some love - her birthday's on the 2nd, and her husband will be leaving soon for a long deployment in Afghanistan. Follow her, enter her contest, give a supportive Navy wife some encouraging words. Love ya, Pee Wee!

- Speaking of my sister, her good friend just started a book blog called Book Loving Mommy. Jessica was kind enough to give me the One Lovely Blog award. Thanks! Click on over to her blog and show her some love as well.

- It's been a few weeks since I participated in the Book Blogger Hop. Shame on me! Join in the fun over at Crazy for Books. The question of the week has to do with rating books. As you can see, I "grade" the books I read according the American grading system. It's sometimes hard to determine if a book deserves an A, B, C, D or F, but I try to be fair. I think it works pretty well. What do you think?

If you're here for the first time because of the Hop (or for any other reason), welcome! I'm always excited to hear from new readers and to discover new book blogs. Have a wonderful weekend, everybody.

Friday, August 27, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again - Or Can You?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

They say you can never go home again. Shey Lynne Darcy disagrees. She thinks her family's Texas ranch is the perfect place to lick her wounds after a disturbing revelation destroys her marriage. Although Shey's lived in New York for years, jet-setting all over the globe to model for the biggest names in the fashion industry, she likes the relaxed pace of the South. It suits the country girl that still dwells in her heart. She's not wild about the prospect of her hypercritical mother living near enough to visit, or her overprotective brothers watching her every move, and she's nervous about her boys, not all of whom are adapting well to life in Texas. But, she can't argue with free rent, the safe, small-town atmosphere, or the chance for her sons to build relationships with her family. She's determined to make it work.

Of course, it would be working a whole lot better if she and Dane Kelly weren't living in the same town. She's always had a thing for the rugged cowboy, even after he crushed her heart to pieces. Still yearning for her husband, Shey's startled to realize that the passion she's always felt for Dane is very much alive. The fact that he still doesn't seem to reciprocate her feelings doesn't make a difference - she wants him as much at 39 as she did at 16. With her heart tangled up in some very confusing knots, Shey doesn't know quite how to deal.

As if her traitorous feelings for Dane aren't enough to contend with, Shey's got sons in crisis - one's dying to be a bullrider, even though his father expressly forbids it; another's desperate to go back to his East Coast prep school; and the third is so moody it's scaring her. Add in her sister-in-law's shocking secret, her mother's threat to move home, and the scared girl Shey's taken under her wing - the country girl's got an awful lot on her plate. Sorting out her life, her goals and most of all, her heart, is going to be one heck of an undertaking. Do the answers wait on her backwater ranch or on the runways of New York? Can she find herself before she loses the people she loves most? Can she trust her heart to guide her or will it ended up shattered once again?

She's Gone Country by Jane Porter is the familiar story of a woman going back to her roots to find the self she's lost somewhere along the rocky path to adulthood. Shey's instantly sympathetic - she's a hard worker who's determined to rebuild her life, no matter what it takes. She's also charmingly impulsive and fiercely passionate about the people around her. Although you want to slap her at times, it's difficult not to root for Shey, whose heart is at least as big as her home state.

Unfortunately, there's so much going on in this story that it's hard to concentrate on any one plotline. Subplots meander all over the place - some are resolved, some aren't, which left me feeling unsatisfied. With all those problems bubbling up through the novel, Porter could have delivered a more suspenseful finale, but the book ends in the cheesiest, most predictable way possible. Not something I appreciated after wading through a story I already felt was overlong. There are definitely bright spots in the novel, but it took awhile for me to really get into it, and then it took some doing to keep me interested. If someone had chopped the book by about 100 pages, I would have been a whole lot happier with it.

All in all, She's Gone Country was just okay for me. Sorry, y'all.

(Readalikes: It's actually a little bit like Plus by Veronica Chambers as well as other going-back-home-to-find-yourself stories.)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs) and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of She's Gone Country from BookSparks PR in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fresh, Upbeat Perspective a Big Plus in Brainiac-Turns-Supermodel Story

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


Bee Wilson loves her life in New York. The brainy 17-year-old is taking advanced classes at Columbia University, tutoring an up-and-coming rapper for $20 an hour, and dating the most caring guy on Earth. When said boyfriend drops her like a ton of bricks, Bee's shattered. If Brian, the patron saint of lost causes, doesn't want her, who would? Drowning her sorrows in thick slices of pizza, takeout from Ollie's Noodle Shop, and giant muffins at Dean and DeLuca soothes her soul, but packs 25 extra pounds onto her tall frame. She's so down that she thinks it's a joke when a modeling scout encourages her to try plus-sized modeling. Only, the woman's serious. With the encouragement of a friend (another of Brian's scorned lovers), Bee checks out the gig. Before she can say "runway," she's jetting off to Italy, making $5000 a day to wear fancy clothes and smile into a camera.

Although modeling looks like the cakiest job around, Bee soon discovers it's a whole lot of work. Not only does she have to please picky photogs, but she has to work out with her personal trainer, attend "go sees," shun real food, and deal with jealous supermodels. There are perks, of course, like the clothes, the traveling, the chubby teenagers who look up to her, and the fact that Brian is going to come crawling back to her when he realizes how successful she is. The downside is her grades are slipping, her best friend's feeling neglected, her favorite rapper's not impressed with the new Bee, and Brian's nowhere in sight. Bee's working so hard to hold it all together - why is everything falling apart?

Everyone tells Bee the same thing: Just be yourself. But who is that, really? The Prada-clad supe grinning out at the world from billboards and magazine covers? Or the brainiac who spends all her time hiding out in the library? Is she some combination of the two or none of the above? Who does she have to be to get Brian back in her life? As Bee sashays down the runway, she'll have to decide who she is, what she wants, and where she's going. Along the way, she'll discover that things are rarely what they appear to be, disasters often beget opportunities, and the road to self-discovery can be the scariest, most exciting path a girl will ever travel.

Although Plus by Veronica Chambers delves into body issues, it's not one of those annoying how-I-learned-to-love-my-body books. Bee's not thrilled with her weight gain, but she's not obsessing about it either. She's okay with being plus-sized. The story's more about Bee finding her inner diva, summoning the strength and courage to be who she really is. I love that Plus radiates this fresh, healthy perspective. I also liked Bee's funny, down-to-Earth voice and the insider's look into worlds (Ivy League, modeling, New York glam) I have never - and will never - experience. It's a fun story. The plot is, of course, far-fetched and pretty predictable. It also meanders around quite a bit, becoming dull in places, thin in others. I got irritated with Bee's inability to see what was right in front of her (for a smart girl, she can be amazingly clueless) and I thought Chambers sometimes tried to hard to get the teenage lingo down. Plus isn't going to make my favorites list, but I still enjoyed this fresh, upbeat story about struttng your true self down the runway of life. The timeless message it preaches is always a good one: Bee You.

(Readalikes: Hm, I dunno on this one. Suggestions?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs) and sexual content

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

Monday, August 23, 2010

The One Where LDS Women Take Over the World


I'm still snickering over that title. I think it would make for an exciting new dystopian series. Can't you just see armies of Stepford-ish Mormon wives annihilating their enemies with green Jell-o and painstakingly-arranged centerpieces? All without mussing their layered T-shirts and cropped pants? Heh heh. I think I'm on to something here.

What I'm really talking about here is the crowd of LDS women writers who are dominating the YA scene, especially in the paranormal division. Authors like Stephenie Meyer, Shannon Hale and Jessica Day George are no strangers to the scene, but what about all those newbies generating major buzz in the blogosphere? I mean, seriously, they are making one big, old splash in the book world. Don't believe me? Check these sistas out:

Ally Condie - This lady, who cut her teeth on LDS fiction, has penned one of the most anticipated YA releases of the year. Matched is on everyone's Can't-Miss-It lists. I really enjoyed her middle grade book Freshman for President and cannot wait to read the highly-buzzed-about Matched (of which I have an ARC thanks to my wonderful contact at Dutton).

Bree Despain - The very fun Ms. Despain hit the literary world with The Dark Divine, the first of a trilogy featuring a boy with a dark secret and the preacher's kid who's helplessly in love with him. With the upcoming release (December 28th) of the next book in the series, The Lost Saint, she's got her fans salivating for more.

Becca Fitzpatrick - Fitzpatrick burst onto the scene with her New York Times bestselling novel Hush, Hush. With its sequel, Crescendo, appearing on bookshelves in October, she's another author who's just hot, hot, hot right now.
Lisa Mangum - Mangum's published two books in her paranormal series about a girl who falls very hard for the mysterious exchange student who shows up one day at her high school. Turns out, "mysterious" is an understatement - Dante's got some serious secret-keeping going on. Check out both The Hourglass Door and The Golden Spiral.

Aprilynne Pike - Pike made her debut with Wings, the story of a teenage girl who suddenly finds herself sprouting the title objects. Fans everywhere rejoiced when its sequel appeared in May. As one of those reviewers who was not all that impressed with the first book, I'm happy to hear reports that Spells is much, much better.

Christy Raedke - Although I had myself convinced that Christy was Mormon, it turns out she's only one by "osmosis" (her word), having hung out with lots of LDS kids when she was younger. She's Catholic, but I'm still giving her honorary LDS status. Check out her debut novel, Prophecy of Days: The Daykeeper's Grimoire.

Kiersten White - If you've been anywhere near the book blogosphere in the last few months, you've heard about Paranormalcy, White's debut novel about a girl who can see through the glamours of paranormal creatures. The book comes out on August 31 and everyone is clamoring to get it. Lucky for you, I happen to be giving away a copy. Check the contest out here.

On the less paranormal side, we have these ladies:

Lindsey Leavitt - Leavitt's debut, Princess for Hire, is a cute middle grade story about a girl who accepts a princess stand-in gig which leads to a bunch of hilarious adventures. The story's sweet, fun, and not finished; the sequel comes out in Spring 2011.

Angela Morrison - Angela's a local author who published her first book, Taken By Storm, a couple of years ago. She followed it up with Sing Me to Sleep, another YA novel that got great press from book bloggers. Those of us who adored TBS have been dying for its sequel, which Angela just self-published. It's available for download at Amazon now.

Janette Rallison - Janette really isn't a newcomer. In fact, she's one of the founding members of the LDS Women Take Over the World Society, since she's been publishing middle grade and YA books since the mid-90s. However, books like My Fair Godmother and My Double Life have made her a perennial MG/YA favorite. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the publication of My Unfair Godmother.

Emily Wing Smith - The very funny Emily Wing Smith debuted with The Way He Lived, a YA novel about a group of Mormon kids grappling with the unexpected death of another teenager. While I didn't love the subject matter of the book, the writing was excellent. I can't wait for her new novel, Back When You Were Easier to Love, which comes out next spring.

Becca Wilhite - Becca hasn't gotten nearly the attention she deserves for her sweet romances Bright Blue Miracle and My Ridiculous Romantic Obsessions. They're fun, clean, and upbeat. Definitely check her out.

Carol Lynch Williams - The Chosen One, Williams' award-winning novel about a young girl's escape from a polygamous sect, gained a lot of attention for this author. I didn't like her latest, Glimpse as well, but it's still a powerful book. Williams is one writer that I'm definitely keeping an eye on.

Among up-and-comers, whose YA novels will be published soon, is this lady, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in April at LDS Storymakers:

Elana Johnson - Johnson, a blogger extraordinaire and author of From Query to the Call, makes her YA debut next summer with Possessions. Can't wait!

I'm sure I'm missing some. Am I? Who?

See what I mean, though? LDS Women are ruling the YA world. I'm loving this trend. I've long suspected it, but now I know: those Mormon gals really can do it all. Rock (write?) on, ladies!

Cop-Out Ending Leaves Me Wanting a Touch More

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Maisie Willard's BFFs aren't into hunting for cute outfits at the mall, painting their toenails, or flipping through Seventeen magazine. Scarfing down pizza in front of Pimp My Ride is more their style. And that's okay with 14-year-old Maisie. Her besties are boys after all. Just because they don't dish about fashion doesn't mean she can't feel perfectly comfortable with Chris, Kevin and Shakes. They've been tight practically since they were born.

Then, Maisie decides to try living with her mom and stepdad in Milwaukee. After a year of dealing with Geoff, the uber whiner, she hightails it home, grateful to be back even if it means putting up with her stepmother who acts like she's "constantly auditioning for a TV series being filmed inside her own head" (12). Maisie doesn't feel any different than she did when she left, but she sure looks different. In the 12 months that have passed, she's filled out, developing curves that clearly say, "I'm not a kid anymore." It shouldn't be weird for the guys, right? They're still her best friends. Only it is weird, very weird.

Everything comes to a head one day in the back of the school bus. Betrayed by her truest buddies, Maisie is stunned and hurt. Before she can even process what has happened, the incident takes on a life of its own. Suddenly, there's a lawyer, therapist, and most of all, Maisie's drama queen stepmother involved. Joan insists on suing the school board, making sure the boys get severely punished for messing with her stepdaughter. But not everyone sees Maisie as a victim. Even Maisie's not sure that what happened really happened. She just wants to forget the whole mess and go back to the days when the world made sense.

As Maisie grapples with her memory, desperately trying to sift out the facts, she'll have to face the truth of what really occurred on that fateful day. Could her "friends" really have done what she thinks they did? Is she truly as innocent as she wants herself to be? Who's right? Who's wrong? How can she make it all go away?

Touch by Francine Prose provides a riveting look at the ways in which childhood innocence sometimes vanishes overnight. Throwing a cast of actualized characters into a blender full of truths, lies, and every shade of grey, makes the story both current and compelling. If it wasn't for the ending, which I felt was an unsatisfying mess of cop-out platitudes (realistic though it may be), I would have given it higher marks. As is, I don't think Prose did justice to her tough, feisty narrator and, darn it, I wanted some justice for Maisie. Without that, the story just isn't convincing enough for me. I guess you could say I needed a Touch more.

(Readalikes: Reminds me quite a bit of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs) and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Touch from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Holy Crab Cakes! This Is A Fun One ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Mermaids weren't meant to live on the land. Seventeen-year-old Lily Sanderson knows this, but hanging out up top is giving her valuable human experience. After living underwater her whole life, she's getting to know her human side, coming to understand her deceased mother a little more, and giving herself time to prepare for her role as reigning princess of Thalassinia. In a matter of weeks, she'll be sitting on her throne, a permanent resident of her underwater kingdom. All she needs to do now is convince her crush to become her prince. Swim star Brody Bennett is perfect for the job - handsome, athletic, and so comfortable in the water he might as well have gills. Lily knows he'll be thrilled with the idea of bonding with a bona fide mermaid - she just has to work up enough courage to ask him. Only one other person on land knows her secret. Can she muster up the moxie to confide in one more - a gorgeous high school god, no less?

Forgive My Fins by Tera Lynn Childs is a lighthearted story of one mermaid's quest for love - and all the obstacles that stand in her way. First, there's the fact that her tongue turns to cotton every time she tries to speak to her intended. Then, there's her biker boy neighbor Quince Fletcher, who lives to make her miserable and tries to thwart her every attempt at wooing Brody. And, of course, there's the whole rule that she has to find a prince (mermaids don't do the fling thing - they "bond" for life) before her 18th birthday. She only has a few weeks to get her dream guy on board or she'll lose her right to rule.

When Quince proposes a scheme to help Lily catch Brody, she's naturally suspicious. Also, desperate. When the plan goes completely awry, Lily finds herself in the thick of a tsunami-sized disaster. She's headed back to Thalassinia, alright, but with the wrong guy. Now, she has to race back to her kingdom, convince her father to break the false bond, zoom back to land, spill all her secrets to Brody, and bond to the right boy. Son of a sea witch, it's not going to be easy! It doesn't help that the bond is clearly working its magic on her frayed nerves and flip-flopping heart, because nothing else could explain the tender feelings she suddenly seems to have for the completely irritating Quince. If she doesn't take care of the catastrophe - and fast - she'll lose everything she's ever wanted.

What Forgive My Fins lacks in logic, it makes up for in enthusiasm. It's a funny, upbeat romance that will have readers cheering for the misguided mermaid. You'll want to strangle Lily for not seeing what's right in front of her, but that's true of a whole lot of teenage heroines. Mostly, you'll just roll your eyes at her antics and keep reading. The story really is enjoyable, there are just a few things that bugged me throughout the book - namely, the facts that no one seemed all that surprised to discover Lily's true identity, her struggle between the land and sea wasn't really that much of a struggle, and I never got why she cared about Brody at all. He's not the only character that cries out for development - every single one of them could have used a little complexity. My biggest issue, though, is with the book's finale. By the time we get to the end of the last chapter, we've got our sweet, satisfying (if predictable) ending. Then, out of nowhere, comes the Epilogue. To me it seemed tacked on, like Childs was forcing the story into a series, when it would have been perfectly complete as a stand-alone. Now, maybe all my complaints will be mollified as the tale goes on, but I'm not sure I care enough to continue with it.

Overall, I enjoyed the lightness of the book, especially considering the dark, melodramatic, obsessive romances so prevalent in YA paranormal books. I liked that it was upbeat, fun and a little zany. There just wasn't enough development to make any of it leap off the page for me. Once again, I have to say, loved the concept, not so thrilled about the execution. As I said before, I'm not sure I care enough to continue on with the story because, as you know, there are a whole lot of other fish (uh, mermaids) in the YA sea.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a lot of Firelight by Sophie Jordan [although Forgive My Fins isn't nearly as compelling] and other stories about half human/half paranormal teenagers)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs) and some sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Forgive My Fins from the very generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Of All the Twilight-y Books In All the World, I Had to Pick the Twilightiest ... And Love It! (With a Giveaway)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

All 16-year-old Jacinda Jones wants to do is fly. Not squabble with her sister. Not mate with a prince. Not have her every move scrutinized by her pride. Just fly. Soar above the clouds and forget all the complications that exist on the ground. Her body's made for flight, longs for it, thrives on it. Like her dragon ancestors, Jacinda is meant to be in the sky. She's Draki, through and through, and a fire-breather, no less. One of a kind. Special, even in a community of unique creatures. She never wanted the spotlight beaming down on her. All she's ever wished for is the freedom to glide through the clouds, letting her wings carry her above all the cares of the ordinary world.
Nothing is ever that simple, of course. As the only living fire-breather, Jacinda is responsible for saving her dying breed. By mixing her genes with those of royalty, she could give birth to a new, stronger generation of draki. And the sooner the better, at least according to the calculating king. Jacinda's not thrilled with her future as a broodmare, but she's willing to do anything to help her people. Just not yet. Right now, she's more interested in feeling the sun on her scales. It's forbidden, of course, to let humans see her in draki form, which means she's only allowed to fly at night. Her rebellious streak has already gotten her into trouble, but she can't fight the urge to soar into the rising sun. It's a risk she has to take, one that ends with her running through the forest, desperately trying to shake the draki hunters that are right on her tail. The ordeal brings her face-to-face with Will Rutledge, a handsome tracker who's not like his murderous cohorts.
Jacinda's little stunt endangers not only herself but her whole community. Terrified of the repercussions, she and her family flee their home in Oregon, heading for the arid Nevada desert. Leaving the draki life behind is agonizing for Jacinda. No matter how hard she tries, she can't seem to assimilate. Especially when she runs into a familiar face - Will's never seen her in human form, but he's still inexplicably drawn to her. Jacinda can feel him with every fiber of her being. Pushing herself away from him is impossible, but letting him in could mean death to herself and everyone she loves. If Will ever found out what Jacinda really is, he'd skin her alive and sell her parts to the highest bidder. Preservation of her kind means staying far, far away from Will Rutledge. If only she could ...
Of all the Twilight-y books out there, Firelight by Sophie Jordan might just be the Twilight-iest. Not because of vampires or werewolves, but because of the impossible, consuming romance between the main characters. I'm no Edward/Bella hater - I just like me some originality. And yet, I burned through this book so fast, I swear I saw smoke pluming from its pages. It's the kind of story that keeps you glued to your chair even though you've got a thousand other things you really should be doing. Firelight starts out with an intriguing spark and ends with a raging inferno. It doesn't even come out until September 7 and I'm already dying for the next installment. Love it, love it, love it.
That being said, it's not a perfect book. Most of the characters need a good fluffing out, including the already appealing Will. The romance between Jacinda and Will seemed to develop awfully fast. It also got a little melodramatic at times. My biggest pet peeve, however, is this: Jordan never explains how Jacinda ends up in the exact town Will lives in. A coincidence like that is too big to leave unexplored. The fact that Jordan never addresses it bugged me throughout the whole book. I assume it will be justified in one of the sequels - Jordan's too careful a writer to let something like that slip - but I wanted it dealt with in Firelight.
Despite that big annoyance, Firelight kept me totally enthralled. I didn't want to put it down ... so, I didn't.
(Readaikes: reminded me a lot of Twilight, the Need books by Carrie Jones, Forgive My Fins by Tera Lynn Childs, and others)
Grade: B+
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), underrage drinking, and fantasy violence
To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Firelight from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!
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Thanks to the incredibly generous people at HarperTeen, I have an extra ARC of Firelight. If you're interested in winning it, comment on this post, answering this question: An incredible crop of Fall books are coming out this year - which titles are you dying to get your hands on? Please also leave your contact information. If you don't have a public blog that you check often, I'm going to need an e-mail address. The contest is international and runs until August 30. Good luck!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Jellicoe Road: Yeah, It's That Good

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


There is a road in the Australian wilderness. Prettiest road you ever saw. Trees drape over its path, forming what's surely a tunnel to Shangri-la. Ordinary things happen here - travelers coast along, headed for the ocean; cars break down; children guide their bikes through the paths on its shoulders; and would-be cadets spill out of a school bus, anxious to play war games in the bush. Sometimes, though, the not-so-ordinary happens near the road: troubled children battle each other in a fierce territory war; unlikely friendships form; a lost girl finds a home; an alleged murderer looks for peace. It might look like any other country lane, but Jellicoe Road holds secrets. And pain. And, maybe, redemption.

Winner of the Printz Award for 2009, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta tells the story of 17-year-old Taylor Markham, one of the misfit students at the Jellicoe School. Considering some of the juvenile delinquents she goes to school with every day, Taylor's story may not be all that remarkable. Still, being abandoned at a 7-11 at the age of 6 is nothing to scoff at. Neither is watching a man commit suicide in front of you. It's no wonder, really, that Taylor ran away from boarding school at age 14. She would have made it all the way to Sydney, too, if it wasn't for a certain cadet-in-training. Through every bump in her particular pathway, Taylor's found only one person she can trust - her 30-something-year-old guardian, Hannah. As loyal as the older woman is, though, even Hannah keeps a little distance from Taylor. Maybe she's afraid of the teenager's anger. Maybe it's her own mysterious sadness. Whatever the reason, Taylor's glad to be boarding in Lachlan House instead of bunking in Hannah's unfinished house by the river.

As much as Taylor's tried to keep herself apart from everyone else, this year she's been elected as House leader. The position mostly involves mothering the younger students, something Taylor wants no part of. It's only the annual territory wars that interest her. The ongoing feud between Jellicoe students, the Townies, and the Cadets who practice maneuvers nearby requires careful navigation, skillful negotiation, and the kind of toughness that Taylor has in spades. This year's war is especially heated as the Cadet's leader is none other than Jonah Griggs, the same young soldier that ratted on runaway Taylor. The Jellicoe kids have a score to settle with their opponents - and this time, it's personal.

Overwhelmed by her new responsibilities - and the disarming Jonah - Taylor heads to Hannah's house for solace. Only to find her guardian gone. With a serial killer hunting the area, some people fear the worst. Taylor's more angry than worried - adults, it seems, are always abandoning her - until an intruder tries to abscond with the pages of a manuscript Hannah's been working on for years. The story's always intrigued Taylor, but why would anyone else want it? Could it be more than just a novel? Do the pages hold clues to not only Hannah's current whereabouts, but to the despair that always seems to hover over her like a rain cloud?

As the past and present collide, Taylor grapples with secrets, half-remembered dreams, and startling revelations. Unraveling the mysteries of Jellicoe Road means discovering truths Taylor's always wanted to know - things about Hannah, about Jonah, and most of all, about herself.

It's hard to do justice to the brilliance of Jellicoe Road in a four paragraph summary. The story's so heavily nuanced that the plot points become almost irrelevant. It's the characters who really drive the story. It's impossible not to care about the tough, but hurting, Taylor and her funny, oddball friends. The mystery of her past is not all that mysterious - I had it figured out long before she did. As much as predictability usually bugs me, it didn't in this book. Maybe it's because it all felt pre-destined, utterly inevitable, or maybe it's because there are so many other things to love about this book. Whatever the reason, Jellicoe Road charmed me, moved me, and propelled me to stick every novel Marchetta has written on my reserve list at the library. Yeah, it's that good.

(Readlikes: I really can't think of any. Can you?)

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Jellicoe Road from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Annexed Tells Peter's Side of the Anne Frank Story

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Anne Frank began her diary, she had no idea that one day, it would be read by millions of people. Neither did Peter Van Pels. He could not have foreseen that the world would come to know him based on the scribblings of a 13-year-old girl. If he had lived (he died at Mathausen in 1945), what would he have thought of her portrayal of him? Would he agree with her observations or vehemently deny them? If Peter had kept a diary, what would he have said about Anne, Margot, Otto and the rest of his Annex roommates? The answers to these questions will never be known. In Annexed (available October 2010), Sharon Dogar's fictionalized account of Peter's ordeal, the British author imagines what he might have thought, felt and experienced. It's a sensitive, realistic portrayal of a young man the world will only ever know through the eyes of another.

The story, which moves between Peter's days in the death camps, and those he spends in the Annex, begins on the morning Peter goes into hiding: July 13, 1942. Although the 16-year-old is grateful to the Franks for allowing his family to join them in the Annex, he's not looking foward to spending his time cooped up inside. And with annoying Anne Frank, no less. Desperately missing his (fictional) girlfriend, Liese, Peter's sad and moody, knowing he'll most likely never see her again. His new life holds little interest for him. He can only read so many books, draw so many pictures. Peter longs to be outside, running free. But, he can't leave the prison of the Annex. Nor can he run, shout, peek his head out the window, or let his guard down. Ever. His life, and those of his family, depend on staying quiet, hidden away.

Naturally, the people in the Annex grow bored, quickly becoming irritated with one another. The women bicker, Otto Frank tries to keep the peace, and Anne never stops talking. Or writing in her infernal diary. Peter can't escape his father's scrutiny or Dr. Pfeffer's unpleasant smells. He has no privacy, nowhere to really be alone. Through their forced togetherness, Peter and Anne eventually form a close friendship. Despite a crowd of prying eyes, their relationship blossoms into a romance full of stolen moments in which they share their thoughts, dream of better times, and try to keep their raging hormones in check. When betrayal leads all of the Annex's occupants to Nazi death camps, Peter mourns the days of relative peace spent hidden away. Mostly, he grieves for Anne, the girl he loves. As he lays dying, it's her he thinks of, her he longs to see, her for whom he pines.

Like most Holocaust stories, Annexed is horrifying, yet strangely compelling. Largely unsentimental, the book's nonetheless a moving tale of a boy's desperate fight for survival against insurmountable odds. It's bleak, depressing and hopeful all at the same time. Although the book's publication has been marred by controversy (click here and here for more info), I didn't find Dogar's portrayals of Peter, Anne, or the other "characters" in the story at all offensive. We'll never know what truly happened in the Annex and that's okay. Personally, I find Dogar's interpretation almost as valid as Anne's - after all, who's to say that the words of a young girl (especially an imaginative dreamer like Anne Frank) are any less true than Dogar's fictionalized, but well-researched account? The fact is, we'll never know. And personally, I don't care all that much. The story's always going to be gripping, heartbreaking, and utterly affecting - no matter how it's told.

Annexed is not the best written Holocaust tale ever, but it's definitely compelling. Drogar drew me into Peter's story right away, making me want to keep reading even though I knew exactly how it would end. While Peter may not be as vibrant or as lovable as Anne Frank, his tale is still worthy of being told - I think Dogar does an admirable job of telling it. Some of Dogar's prose needs work, sure, and I desperately hope that 90% of the exclamation points that appear in the ARC will be edited out, but all in all, I found Annexed a fulfilling read. Not the "sexed up" book it's been accused of being (although Peter does have some rather vivid dreams), just an honest re-telling of a familiar story. If you've ever longed to hear Peter's side of the story, you'll want to give this one a try.

** I'm not a huge fan of book trailers, but I thought Sharon Dogar's thoughts on writing Annexed were interesting:



(Readalikes: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs), sexual content (most of which occurs in Peter's imagination) and violence

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Annexed from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thank you!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sometimes Normal Is So Overrated ...



(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Evie may be the only 16-year-old on the planet who actually wants to go to high school. She'd give anything to experience slurping chocolate milk in a cafeteria, hanging out by her locker, and dolling herself up for prom. She'd give anything for that kind of normalcy. Safe, predictable normalcy. There's nothing normal about the life she lives every day. Paranormal, yes. Normal, normal - not so much.

Orphaned as a child, Evie's been raised at the Center, which serves as headquarters for the International Paranormal Containment Agency. With a rare gift (as in, she's the only person on Earth with the ability) to see through the glamours' of paranormals, she's invaluable to IPCA, which seeks to neutralize any creature that might pose a threat to human safety. Armed with her pink Tazer, Evie's job is to bag and tag. It's a rush, but so demanding that her availability cannot be compromised by anything as mundane as school or fraternization with other teenagers. She's been facing paranormals since she was eight - it's all getting a little old.

Until paranormals start dying. Some brutal force is killing them in a way that leaves no mark, no clues, no trace. Then, Evie brings in a shapeshifter who possesses powers she's never before encountered. Is he the murderer? He seems harmless. Not only is Lend around her age, but he's decidedly hot - even under the glamours he wears. Despite warnings from her superiors, Evie finds she can't stay away from Lend's cell. She's there to get answers, sure (Who is Lend? Where does he come from? What does he want from IPCA?); a little flirting along the way won't hurt anybody, right? Although Lend remains stubbornly mute on the subject of his mission, he shocks Evie by reciting lines from a chilling faerie prophecy that seems to be talking about her. Who is this guy? Why is she so drawn to him? Most importantly, can he be trusted?

When a raid on IPCA sends everyone scurrying, it's up to Evie to find and eliminate the killer. But, tracking down a monster is one thing, neutralizing it is quite another. Especially when the murderer wears an all too familiar face. And carries the answers to all the questions Evie's ever asked about herself. Suddenly, the world Evie's always known makes less sense than ever. Can she face down the creature that's terrorizing paranormals? Does she even want to?

Paranormalcy, a debut novel by Kiersten White, is a fun, upbeat take on the whole paranormal romance thing. It's got some definite Twilight tendencies (albeit with a little more adult supervision), but not enough to be truly annoying. Although it's not all that original, the story has flashes of uniqueness, particularly with characters like Lish and Cresseda. I also like that Evie knows about her powers from the get-go, which allows the story to move along without our heroine having to go through the whole shock-denial-acceptance thing. Quick pacing keeps the tale racing along, making for a fast, enjoyable read.

My big problem with Paranormalcy is this: I never felt any real sizzle between the characters. I'm not just talking about romance, I'm also talking about basic warmth/comfort between people who are supposed to be important to each other. For instance, Evie says several times how much Raquel means to her, but their relationship never feels like a close one. Likewise, when a certain cast member dies, I really didn't feel anything because, although Evie and the deceased were supposed to be tight, I didn't feel it at all. This lack, along with some bumbling prose, bugged me throughout the book.

All in all, though, I like Paranormalcy. It's lighter than a lot of YA paranormals, although it still addresses some interesting concepts, like souls recognizing souls and creatures using their agency to choose to behave against their natural (or unnatural) tendencies. I liked its lightheartedness, enjoyed the quick pacing, and appreciated the more innocent nature of the romance between the book's main characters. To keep me reading the trilogy, White's going to have to step up the character development big time. I wouldn't mind if she polished up the writing a bit either. Paranormalcy has so much potential - I'm anxious to see if the series can reach it.

(Readalikes: definitely a little Twilight-y; also reminds me a teensy bit of Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for fantasy violence and vague references to sex

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

A (Belated) Friday the 13th Giveaway

So, with all the excitement of school starting this week, I totally forgot to pick a winner for my giveaway. Sorry about that. Without further ado, the winner of a signed copy of The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, is:


Jan Von Harz of Eating YA Books.

Congratulations! If you'll email me your address, I'll forward the information on to the publisher.

I'm also pleased to announce that I have an extra ARC of Paranormalcy. It's an upbeat paranormal YA adventure/romance by debut author Kiersten White that comes out on August 31. Although I didn't love it as much as I wanted to, the book's a fun, clean (PG-rated) story that's getting lots of buzz around the book blogosphere. I'll be reviewing it some time this week, but for now, I'll give you the blurb from its back cover:


Evie's always thought of herself as a normal teenager, despite the fact that she works for the International Paranormal Containment Agency, her ex-boyfriend is a faerie, she's falling or a shape shifter, and she's the only person who can see through paranormals' glamours.

But Evie's about to realize that she may very well be at the center of a dark faerie prophecy promising destruction to all paranormal creatures.

So much for normal.

If you're interested in winning this ARC, leave a comment on this post. Please include contact information in your comment - if you don't have a public blog, I need your email address. The contest is open internationally. I will pick a winner on my (lucky) 13th anniversary, August 30. Good luck!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Skunk Girl vs. Rowan the Strange: My Nerds Heart YA Decision

So, the third round of the Nerds Heart YA tournament is coming to an end. I'm in the difficult position of having to judge between two worthy contenders - Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim and Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn. While I enjoyed both books, it's the latter that really moved me. It's original, funny, and surprisingly touching (despite the horrid cover). For those reasons, I'm advancing Rowan the Strange to the next round. Go, Ro!

Never Judge A Book By Its Cover: Rowan the Strange Is Not to Be Missed

(Image from Amazon)

If there was ever a novel that proved the old adage "Never judge a book by its cover," it's Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn. I mean, take a look at the image above. It's ... odd, disturbing, like something out of a Stephen King tale. The story between the covers, on the other hand, is warm, funny, and surprisingly tender. Not at all what I would have expected from the jacket art.

When the story opens, 13-year-old Rowan Scrivener is sitting on the doorstep of his home watching the sky for bombers. It's 1939, the war's just arriving in London, and Rowan's feeling twitchy. When his grandmother screeches to a halt in front of him in her animal rescue van, beckoning for Rowan to join her on a mission, he hesitates. What if the air raid sirens start screaming again? Shouldn't he stay close to home, just in case? Not that careening around the city streets with his grandmother will be any safer, but still, he probably needs to stay at Spitalfields. Doesn't he? By the time Rowan's done arguing with himself, he's worked himself into such a frenzy that he erupts, leaving his sister in the hospital with three broken fingers. And becoming a reluctant partner in Nana's scheme to save an abandoned chow.

Rowan never intended to hurt his sister - it's just that sometimes he can't calm himself, can't stop the paranoia that whips his thoughts into raging tornados. With the threat of war looming over the city, the Scriveners are already on edge. Rowan's "fits" aren't helping. Desperately seeking a way to help their son, Rowan's parents check him into an asylum in Kent. While the Scriverners agree to doing whatever it takes to make the fits vanish, the doctors are not exactly forthcoming about the newest procedure being tested on schizophrenics like Rowan - electroconvulsive shock therapy. The powerful jolts leave Rowan feeling weary, confused, and not at all himself. With no idea when, or if, he'll be able to go home, he feels hopelessly trapped in the awful hospital of horrors.

The more time Rowan spends in the asylum, however, the more his real life fades away. His world now revolves around his roommate, a spunky girl named Dorothea (who sees angels); gentle Dr. Von Metzer (who, despite being German, is a good kind of fellow); a beautiful nurse (with whom he's quickly falling in love); and the rest of the loonies in the bin. As in the outside world, cruelty exists on the inside as well. So, surprisingly, does compassion. Violated though he is by the doctors' constant pokes, prods, and experimental procedures, it's at the asylum that Rowan learns what it really means to be human. Humanity, he soon discovers, has very little to do with the brain and everything to do with the heart.

As chilling as Hearn's depictions of asylum life are, Rowan the Strange really isn't about social commentary. It's about a boy finding himself in the most unlikely of places. It's about a kid discovering who he is and who he isn't. It's about shattering illusions and facing reality with courage. Most of all, it's an original, engrossing, hauntingly beautiful tale about what it means to be human. I can't recommend it highly enough.

(Readalikes: It's been a long time since I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I think there are some definite similarities between the two. Other than that, I can't think of any. Can you?)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language and some sexual content

To the FTC, with love: Amanda from The Zen Leaf kindly sent me her copy of Rowan the Strange so I could review it as part of the 2010 Nerds Heart YA Tournament. Thank you!

Skunk Girl Proves That Standing Out Isn't Always Bad

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Standing out in high school should be avoided at all cost. Unless it's the football-hero/beauty-queen kind of standing out. Which it isn't. Not in 15-year-old Nina Kahn's case, anyway. Her freak status comes by way of her skin color (brown), her religion (Islam), and her parents (ultra traditional). Some call her exotic. And she is, but not in a cool-accent-European-good-looks kind of way. "I am exotic," explains Nina, "in the same way Chinese people eating dog is exotic - a bad way" (27). As the only Pakistani Muslim girl at her high school, Nina's strange customs stand way out. No one else is forbidden to attend parties, be alone with a guy, or sleep over at their friends' houses. Only Nina.

Since there's no way she'll ever have any kind of social life, Nina focuses on her studies. It's the only way to distract herself from everything she's missing. Besides, getting into an Ivy League school means scoring big on the "unnofficial Pakistani prestige point system" and boy, does her status ever need a boost. Still, she can't help but long for the life her friends are living. If only she were a white girl, she'd be able to sip beer at all the cool parties, hang out with her gal pals outside of school, and maybe even have a chance with popular Asher Richelli. She might as well be grounded for life for all the freedom she currently enjoys. As much as she wants to be a good Pakistani Muslim, Nina doesn't want to endure this kind of misery for one second longer, let alone a lifetime.

When Allah grants her fondest wish and Asher actually starts paying attention to her, Nina must face a crisis of conscious and culture. Does she dare encourage Asher? Can she hide their burgeoning relationship from her watchful parents? Is it possible to remain a good Pakistani Muslim with a million hormones storming through her body? Is a strict Muslim life really wants for herself or is it time to forge her own path? While everyone around her is busy experiencing life, Nina must choose whether to remain a bystander or join the crowd. It's a decision that could change everything for Nina. Absolutely everything.

Anyone who's ever been embarrassed by their differences (and who hasn't?) can relate to Nina's plight in Sheba Karim's Skunk Girl. Nina's a spunky, compelling narrator whose voice rings with authenticity. It's impossible not to root for this likeable heroine. While I felt Nina's discomfort over her family's differences, I couldn't help being fascinated by Karim's depictions of Pakistani/Muslim food, traditions, and philosophies. She discusses the culture respectively, while still allowing Nina to criticize it in a realistic, teenage-y manner. I had a few issues with the rest of the story, but I particularly liked Skunk Girl's finale. Predictable? Maybe. Perfect? Definitely. This isn't the most original tale in the world - still, it stands out as an honest, sensitive portrayal of one girl's desperate search for herself. I did mention that standing out isn't always bad, right? In this case it's good, very good.

Readalikes: reminded me a lot of Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger and a little of Taken By Storm by Angela Morrison)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language, underrage drinking/partying, and sexual content (nothing graphic, just a lot of references to teenagers having sex)

To the FTC, with love: I bought Skunk Girl from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make book blogging. Ha ha.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Georgia's Kitchen a Feast For Foodies, Not So Much For Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Georgia Grey's perfect life includes three things: a sexy husband, a gurgling baby and her own restaurant. Not necessarily in that order. She's worked hard to reach her life goals, but somehow, she's achieved exactly none of them. True, she's the head chef at a swanky New York restaurant. She's also got a rock the size of the Big Apple weighing down her finger. By the time she hits 34 in a few short months, she should be well on her way to the bright, happy future she's always envisioned for herself. For now, she can deal with both her jerky boss and her distracted fiancee. As soon as the stress of the wedding is behind her, Georgia knows she'll be blissfully happy.

Then, a nasty review from a vindictive food critic hits the newsstands. Not only is Georgia fired from her job, but no restaurant in New York is willing to take a chance on her. Neither, apparently, is her fiancee. He's the one with the shocking secret - she's the one selling her Monique Lhuillier wedding dress on eBay. She's also the one looking for a new start, and finding it in Tuscany, where she plans to help her mentor open a new trattoria. As the only American among a very Italian staff, Georgia's more than a little intimidated. It literally takes blood, sweat and tears to make it in her new home, but when she's offered a lucrative position at an up-and-coming hotel restaurant, Georgia knows she's impressed her harshest critics. As if that isn't incentive enough to keep her in Italy forever, taking the new job means working in very close proximity to the irresistible Gianni.

Georgia should be jumping at the chance to stay in Italy doing the things she loves - namely, cooking and enjoying Gianni's attention - but making a commitment means putting off her dream of owning her own restaurant. Very little remains for her in New York while everything awaits her in Italy. Does she have the courage to take a chance on Italy? Or will the comfort of familiarity lure her back home? As Georgia licks her wounds, she'll be forced to make the decision of a lifetime: should she stay or should she go?

Georgia's Kitchen, a debut novel by Jenny Nelson, tells a woman-going-abroad-to-find-herself story that will be familiar to frequent readers of women's fiction. Anyone who's worked in the restaurant industry will appreciate the insider's view Nelson offers us - it's a quick-paced, exciting world that the author definitely brings to vivid life. With its tantalizing descriptions of succulent Italian dishes, the book's a feast for foodies. Unfortunately, my familiarity with Italian cuisine begins and ends with the menu at Olive Garden, so I found all the detail a bit tedious. Likewise with the incessant discussion of fashion, since unlike the cooking info, it had little to do with the story. As for the tale itself, it moved at a pretty good clip through the beginning, sagged in the middle, and became annoyingly predictable in the end. While I enjoy a good underdog-makes-good story as much as the next girl, this one just didn't resound much with me. I found it, as the Italians would say (at least that's what Google tells me they would say), only così e così (so-so).

(Readalikes: With all the talk of food and fashion, it reminded me a little of Adriana Trigiani's books.)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Georgia's Kitchen from BookSparks PR in exchange for writing an honest review of the book.

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Book-to-Movie Kind of Weekend

I usually don't review movies on this blog, but it just so happens that I watched three book-to-movie adaptations over the weekend. Before you think I'm just plain lazy (I did skip a woman's retreat thing-y because I needed to "get ready for school to start"), I got some school shopping done as well. Plus, my husband's aunt invited 3/4 of my kids over for a sleepover - the hubs and I had to take advantage of that by having a night "in" together. There's also the fact that two of the movies have been sitting here for several months, so it was time, you know?

Anyway, here's what we watched:

The Road (rated R) - based on the book by Cormac McCarthy
You all know how much I love me some dystopian. And I do, I really do. But this was one of the bleakest movies I've ever seen. Sure, it's ultimately hopeful and it does star the very good-looking Viggo Mortenson (whom I've loved since seeing him in Lord of the Rings) - still, it's incredibly depressing. The movie's well done, the story's frighteningly believable, and the whole thing is atmospheric and haunting. Overall, though, it's so stark that I had trouble "liking" it. I seriously watched a lot of it with my hands pressed over my eyes, shrieking, "No! No! I can't watch!" My reaction totally confused my husband, who kept asking, "Don't you read this stuff all the time? What's the difference between seeing it in your head and seeing it on the big screen?" I'm not sure what the answer to that is. What do you think?
Like I said, I haven't read The Road, so I don't know how the movie compares to the book. All I know is I probably won't be reading it.

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (rated PG) - based on the book by Rick Riordan
I actually took my 11-year-old son to see Percy Jackson when it first came out. He loved it and wanted to watch it again on DVD. So, we rented it for the kids, all of whom loved the movie. The hubs wasn't too impressed. I agree that it could have been a lot better, but I still enjoyed it. It's been a few years since I read the book, so I'm not sure how well the movie follows the original story. I do think it's a fun, exciting action/adventure flick that will appeal to pre-teen boys, especially.
Logan Lerman makes a convincing Percy. And we all loved the very funny Brandon T. Jackson, whose depiction of Grover provides a lot of comic relief. Speaking of funny, though, the best scene of the whole movie comes at the very end, while the credits are scrolling. Don't miss it.
Julie & Julia (rated PG-13) - based on the book by Julie Powell
I've had Julie Powell's book sitting on my bookshelf for several years, but I've yet to take a peek at it. I enjoyed the movie anyway, although it's one of those films that requires some patience. The storyline moves very slowly, switching back and forth between the lives of New York blogger Julie Powell and chef extraordinaire Julia Child. Still, it's a heartwarming story. Meryl Streep makes a delightful Child. Amy Adams' character, on the other hand, comes off as whiny and self-centered. You have to admire the girl's pluck, though. Overall, I enjoyed the film, especially all the commentary on blogging. Again, I don't know how well the movie follows the book and again, I don't know if I'm going to read the book or not, but the movie is definitely worth seeing.
Have you seen any of these films? What did you think?
(All images are from Google)

Friday, August 06, 2010

Spunky Narrator Tells It True in Heartwarming Jericho Walls

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"When it was just me and Lucas, things seemed regular, almost like our different colors didn't matter. I rolled that thought over in my mind, then held it close for safekeeping. Thoughts like that get muddled when said out loud" (76).

Following the rules isn't Jo Clawson's forte. The 11-year-old knows how she's supposed to behave - prim and proper, as befitting her position as a preacher's daughter - but she just can't seem to mold herself into the demure Goody-to-Shoes everyone expects her to be. She'd rather look for adventures in the woods, dance to Elvis and sip vanilla Cokes at the diner than sit around and read her Bible. Moving to tiny Jericho, South Carolina, means a new start for restless Jo. She vows to fit in this time, promising her parents no more schoolyard brawls, no troublemaking and definitely no trouble-seeking. Easier said than done. Jo has a knack for getting herself into sticky situations, and this time, she may not be able to pry herself loose.

Jo's never seen a black person before, let alone hung out with one, so she's not quite sure what to make of Lucas Jefferson. He's a loudmouth, that's for certain. He's also gentle, fun, and her only real friend. So what if he lives in the colored quarters, a place she's definitely not supposed to be anywhere near? Who cares if she can't tell a soul about her newfound buddy? It's worth it, isn't it, to have a friend like Lucas?

In the 1950s South, Jo and Lucas' clandestine friendship is not just scandalous, it's dangerous - for both of them. Especially when Lucas makes the bold decision to stand up for his rights. Torn between supporting her friend and keeping her promise to stay out of trouble, Jo must question her loyalties, as well as her own sense of justice. She's practically pinky sworn not to fight, but aren't some things in life worth the battle?

While Jericho Walls by Kristi Collier tells a familiar story, it's the voice of its narrator that makes the book really stand out. You can't help but love Jo - she's vulnerable ("I decided then and there that being alone and friendless was something that sounded romantic in books, but in real life ... wasn't that great at all" [109]), but spunky enough to quote the "the wickedest verses I knew of in the whole New Testament" (156) to a roomful of church men. Gentle Lucas provides the perfect counterpoint to spirited Jo, although he's got too much of his own pluck to let a skinny little white girl get anything over on him. It's natural to root for this pair, to want their easy friendship to endure despite all the odds stacked against it. Although stories about the Civil Rights Movement are rarely warm and fuzzy, Jericho Walls manages to be both heartwarming and true. I adore it.

(Readalikes: a little like To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mature themes (racism, interracial marriage, etc.)

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

I Now Pronouce You Someone Else Fails to Win My Undying Love

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Bronwen Oliver was switched at birth. Sure, it seems unlikely, but consider the evidence:
  • Unlike the other members in her family, Bronwen has brown hair. Underneath the blonde dye job her mother insists on, anyway.
  • While Bronwen is passingly pretty and has plenty of friends, she's not exactly Homecoming queen material. Unlike her mother, who's still beautiful and svelte enough to earn the title.
  • Bronwen detests ketchup. Enough said.
  • Although she's a good girl - she doesn't drink or smoke and refuses to have sex before she's married - Bronwen's far from perfect. Unlike her brother, St. Peter (aka Jesus), who practically walks on water.
  • Bronwen wants to be a journalist. A writer in her family tree? Highly unlikely.
  • Although none of the other Olivers will mention his name or touch the topic of grief with a 10-foot pole, Bronwen desperately misses her dead father.

It's uncanny, really. Why Bronwen's so-called mother hasn't figured out the mistake yet is beyond her. It's pretty obvious to Bronwen that somewhere out there, a sane, brown-haired, news-loving family is wondering how they ended up with a blonde, manicure-obsessed, ketchup-loving, Homecoming queen in the making. All it would take is a little switcheroo to bring the world back into balance.

A girl can dream, anyway. The fact is, Bronwen can't understand her family. Jacquelyn Oliver Van Horn is more concerned about Bronwen's roots showing through than trying to understand her own daughter. Whitt's a nice enough stepdad, but he still hurt Bronwen in a deep, unforgivable manner. Peter's perfect, of course, because he's not around enough to be anything but. And then there's the rest of the Oliver clan. Certifiable doesn't even begin to describe them. Can anyone blame Bronwen for wanting to escape? For longing to join a new family?

Handsome, well-bred Jared Sondervan offers Bronwen the perfect solution: marriage. His family is close, loving and, most of all, sane. So what if he's older (a senior in college), more experienced (in every way), and ready to settle down (with kids - the sooner the better), he's still the sweetest, most thoughtful guy she's ever met. Best of all, she loves him, truly and deeply. She'll still get to experience the college scene she's been so looking forward to, she'll just do it with a ring on her finger. Wedding the perfect man, slipping into a model family, becoming someone new - it's exactly what she's always wanted. Isn't it?

The more Bronwen contemplates her upcoming nuptials (AND works on the school newspaper AND fills out college applications AND plans her wedding AND tries to fit in coffee dates with her BFF AND attempts to live up to her mother's every expectation AND ...), the more she starts to worry about the big questions: Who is Bronwen Oliver? What does she want from her life? Is she ready to sacrifice "me" for "us?" Is getting married right out of high school the perfect start to fulfilling her every dream or is it one big, colossal, mistake?

I've been mulling over I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan for a few days now, not because its content is so deep and heavy, but because I've been trying to pinpoint the exact reason it rubbed me so wrong. It's not the writing itself, although the prose is a bit stilted. Maybe it's just the whole idea of a senior in college proposing to a senior in high school - and everyone being okay with it. Or, the fact that the characters came off as kind of flat (especially Jared, whose biggest flaw is snoring). Possibly it's because Bronwen herself is so naive and whiny that I had trouble liking her. I'm not sure, but whatever it is, it kept me from really enjoying I Now Pronouce You Someone Else.

On the bright side, the story is light, funny and sweet in a lot of ways. I read it quickly, engaged (pun intended) enough to finish it almost in one sitting. Bronwen's definitely likable, but her immaturity gets annoying (even though I realize she has to be that way in order for the story to work). I also like that Jared's a nice guy, a positive example of a kind, considerate boyfriend (even if it's a little creepy for him to be dating someone so young).

Despite all this, I feel like something essential is missing from the story. I can't put my finger on it, but I know it when I don't see it, if that makes any sense. I liked I Now Pronounce You Someone Else enough to finish it, I just didn't fall in love with it. Amazon reviewers, incidentally disagreed with me, so maybe I've got it wrong. What do you think?

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

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (there may have been more than one F-bomb, in which case the rating would be R, but I can't remember ...) and sexual content (not graphic, more like making out and innuendo)

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of I Now Pronounce You Someone Else from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

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