Friday, April 30, 2010

Wherever Nina Lies: Why All the Blogosphere Buzz?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Have you ever read a book that grabbed you with its premise, but let you down with its execution? I have. Like a million times. A million and one if you count my experience with Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten.

When I read the book's plot summary - a teenage girl follows clues to find her older sister, who disappeared two years ago - I immediately thought of The Amanda Project: Invisible i by Melissa Kantor. I love that kind of fun, clever mystery. Unfortunately, the alluring premise of Wherever Nina Lies only held me for a couple of chapters - then, the story started to get creepy-weird. It also seemed to be completely contrived, the plot held together by a string of very unconvincing coincidences. By the time I "met" the Jamies, I was ready to fling the book against the wall. I didn't because, in spite of myself, I wanted to know how the mystery ended (it wasn't satisfactorily either).

Basically, the story goes like this: Sixteen-year-old (I think she's 16) Ellie Wrigley can't get over the loss of her sister, who vanished without a trace two years ago. Nina was always a little wild - talking to any stranger who looked interesting, sneaking out at night, coming home smelling like a brewery, etc. - but she always returned home. Always. Then, she ran away or was kidnapped or something. Ellie's friends urge her to put the past behind her, to "get over" her sister's disappearance. Only, she can't.

When Ellie finds a picture sketched by Nina in an old book, she takes it as a sign. Nina's out there somewhere, leaving a trail of clues in her wake. A phone number leads to an old, abandoned mansion, where Ellie meets Sean, who's not just hot and funny, but also sympathetic to her plight. Together, they embark on a crazy road trip that Ellie prays will lead to her sister. As the miles churn by, the pair slowly pieces together the events leading up to Nina's disappearance. The more she investigates, the more Ellie realizes how much - and how little - she really knew about her sister. The realization also begins to dawn on Ellie that she, like Nina, might be in deep, deep trouble.

Sounds intriguing, right? And it is. I just wish the story had been plotted more carefully. I hate coincidence in mystery novels - it never, ever rings true. The heroine can't just happen to open a dusty old book and find a drawing, she can't just happen to use the restroom and spy her sister's handwriting among layers of graffiti, she can't just come across the two people in the world who know everything about an obscure band. Well, you get the idea - the story bugged.

I did finish the novel, but by the end I was only skimming. I wanted to find out what happened to Nina, I just didn't want to invest anymore time on it, you know? When the clues to a mystery are so lazily gathered, it usually means the "Big Reveal" isn't going to be anything amazing either. Bummer, that, because this story had all kinds of potential. Ah, well.

Wherever Nina Lies has been getting all kinds of buzz around the blogosphere - I'm just utterly confused as to why.

(Readalikes: A little like The Amanda Project: Invisible i by Stella Lennon [Melissa Kantor])

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, underrage drinking/partying, and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thanks!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Crazy to Come: New YA Novel Explores What It Means to Have Schizophrenia Lurking In Your Family Tree

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"You don't know anything, you moronic jerk, I feel like screaming. Because for all his supposed Aura collecting, he has no idea how much Mom truly terrifies me. He has no idea that when I look at her, I'm not staring at a person, but a mirror. I'm seeing me, exactly as I'll be in the future" (135).

Most little girls want to grow up to be just like their mothers. Maybe Aura did, too, back when her mother's manic episodes seemed bright and fun. At 15, she now recognizes the episodes for what they are - scary as hell. Aura used to be able to talk her mom down, but these days, she's so far gone that Aura hasn't the faintest idea how to deal. The only thing she knows for sure is that she never, ever wants to be like her mom.

A gifted artist, Grace Ambrose is the kind of woman who paints fanciful murals on the walls, makes masterpieces out of old pianos, and dangles dozens of carved mermaids from the kitchen ceiling. She's also the lady who smashes into mailboxes she swears are in the middle of the road, runs screaming from buildings she thinks are on fire, and drops lit matches on her bare toes while trying to "fix" trinkets that were never broken in the first place. She's talented, creative, and crazy as a loon.

Aura has promised never to institutionalize her mother, never to insist on medication. Everyone knows Aura's promises are "like locks with no key" (47), but things are getting too complicated too fast. With no one to count on but herself, Aura does everything she can to fix the problem - from hiding to lying to hovering to playing her mother's insane little games. She even sacrifices her own art - the one thing that brings her solace - to keep the insanity at bay. But the crazy just keeps coming. Can Aura save her mother on her own? Or will the darkness that's been passed down for generations in her family swallow Aura whole?

A Blue So Dark, Holly Schindler's debut novel (available May 28, 2010), explores what it means to have mental illness lurking in the thick leaves of your family tree. It shows the terror, the guilt, and the anguish experienced by not just the schizophrenic patient, but also by those who love her. Brutally honest and heartbreakingly real, this is a read that is as painful as it is enlightening. Aura Ambrose is so skillfully drawn you want to pluck her out of the pages and wrap her in your arms. Seriously, I was surprised to see a photograph of Holly Schindler - I fully expected the author to be about 15. That's how authentic her voice is. She writes in vivid, Technicolor prose that thrills over and over with its fresh, visual appeal.

If you prefer happy, bubbly stories, steer clear of A Blue So Dark. It's exactly what it promises to be - dark. It's also an intense, compelling story that will grab you from the very first word. An absolutely stunning debut, this book promises good things to come from an author I will be watching very, very closely.

(Readalikes: Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu; The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley; The Memory of Water by Karen White)

Grade: A-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Flux. Thank you!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wiggs' Newest Needs Military-Grade Spit and Polish to Really Make It Shine

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Every time I see images on the news of military personnel reuniting with their loved ones, I weep. I also wonder if those loved ones are, perhaps, insane. After all, what kind of wife* chooses to spend her life watching her husband disappear, not just to work every day, but sometimes on deployments that can last months or years? No normal woman would pack up her household every couple of years, uprooting herself and her children, leaving behind family, friends, and even Wal-Mart (*gasp*) just because her husband's bosses command her to do so. As patriotic as I consider myself to be, I wouldn't wish this topsy-turvy military lifestyle on my worst enemy.

A civvie like me can never truly understand what drives a military family. I get this. It is, in fact, what drew me to Susan Wiggs' new book, The Ocean Between Us (actually, this is a re-release; it was first published in 2004, I believe). The novel explores the unique experiences of a Navy wife, from the fear and loneliness of deployment, to the struggles of globetrotting with a family in tow, to the surges of pride that accompany every rank advancement and celebration of bravery. They may be certifiable, but Wiggs proves that military wives have stories to tell that are just as exciting as those of the soldiers/sailors they spend their lives supporting.

Our heroine is Grace, mother of three and wife of Navy officer Steve Bennett. As Grace approaches her 40th birthday, she's feeling restless. For years, she's dutifully followed her husband on assignments around the globe, even when it meant leaving friends behind, even when it meant upsetting her children, even when it meant putting her own dreams on hold to make her husband's come true. She's done it willingly, proudly, enjoying the challenge of constant change. So, why is her traitorous heart suddenly screaming at her to settle down? It could be the charming Victorian fixer-upper she's aching to buy. Or the lure of starting her own career. Or the close friends she's made at the Totally New Totally You fitness center. Or the fact that her children are fleeing the nest, giving her more time and energy to focus on her own goals. Whatever the reasons, Grace knows she never wants to leave Whidbey Island. She also knows the Navy will never let her stay.

Steve, who's about to ship out on another deployment, can't understand why Grace is so discontented. She's always been the perfect military wife - organized, efficient, reliable and unfailingly supportive. Now she's talking about buying a house, starting a business, veering far away from the future they've so carefully plotted for themselves. He's seen all the sacrifices she's made for his career, but he still can't quite understand her resentment. Is it just her upcoming birthday that's got her so upset? Or is there some other cause for the tension that's suddenly boiling under the surface of their marriage? Would Grace really leave him to pursue her own life? When a secret from Steve's past surfaces it gives her even more reason to walk away from him. Grace has always been waiting for him at home - will she still be there when he returns from this deployment?

Although the book mostly focuses on Steve and Grace, subplots abound. There's Brian Bennett, who's hesitating to tell his father about his real plans for college. There's his twin, Emma, who's hiding a terrible secret. We also dip into the lives of Lauren, who's struggling to find a way to tell the perfect family man that she's infertile; Patricia, who's anxiously awaiting the birth of her first child and the return of her Navy husband; Josh, who's wrestling over the reasons his girlfriend refuses to commit; and Ross Cameron, who finds Grace Bennett to be the most alluring thing about beautiful Whidbey Island.

There's a lot going on in The Ocean Between Us, probably too much. I would have enjoyed the read much more if Wiggs' editor had chopped the story down by about 150 pages and urged her to focus more closely on The Bennett Family. It's not that I was particularly drawn to Steve and Grace - they both came off as snipy and selfish - but the kids' stories really captured my interest. I guess I found myself more intrigued by what life in the Navy does to a family than to a marriage, if that makes sense.

Even though the book gets long, drags quite a bit in places, and didn't wow me with stellar writing, it's not a bad read. More like an average read. Not wonderful, but not horrible. Just okay. I liked peeking into Navy life, but the rest of the story needs some military-grade spit and polish to really make it shine.

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

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, sexual content and underrage drinking/partying

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from Big Honcho Media as part of a blog tour.

For more thoughts on The Ocean Between Us, visit the other stops on the tour:

April 21 - Seeryus Mama

April 25 - 5 Minutes for Books

April 27 - The Pink Chandelier

April 29 - New Girl on Post

May 3 - Harlequin Blog

May 5 - Booking Mama

May 7 - The Ever-Changing Life of a Military Wife

* I realize that the appropriate term to use here would be "spouse," not "wife," as many men take care of home and family while their enlisted wives are away. I chose to use the pronoun "she" in this paragraph simply because it's easier to write than "what kind of wife/husband chooses to spend her/his life watching her/his husband/wife disappearing ..." In no way do I want to diminish the importance of having supportive husbands on the homefront.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I'm Back And More Tired Than Ever

I'm baaaaaack! While flying home from Utah yesterday, I thought about all the things I was returning to - laundry, dishes, diapers, cooking, cleaning, the heat - and I almost turned right back around. I had such a fun weekend visiting with old friends, hobnobbing with writerly folk, and talking about books, books, books. The Conference was excellent - I met lots of great people, learned a ton about writing and just had a ball. I'm exhausted, so I'll post more later, but I wanted to let you all know that I'm alive and well.

I have tons to catch up on, blog-wise and life-wise. Be patient with me! A couple of quick things:

- I take pride in helping out with blog tours, and I try to follow the guidelines the author/publicist asks me to follow. When I wrote my last post, I was at the conference, running on very little sleep and using my friend's teensy tiny computer. Needless to say, I did not have a chance to edit the post, so it was very garbled and typo-filled. Sorry about that! Hopefully, it makes more sense now.

- I wanted to make sure you know that the tour for The Ocean Between Us by Susan Wiggs is still going. I believe the next stop will be tomorrow at The Pink Chandelier. I could be wrong about that, but it's a fun blog, so check it out anyway.

- Big Honcho Media, who is running the tour, has generously offered one of my readers the chance to win a $50 Visa gift card to use toward the purchase of their own copy of The Ocean Between Us. Cool, huh? Click here to enter.

- Speaking of Susan Wiggs' book, I finished it while I was in Utah. Look for a review soon.

Okay, I think that covers it. I've got to get my kiddos off to school. After that, well, my bed is looking awfully inviting!

Friday, April 23, 2010

I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane (Not Very Original, But At Least There's A Giveaway!)

So, I'm leaving for Utah in the morning and my suitcase is still lying on my bed, half-packed. As I was trying to stuff everything in it this afternoon, my 11-year-old was curled up under the covers moaning about his headache while my 8- and 5-year-old were trashing the family room in an attempt to keep the baby entertained. Said baby? Yeah, she was happily splashing her hands in the toilet. And her diaper was so rank I could smell it from upstairs. As I groaned in frustration, my daughter said, "I bet you're going to be really happy to get on that plane tomorrow." She's absolutely right - my kids are making it very, very easy for me to want to leave.

One thing I had planned to do before taking off was finishing The Ocean Between Us by Susan Wiggs. It didn't happen. I will be reading it on the plane, though, and as soon as my computer and I are reunited, I will post a review.

In the meantime, enjoy these fun extras from a fellow Susan. To read the first chapter of the book, plus a special message from the author, click below:








Also, I am thrilled to announce that Big Honcho Media is offering one of my readers a $50 VISA check card. Yes, you read that right - one of you lucky ducks will receive $50 to buy your own copy of The Ocean Between Us. The deadline is going to be short on this one - you have until May 5. All you have to do to enter is comment on this post. Good luck!

P.S. The card can only be mailed to addresses in the U.S. If you live elsewhere, you may enter the giveaway as long as you have someone in the U.S. who is willing to accept your prize by mail.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Sleepy This and That

So, way back when - before surgery, before radiation, before I had any clue what this year was going to hold for me - I signed up to attend the LDS Storymakers Conference in Provo, Utah. At the time, I thought it would be good for me to sign up for Boot Camp, two sessions of intense manuscript critiquing. Since I've started writing countless novels, but have never even come close to finishing one, I thought this would be the perfect thing to pressure me into getting my ideas out of my head and onto the computer screen. I had until April to come up with something. Plenty of time, I thought. Well, guess what? It's now April. I leave for Provo on Thursday. So, yeah, I've been writing. I've managed to hammer out almost 20 pages. Don't laugh. Considering that I still can't make it through the day without an afternoon nap and a very early bedtime (like 8), I'm actually pretty proud of myself. My pages suck big time, but at least I have pages, right?

Even though writing has kept me from blogging, creating fiction is good for me as a reviewer. It reminds me that crafting a novel is A LOT harder than it looks. It's easy for me to glance at someone else's work and pick out its every weakness - the process becomes much, much more difficult when I'm evaluating my own "baby."

Anyone else going to be in Provo this weekend? I'd love to meet up with some of my "bloggy friends" at the conference. I'm still sad that I won't be in NYC for Book Expo America, but I'm glad I'll be able to do a little bit of book/author hobnobbing in Utah. It's almost the same thing.

All this rambling is my way of explaining why I've been away from the blog for a week. I'm still reading. In fact, I'm in the middle of The Ocean Between Us by Susan Wiggs. Look for a review of the book and a very exciting giveaway on April 23.

I also need to announce the winner of my Kaki Warner giveaway. Congratulations to Linda, who wins a copy of Pieces of Sky (which I reviewed here). If you'll email me your address, I'll send it on to Kaki's publicist, who will get your book in the mail right away.

Okay, it's 9:30 and I'm fading fast ... Have a great week everyone!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Albatross Fascinating For the Whys

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Bella and Edward. Clary and Jace. Grace and Sam. Zara and Nick. The list of destined-to-be-together teenage couples goes on and on and on. Yes, they're fictional, but aren't these literary pairings kind of sending the message that unless a girl's found her soulmate by high school graduation something's seriously wrong with her? Or, if she isn't dropping all her friends/family commitments/hobbies/extracurricular activities for a guy, she doesn't really love him? Am I reading too much into this? Author Josie Bloss doesn't think so. She wrote her newest novel, Albatross, partly in response to the disturbing trend of YA authors romanticizing controlling, manipulative, and emotionally abusive behavior in their characters' love lives. The book's no ditzy satire, either; it's a serious look at how consuming and crippling such relationships can be.

The book involves Tess, a high schooler who has just moved from Chicago to the smallish town of Grand River, Michigan. While her parents' impending divorce brings mostly relief, Tess still isn't completely thrilled with the move. Sure, she's got a couple of school friends, her music and a close relationship with her mom, but she's still lonely, anxious and bored in her new town. Then, she notices Micah. His broody good looks seem to confirm the rumors - the guy's some kind of genius. She's even more intrigued by his odd on-again-off-again relationship with the beautiful Daisy. Tess' new friends warn her away from the strange couple, but she feels inexplicably drawn to them. When she finally gets the chance to know Micah, Tess finds that he's everything she thought he would be - smart, sophisticated, and mysterious. Maybe he does come off as weird, but that's only because no one understands him like Tess does.

As Tess falls deeper under Micah's spell, she realizes some disturbing truths about the guy. Something about the way he toys with her emotions just seems ... wrong. Is it her fault for being too clingy? Is Tess pushing away the only person with whom she's managed to really connect in Grand River? Why would Micah choose her anyway, when he already has the attention of the lovely Daisy? What does Tess have to do, exactly, to get Micah to look at her the way he looks at Daisy? How far will she go to win his love? In this dark tale of young love and dangerous obsession, Tess has to break away before the chains of codependency can drag away every last bit of self-respect she possesses.


While the story didn't exactly reach out and grab me, Albatross is a book I haven't been able to get off my mind. Book clubs will likely have a field day with this one. It's thought-provoking, to be sure, but it also gets annoyingly heavy-handed. Bloss' aim is clear from the get-go, so obvious that it almost acts as a spoiler. We know exactly what Tess is going to do, and she does it. No surprises. What is interesting about the story is the psychology, the whys - Why do otherwise intelligent women fall for complete jerks? Why do they allow themselves to be treated poorly? Why do children who grow up witnessing their parents' destructive relationships often end up repeating them? Like Bloss, I find these questions fascinating. In fact, they are the only thing that really stuck with me after reading the book - not the characters, the plotline or the writing.

Overall, Albatross was kind of a weird read for me. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Note: If you're interested in the topic of unhealthy relationships in YA literature, check out this post Bloss wrote for Bites: Chomping on books and spitting out reviews.

(Readalikes: I can't think of any off the top of my head. Can you?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, sexual innuendo/making out, underrage drinking/partying

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Flux. Thanks!

No Lies: We Have Some Winners!

Okay, I know everyone's dying to know who won my 3 ARCs of Lies by Michael Grant, so let's get right to it. The winners are:

&

Congratulations! The Gaiaphage/Gone Fan and donnas get brand-spankin' new ARCs, and luiloth gets my very gently used copy. If you will email me your snail mail addresses, I'll get the books in the mail ASAP.

Thanks to everyone who entered and spread the word about this contest. It turned out to be one of my most successful ever! I always have books to give away, so stay tuned for more giveaways.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Line: Intriguing Premise, (Slightly) Disappointing Execution

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Rachel Quillen has lived beside the Line her entire life. She's heard whispers about the invisible, uncrossable barrier that surrounds The Unified States - she knows strange creatures live on the other side, including a dangerous brand of subhumans known as the Others. Rachel's been warned away from the Line all her life. She knows she shouldn't, but she wonders what it's like over there, what would happen if she dared to cross. It's not like she has anything to do (except tend orchids) or anyone to talk to (except her mother, crabby old Ms. Moore and quiet Jonathan) or anything at all going on in her insipid little life. Surely anything is more exciting than spending every waking hour at The Property just waiting for something to happen.

Then, something does happen. Rachel finds an old-fashioned tape recorder, out of which comes a garbled voice pleading for help. It's not the call of a monster, but of a human. From the other side. As Rachel scrambles to find out who - or what - is out there in the vast plains of Away, she discovers that the three adults on The Property know a lot more about the Line than she ever suspected. The paranoid U.S. government has spies everywhere - even whispering about Away can get you arrested - but Rachel has to know. What's on the other side of the Line? Who is over there begging for her help? Does she dare aid the stranger? Or does the plaintive voice belong to a monster trying to trick his way into her country? Can she make sense of it all before it's too late to save anyone?

Ever since I first saw The Line by Teri Hall mentioned in the book blogosphere, I've been eager to get my hands on it. The premise intrigued me right away. Its execution, however, was slightly disappointing. Only slightly, though. It's not a long novel, but the story builds slowly, only reaching pageturner speed in the last 1/3 of the book. TMI (especially concerning politics) bogs down the pacing, although Hall includes some nice, creepy atmospheric scenes that make up for the duller portions of the story. In the end, I thought the book was just okay. I'll definitely read the sequel (Away, to be published in early 2011), but I'm not going to be holding my breath in anticipation. For this one, I can wait.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a little of the Gone series by Michael Grant)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for tense moments/scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Friday, April 09, 2010

Blundell Omnibus Offers Light, Medium-ish Entertainment

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you're one of those people who can't live without your Friday night Medium fix, check this out: Scholastic just published an omnibus by Jude Watson titled The Sight. The volume brings together Premonitions and Disappearance, the two novels in her series about teenage psychic Gracie Millard. Never heard of Jude Watson? Actually you have - it's a pen name used by Judy Blundell, author of the National Book Award winner What I Saw and How I Lied. While these earlier novels don't match the caliber of Blundell's newest, they're still fast-paced, entertaining reads.

In Premonitions, we meet the lonely, grief-stricken Gracie. After losing her mother to a tragic car accident, she's been sent to live with her aunt and cousin on tiny Beewick Island in Washington State. Although Aunt Shay's trying hard to console her niece, Gracie shies away from every kindness. She's heartbroken and not exactly thrilled about being the new girl in a podunk town where everyone's known everyone else since they were all in diapers. To make matters worse, she's still trying to understand the strange feelings she's been getting, the weird images and sensations that won't leave her head. Somehow, she smelled oranges right before a semi loaded with citrus plowed into her mother's car. Now, she's seeing visions of Emily Carbonel, her only friend on the island, being abducted. Is it some kind of sign, like the oranges? Should she tell people what she's seeing? The last thing Gracie needs is for everyone at her new school to know what a freak she is.

When Emily disappears for real, Gracie knows she has to come forward. The last time she ignored one of her premonitions, her mom died; Gracie's not about to be responsible for another tragedy. Detective Fusilli doesn't exactly believe in psychics, but he's not laughing her out of the precinct either. Even though she's not exactly authorized to investigate Emily's disappearance, Gracie decides to - quietly - follow the clues her mind is giving her. What she discovers shocks her. Something very, very strange is going on at the Seattle computer camp Emily was so eager to attend. The closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous Gracie's sleuthing becomes. She might be able to save Emily, but who's going to save her?

After her experiences in the first book, Gracie's growing much more comfortable with her psychic abilities in Disappearance. She still can't understand everything she sees, but she's learning to trust what she sees in her visions. So, when she starts getting weird vibes about a recent murder victim, she knows she's on to something. Detective Fusilli warns her to quit Nancy Drew-ing around and focus on being a kid, but she can't. Something sinister's going down on Beewick Island. Even though her aunt is the most honest person Gracie knows, the mystery seems to revolve around Shay's early years in the area. Could her instincts be wrong this time, or is Aunt Shay hiding a terrible secret?

To complicate matters, Gracie's father suddenly shows up on the island. Can she trust the man who abandoned her when she was just a baby? Does she even want to? Besieged by conflicting brain flashes, Gracie doesn't know who's telling the truth and who's feeding her lines. Can she figure it all out before it's too late? Or is she destined to lose everyone she's ever loved?

While Premonitions and Disappearance aren't the most dynamic or original books ever written, they're decent mysteries. The former kept me guessing, while the latter was much more predictable. Both could use better character development, tighter writing, and twistier plotlines. Still, there are worse ways to wile away an afternoon. If you're looking for light, Medium-ish entertainment, you might find The Sight to be just the ticket.

(Readalikes: The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thanks!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Timeless Historical Charges Forward A Little Too Fast

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In a time when intelligent women are routinely burned at the stake, 14-year-old Alessandra Giliani knows exactly what she's risking to fulfill her lifelong dream. Still, she'd rather die than allow her brilliant mind to be snuffed out by the drudgeries of marriage and motherhood. She's got bigger plans. Disguising herself as a boy, Alessandra sets out for the University of Bologna. Female or not, she will gain all the education she needs to become a medico.

A Golden Web, Barbara Quick's second historical novel, follows Alessandra on her dangerous journey to become the first female anatomist. Her path is fraught with danger - any day, her family could discover she's snuck away from the convent; any moment, a discerning student could recognize her deception; any second, a jealous classmate could reveal her for the fraud she is. In the meantime, she soaks in as much learning as possible. Too late, she realizes that a certain handsome student is taking a very keen interest in her - and she wants nothing more than to reciprocate. Of all the risks she's taking, this one might be the one that undoes her completely ...

Although it's very predictable, A Golden Web moves at a fast enough clip to keep readers interested. Alessandra's a fascinating character - empathetic, admirable, and brave. Vivid period detail brings 14th Century Italy to life, taking us from the Giliani's bookmaking studio to the enlightening world of the university to the crooked alleys where women healers quietly practice their craft. Quick doesn't linger unnecessarily on the details, but keeps the story always moving forward. I, for one, would have enjoyed a slower, deeper immersion into Alessandra's rich, complex world. Since the book's intended for the fickle YA audience, it charges forward reaching its dramatic ending much too soon for my taste. Still and all, it's an engrossing look at the life of a brave - and possibly real - woman who dared to defy convention in pursuit of a dream. It's the kind of timeless story that should appeal to readers of all ages.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for sexual innuendo and gore

To the FTC, with love: I received this ARC from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thanks!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Dark Family Saga Shines Light on Icelandic Culture

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Maybe it's an heirloom from her Icelandic ancestors, maybe a coping mechanism handed down by her mother, or perhaps it's her own personality quirk - however it began, darkness and solitude seem to follow Freya like a plague. She spends her days shuffling along New York's dingy streets, moving from her sparse basement apartment to her job in a subtarranean darkroom. Occasionally, there's a boyfriend. More often, there's not. Although her family's mostly gone, she's not completely alone in the world - an invitation to attend her grandmother's 100th birthday, complete with an airline ticket, are a forceful reminder of that. The only problem with taking the trip is that it means facing the past. Something Freya tries not to do. Ever.

The Tricking of Freya, a debut novel by Christina Sunley, begins with Freya's journey back to the formative land of her youth. It's a physical trip, true, but mostly an emotional one as she revisits memories of her long-suffering mother, her doting grandma Sigga and, especially, her unpredictable aunt, Birdie. Journeying to visit them means literally stepping into the past, walking on land settled by Freya's Icelandic ancestors. Sigga's home in Winnipeg becomes the schoolhouse where Freya learns all her mother has not taught her - how to make ponnukokur, how to form difficult Icelandic words into coherent sentences, and how to recite her famous grandfather's poetry from memory. Each summer, Freya returns to this ethereal world so far removed from her usual existence that it seems to be made of magic. Guided by the passionate Birdie, who becomes Freya's bright, colorful tutor in all things traditionally Icelandic, she spends her months in Canada just trying to keep up with her vivacious aunt. It's only too late - far too late - that she recognizes Birdie's mania for what it really is. Freya realizes only belatedly that outing the secrets her family fights to keep hidden might be the only way to bring herself out of her own personal darkness.

I'm pretty big on family sagas, especially those with fun, multi-cultural characters a la Adriana Trigiani, Maeve Binchy, etc. I thought Sunley might provide an Icelandic equivalent. Not so much. The Tricking of Freya tells a denser, darker, more literary story. Some characters (Sigga, Stefan) imbue the Icelandic angle with warmth, but mostly it comes off as a cold, dark, isolating heritage. Complex and beautiful, to be sure - just in an icy, otherworldly sort of way. Although the novel's well-crafted, it struggles to be as readable as a Trigiani or Binchy book. I'm not saying it's not worth the attempt, only that it requires a fair amount of slogging.

What makes the book unique, of course, is the light Sunley shows on a culture that has been left unexplored in recent fiction. The author's obviously proud of her homeland and heritage, and that comes through strongly in the novel. While I enjoyed my glimpse at Iceland, Sunley doesn't convince me to stay for a closer look. I shied away from the frosty tone of the book, longing for more richness, more warmth, more satisfaction from the story. The Tricking of Freya is an impressive debut, just not what I expected and not really the kind of family saga I usually enjoy. I'm of hearty stock (English and Welsh), but maybe not quite enough for an extended stay in Iceland.

(Readalikes: Hmm ... I can't think of any. Can you?)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Picador. Thanks!

Monday, April 05, 2010

Author Chat: An Interview with Amy Brecount White

Today, I'm thrilled to welcome Amy Brecount White to BBB. She's the author of Forget-Her-Nots (reviewed here), a YA novel about (among other things) the power of flowers. Welcome, Amy!

Me: I know you loved to read as a child, but what about writing? Did you make up stories as a kid or did that come later?

ABW: I remember having an active imaginary life and playing very elaborate games with my friends and siblings, but I didn't actually write anything down until I was in college.

Me: What made you decide to write for a YA audience?

ABW: I used to teach high school English, and I love working with teens. (Often more so than adults!) I think it's a very exciting and elastic time of life. When I started reading more YA novels, I also became aware of how well-written and engrossing they are. Teen readers are a demanding audience, and the writers rise to their expectations.

Me: What made you choose to write brighter, more hopeful stories than those that are currently on the market for teens?

ABW: Quite frankly, I'm a pretty bright and hopeful person. I have my moments, but I like to celebrate the joys and connections of life, rather than dwell on all the negatives. Happy stuff happens, too.

Me: How has teaching junior high and high school influenced your writing?

ABW: Teaching made me very aware of lots of the issues and stresses teens face today. I also came to have great respect for the intelligence and depth of my students. I wanted to write a book that would truly appeal to their curiosity and empathy.

Me: Have you learned anything about teenage readers that helped you while writing FHN?

ABW: I learned that they care a great deal about the world and that they're always listening. I hope that knowing about flowers and their messages adds a dimension of fun and intrigue to their own lives.

Me: In Forget-Her-Nots, Laurel's classmates tease her because she's so into flowers, something that's not common among today's teenagers. Why did you think the subject would be interesting for YA readers?

ABW: Personally, I think flowers are amazing,and they bring me great joy. I wanted to share that joy and delight and encourage teenagers to stop and smell the roses - literally. There are scientific studies that show how having flowers in your room at a hospital can help you recover more quickly or that receiving flowers can boost your mood for days. I wrote a guest blog about it for the Book Butterfly here: http://butterflybookreviews.blogspot.com/2010/03/spread-flower-love-blog-tour-amy.html.

Me: How did your love for flowers come about?

ABW: It's partly inherited from my mom and a neighbor who gardened. So I always knew I wanted my own garden when I had some soil to play with. Both my sisters garden, and we all enjoy plants and flowers in our houses. I love to watch each bud emerge and then open wide. The colors and scents can be magnificent.

Me: What kinds are your favorite to grow in your garden?

ABW: I have flowers blooming in my garden from February to November. Whichever ones are in bloom are my favorites. I especially love the bleeding hearts, native wisteria, and hellebores.
What do your choices say about you? I'm pretty easy to please, as far as flowers go. I love them all.

Me: If Laurel made you a tussie-mussie, what would it include?

ABW: White bellflowers to express gratitude for telling her story. Mountain laurel, because that's HER flower. Rosemary, because she wants me to remember her and bring her back to life on the page.

Me: In FHN, Ms. Suarez is cultivating a very exotic flower in the school conservatory. If you could choose such a bloom for your own gardens, what would it be? Why?

ABW: Ooo, I'd be a little scared to have something that rare and wonderful, but it would probably be a lady slipper orchid. I've seen a few lady slipper orchids in the wild, and they just take your breath away. So beautiful. I haven't had the time or patience to try them in my yard, and they're expensive, too. With my three kids and dog to keep me busy, I prefer lower maintenance stuff now that I know will come back next year (perennials).

Me: I know you're working on a new book, after which you plan to write a sequel to FHN. Tell me about both stories.

ABW: The next one is called STRING THEORIES. It's YA, ages 14 and up, so slightly edgier. It's about love and lust, the physics of relationships, a stream, and getting even.

After that, I'd love to do a companion novel (kind of like Shannon Hale's Bayern books) to FHN. It would have more to do with the world of orchids and flower smuggling.

Me: You juggle so many roles - wife, mother, teacher, writer, blogger. How do you balance it all?

ABW: It's a little nuts right now. I'm not teaching at all, but I hope to do school and Skype visits, because I do love to talk about writing. I try to live fully in every moment and give my best to whatever I'm doing. I'm sure some things have slid through the cracks, but I'm having a great time. I'm a very energetic person! My kids are thrilled for my success, so they're pretty good about helping out.

Me: Finally, I ask this question of all the authors I interview, simply because I'm fascinated by the variety of responses I get: How do you write?

ABW: I love to get up early and write while the world is still asleep, but I usually only do that when I'm deep into a novel or revisions. Most days, I write while my kids are in school. I just finished STRING THEORIES, so I'll read it one more time, then send to my agent and take a little break to catch up after the FHN launch and let some ideas gestate.

Me: Do you have a regular writing schedule or do you compose as the mood strikes?

ABW: I have to write when the house is silent, which means while the kids are at school. I'm fairly disciplined. My most important rule is to leave a note to myself at the end of each writing day, so I can dive in where I left off without feeling blocked or blanking. I don't have time for writer's block.

Me: Do you outline your books or just write?

ABW: I do both. Sometimes the voices and scenes just run in your head, and you follow along. Then later I'll go back and see how it fits into the whole scheme of the novel. Sometimes I plan exactly what to write. It's different every day.

Me: Where do you write?

ABW: Anywhere quiet.

Me: Is there anything you HAVE to have beside you when you write? I love to drink hot tea while I write. I drink a lot of Earl Grey with milk.

ABW: What makes you unique from other writers?

Me: My topic of the language of flowers definitely sets me apart. Every writer has had unique experiences she can bring to the page. So every writer has the potential to be unique. :-)

Me: Thanks so much, Amy!

White Cultivates An Original, Optimistic Debut With Forget-Her-Nots

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Fourteen-year-old Laurel Whelan is well-acquainted with the magic of flowers. She's named after one, for starters. As a child, she wandered her grandmother's prize-winning gardens and helped her florist mother tend to her blossoms. Even now that Laurel's mother has passed away, Laurel can sense her spirit in every floral-scented breeze. Still, flowers have never made the teen feel quite this tingly. Has all her research on the Victorians' flower language gone to her head? Is that why she felt so strongly that the tussie-mussie she gathered was supposed to go to her lonely English teacher? Is it just coincidence that magic words popped into her head and actually worked? What is going on?

Strange things have been happening ever since Laurel stepped onto the campus of Avondale School. She longs for her mother, who once roamed these same grounds. Is that why the scent of every flower seems to carry her off to some strange la la land? Is it just her grief that's giving her a very strong sense of exactly which flower a girl needs to make her wishes come true? Because that's what's been happening ever since she gave her report in English. Suddenly, she's got girls asking for "tussies" to help catch a guy's eye, to repel unwanted attention, and to give luck on tests. As the new girl in school, she's thrilled to finally be included, but does she really want to be known as "Floral Laurel?"

When one of her "spells" flops, Laurel begins to worry that her powers might just be a weird fluke. Then, she learns the truth. The shocking, amazing, ancient truth: She's got more power than she ever dreamed possible. The trick is learning to use it. Laurel's caused several fiascos already - how many more will it take before she can harness her power enough to snag a glance from Justin? Does she really want this weird magic anyway, if it's the only reason people like her? As Laurel learns more about her connection with flowers, she'll delve deeper into the secrets of her family and, ultimately, herself.

I like flowers as much as the next girl, so I found the premise behind Amy Brecount White's first novel intriguing. Although Forget-Her-Nots could have been slimmed down and sharpened up, it's an easy, entertaining read with a more hopeful tone than is usually found in these types of books. The characters could use some depth, the plot could move faster, and the dialogue could definitely be snappier - overall, though, I enjoyed the book. White gets points for originality and optimism. Until the sequel, I'll be holding forsythia for anticipation.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a bit of Chocalat by Joanne Harris)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and sexual innuendo

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

The Hogwarts Reading Challenge: I read Forget-Her-Nots for History of Magic class. (+1 point for HufflePuff!)

Saturday, April 03, 2010

My Only Thought On Reaching the End: Finally

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Judging from the looks of 12 Finally, you might think Wendy Mass' newest is a sequel to last year's 11 Birthdays. Not so. While it's set in the same town, and familiar characters make cameo appearances, the story revolves around a different cast. This time, we're sucked into the life of 11-year-old Rory Swenson, who's counting down the days until her birthday. For as long as she can remember, her parents have been promising that her every desire - from a cell phone to her own house key to finally getting her ears pierced - will be fulfilled when she's 12. Rory's ready with a poster-sized checklist that will ensure all her dreams come true.

As Rory works her way through her checklist, she gets some rude awakenings. Keeping track of a cell phone isn't the easiest thing to do. Staying home by yourself can be downright freaky. And shaving? News flash: It hurts. Is it possible that the grown-up things she's been dying to do aren't nearly as glamorous as they seem? Is the universe conspiring against her to keep her a child forever? Life lessons are not what Rory wanted for her 12th birthday, but apparently, that's exactly what she's going to get. Like it or not.

After the disappointment of 11 Birthdays, I was hoping for more from 12 Finally. No such luck. Rory's antics are funny, but in a goofy, over-the-top, highly unrealistic kind of way. There's not a lot of plot to the story, the magical element seems forced, and the ending is just plain old cheesy. Maybe Mass is just trying to do too much with this one. I don't know, but it didn't do much for me. My only thought on reaching the end: Finally.

(Readalikes: 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thanks!

11 Birthdays: It's Been Done and Re-Done and Done Again

Amanda Ellerby and Leo Fitzpatrick were born in the same year, on the same day, in the same small town. Through a fortuitous twist of fate (or was it something a little more magical?), the two have celebrated each one of their birthdays together since then. Over the years, they've not only blown out candles together, but also become the best of friends. Amanda can't imagine not hanging out with Leo, not throwing a joint birthday bash, not even being friends - but that's exactly what's happening this year. After a stunning betrayal by her best friend, Amanda's about to celebrate her 11th birthday without Leo by her side. As if going it solo isn't bad enough, Leo's having the bash to end all bashes - will anyone even come to her piddling little party?

Amanda fears that nothing could be worse than suffering through her 11th birthday. Turns out, she's wrong. It's even worse the second time. And the third time. Apparently, she's been plopped into some weird balloon-filled version of Groundhog's Day, because she can't stop reliving the day over and over and over. Can she figure out how to make it stop? Or is she doomed to keep repeating the worst 24 hours of her life day after day after day?

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass is one of those friendship stories that's as sweet as it is predictable. From the beginning, you know exactly where the plot's heading and exactly where it's going to end up. No surprises. This is a story that's been done and re-done and done again. Even Amanda and Leo don't bring anything new to the table - like the book itself, they're likeable, but not unique in any way. It's a nice story, don't get me wrong, I just wanted something a little more dazzling out of my first Wendy Mass book. Oh well. I'll take a page from Amanda's book and try again until I get it right. Every Soul A Star, perhaps?

(Readalikes: 12 Finally by Wendy Mass)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thanks!
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