Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Space Between Trees Compelling, Disturbing Look at Dealing With Grief (With a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Rest in peace, that's what we say when we speak to the dead, and then we hold our breath and wait for them to whisper the same words back to us" (274).

It's not as if Evie and Zabet McCabe were really friends. Sure, they played together as children, but now, at 16, they would have been hard-pressed to identify each other's favorite color, food, or t.v. show. Still, when Evie sees the body of her old playmate rolled out of the woods on a stretcher, she feels something. It's not grief, exactly, more like fascination. Or maybe excitement. Being on the scene when a murder was discovered gives Evie something she can use - to reel in her classmates' attention, to start a real conversation with the guy she's been crushing on, to divert some of the drama to herself. She doesn't mean to steal Zabet's BFF, doesn't mean to befriend her grieving father, and definitely does not intend to track down a killer. But that's exactly what happens.

I'm not really sure how to describe Katie Williams' debut novel, The Space Between Trees. Although it deals with a brutal death, it's not exactly a murder mystery. More like a psychological thriller, except not totally. However difficult it is to pinpoint the book's genre, it's even harder to explain my reaction to the book. It kept me reading, but I can't say I really enjoyed it. This mostly has to do with Evie - she's emotionless, manipulative, and just, disturbed. The back cover describes her as a "quirky loner." Personally, I'd go with sociopath. Just like she can't connect with others, I never really got her. This disconnect, combined with a bleak plot, mostly unsympathetic characters, and an overall strangeness, made The Space Between Trees a weird read for me.

Williams writes well, there's no doubt about that, and her freshman effort gave me plenty of food for thought. She gets kudos for creating original, if not exactly likable, characters, who are interesting and complex. Watching the ways in which these very different people grieve - or, in Evie's case, use another's tragedy to further their own purposes - is what makes this book so compelling. And disturbing.

So, yeah. I'm still not sure quite what to think of The Space Between Trees. While the writing is solid, the rest of it really didn't do it for me. Maybe I need a more relatable narrator, maybe I need a happier story, I don't know, but I'll definitely be watching for Williams' next effort and hoping it's more my style.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a little of I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells and a teensy bit of House Rules by Jodi Picoult)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence, sexual content and depictions of underrage drinking/drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Space Between Trees from the generous folks at Chronicle Books. Thank you!

----

Now for the fun part: Chronicle Books is giving away one signed copy of The Space Between Trees to a lucky BBB reader. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post indicating that you'd like to win the book. The contest will close on August 12 and is only open to readers in the U.S. and Canada. Good luck!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Tuesday Teaser

So, today I'm supposed to be reviewing Mary Karr's memoir, Lit. However, I - being the bonehead that I am - somehow failed to realize that it is the third installment in a series of memoirs. Now, y'all know about my literary OCD. What? You don't? Well, I cannot stand to read books in a series out of order. Therefore, I know have both Liar's Club and Cherry on reserve at the library. As soon as the books come in, I will be reading and reviewing them as well as Lit. Definitely stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here's the blurb from the front flap of Lit:

The Liar's Club brought to vivid, indelible life Mary Karr's hardscrabble Texas childhood. Cherry, her account of her adolescence, "continued to set the literary standard for making the personal universal" (Entertainment Weekly). Now Lit follows the self-professed blackbelt sinner's descent into the inferno of alcholism and madness - and to her astonishing resurrection.

Karr's longing for a solid family seems secure when her marriage to a handsome, Shakespeare-quoting bluebood poet produces a son they adore. But she can't outrun her apocalyptic past. She drinks herself into the same numbness that nearly devoured her charismatic but troubled mother, reaching the brink of suicide. A hair-raising stint in "The Mental Marriott," with an oddball tribe of gurus and saviors, awakens her to the possibility of joy and leads her to an unlikely faith. Not since Saint Augustine cried, "Give me chastity, Lord - but not yet!" has a conversion story rung with such dark hilarity.

Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning to live. Written with Karr's relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor, it is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up - as only Mary Karr can tell it.

Interesting, huh?

If you want to see what other, more on-the-ball reviewers have to say about Lit, check out the other stops on Karr's tour:

Wednesday, July 7th: Book Club Classics
Monday, July 12th: Rundpinne
Wednesday, July 14th: Nonsuch Books
Thursday, July 15th: Fizzy Thoughts
Thursday, July 22ed: The Girl from the Ghetto
Wednesday, July 28th: Chefdruck Musings
Thursday, July 29th: Raging Bibliomania
Friday, July 30th: Chick Lit Reviews.com
Monday, August 2nd: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Tuesday, August 3rd: Absorbed in Words
Wednesday, August 4th: Sasha and the Silverfish
Thursday, August 5th: Tales of a Capricious Reader

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Charming Beauty Everything a Fairy Tale Should Be

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Disney's Beauty and the Beast will always be my favorite, but Robin McKinley's version comes in a close second. With lush description, a down-to-earth heroine and a plot that's lovely in its simplicity, Beauty breathes freshness into the familiar tale. First published in 1978, McKinley's debut novel has definitely stood the test of time. And for good reason. It's a sweet, magical tale about the power of true love.

The story revolves around a wealthy family made up of a sea merchant father and his three daughters: Grace, Hope and Honour (nicknamed "Beauty"). When the Hustons experience an abrupt reversal of fortune, they're forced to move into a humble country cottage far from the city which they've called home. Surrounded by thick woods, their new house is small and isolated; nonetheless, the family is glad to be there. Even when they hear frightening tales about the forest. It's true that no animals seem to dwell amid the denseness of the trees, but there can't possibly be an ogre living in the woods. Surely, that's another one of the country people's silly superstitions.

When Mr. Huston loses his way in the forest, he returns with an unbelievable story. It's a tale of magic, enchantment and a beast straight out of a young girl's nightmare. If it weren't for the perfect red rose he shows the girls, they wouldn't believe it. The flower convinces them - their father's telling the truth, meaning he must fulfill his promise to return to the beast's lair, where he will remain prisoner forever. Beauty begs to take his place, but Mr. Huston will not allow it. Plain and bookish, Beauty knows she, of all the sisters, has the least chance of flourishing in society - she rides into the forest, resolute.

Trapped in a magic castle with a horrifying beast, Beauty struggles to hide her fear. The more she explores her new world, the more she comes to realize that nothing in the enchanted forest is quite what it seems. Not even the monster that haunts the halls of the palace. Whispers of a terrible secret waft through the air, but Beauty can't quite understand. What happened to the cursed manor? Who is the beast? Is he truly as horrible as he seems? Can Beauty find a way out of her entrapment or is she doomed to spend all the years of her life imprisoned by an ogre?

Although McKinley makes her story feel new, she doesn't stray far from the classic tale. It remains a predictably, comfortingly tender story about looking beyond outward appearances. Beauty, herself, reinforces this idea - she doesn't know she's pretty, has no idea how brave she really is, and can't quite understand why the beast admires her so. I love that she's a diamond-in-the-rough, not nearly as polished as Belle, but just as charming. Even though I knew exactly how it would end, I found her story compelling. And sweet. And delightful. Precisely how a fairy tale should be.

(Readalikes: other classic fairy tales)

Grade: B+

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Hoppin' Weekend

I'm having a good ole time with The Hogwarts Challenge hosted by Bunnitaz over at Worth Reading It? I'll be sad to see it end in August. Before it finishes, though, our wonderful hostess is giving us all a chance to boost our points big time. The mini challenge is too complicated to explain here, but since it has to do with summer reading lists, I'm going to post the one I'll be using. I had a hard time finding any official summer reading lists (except for Oprah's, of course), but I liked the selections on this one from Parkway High School in Missouri. Students there are encouraged to read at least three of the titles before the school year begins. It's not exactly beach reading, either. The lists for all grades are below - I've crossed out the ones I've read previously. Which have you read? Which do you think I need to read?

School starts here in two weeks - think I'll be ready for high school by then? Hee hee ...

(9th Grade)

Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Anaya, Rudolfo A. Bless Me, Ultima.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. (my review)
Blackwood, Gary. The Year of the Hangman.
Covey, Sean. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.
Cox, Lynne. Swimming to Antarctica.
Dessen, Sara. The Truth about Forever.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist.
Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo.
Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. (my review)
Grimes, Nikki. Dark Sons.
Halberstam, David. Firehouse.
Johnson, Angela. The First Part Last. (my review)
Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster.
Lord, Walter. A Night to Remember.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. (my review - read July 2010)
Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Dairy Queen.
Murray, Jaye. Bottled Up.
Nolan, Han. Dancing on the Edge.
Nye, Naomi Shihab. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East.
Peck, Richard. The Teacher’s Funeral.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.
Schaap, Jeremy. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. (my review)
Uchida, Yoshiko. Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Behind You.

(10th Grade)

Alexie, Sherman. Flight.
Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies.
Anderson, M.T. Feed.
Bissinger, H.G. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream.
Bray, Libba. A Great and Terrible Beauty. (my review)
Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game.
Cary, Kate. Bloodline: A Novel.
Collins, Billy (Editor). Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in Boom-Time America.
Grogan, John. Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog. (my review)
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Halberstam, David. October 1964.
Jeter, Derek. The Life You Imagine: Life Lessons for Achieving Your Dreams.
Kooser, Ted. Delights and Shadows.
Larsen, Judy Merrill. All the Numbers.
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight.
Naidoo, Beverley. Out of Bounds: Seven Stories of Conflict and Hope.
Poe, Edgar Allen. Selected Tales.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor's Tale I and II.
Thomas, Marlo. The Right Words at the Right Time.
Tsukiyama, Gail. Dreaming Water.
Volponi, Paul. Black and White.

(11th Grade)

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility.
Berthon, Simon. Warlords: An Extraordinary Re-creation of World War II Through the Eyes and Minds of Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.
Blumenthal, Karen. Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX, The Law that Changed the Future of Girls in America.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. (my review)
Brooks, Martha. True Confessions of a Heartless Girl.
Callahan, David. The Cheating Culture.
Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Collins, Billy. Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems.
Danticat, Edwidge. The Farming of Bones: A Novel.
De Botton, Alain. The Art of Travel.
Erdrich, Louise. Tracks: A Novel.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
Hersey, John. Hiroshima.
Hilton, James. Lost Horizon.
Hopkins, Ellen. Crank.
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.
Matheson, Richard. I am Legend.
Picoult, Jodi. My Sister’s Keeper.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar.
Preston, Richard. Hot Zone.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation.
See, Lisa. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Walls, Jeanette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir.
Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings.

(12th Grade)

Allende, Isabel. Zorro.
Ambrose, Stephen. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale.
Bissinger, Buzz. Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager.
Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Cisneros, Sandra. Caramelo.
Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale: A James Bond Novel.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain.
Friedman, Thomas. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.
Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars.
Haruf, Kent. Plainsong.
Hosseini, Khaled. Kite Runner.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.
King, Stephen. The Shining.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel.
Larkin, Emma. Finding George Orwell in Burma.
Mortenson, Greg. Three Cups of Tea.
Picoult, Jodi. Nineteen Minutes. (my review)
Seierstad, Asne. The Bookseller of Kabul. (my review)
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Sittenfeld, Curtis. Prep: A Novel.
X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple.
Xiaolong, Qiu. Death of a Red Heroine.





--


It's the weekend again, which means it's time for another Book Blogger Hop. Yay! These are so much fun. It's a fabulous opportunity to find new book blogs and "meet" other bloggers. Join the fun by clicking over to Crazy For Books.

This week's question is: What are you reading now? You're never going to believe my answer - nothing. I finished Beauty by Robin McKinley this morning. I really enjoyed it. Next up is The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams. I've sneaked a peek or two, but haven't actually started reading it yet. I'm excited to see what it's all about.

Happy Hopping!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Everlasting: Historical Treasure Hunt Needs A Little Spit and Polish

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

A life at sea is hardly a suitable one for a young lady coming of age in 1855 San Francisco, but it's the only one 17-year-old Camille Rowen really wants. As much as she's tried to reconcile herself to the inevitability of her upcoming marriage, she can't seem to get excited about it. Her fiancee's well-bred, wealthy and kind. What more could she possibly need in a future husband? Just because her skin doesn't blaze at his touch doesn't mean she and Randall aren't perfectly suited to one another. Still, Camille jumps at the chance to accompany her father on one last voyage. The tangy scent of the sea fills her with a sense of adventure, excitement, and freedom - three things that will surely disappear the second she utters her wedding vows.

Motherless Camille's been traveling with her father long enough to realize there's something different about this trip. Captain Rowen's nervous. It's almost as if he's keeping secrets from her, something he's never done before. Camille's shocked when her father confesses the truth - without Randall's fortune to keep it secure, her father's company faces financial ruin. With that knowledge locked away in her lukewarm heart, Camille stumbles upon another secret: a recent letter from the mother she presumed dead. None of Caroline Rowen's words really make sense. She rambles about dying, desiring to see her long-lost daughter, and regret over running away with a stolen treasure map. Before Camille even has a chance to consider the import of this information, a violent storm batters her father's ship, killing almost everyone aboard.

Days later, Camille finds herself at an Australian port with only her friend Oscar by her side. Penniless, the two are drawn to Port Adelaide, where a dying woman holds the key to finding a priceless stone. With a greedy band of seamen on their tails, the pair embark on a dangerous journey filled with wily conmen, slavering beasts, venomous serpents, and a dark magic that pulls them ever closer to a gem with unimagined power. With her father lost at sea and a fiancee waiting at home while she tromps through the Australian wilderness with a lowly shipmate, it's time for Camille to make the ultimate decision: What matters most? Saving her father's company? Planning a future with the man she loves? Or risking all their necks to find a fabled stone? With her every dream on the line, Camille must choose - and wisely - which path to follow.

Newcomer Angie Frazier sprinkles historical fiction with a little Pirates of the Carribbean swashbuckling and a lot of Indiana Jones treasure-seeking in the grand adventure that is her first novel. There's enough conflict to keep Everlasting zipping right along, making the debut a fast, fun read. While few are fully fleshed out, the characters are engaging enough to keep the reader rooting for the good ones and booing the not-so-savory. That being said, the supernatural elements in the story just didn't add up for me. The magical subplot comes out of nowhere, but the ever practical Camille accepts it without question, proceeding on a life-threatening journey with very little hesitation. Other plot issues bugged me as did the flatness of some of the principle characters (namely Camille, Oscar and Capt. Rowen), all of which dampened my enjoyment of the whole book. While I was a little disappointed with her first venture, it's obvious that Frazier has the making of a fine storyteller. With a little spit and polish, this newbie's sure to shine.

(Readalikes: a little like The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi)

Grade: B-

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

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

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Unique Format, Fun Plot, Likable Characters? Tweet!


Considering how many hours most of us waste spend using sites like Twitter and Facebook, it's really not surprising that a YA author decided to craft her first novel using only tweets, blog posts and e-mails. What is surprising is how much I enjoyed Tweet Heart by Elizabeth Rudnick. Despite the fact that I'm not exactly hip to the Twitterverse, I found this story utterly charming. Its snappy format, lighthearted tone and likable characters make it a perfect summer read.

Sixteen-year-old Claire Collins (@ClaireRBear) is a lot better with boys online than face-to-face, a fact which becomes painfully obvious when her long-time crush starts following her on Twitter. Jack Dyson (@TopofGame17) barely looks at her in the school hallways, but his tweets reveal him to be friendly, funny, and surprisingly sensitive. As the Spring Fling approaches, Claire's trying desperately to figure out how to get Watkins Prep's most popular jock to acknowledge her IRL. They're obviously perfect for each other, so why is Jack so reluctant to talk to her with his mouth instead of his fingers? As she seeks advice from her besties, Charlotte (@LotsOlove) and Bennett (@KingofSlack), Claire starts chatting with Will (@WiseOneWP), another boy who's turning out to have a lot more substance than she ever realized.

When Claire finally manages to snag a real conversation with Jack, she's shocked by how different he is in person than on Twitter. Is it just nerves or is Claire's dream guy playing some kind of cruel trick on her? Something's definitely fishy with the whole situation. When the truth eventually comes out, Claire's devastated, but not for the reasons she would have imagined. Is it possible that Mr. Right is actually Mr. Very, Very Wrong? Or that Mr. Never-Thought-It-Would-Happen-In-A-Million-Years could turn into Mr. Perfect? Or is it just the Twitterverse messing with her head again? With her heart all atwitter, it's time for Claire to figure out what -or who - she really wants.

While the only thing truly unique about Tweet Heart is its format, this is one of those I-couldn't-care-less situations. I loved this book. It's not nearly as intense as the cover makes it seem, but it's not complete fluff either. It's just a sweet, down-to-earth story about a hopeless romantic looking for love in all the wrong places. And maybe, just maybe finding her happily-ever-after.

(Readalikes: Tweet Heart reminds me of just about every romantic comedy I've ever seen on the Big Screen, but no books are coming to mind. Any ideas?)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild sexual innuendo and brief mention of underrage drinking

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Tweet Heart from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thank you!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rough, but Important Sell-Out Could Use A Little Fine-Tuning

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Standing out is nothing new for high school freshman NaTasha Jennings. One of the few African-Americans in her suburban New Jersey town, she's used to looking different, being different from the kids around her. She's not exactly happy with her curvy hips, coarse hair, and dark chocolate-colored skin or the fact that the guys at her school never seem to see her, let alone ask her out, but she can deal. Just because she's surrounded by people who look nothing like her doesn't mean her cushy prepster lifestyle isn't worth it.

NaTasha's sassy Harlem-reared grandmother does not agree. Tilly, who turns up her nose at any town with "too many white folks and not enough jerk chicken" (4), takes it upon herself to drag her granddaughter back to her roots. NaTasha's spent plenty of vacay time in Harlem, always enjoying having Tilly to herself, but never a whole summer. And she's never set foot inside the crisis center where Tilly has volunteered for years. All that's about to change. While NaTasha's friends roam the mall and hit all the good parties, she'll be stuck in her grandma's colorful neighborhood hanging out with juvenile delinquents If this is what it takes to "find herself," NaTasha wants no part of it. Except, of course, that nobody argues with Tilly. And, okay, if NaTasha's honest with herself, she can admit that her grandmother might be right - maybe she could use a lesson in Racial Identity 101.

It doesn't take NaTasha long to realize the lesson's not going to be an easy one. Tilly's gritty community makes her jumpy, the girls at Amber's Place dub her a "sell-out" for acting too white, and already, her friends back home are changing. Even though she's finally getting some male attention from not one, but two fine-looking boys, NaTasha still wants to high-tail it back to her nice, safe, suburban routine. As much as she longs to go home, she refuses to quit, knowing giving up will only confirm her sell-out status. But staying in Harlem - battling her fears and facing truths about herself she's never dared to acknowledge before - will be the hardest thing she's ever done.

While Sell-Out, a debut novel by Ebony Joy Wilkins, specifically addresses racial identity, it's the kind of book that will speak to anyone who's ever felt out of place. The story makes powerful statements about race, identity, culture, accepting differences, and staying true to oneself. It delves into issues I, as a white surburbanite, have never heard of (skin bleaching cream?), let alone experienced. It's precisely because these things have no place in my day-to-day existence that I found this book both compelling and important. These kinds of empathy-through-understanding lessons are always valuable.

That being said, I felt that Wilkins' writing needed some serious polishing. Much of Sell-Out's plot seemed contrived, some of it felt forced, and, not all of it made sense to me (I'm still trying to figure out why Rex showed up in the end.). Although there's plenty of conflict in the book, I still thought NaTasha resolved her problems a little too easily and way too neatly. I wanted her to struggle more, fight harder, and battle longer before winning her victory. Perhaps because of these things, I never really felt as if I knew NaTasha. Or any of her cohorts. All of them - except Tilly, who's so colorful she's like five-dimensional - needed fleshing out.

All in all, I still think Sell-Out tells an important story. I just wish it was smoother, tighter, and stronger. Ebony Joy Wilkins shows so much potential that you better believe I'll be keeping my eye on her. Here's hoping she keeps writing, keeps polishing, and keeps publishing this type of book. Oh, and if feisty Tilly makes another appearance, you won't hear me complaining.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of other books about racial identity, like Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger; When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright; several Jacqueline Woodson titles and others)

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC* of Sell-Out from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

*Quotes taken from an ARC, and are therefore subject to change in the final version of the book

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Under-the-Sea Dystopian Novel Nothing If Not Entertaining

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ever since The Rising, when violent earthquakes and massive flooding pushed most of Earth's dry ground into the sea, land's been at a premium. People now live like sardines, crammed into stacked cities, clinging desperately to every last inch of terra firma. For those who crave elbow room, there's only one solution - settling on the ocean floor. It's a risky venture, for sure, but one that's been surprisingly successful for families like the Townsens. They live far below the ocean's surface, growing food, raising livestock and keeping an eye on things like tides and hydrothermal vents. Despite the important work they do, Topsiders don't trust these pioneers. They say too much time underwater does something to a person. Something strange, something not quite ... natural.

Fifteen-year-old Ty Townsen loves the Dark Life. He spends all his time underwater, avoiding the too-bright, too-noisy surface as much as possible. As soon as he turns 18, he plans to stake a claim, build his own homestead on 200 acres of pristine ocean floor. There's only one problem: pirates. The Seablite Gang is hijacking supply ships, even attacking pioneers - if the settlers don't catch the outlaws, they'll lose everything they've worked so hard to build. A face-to-face encounter with the looters convinces Ty he wants nothing to do with them. Still, he has to save his dream. He also feels responsible for the beautiful Topsider he rescued from a blood-stained sub. Helping Gemma find her lost brother has suddenly become very high on his priority list.

In order to save his subsea life, Ty scours the dangerous deep for the infamous outlaws. The adult settlers warn him to stay out of it, but Ty knows he's better equipped for the mission than anyone else realizes. He's not about to give up his dark secrets - not even to the incredibly attractive, eternally-curious Gemma - although he'll use any advantage he can get in his hunt for the notorious outlaws. The more Ty pries into the secrets of his fractured society (both on the surface and far below it), the more disturbing his finds become. As the truth is slowly revealed, he'll learn that nothing is ever as it seems, and that life undersea is always, always full of surprises.

Dark Life, a new dystopian novel by first-timer Kat Falls, starts with a bang and just keeps on kicking. The action never really stops as Ty fights off sea creatures, rescues a damsel-in-distress, chases pirates, and battles to save the underwater life he loves. All the adventure makes the book an exciting, fast-paced read. Now, you know I adore me a good pageturner, but this one moves so quickly that it skimps on the details I needed to really visualize Ty's world. I wanted to know more about how life worked both above and below the surface, but Falls never really explains it all. That, combined with characters who don't develop into fully-actualized beings, made Dark Life feel a little incomplete to me. Maybe all my questions will be answered in the sequel, but I felt I needed at least some of them in this book. Falls has created an interesting, original world, I just wish she'd expanded it a bit more. Younger readers probably won't care about all the details, they'll just love the non-stop action. Hand it over to a bored summer-breaker and I guarantee you won't see them for the rest of the day. It may lack in some departments, but Dark Life's nothing if not entertaining.

(Readalikes: It reminds me of the movie Waterworld, but I can't think of any similar books. Can you?)

Grade: B-

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

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

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's That Time Again - Hop To It!

Ahhh ... the weekend .... you know what that means - it's time to Hop. If you haven't joined in before, do it now. It's a fun way to discover new book blogs. I'm always amazed at the number that have sprung up in the last year. So fun! Click on over to Crazy For Books and sign up.

Jen's question this week has to do with books we're dying to get our hands on (past, present or future). I'm sure I'm not the only one who can't wait for Mockingjay, the third in the Hunger Games series. I'm also eager to read Matched by Ally Condie. I've read several of her LDS books, and can't wait to see what her new one's all about. Which books are you itching to get your hands on?

Oh, and if you're here because of the Hop - Welcome! I'm so glad you stopped by.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dark Psychological Thriller's Gonna Take Some Mulling Over ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"The monster was entwined around me so fully that I couldn't tell where it ended and I began, but I was still there, somewhere" (215).

Fate wants to mold 15-year-old John Wayne Cleaver into one thing: a serial killer. Not only does he share 2/3 of his name with a notorious killer, but his last name describes a common murder weapon. All of which could be dismissed as coincidence if it wasn't for the fact that John is a sociopath - someone incapable of empathizing with others - a trait commonly found in the most cold-blooded of murderers. It doesn't help that he obsesses about serial killers, can't stop thinking violent thoughts, and would rather spend his time with the corpses in his family's mortuary than hanging out with an actual living, breathing person.

The thing is, as fascinating as John finds these killers, he doesn't want to turn into one. He wants to be a good person. A normal teenager. So, he forces himself to live by strict rules - no stalking, no fixating, no dissecting dead animals, and above all, try to act like everyone else. It works. Until someone begans murdering people in John's small town. This is the closest he's ever been to an actual crime scene. Hardly able to contain his excitement, John launches his own secret investigation. What he finds - a true monster - stuns him.

John's spent his whole life fighting against the urge to kill, but there seems to be no other way to stop the deaths. Only he knows the truth about the madman terrorizing Clayton County. Only he can take on the killer, because only another sociopath can think like the killer. Unleashing the monster inside himself is against every one of John's rules. Still, the very idea is as tempting as it is terrifying. If he lets out the demon that lurks inside of him, even for a good reason, will he ever be able to rein it back in? Or will he be destroying one killer only to release another? Can he overcome destiny's pull on him? Or will he succumb to the dark compulsions that are becoming so very difficult to ignore?

I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells boasts one of the most fascinating premises I've ever encountered in a book. While being inside the mind of a potential killer made me squirm, it also made me think hard about the life-changing power of choice. Very, very intriguing topic. As for the rest of the book, it wasn't exactly what I expected. I'm not even sure what genre it falls under - Horror? Psychological thriller? Cautionary tale? All of those, really. Dan Wells is kind of like Stephen King for the Mensa set, or at least the Advanced Placement-ers. It's an intellectual horror novel, if such a thing even exists. It's also a strange book - compelling, but disturbing - and I'm still not sure what I think of it. The best I can come up with is this: while I'll definitely read the rest of this series, I'm not exactly chomping at the bit. I'm disturbed enough for now, thank you very much.
(Readalikes: Reminded me a little bit of House Rules by Jodi Picoult)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 (Although there are only a couple uses of mild language and only the vaguest of sexual innuendos, this book has enough violence and gore to make it inappropriate for readers under 13.)

To the FTC, with love: I bought I Am Not A Serial Killer from the author at this year's LDS Storymakers Conference.

Simply From Scratch Is, In a Word, Delicious

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Maybe it's sick, but I admit: I kind of like it, that feeling of suspension, that sense that something unknown - a force, a spirit - holds on to your heart, and won't let it beat, and won't let it go, at least for a little while" (89).

After reading the very heavy Glimpse, I desperately needed a happy read. Everything about the cover of Alicia Bessette's debut novel, Simply From Scratch (available August 5), screams, "Light!" "Fun!" "Heartwarming!" I gladly picked it up ... only to find out the book's about a grieving widow. She's a quirky widow, though, and her story's more lighthearted than it seems at first glance. In fact, Simply From Scratch is a perfect blend of pensive and playful. I loved every page.

Our heroine is 34-year-old Rose-Ellen "Zell" Carmichael Roy, a medical illustrator who's lived in small town Wippamunk, Massachusetts her whole life. With her freelance business just getting off the ground, she's pretty much got it all - a satisfying career, a loving marriage to her childhood sweetheart (happy-go-lucky photographer, Nick), the perfect pet (a retired Greyhound named Captain Ahab), a new house (okay, half a house), and plans to bear enough children to start her own soccer team (well, that one's mostly Nick's idea - she'll start with one and see how it goes). Then, Nick joins a relief mission to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and everything changes. When he's killed in a freak accident, Zell's life plunges into a soul-shaking tailspin.

More than a year later, Zell's still wandering around the house like a zombie, wearing Nick's camoflauge apron and talking like a pirate to her dog. Alone with the Memory Smacks that bring her husband back to her in painful glimpses, Zell struggles to stay anchored in the here and now. She knows she needs to move on, find closure, but she just can't.

When Zell mistakenly receives her neighbor's cooking magazine in the mail, she spies an announcement that fills her with purpose for the first time since her husband's death. Cheery celebrity chef Polly Pinch (think Racheal Ray) is hosting her first annual Desserts That Warm the Soul baking contest. The winner receives $20,000, the exact amount Nick was trying to raise for Katrina victims. It's too big a coincidence to be anything other than fate. Zell decides to enter the contest, even though she hasn't touched her oven since, well, ever.

Her first effort brings the fire department. And a pint-sized helper. Zell's neighbor, 9-year-old Ingrid Knox, is a Polly Pinch devotee who will do anything for a chance to meet her idol. Even help a baking-challenged widow. Convinced that she can help Zell win the contest, Ingrid throws herself into the project with customary zeal. Zell hardly knows what to do with the child, let alone her very good-looking (and available) father, Garrett, but she accepts the help anyway. It's a sacrifice she's willing to make in order to fulfill Nick's dream. As it turns out, Ingrid's not much of a baker, either. What she has in spades, though, is effusive happiness - the exact thing Zell needs to thaw her frozen heart.

The more the pair bake together, the more successful their experiments become. With the help of several quirky townfolks, they come up with what just might be a winning recipe. As the project comes to an end, Zell realizes how much Ingrid's company has warmed her own soul. Zell's become so attached to the girl that she can't stand the thought of disappointing her, but that, Zell soon discovers, is exactly what's going to happen if she takes Ingrid to meet Polly Pinch. Breaking her promise will mean shattering the heart of the little girl who's been so instrumental in healing her own. Can she risk it? And what about her own heart - has it healed enough to give her the courage to face a future without Nick? Or will it shrivel back into itself without Polly Pinch to hold it together?

Everything about this charming story - from the warm-hearted characters to the captivating setting to the hopeful tone - enchanted me. It's a little predictable, but, frankly, I couldn't care less. Curling up with Simply From Scratch is like spooning bites of rich, oven-warm brownie into your mouth while snow falls outside and a fire crackles in the hearth. The ultimate in cozy comfort. And you know I love me some cozy comfort. Easily one of my favorite books of the year, Simply From Scratch is, in a word, delicious.

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

Grade: A-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Simply From Scratch from the generous folks at Dutton. Thank you!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Disturbing Glimpse Gets Under the Skin. Way Under.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

You've probably noticed by now that I'm not much for poetry. Same goes for novels-in-verse. It's not that I don't appreciate skillful word usage, it's just that I'll take clarity over creativity any day. So, when I peeked at Carol Lynch Williams' new book and saw stanzas, I just about stuck Glimpse back on the shelf. But, here's the thing about verse novels - they look deceptively simple, so beguilingly easy that even poetry non-lovers like me are willing to take a glance. In this case, that's all it took. I emerged an hour and a half later, my mind reeling with the impact of this powerful, disturbing novel. Poetry-ish or not, it's stunning.

Glimpse is the story of two sisters, 12-year-old Hope and 14-year-old Lizzie. Even though Hope's younger, it's always been her job to take care of her sister, especially since their father's gone and their mother's even more absent. As hard as she's tried to shelter Lizzie, Hope knows she's failed somehow. Lizzie's keeping a secret, something so terrible it's making her crazy. If only Hope can figure out what's tearing her sister apart, she can bring Lizzie home from the mental institution where she sits bleary-eyed day after day after day. Hope's mother warns her to say nothing to Lizzie's doctors. What would she say? She doesn't know anything. Or does she? With each memory Hope dissects, she unravels a little bit more of the shocking truth, the chilling secret that's eating her sister alive.

With no one to trust, Hope must decide what to do with her newfound knowledge. Can she use it to free Lizzie? Or will spilling her secrets just lead to more trouble? Is it too late for Hope to save Lizzie? Is it too late for Hope to save herself?

Like The Chosen One, Glimpse is a tightly-woven, heavily-nuanced story about wily predators who stalk the young, stealing their innocence away forever. While the former is unsettling, the latter takes disturbing to a whole new level. Something about the verse style makes the story even more riveting, more forceful. It's a mesmerizing thriller, to be sure, one that will continue to haunt you long after you put it down. Its format may suggest an easy read, but Glimpse is anything but simple. It's taut, provoking, upsetting, and bound to get under your skin. Way, way under. As much as you may want to, you're not going to be able to forget this one.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Tomorrow River by Lesley Kagen)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language and sexual content (more disturbing than graphic)

To the FTC, with love: Another library
finefind

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Elsewhere Puts Fresh, Funny Spin On the Whole What-Happens-After-We-Die Question

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Living in Elsewhere definitely has its perks: the weather's always pleasant, the beaches are pristine, and new work by Picasso is on display at the local museum. There's only one drawback - to live in Elsewhere, you have to be dead. Liz Hall's cool with the weather, the beach, and the local attractions; it's the dying part with which she has an issue. It's fine for all the silver-haired folks who got to experience full lives on Earth, but she was mowed down by a taxi at age 15. She hadn't even begun to live. Now, she's stuck in paradise, aging backward until she reaches infancy and travels back to Earth.

Only Liz doesn't want to be a baby again. She doesn't want to start all over with a new family. She wants her life, the one she left behind in Medford, Massachusetts. She wants to drive, date, go to college, fall in love, get married, and grow old. She wants to live, really live, not just exist in some weird parallel universe. It may be impossible, but Liz won't give up until she finds a way to return to her real life.

Her unhappiness makes everyone around Liz uncomfortable. The grandmother she never knew in life urges her to move on. Her eager-to-please acclimation counselor suggests she needs an avocation to distract her. And a rock star, whose face once graced every magazine cover on Earth, suggests that returning may not be as satisfying as she thinks it will be. Liz knows they mean well, but she also knows they're wrong. Even if it means breaking all the rules - and it definitely does - she's going to get her life back.

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin puts a fresh, funny spin on the whole what-happens-after-we-die question. Refreshingly lighthearted in tone, the story manages to be both entertaining and moving. With a warm, quirky cast, a fascinating setting, and plenty of big questions to ponder, Elsewhere delights in so many ways. Whether or not your version of heaven jives with Zevin's, this lovely little book will make you snicker, sniffle and speculate about the biggest mystery of all: What really happens after we die? We all have our ideas, but Zevin's may be the most entertaining of them all.

(Readalikes: A little like If I Stay by Gayle Forman and The Everafter by Amy Huntley)

Grade: B+

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Sunday, July 11, 2010

If I Stay: Contemplative YA Novel Asks the Big Questions

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

One snowy day, three members of a family perished in a car accident. A fourth lingered, but ultimately succumbed to the same fate. The news haunted Gayle Forman. As the author pondered the incident, still grieving for her friends, a character popped into her head. Her name was Mia. She, too, was involved in a crash. She, too, lingered. Forman's second YA novel, If I Stay, is the story of Mia, a teenager stuck in that murky space between living and dying. It explores the thoughts of a young girl, ideas about living, dying and the choice Mia eventually has to make for herself - should she stay or should she go?

Through flashbacks, we learn about Mia's quirky, bohemian parents; her funny little brother, Teddy; her loyal best friend, Kim; and her rocker boyfriend, Adam. In the one day that she floats between her world and the next, we see exactly why her choice is so difficult. Even though the accident has changed things, Mia has plenty of reasons to return. She also has good reasons to go. As Mia spends the day contemplating her decision, the reader also has the chance to ponder the big questions: What happens after we die? Do families endure beyond the grave? Can comatose patients really choose to fight or let go? How do those left behind cope with the death of a loved one?

While I don't have a problem with contemplative novels like If I Stay, this one dragged quite a bit for me. I'm not sure why, since it had plenty of conflict, but it never really grabbed me. Maybe it's because the story's not terribly fresh, or because the only characters who really stand out are Mia's parents (who are charmingly original), or because Mia's voice isn't strong enough to make her truly come alive (pardon the pun). The ending did surprise me, though, and the sentimentality might have even coaxed a tear or two out of me. Still and all, I found If I Stay disappointing - one of those books that comes nowhere near to living up to its hype. Always a bummer.

(Readalikes: A little like The Everafter by Amy Huntley)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language (several F-bombs, plus frequent milder invectives) and some sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I bought If I Stay from Amazon.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

It's 1 A.M. - Time to Hop!

It's almost 1:00 in the morning here in monsoon-y Arizona and I'm still awake thanks to the combined efforts of my insulin pump (which decided to run out of juice about 30 minutes after I fell asleep), the rain (as much as I love the sound of rain falling in our parched desert, it's difficult to sleep to), and my 18-month-old (who is still awake and laughing her little head off at who knows what). So, yeah. I'm blogging. And Hopping. And blogging about Hopping.

If you haven't discovered the Book Blogger Hop yet, get yourself over to Crazy For Books and join in the fun. It's an excellent way to find new blogs. I'm amazed by how many I find every week.

This time around, Jen's asking all the participants to chat about their favorite authors. I'm too indecisive to pick a favorite anything, but here's a handful of writers I like:

Jodi Picoult - I love how she looks at ripped-from-the-headlines issues and makes me see them from all different angles.

Maeve Binchy - I love her soft, soothing Irish touch. Her books almost always pull me in with interesting characters and storylines.

Kathy Reichs - I've never been a big science fan, but I love how Reichs makes forensics so fascinating in her Tempe Brennan series. I also love the characters she creates.

Jacqueline Woodson - Her books always make me see things in a different light.

Cassandra Clare - The Mortal Instruments series. What more do I need to say?

... and tons more. Who are your favorites?

Friday, July 09, 2010

Zippy Heist Society Steals My Heart

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Katarina Bishop has pulled off some pretty impressive jobs in her 15 years. Not surprising, really, since she's been trained by the most notorious thieving family in the world - her own. These days, though, the only thing she wants to steal is a spot at the most exclusive prep school in the U.S. She's determined to leave "the life" behind, blend in with the other Ivy Leaguers-to-be, and finally live like a normal teenager. There's only one problem: Someone doesn't agree with Kat's new life goal. Someone's trying to get her kicked out of the Colgan School. Someone is succeeding.

Before Kat knows it, she's sucked right back into the life she thought she'd left behind forever. She wouldn't return for anyone else, but her father's in a whole lot of trouble. A very unsavory Italian is accusing Bobby Bishop of stealing a set of priceless paintings from his home. Kat's convinced of her dad's innocence, even if no one else is, but the mobster's not about to take her word for it. There's only one way to retrieve the paintings and save her father's life - and only one person who could pull off such an impossible heist. Kat's got little choice in the matter. She gets to work.

Nothing about the job is easy - Kat's up against more than one formiddable foe; she's got a crew made up entirely of teenagers, few of whom are ready to trust her after her abrupt disappearance from the underworld they all call home; and she's working on a very tight schedule. She's only got two weeks to pull off the biggest art theft ever. Oh, and just to complicate matters, there's Hale. Gorgeous, loyal, funny, and filthy, filthy rich, Hale's her perfect partner in crime. Except that she's over him, just like she's over the whole thieving thing. Isn't she?

Heist Society, the newest YA novel by Ally Carter, is the literary cousin of fast-paced con movies like The Italian Job and Ocean's Eleven. It zips along at a furious speed wasting no time on details lacking immediate relevancy, criss-crosses the globe gathering plot-thickening clues, and expects you to keep up with the neck-breaking pace. The cast is warm and likeable, not as developed as it could be, but enjoyable nonetheless. Like all con stories, this one's a little far-fetched. Still, it's engaging, fun and so difficult to put down that I pretty much read it in one sitting.

As much as I admire the book's sleek plot, it's a little bit too streamlined for me. Since Carter doesn't bother with a lot of background, there are certain parts of the story that just didn't quite add up for me. Kat's motivation, for one thing. I didn't get why she would drop everything to help her dad when they seemed to have only a very strained relationship. There's no evidence of any closeness between them. Also, Kat makes a big deal about wanting to leave her life of crime behind, but steps back into it without a second thought. I expected a little more internal conflict there. Then, there's her relationship with Hale: How did they meet? Why is Hale so devoted to Kat? Why doesn't the big wimp just tell her how he feels? (Apparently, I'm not the only fan wondering these things. When asked if she was going to divulge these secrets in subsequent books, Carter stated, "I will if the book calls for it, but only then.") Oh yeah, and the identity of the original thief? Well, I was positive I had it all figured out. Turns out, I wasn't right or wrong. Dang it, I hate me an obscure ending.

Despite Carter's chronic detail skimping, she's got me hooked. Heist Society kept me so thoroughly entertained that I can't wait for Kat's next adventure. Carter constantly keeps me guessing, but this is (hopefully) a sure thing: Our favorite thief will be back, we just don't know when exactly. See what I mean about obscure endings? Dang it.

(Readalikes: I can think of plenty of movies to compare it to, but no books. Any ideas?)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some references to female body parts

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Heist Society from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thanks!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Purge Revealing, But Not Riveting

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I love eating, but hate having eaten. I hate barfing, but love having purged" (55).

Life's not that bad for 16-year-old Janie Ryman. After all, she lives in a nice house; got stellar reviews for her portrayal of Anne Frank in the school play; and has finally caught the eye of Matt Lewis, the most popular guy in her high school. Okay, she has to contend with her blubberous hips and thighs, not to mention Jenny, the most annoyingly perfect half-sister in the world, but still ... things aren't that bad. So, why can't she make it through a whole day without sticking her fingers down her throat? Janie doesn't even like throwing up. Why in the world does she do it?

No one knows the answer to that question - not even Janie - which is why her parents stick her in a psychiatric hellhole known, ironically, as Golden Slopes. It's a facility where Barfers, Starvers and Generally Psycho teenagers gather to battle their various diseases. Janie's sick of the place, tired of the constant supervision, fed up with all the tedious rules, and dying for a smidgeon of privacy so she can purge all her frustration into the nearest toilet. She wants to get better, really she does, but she's not about to spill her secrets to some psychiatrist or, worse, to a group of patients more screwed up than she is. The only place she feels safe enough to reveal anything is in her journal.

Her parents - the Queen of Denial and the High Priest of Positive Thinking - want her out almost as much as Janie does (after all, every day of her incarceration just deepens the blight on the Ryman Family name). Still, they're not responding to her pleading or whining. It appears as if the only thing that can spring Janie loose is actually facing her problems, admitting things about them and about her miserable little life that she's never told anyone before. Janie desperately needs to be free, but is it worth spilling her guts? Wouldn't it be easier to just puke them up instead?

Purge by Sarah Darer Littman is the honest, yet sensitive portrayal of a young girl struggling with bulimia. It's a disease Littman knows intimately - her experience with it gives the story an authentic, insider's view into the psychology behind bulimia, the struggles of living with it day-to-day and the strength it takes to get healthy. While I think the book is both informative and important, it lacked the vibrancy or originality to really capture me. Neither Janie nor the other characters ever edge far enough past their stereotypes to become real. And, while I like that the story ends on a hopeful note, I think Janie's battle with the disease is a little too easy. Is it completely heartless to say that I wanted her to suffer more and fight harder? Probably. All in all, I think Purge is revealing, it just doesn't add anything new or unique to the subject. It's a typical issue novel, but only that. Typical. Average. Nothing super special. In the immortal words of Randy Jackson: "It was just okay for me."

(Readalikes: A teensy bit like The Girl With the Mermaid Hair by Delia Ephron)

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Purge from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thanks!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Creepy-Fun The Enemy Has Me Double-Checking the Locks

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After trembling through more than one book-induced nightmare, I made a vow: I will never read a scary book at night, especially if (A) My husband is out of town or (B) I am the only adult in the house who is awake. I've lived by this rule for years. Yet, somehow, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, I found myself whipping through the last third of Charlie Higson's dystopian horror novel, The Enemy. The combination of 32 oz. of Baja Blast and a 3-hour afternoon nap had me wide awake at 2 a.m. What better time to read about zombies, right? Um, riiiiight.

The story opens a year or so after a strange disease hits the streets of London. In the city, and presumably across the globe, adults are decomposing. They're still alive - sort of. As their flesh slowly rots away, they lumber through the streets in packs looking for stray children to eat. The moaning, drooling grown-ups aren't too smart, but they're strong and their constant hunger makes them determined. They're getting more aggressive by the day.

London's young survivors are holed up in vacant supermarkets and other buildings, leaving their fortresses only to scavenge for food in the empty city. Even with the adults dragging off kids every day, there are too many mouths to feed. It's becoming clear to Arran, the leader of the Waitrose gang, that they're going to have to move on before they starve to death. But where can they possibly go? They can't exactly hop online to find a safe place - as far as they know, the whole world's filled with slathering, kid-crunching zombies.

When a strange kid in a weird patchwork coat shows up at Waitrose offering a solution, Arran's more than a little skeptical. The new boy, Jester, swears he's part of a group living at Buckingham Palace. He offers Polaroid proof showing the unbelievable - kids, lots of kids, looking clean, well-fed, and safe. Living on the mean streets has taught Arran not to trust anyone, but if what Jester's saying is true, he could save his whole group. His fighters could relax, they could all eat fresh food, sleep in real beds, live like royalty. A vote decides it. To Buckingham Palace they go. Only getting there won't be that easy - and surviving there might be harder still.

The Enemy starts with an unnerving sentence: "Small Sam was playing in the parking lot behind the Waitrose supermaket when the grown-ups took him" (3). With a beginning as auspicious as that, it's probably no surprise that, with each succeeding page, the story gets more and more chilling. Although I found myself laughing at certain passages ("A parent might have grounded you, a teacher might have kept you after school, and the police might have arrested you, but none of them would have tried to eat you, like the grown-ups who wandered the streets these days" [19]"), the book's definitely spooky. It's also a fast-paced thrill ride with plenty of horror-typical blood and gore. Character development is not The Enemy's strong point, but the kids are, for the most part, young and helpless enough to garner immediate sympathy. The older ones are tough, brave, and fiercely protective of the younger children, making them admirable as well. Although Higson doesn't divulge all the secrets of his freaky dystopian world - leaving me with plenty of unanswered questions - it had me convinced enough to keep flipping through pages at 3:00 in the morning. And double check all my locks. And make sure all the windows were secure. And peek outside to confirm the neighborhood was as zombie-free as it seemed.

The Enemy isn't as complex as some of the other YA dystopian books out there, but it's definitely a fun, creepy read. It moves quickly, but even so, I recommend starting it early in the morning because, trust me, you're going to want to finish it long before dark.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a lot of the Gone series by Michael Grant and a bit of The Forest of Hands and Teeth books by Carrie Ryan)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Enemy from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thank you!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

I Can't Be Quiet About This One - The Silence of God Is a Touching Must-Read

(Image from Deseret Book)
"Johan looked at her straight on. 'Neither Marx nor Lenin knows how man will change from a selfish lout to a caring, hardworking comrade. They just believe that somehow he will ... But you cannot change a man's nature or behavior by outside means, Natasha Ivanovna. There must be a change of a man's heart, and only God can do that.'"

Pretty much everything I know about tsarist Russia comes from the movies Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Anastasia (1997). I'm sure I studied world history at some point during my schooling, but when I think of early 20th Century Russia, I see animated figures dancing around Palace Square and hear Tevye singing, "If I Were A Rich Man." Yes, I do realize that my tenuous, Hollywood-tainted grasp on Russian history is slightly pathetic. However, it explains, at least in part, why I was so thrilled when Deseret Book offered me the opportunity to review Gale Sears' new novel, The Silence of God. The story unfurls in a time and place that I've only experienced through film - reading about the rich, complex history of St. Petersburg brought the setting to life like no movie ever could. If the words to "Sunrise, Sunset" floated through my head as I read, well, that's not such a bad thing, right?

Although the book is fictional, it centers around a real family, the members of which were the only known Latter-Day Saints living in Russia at the time. Johan Lindlof, the father, made his living as a gold and silversmith. His job provided enough income for the family to live in relative luxury as part of St. Petersburg's wealthy, bourgeois middle class. He and his wife were the parents of eight children, the oldest of whom was born in 1888, the youngest, in 1903. The story focuses mainly on Agnes (b. 1894), who was in her early 20s when most of the book's events take place.

The Silence of God begins with a quiet blessing of the Russian land by apostle Francis Marion Lyman. The Lindlofs are thrilled to be in the presence of a respected leader of their church and even more delighted by his prayer, which prophesies that their country will be important in the spread of the Gospel. Although the Lindlofs have great faith in the Lord, present circumstances hardly indicate an opening of minds or softening of hearts toward God. With poverty running rampant through St. Petersburg and the common people up in arms over the tsar's apparent indifference, it looks as though the city's headed for war, not religious enlightenment. When the Bolsheviks seize power, everyone's loyalties become subject. The Lindlofs become targets not only because of their money, but because of their strange American religion. Johan believes in obeying the laws of his land - he just doesn't agree with the rebels' Socialist ideals. His staunch faith, coupled with his refusal to side with the Bolsheviks, puts Johan and his family at great risk in a city pulsing with an unrest that's becoming more violent by the hour.

Natasha Ivanovna Gavrilova, a Bolshevik propaganda writer and Agnes' lifelong friend, knows the Lindlofs are good people, even if they have been bamboozled by angels and golden bibles. Her father, a university professor, has taught Natasha to think carefully about everything. And she is. Maybe too carefully, because a conversation she has with Johan Lindlof about the difference between Socialism and Mormonism's law of consecration just won't leave her mind. Who will bring peace to Russia, she wonders - Lenin and the Bolsheviks? The tsar? The Mormons? The more Natasha Ivanovna considers the question, the more confused she's becoming. When the Lindlofs suffer a terrible fate, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Only Natasha Ivanovna, a recognized Bolshevik, has the power to save her dearest friend, a woman her comrades have declared an enemy-of-the-state.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a country in crisis, The Silence of God is the unforgettable story of a family whose faith sustains them even in the most desperate of circumstances. As preachy or cheesy as it may sound, the book is much more than a tale of enduring to the end. Since we spend most of the story inside Natasha Ivanovna's head, we delve into the eternal and inevitable clashes between politics and religion; youthful zeal and tradition; the common people and their governments; and, of course, man's weakness v. God's power. It's these ideas, plus the way Sears makes the history come alive that makes this book so riveting. Usually, I dislike historical fiction in which the history vastly outweighs the fiction - in this book, however, I hardly cared. The drama, tragedy, and triumph intrinsic in Russia's history swept me clean away. Viewing it through the struggles of the Lindlof Family only made it more vivid, more real. Even though I had trouble keeping track of the many Lindlofs, none of whom were rounded enough to really stand out, I realized just how "close" I'd grown to them when I discovered that Sears altered their fates in the book. It still surprises me, somehow, that real life can be so much crueller than fiction.

As much as I enjoyed both Fiddler on the Roof and Anastasia, The Silence of God made me realize how much I missed by allowing them to be my only portals into Russian history. Tevye still makes me laugh and the possibility of Anastasia's survival will always capture my imagination, but Gale Sears is the one who really made it all come alive for me. I can't be quiet about this one - The Silence of God is a touching must-read. It does more justice to the richness of tsarist Russia than anything else I've encountered. Don't miss it.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Dean R. Hughes' World War II series, Children of the Promise)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for war-related violence and threats of violence (both physical and sexual)

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Silence of God from the generous folks at Deseret Book. Thank you!

Friday, July 02, 2010

My Double Life Glitters Like the Gem It Is

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Alright, girls, it's 'fess up time: How many of you have ever sung into a brush, broom handle, hair dryer, or any other type of faux microphone? Dumb question. We all have. Whether your wannabe rock star days occurred 35 years ago or just last Thursday, you're going to love Janette Rallison's newest YA novel, My Double Life. It's not quite as original as My Fair Godmother, but it's got the same simple wisdom that made Rallison's most popular work so, well, popular. Plus, it's sprinkled - okay, saturated - with that rock star glitz and glamour that always shimmers through girlhood fantasies.

The story revolves around 18-year-old Lexi Garcia, a senior in high school whose mundane little life is about to take a much more glamorous turn. Of course, she has no idea what's about to happen. Her main concerns are avoiding the Cliquistas (the snooty popular girls who can't get enough of teasing her about her shabby neighborhood and secondhand clothes), figuring out a way to ask Trevor Wilson to the Sadie Hawkins dance (without looking like a complete fool), and studying hard enough to earn a college scholarship (the paltry sum her mother earns as a hotel housekeeper is baely enough to buy a pencil, let alone pay for tuition). Lexi's never had it easy - she's a penniless, fatherless, half white half Latina girl living in a small West Virginia town, after all - but she's also smart, scrappy and close to her mother and abuela. Oh yeah, and she bears an uncanny resemblance to Kari Kingsley, the hottest rock star around.

When the Cliquistas circulate an embarrassing photo of Lexi on the Internet, they unknowingl launch their nemesis into the exact kind of life she longs for - one filled with fame and fortune. In no time, she's offered a lucrative position as Kari Kingsley's double. The money, more than Lexi's ever seen in her life, is tempting, but there's an even more compelling reason for her to jump on this particular bandwagon - living in California might finally give her the opportunity to look up the father she's never met.

It doesn't take long for Lexi to figure out that stardom isn't all it's cracked up to be. Impersonating Kari is hard work, especially when gorgeous singer Grant Delray enters the picture. As much as Lexi longs to throw off her disguise, she refuses to give up, especially now that she's closer than she's ever been to discovering who she really is. Maybe abuela's right and Lexi is the kind of person whose integrity can be bought and sold, but isn't the truth worth a little subterfuge?
While the plot of My Double Life isn't all that original, it's still a fun, upbeat story that provides a nice counterpoint to all the doom and gloom currently sitting on the YA shelves. Sure, it's predictable; yes, it's a little cheesy; and okay, some character development wouldn't have hurt. Still, it's a clean, enjoyable romp through the twinkling world of stardom, an adventure that carries a timeless lesson for all of us brush-toting would-be crooners: Remaining true to oneself is always the best policy.

(Readalikes: Princess for Hire by Lindsey Leavitt; a little like My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG (Although it's a clean book, My Double Life is geared more toward readers ages 12 and up.)

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of My Double Life from the generous folks at Putnam. Thank you!
Blog Widget by LinkWithin