Saturday, April 30, 2011

Schindler's Summer Romance Story Has Heart

(Image from Indiebound)

When high school basketball star Chelsea Keyes injures her hip during senior year, everything changes. Unable to play the game, she's forced to watch from the sidelines as a promising season goes sour. As if that isn't bad enough, she feels like she's been benched from her life - she can't bring herself to so much as look at a basketball, her dad barely talks to her anymore, and her brother won't get off her case. No one seems to understand just how much she's lost.

To help them all reconnect, Chelsea's dad books a three-week family vacation at a lake resort in Minnesota. Chelsea's shocked when she finds out he's signed her up for a boot camp to help her regain some of the strength she's lost since her accident. She's even more shocked when she sees her instructor - 19-year-old Clint Morgan is hot in a way that almost makes Chelsea forget she's got the perfect boyfriend back home in Missouri. Almost. Only the more time she spends with Clint, the more she wonders about Gabe, the guy she's been going out with since junior year. How is it that she feels so much more understood by a guy she barely knows than by the one who should actually know her best? And does her summer fling matter enough to risk the good thing she's got going with Gabe?

As Chelsea battles to rediscover herself, her passions, and her strength, she has to decide what really matters to her. And who. Before she ends up losing everything, not to mention everyone, she cares about.

Holly Schindler's debut novel, A Blue So Dark, blew me away with its heart-wrenching intensity. Playing Hurt, her sophomore effort, didn't hit me quite as strongly, probably because it's a simpler, more familiar story. An enjoyable story, for sure, just quieter and more predictable. Whatever the tone of her books, though, it's Schindler's bright prose that draws me into them. Her skillful word-weaving brings her stories to such vivid life that I have no trouble believing in them. None at all. Playing Hurt may not have the originality of A Blue So Dark, but it's got the same kind of heart. Which makes it a more-than-worthwhile novel in its own right.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's books - Dairy Queen, The Off Season and Front and Center)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Playing Hurt from the author. Thanks, Holly!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Unconventional Adoption Story Tells It True

(Image from Indiebound)

Bow Farm, a ramshackle spread on the Mattole River in California's Humboldt County, collects lost souls. And secrets. Shunning their pasts, its residents have come together to form something new, something more than a community, but not quite a family. At least not in any conventional sense. There's Len, a quiet logger, who's fiercely devoted to his brain dead wife; Ruthie, an obese cook, whose botched suicide brought her to the farm; Melody, who shuns her high brow background to live off the land; Johnny Appleseed, whose frequent comings and goings suit his constant wanderlust; and Willow, a skilled weaver, who hides from her demons in a yurt at the edge of the property. Despite variant pasts, each member of the group depends on the others, takes care of the others, and helps make the farm a refuge for them all.

No one's prepared for a disturbance in the peace, especially one that comes in the form of an angry 3-year-old. Len's never met his nephew, doubts he can properly care for the child, but brings him home anyway. He's determined to give the boy, whose mother's been incarcerated for drug dealing, a little stability. It doesn't take long, however, for one thing to become perfectly clear: Len's got too much on his plate already to keep track of squirmy, sullen Wrecker. The others on the farm, none of whom are exactly the greatest candidates for parenthood, agree to look after the child until an adoptive family can be found. They expect to feed Wrecker, clothe him, read him stories, keep him out of trouble - what they don't expect is to fall in love with him. But they do. And the fierceness of that emotion changes everything at Bow Farm.

As Wrecker grows up, the odd little family gathers around the boy, experiencing the joys and hardships of parenting a child haunted by a past he doesn't even remember. When it comes time to tell Wrecker the truth about his early life, his ex-con birth mother, and a whole lot of other details they've skipped over, the group fears his reaction. Will Wrecker's anger take away the one thing, the one person, who succeeded in making them a family? And, if he leaves, what will become of the rest of them? What will happen to Bow Farm, the place that has sheltered them all?

Wrecker, Summer Wood's second novel, grabbed me from the first word. Or maybe it was the plot summary that did it for me. I may have mentioned (only about a million times) that, as an adoptive mother, I have a bit of a weakness for adoption stories in all their various forms. This one's an unconventional tale, filled with unconventional characters, set in an unconventional time (Northern California - 1965), all of which give it a quirky charm. The writing kept me engaged, startling me at times with its humor and heart. Even though the story wanders a bit and doesn't have quite the richness I wanted it to have, I enjoyed it. Its message rings clear and true: parenthood is less about bringing children into the world and more about helping them through it. Family is less about blood and more about benevolence. As someone who knows a little something about unconventional families, I have to agree.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a tiny bit of Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, some sexual content, and depictions of illegal drug use.

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Wrecker from the generous folks at TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What Can't Wait An Immigrant Story With Bite

(Image from Indiebound)

Marisa Moreno's parents came to The United States to make a better life for themselves. So, why won't they let her do the same? Sure, they want her to graduate from high school, but only if it doesn't interfere with cooking meals for her gruff Papi, babysitting her niece, or working enough hours at Kroger to help pay the family's bills. Marisa knows her duties to la familia come first, but she also knows she's smart enough to really make something of herself. Marisa's parents want her to stay in the barrio, marry a neighborhood boy, have babies, and work at some dead-end job like a good little Mexican girl. Marisa wants more. So much more.

When Marisa's favorite teacher urges her to apply to a competitve engineering program at the University of Texas, Marisa longs to do it. But just the thought of fleeing Houston fills her with paralyzing guilt. How will her Mami and Papi afford rent without Marisa's paycheck? Who will cook Papi's meals? If Tia Marisa isn't around, who will watch little Anita, soothe her when her parents fight, keep her safe from her drug-dealing father's vicious temper? And what of sweet, gorgeous Alan Peralta, who's finally showing some interest in her? Can she leave all of it behind? Just for some fancy science program? As much as Marisa wants to follow her own dreams, she knows it's impossible.

As things at home become more and more impossible, Marisa faces the most difficult choice of her life: Does she give up on her own future to make everyone else happy, like she's always done in the past? Or does she fight for her dreams, no matter what the cost? Trapped by all that's expected of her, Marisa will be forced to choose between tradition and progress, cultural expectations and personal ambition, familial obligations and her own fulfillment. Can she find a way to make her dreams come true without losing everything in the process? Or is she doomed to eke out a hard scrabble life in a cockroach-infested tenement building, just like her parents?

What Can't Wait, a debut novel by Texas native Ashley Hope Perez, is an immigrant story with bite. It's familiar, touching on all the usual conflicts, but surprising in its unflinching honesty. I found the novel both compelling and affecting, even though I would have liked a whole lot more originality from it. Still, it's refreshing to see modern Mexican-American culture being explored in teen lit, especially when it comes from a writer like Perez, who uses her own experience to make her story realistic, relevant and, most of all, relatable to readers of every background. While What Can't Wait didn't blow me away, it has placed Perez firmly on my radar. You better believe I'll be keeping my eye on this intriguing literary lady.

(Readalikes: I guess I don't read many stories about Mexican-American teenagers. Any ideas here?)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of What Can't Wait from the generous folks at Carolrhoda LAB. Thank you!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Tried, I Really Tried ...

So, I tried, I really tried to enjoy A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer. Its topic (the development of penicilin during WWII) is fascinating and if the book had been non-fiction, I think I would have connected more with it. As it was, I found the omniscient viewpoint distancing, the characters off-putting, and the whole thing just too long and dull for me. I gave up around Page 150.

I seem to be in the minority, however, as most reviewers liked the book. You can see readers' comments on Amazon here and Barnes & Noble here. Also, please click here to see all the blogs that have reviewed/will be reviewing the book on its tour with TLC Book Tours.

If you've read the book, what do you think? Should I have been more patient? Given the plot more time to develop? What are your thoughts?

Oh, and here's the book's synopsis. I copied and pasted it from Goodreads:

From the New York Times bestselling author of City of Light comes a compelling, richly detailed tale of passion and intrigue set in New York City during the tumultuous early days of World War II.

Claire Shipley is a single mother haunted by the death of her young daughter and by her divorce years ago. She is also an ambitious photojournalist, and in the anxious days after Pearl Harbor, the talented
Life magazine reporter finds herself on top of one of the nation's most important stories. In the bustling labs of New York City's renowned Rockefeller Institute, some of the country's brightest doctors and researchers are racing to find a cure that will save the lives of thousands of wounded American soldiers and countless others—a miraculous new drug they call penicillin. Little does Claire suspect how much the story will change her own life when the work leads to an intriguing romance.

Though Claire has always managed to keep herself separate from the subjects she covers, this story touches her deeply, stirring memories of her daughter's sudden illness and death—a loss that might have been prevented by this new "miracle drug." And there is James Stanton, the shy and brilliant physician who coordinates the institute's top secret research for the military. Drawn to this dedicated, attractive man and his work, Claire unexpectedly finds herself falling in love. But Claire isn't the only one interested in the secret development of this medicine. Her long-estranged father, Edward Rutherford, a self-made millionaire, understands just how profitable a new drug like penicillin could be. When a researcher at the institute dies under suspicious circumstances, the stakes become starkly clear: a murder has been committed to obtain these lucrative new drugs. With lives and a new love hanging in the balance, Claire will put herself at the center of danger to find a killer—no matter what price she may have to pay.

Lauren Belfer dazzled readers with her debut novel, City of Light, a New York Times notable book of the year. In this highly anticipated follow-up, she deftly captures the uncertainty and spirit, the dreams and hopes, of a nation at war. A sweeping tale of love and betrayal, intrigue and idealism, A Fierce Radiance is an ambitious and deeply engaging novel from an author of immense talent.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Enclave Entertains in All Its Gritty, Grimy Glory

(Image from Indiebound)

When a deadly virus sweeps through the country, killing nearly everyone in its path, the survivors seek refuge underground. In the tunnels that once formed New York City's subway system, they cluster in remote enclaves, where they hunt for food, mate solely to prolong the species, and fight to keep their communities free from looters, bandits and the zombie-like creatures they call Freaks. It's a rough, grimy existence. The only one 15-year-old Deuce has ever known.

In this tough-as-steel world, the only thing that matters is what you can contribute to the enclave. Deuce's goal has always been to become a Huntress, to take her place among the strongest, most fearsome members of her world. After receiving her ceremonial scars, she's finally made it, finally transformed from a nameless rat into a lean, powerful hunter, one of the best the enclave's ever seen. She still has to prove herself, though, which is why she's paired with the mysterious Fade, a Hunter who claims to have come from the ruined lands above. Everyone knows that's impossible, since humans don't live Topside. Not anymore. Still, the success of Deuce's hunting expeditions, not to mention her survival in the dangerous underground tunnels, depend on trusting her partner. It's only as she gets to know him that she begins to wonder if Fade could possibly be telling the truth - about where he came from, about what he's doing in the enclave, and about the secrets he swears their community's leaders are hiding.

When said leadership ignores Deuce's warning about an alarming massacre in a neighboring enclave, Deuce knows something's terribly wrong in her underground community. Questioning her superiors gets her nothing but exile. Now, Deuce and Fade are on the run, clawing their way Topside, trying to make it in a harsh, new world where humanity barely exists. If they can outrun violent gangs, outfight rabid Freaks, and outlast their own hunger, then maybe, maybe they can find the safe place Fade's father always talked about. If such a place is real, which is seeming less likely with every passing second ...

Enclave, the first book in a new YA dystopian series by Ann Aguirre, is a raw, riveting story about one girl's fight for survival in a hostile new world. Combining classic dystopian elements with a dash of horror gives the tale plenty of conflict, while complex, cunning characters make it more than just a fast-paced adventure tale. While Enclave's not terribly original, it's still gripping in all its gritty, grimy glory. It's not my favorite dystopian story, but I'm definitely interested to see where it's heading. I might even be holding my breath - just a little - for the sequel. Fall 2012, come quick, wouldja?

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Incarceron and Sapphique by Catherine Fisher, a little of The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan and a bit of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for violence and brief references to rape

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Enclave from the generous folks at Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan). Thank you!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nunes' Hippie Chick Medium Insufferable, But Intriguing

(Image from Indiebound)

Nothing about 33-year-old Autumn Rain is typical - not her looks (her eyes are different colors), not her upbringing (her adoptive parents were hippies), not her views on life (microwaves, shoes, and unorganic food = evil). So, she's not all that surprised when she discovers she can read "imprints," or the memories and strong emotions humans leave behind on treasured objects. Happy imprints, like the ones Autumn feels on the book of poetry her parents wrote for each other, bring her joy. Others are so full of hate, violence and rage that they can bring Autumn to her knees. This ability isn't something she wants, but she knows it can be used for good, if only she can steel herself against its sometimes frightening power.

When a grieving couple comes to Autumn, desperate to find their missing daughter, she feels obligated to help. The images she gets off the girl's necklace are confusing, but they seem to point to a commune in the Oregon wilderness. Although it seems the girl went willingly, something about her imprints makes Autumn uneasy. When a third person comes asking about a missing girl, whose disappearance also seems to be linked to Harmony Farm, Autumn gets imprints so troubling she can't get them out of her mind. She's not one to judge people based on their looks or lifestyles, but she's also not one to let innocent people suffer. Knowing she can't go to the police with only what she sees in her head, Autumn vows to check out the commune herself. Is it the peaceful, idyllic community it claims to be or something much more sinister? Using her special ability, plus her more down-to-Earth detective skills, she's determined to find out.

Of course, not everyone's thrilled about Autumn's interest in what could be a dangerous cult. Her twin sister's terrified, especially since she's "seeing" some weird images herself. And Detective Shannon Martin would, of course, prefer that Autumn keep her nose out of his case. Then there's Jake Ryan, Autumn's best friend, who wants to protect her the way he would a little sister - only sisterly feelings are not at all what she wants from him. Add in a crazy Harmony Farmer, a mesmerizing spiritual leader, and a very alluring math-teacher-turned-private-investigator and Autumn Rain's got more problems than she can handle. Oh, and the three-day fast required of new Harmony Farm recruits means she'll be doing it all on an empty stomach - a very dangerous prospect indeed.

Although I didn't like Imprints by Rachel Ann Nunes as much as I wanted to, I did like it a lot more than I expected to. While mediums are plentiful in fiction and the whole cult investigation plot has been done before, Nunes does a few things that sets Imprints apart. First of all, I found the idea of imprints themselves interesting. The concept's not anything new, but I don't remember ever reading about a heroine who purposely surrounds herself with items that exude happy, positive impressions as a way of blocking out negative ones. I also like the twin aspect of the book - the idea of identical sisters having the same type of talents fascinates me. Also, the fact that Autumn's love interest (well, one of them) happens to be a bi-racial man with a learning disability also intrigues me. He doesn't have a lot of personality other than that, but I at least appreciate that he's different from other leading men. On the flip side, Autumn's so purposely different, she becomes a cliche. She behaves exactly as you would expect a Hippie Chick to behave. And while I don't mind me a flower child character, I detest Autumn, who's an insufferable blend of self-righteous and whiny. My disconnect with the main character, plus the existence of some plot points that were unexplained, unrealistic and unfulfilling, explains why I gave Imprints only an average grade. Still, the novel has enough going on to be interesting, enjoyable and even sequel-worthy. I won't be holding my breath for the next Autumn Rain novel, but you better believe I will be checking it out. Eventually.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little bit of The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting and The Sight by Judy Blundell)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence/frightening situations

To the FTC, with love: I bought Imprints from Deseret Book with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Secret Daughter a Heart-Wrenching Story, Beautifully Told

(Image from Indiebound)

I've always loved adoption stories. Something about all the heartbreak, sacrifice and enormous love that goes into the process has always spoken directly to my heart. Back when I still thought bearing children would be an easy, unwrinkled process for me, I'd watch TLC's Adoption Stories and bawl my eyes out. The program no longer airs, but even if it did, I wouldn't be able to watch it now. After adopting my daughter, my feelings on the subject are so tender that all it takes is hearing the word "adopt" to make my eyes leak. And yet, I still love adoption stories. Which is why I approached Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda with such eagerness. Not to mention a big box of Kleenex.

The book tells the parallel stories of two mothers - one a 31-year-old pediatrician in California, the other a peasant woman living in rural India - and the child that brings them together. After suffering multiple miscarriages, Somer Whitman Thakkar discovers that she is infertile. The news shocks her, the knowledge that she will never bear a child shaking her to her core. While Somer grieves, then prepares herself for invasive fertility treatments that have little chance of working, her husband suggests adoption. Furious with Krishnan for giving up on her, on them, Somer refuses to consider the idea. Until she realizes how futile it is to dream of something that will likely never happen, especially while hundreds of abandoned children linger in foreign orphanages, just waiting for good families to rescue them. When Somer sees the baby who's been chosen for her and Krishnan, a little Indian girl with curly black hair and stunning hazel eyes, she knows she's made the right decision. Soon, the couple's on their way to Bombay, intent on bringing the child home to California.

Meanwhile, Kavita Merchant mourns the loss of the infant she has just borne. She knows her husband, Jasu, is right - they can't afford a baby on the meager salary they make from working the fields. Especially a girl. They need sons to help with the work, to carry on the family name, to support them in their old age. A girl will only cost them money they can't afford to spend. But Kavita wants this beautiful, hazel-eyed child, even while she knows her husband will never allow her to keep the baby. Refusing to let this newborn daughter suffer the same grisly fate as her last, she whisks the child off to Bombay, where she places her in a grimy orphanage. The anklet she places on the baby's foot is the only token Kavita can give her child, the only proof the girl will have that she was loved on sight, instantly cherished by the woman who gave her life.

Twenty years later, Asha Thakkar clasps the anklet between her hands, wondering about the people who gave it to her. Although she's enjoyed a stable childhood with parents who doted on her, Asha still feels as if something's missing in her life. She's learned a little about her country of birth from her father, but she's never visited India. She knows bits of her story, just not enough to feel whole. She holds pieces to the puzzle of who she is, yet she can't get a complete picture. So, when the opportunity to study in India for a year arises, Asha takes it, even though she knows it will infuriate her mother. Maybe for that very reason. Still, Asha knows that staying with Krishnan's family in Mumbai will give her a chance to get to know her extended adoptive family, see her home country with her own eyes and, maybe, help her find the answers to the questions that plague her.

As Asha digs for her roots in India, Somer grapples with her own worries and anger. Krishnan's increasing distance doesn't make things any easier. Her marriage crumbling, Somer embarks on a journey not unlike her daughter's. It's a desperate search for herself that will end the same way Asha's does - with heartbreak, with illumination, and with understanding. At the same time, Kavita continues to mourn her lost daughter, never realizing that Asha is closer than she ever could have imagined. All the stories converge in a taut, emotional finale that proves redemption can often be found in the most unlikely of places.

Gowda writes with strength, heart and wisdom, making Secret Daughter a stunning debut novel that will stir the mothering heart in anyone. It's a heart-wrenching story, beautifully told, about longing, fulfillment and everything in between. I wept with Somer because I didn't just feel her pain, I knew her pain. And her joy. And her love for a little girl who came from another, but is somehow her own. Secret Daughter moved me, not because the story's sentimental - because it's strong, stirring and satisfying. Not unlike adoption itself. It's so powerful that I'm still sniffling and, thanks to Gowda, I'm fresh out of Kleenex.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a bit of Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood; Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger; and a little of Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim)

Grade: A-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Secret Daughter from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

WICKED, You've Got Some 'Splaining to Do ...

(Image from Indiebound)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for The Scorch Trials, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from The Maze Runner. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Thomas and the other Gladers thought beating the maze would be the end - of their confusion, of their suffering, of their fear. They thought wrong. Escaping the maze brought a little respite, but not much and not for long. Now they are, once again, fighting for survival in a treacherous arena, under the watchful eye of WICKED. Once again, they have no choice. Once again, they're battling for their lives.

In The Scorch Trials, James Dashner continues expanding the world he introduced in The Maze Runner. It's a world gone wrong, a world where the too-hot sun beats down on the Earth, relentlessly frying everything in its path. It's a world where a deadly virus has been unleashed, ravaging the few humans that remain. It's a world controlled, but not totally, by WICKED. As Thomas and the other boys navigate the strange landscape, they will encounter everything from zombies to blistering heat to homicidal, man-made monsters. If they survive, they win both information and freedom. If they don't, well, death might be a kinder alternative to life in this crazy new version of the world.

While The Maze Runner offers some heart-pumping action, The Scorch Trials kicks it up a notch. Or two. Or ten. The book's an intense, action-paced thrill ride that just doesn't stop. Ever. I raced through it as fast as I could to see if - and how - the Gladers would survive this impossible challenge. WICKED's cruel manipulations throughout the "trial" make the story even more twisty and turny. I loved all the conflict and intrigue, so much so that I almost didn't realize how little the overall plot advances in this volume of the series. Because, really, we don't learn a whole lot about WICKED, its intentions, or even the overall state of the destroyed world. A little bit, yes, but not a lot, which left me a mite disappointed in a novel I otherwise really enjoyed. Still, I'm counting down the days until October 11, when The Death Cure makes its appearance, and all the answers are finally revealed. All I can say is, WICKED, you've got some 'splaining to do ...

(Readalikes: The Maze Runner by James Dashner and The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought The Scorch Trials with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Monday, April 11, 2011

For A Book About Magic, Blood & Flowers Lacks Enchantment

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Finally liberated from her pixie dust-addicted parents, 18-year-old Persia has found a home among a misfit band of puppeteers. With the Outlaws, she feels loved, protected and, above all, content. But performing controversial plays, even in secret locations, is not without its dangers. Especially when you enhance the production with a little bit of illegal fey magic. No mater how harmless, it's still against the law.

When an old enemy with a vicious grudge accuses the group of unlawful activity, it looks as if the Outlaws' flamboyant leader will head back to court, maybe even to jail - falsely accused, once again. Persia loves Tonio, the man who gave her a home when she had none, and can't stand to see him broken by the vindictiveness behind the subpoena. The thought of him imprisoned, the Outlaws scattered, is almost more than she can bear. And there's always guilt by association - Persia's in as much trouble as any of her friends. The only way to save Tonio, as well as the rest of the Outlaws, is to hide somewhere far, far away, somewhere so remote that no one will be able to follow.

Persia's never been to Faerie. Mortals aren't allowed without guides from the fey world. Luckily, the Outlaws have Floss, who's not only fey, but fey royalty. She doesn't exactly get along with her ruling family, but that's a small matter compared to saving the Outlaws. Persia can't wait to get to Faerie, a land that everyone knows is filled with flowers and rainbows. That kind of peace is just what Tonio and the rest of them need. But that's not what they find in Faerie, a place that offers its own contradictions. Chased by savage trolls, mocked by feuding royals, and pursued by enemies from both the fey and mortal worlds, the Outlaws must fight with all they've got just to survive. For Persia, the battle is personal. She can't lose her friends, her family, her foundation. She'll risk anything to save what's most precious to her. Anything.

Blood & Flowers by Penny Blubaugh is one of those books that I really wanted to like, but just ... didn't, really. I'm not sure why I felt so disconnected from the story, although it might have to do with the whole puppet thing. It seemed too juvenile to produce the kind of menace that results in real jail time. Hopping into Faerie also jarred me a bit, since Blubaugh never explained what kind of creature Floss was or how exactly the fey/mortal worlds parallel each other. And then, there was the finale. In a word (well, a compound one): anti-climatic. For a book about theater, it lacked drama. And action. And intensity. It just fell flat for me. In fact, the whole novel did. Blubaugh's writing proves she can tell a story well enough, but too many things went wrong in this one. For a book about magic, Blood & Flowers just didn't have much sparkle. Not for me, anyway.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a teensy tiny bit of Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language (a few F-bombs, along with milder invectives) and a little violence

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Blood & Flowers from the generous folks at Harper Teen. Thank you!

Saturday, April 09, 2011

It's a Mull World, After All

So, the picture's a little blurry (camera phone), but, as you can (kinda) see, the fam and I went to see Brandon Mull last night. We all love his Fablehaven series, so we were excited to meet Brandon and have him sign some books for us. We were some of the first ones at Deseret Book last night, so we had lots of time to talk to him. Brandon was wonderful - very personable and fun. We all enjoyed chatting with him. The kids were especially star struck :) My 12-year-old kept saying, "I can't believe I actually got to talk to Brandon Mull!"

If you live in the Mesa/Phoenix area, be sure to stop by and see Brandon. He'll be at the East Mesa Costco this afternoon (starting at 11, I think) and later, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. You can see his other tour stops here.

Lastly, I promised Brandon I would check out the book trailer to A World Without Heroes, the first book in his new Beyonders series and post it if I found it to be "blog-worthy." I do, so here it is:



Thursday, April 07, 2011

Vivid Bayou Setting Makes Poignant Coming-of-Age Story Unique

(Image from Indiebound)

For 11-year-old Olivia "Livie" Mouton, life on the bayou has always seemed about perfect. Sure, she clashes with her mother and gets bossed around by her older sister, but what does that matter when she can paddle away in her pirogue, go frogging with her father, or raise baby alligators? Although her family - especially her mother - urges Livie to "act like a lady," she's happiest when she's outside, romping through the swamps like a wild animal.

When a boating accident leaves Livie's mother in a coma, Livie's haunted by guilt, knowing she's the one responsible. She can't tell anyone her secret. She can only light candles at the church and pray for her mother to wake up, even just for an instant, so Livie can tell her how sorry she is for everything that went wrong the day of the accident. But Mamma's not waking up; in fact, the doctors can do nothing more for her. So, Daddy brings her home and sets her lifeless body in the parlor, hoping that surrounding Mamma with her family's love will snap her out of the coma.

Livie's creeped out by this new Mamma, who's nothing like the woman who used to paint pictures in the art cottage and row through the bayou to take casseroles to sick neighbors. She can't stand to touch Mamma's body, let alone help care for her. When Livie's Aunt Colleen sweeps in to help the family, Livie's relieved. The woman and her 9-year-old son are a thorn in Livie's side, but at least their presence frees Livie up to do the one thing she can do for Mamma - get a healing spell from Miz Allemond, the scary voodoo queen who lives on the edge of the swampland. With a little help from the traiteur, Livie knows she can atone for her sins by bringing Mamma back. She can't fail, not now when Daddy's losing work, Livie's older sister is about to get married, and everything else is falling apart. Not now, when they need Mamma more than ever.

Using lush detail to bring the bayou land to life, Kimberley Griffiths Little has penned a novel that is both atmospheric and affecting. The Healing Spell, a poignant coming-of-age story, gives us a heroine worth rooting for - a young girl who's hurting, but determined to right the wrongs she's caused. It also offers a vivid setting, a timeless wisdom, and the compelling tale of a family, unique, yet recognizable in their fragility and strength. Little gets everything right in this beautiful story of a child's search for redemption among the wild beauty of Louisiana's bayous and the even more treacherous depths of the human heart.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a teensy bit of Zora and Me by Victoria Bond & T.R. Simon)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for very mild language and subject matter more suitable to older middle graders

To the FTC, with love: I bought The Healing Spell from Amazon using some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

It's About Family - In All Its Confusing, Contradictory, Captivating Glory

(Image from Indiebound)


"Enough of drawing lines between strength and weakness, great and ordinary, themselves and other women. They'd drawn lines until they'd drawn themselves into cages" (267).
When Irene Shen's husband leaves her after thirty years of marriage, she's stunned. When, in the act of fleeing, he's killed in a car accident, she's devastated. His death unanchors not only Irene, but also her three daughters, who drift even farther apart in the wake of the tragedy. Five months later, Irene's desperately lonely. In a frantic effort to reconnect with her family, she plans a two-week tour of China for herself, her trio of girls, her sister, and her mother. Irene hopes that by returning her fractured family to its roots, they can unite in their pain, buoy each other up, and find the inspiration they need to face an uncertain future.
Planning the trip gives Irene something to do, a project with which to fill her empty hours, but the idea of vacationing with family fills the rest of the group with dread. At almost 80, Irene's mother, Lin Yulan, has finally found contentment. She has little desire to return to China at all, especially not with her estranged daughters. Irene's sister, Susan, is settled in Hong Kong. The idea of traveling to China with women she barely knows frightens her. Even if they are her family. Nora, a 28-year-old Wall Street phenom, has her own problems. She's a smashing success at everything but love. As her long-time relationship with a kind Jewish man starts to fade, she has to grapple with the eternal career v. family question. As much as she could use a vacation, she's not sure she wants to spend it with Irene, who's so needy it's pathetic. Kay is already in China. She fled for Beijing after her father's death, vowing to get to know the country up close and personal. What she sees isn't pretty, but her attempts to help cure the city's social problems have been ridiculously inept. Now she's not sure what to do. Sophie, the youngest of Irene's daughters, still lives in New York with her mother. Despite their physical closeness, the two hardly communicate at all. Sophie's hiding a dangerous secret, one she may not be able to keep concealed during two weeks with her nosy, hypercritical family.
Each packing their own secrets, the six women head to China, reluctant except for Irene, who trudges forward with unmitigated hope in the healing power of the trip. As the group hops from vista to vista, more secrets are formed, hoarded and, eventually, revealed. The revelations bring the women closer, even as one larger mystery threatens to tear apart the fragile bonds they've formed. Will the truth be the undoing of an already splintered family or will it be the one thing that will finally bring them together?
A Thread of Sky, a debut novel by New Yorker Deanna Fei, is a beautifully-rendered portrait of a family struggling to keep itself together. With a backdrop as colorful and complex as China, one can't help make comparisons between the Shen Family and the land of its birth. Steeped in history, culture and the gritty realities of every day life, it's an ideal setting for six women to find themselves as each grapples for understanding of herself as an individual, her role in the family, and her place in the world at large. It's not an easy story to read, nor an overly bright one, but A Thread of Sky is a well-crafted, compelling novel about family in all its confusing, contradictory, captivating glory.
(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan)
Grade: B-
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, sexual content and some violence
To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of A Thread of Sky courtesy of TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Revenge is Sweet, especially for NERDS

(Image from Indiebound)

Ever wonder what the nerds at your school do in their spare time? Popular athlete Jackson Jones never does. Even though his hometown of Arlington, Virginia, is "one giant geektropolis ... [with] dweebs, spazzes, goobers, gomers, goofballs, and freak-outs crawling out of every nook and cranny" (2), he pays attention to these lower life forms only when one of them is about to be the unlucky recipient of a wedgie or a Kick Me sign or a spitwad to the face. Why grace them with his attention for any other reason? They're so nerdy they're barely human.

When Jackson's orthodontist puts him in highly magnetic braces (with headgear), Jackson's world turns upside down. Suddenly, his "friends" are calling him Braceface, he's cut from the football team, and his reign as Nathan Hale Elementary School royalty has offcially gone down the toilet. Even the nerds won't hang out with him.

Then, Jackson stumbles on a secret world, one he never dreamed could exist, especially not right under his elementary school. He's shocked to find that the geeks he picked on during his popular period are actually NERDS, a team of talented, highly-trained super spies, whose covert missions help bring justice to criminals wanted by the U.S. government. None of the secret agents are pleased to see Jackson in their hideout. And none of them want him on their team, no matter what his newly-upgraded braces can do. In his previous life, Jackson never would have begged these dweebs for anything, but now he longs to be part of their team. He just has to convince the NERDS to let him into their club. Not an easy task. Still, Jackson's taken on nerds before and won. Surely, this time won't be much different.

Except that it totally is. This time, Jackson's getting his butt kicked by the very kids he used to take such pleasure in tormenting. And it hurts. Badly. Literally and figuratively. As Jackson gets battered in training, thrown out of airplanes, chased by Egyptian tribal fighters, and captured by a psychotic criminal mastermind, he must learn to appreciate and rely on this band of misfits he now calls teammates. His survival depends on it.

I've mentioned before that I volunteer at my kids' elementary school, helping with its homegrown reading program. Well, one day last week, my daughter came home from school, handed me NERDS by Michael Buckley, and said, "The librarian wants you to write a test for this book because everyone is reading it." Before I could even nod, she added, "But can I read it first?" After which, my son said, "Yeah, I need to read it, too, Mom." A week later, I finally got my turn at this very popular book. It didn't take me long to see why kids are eating it up. NERDS really is a fun, zany adventure story. The story moves quickly, makes an excellent point about judging people, and is just plain old entertaining. My kids think it's absolutely hilarious. I have to agree. Hand this one to a reluctant reader and he'll be sold because Buckley makes everything cool - nerds, braces, allergies, eating glue, even reading. It's about time, don't you think?

(Readalikes: Um, I can't think of anything, really, except its sequels, M is for Mama's Boy and Cheerleaders of Doom [coming in September 2011])

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some bathroom-type humor and a vague reference to seducing exotic women

To the FTC, with love: I borrowed NERDS from my kids' elementary school library and read it as part of my volunteer work with the school's reading program.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Christians Ask WWJD? Writing Doc Asks WWYCD?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Think of your favorite literary characters. What makes them memorable? Chances are, each of the story people you love has a vibrant personality, or at least some trait or spark that makes them come alive on the page. Since one of my biggest reading pet peeves is cardboard, personality-less characters, I'm a bit obsessed with making the cast of my WIP stand out. So, in an effort to understand them all a little better, I turned to What Would Your Character Do? by family therapist Eric Maisel and his wife, Ann, a world literature teacher. Through the 30 personality quizzes the book offers, I did learn more about them. I also realized that I knew my main character a lot better than I thought I did. How about that, huh?

The idea behind the book, according to Dr. Maisel, boils down to this: "The writer, the true expert on human nature, can contrive anything in the realm of human behavior. But whatever she contrives, she must still meet certain tests of plausibility and legitimacy" (8). To that end, he provides a series of personality quizzes through which a writer can put his/her characters. Each exercise gives a situation - say, a family picnic or a fancy night out - which would provoke the character into taking action of some kind. For each possible action, Dr. Maisel provides a psychological analysis of the kind of person who would take that particular action. For instance, if your character hears the news that a deadly meteor is speeding toward Earth, and she reacts by jumping right up and making an action plan, that would be consistent with a "resourceful, matter-of-fact character ... [who] has a survivalist's instincts for preparation and self-protection" (265).

While the author recommends actually writing a scene for each scenario, I tired of that after the first two or three. But, I did read through each one, think about how my character(s) would handle the problem, then check to make sure his/her action was consistent with the personality I had given him/her. Doing this reassured me that I knew my main character pretty well. It also showed me which of my cast members need work.

The situations Dr. Maisel describes in What Would Your Character Do? are actually pretty run-of-the-mill, nothing revolutionary, but I found them instructive. Again, not revolutionary, but helpful. I would have liked a little more advice on how to create a psychologically complex character, even a step-by-step kind of tutorial. Still, I liked this book. It reads quickly and really did help me to flesh out my characters. Did it do everything I wanted it to? No, but that's okay. It did enough.

(Readalikes: This is the first book I've read dealing specific with building fictional characters, so I can't think of anything ... Can you?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language and one exercise which involves a sex shop

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Pathfinder Restores My Faith in OSC

(Image from Indiebound)

Even though Rigg's spent most of his 13 years traipsing through the woods with his father, communing with more animals than humans, he knows he's different than other people. His gift makes him odd, unique, even dangerous. So, he uses his strange ability to see the paths left by all living creatures to help him trap animals, whose pelts he and his father then sell in the marketplaces of nearby towns. It's a life that suits Rigg, even if he does find his father's endless "lessons" irritating.

Rigg doesn't question his nomadic lifestyle until the day his father dies, whispering secrets with his last breaths. It's only then that Rigg realizes how much the old man has been keeping from him. It's only then that he begins to wonder who he really is, where his gift came from, and what he's supposed to be accomplishing with it. It's only then that Rigg understands how little he really knows about himself, his world, and his purpose in it.

Desperate for answers, Rigg embarks on a dangerous journey to the capitol city. Along the way, he finds friends, foes, and everything in between. Using his special gift to help find the truth, he makes shocking discoveries that will change everything he knows - or thought he knew - about his past, his present and his future.

So, you may have noticed that I'm not the hugest Orson Scott Card fan. I didn't get Ender's Game (nor did I bother finishing it), I liked his Women of Genesis series, but didn't love it, and I found some of his other books disturbing (The Lost Boys, Saints, etc.). Given all that, I never would have picked up Pathfinder if it wasn't a contender for this year's Whitney Awards. That would have been a crying shame, too, because guess what? I thoroughly enjoyed Pathfinder. Yes, really. I know. Surprised me as well. I'm not going to pretend to understand all the science behind it (even after the dummied-down explanation OSC gives in the "Acknowledgments" section) - suffice it to say, my head's still spinning - but I found the storyline compelling, the characters engaging, and the whole idea fascinating. Some of the science-y parts got dull for me, yet, most of the book's 657 pages kept me completely riveted. And the ending only made me hungry for the sequels that will be coming. I never understood OSC's genius before. Now? I might finally be starting to get it ...

Readalikes: Reminded me a fair bit of the books in Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking series - The Knife of Never Letting Go; The Ask and the Answer; and Monsters of Men)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs) and some vague sexual innuendo
To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Friday, April 01, 2011

No Foolin', It's Friday!


I'm a little behind on book reviews (again), so while I *try* to get my act together, how 'bout a little Hopping? Yes? Okay, then ... Click on over to Crazy for Books to join the fun.


This week's question: Since today is April Fool's Day in the USA, what is the best prank you have ever played on someone OR that someone has played on you?


- First, let me say that April Fool's Day is one of my least favorite holidays. I'm not into practical jokes at all, but I'm so gullible that I'm often the target of them. My FIL loves to tell the story of how he and my husband-to-be tricked me on my wedding day. We were married in Portland, Oregon, so my husband's family had to travel from Arizona to attend the wedding. They stayed at a nice little hotel in Hood River, Oregon, which overlooked the Columbia River. Since we were penniless college students and neither of our families really had any money, we weren't planning on a big honeymoon or any other kind of extravagance. In fact, the plan was for us to spend our wedding night in the hotel room my in-laws had been using, while they stayed in a different room of the same hotel. I didn't love the idea, but since I'm nothing if not practical, I agreed with the plan. Imagine my surprise (and relief!) when, a half hour or so after we got married, my new husband pulled a receipt out of his wallet showing that we had a room booked at Skamania Lodge, a very nice hotel/resort where I had worked as a teenager. He had reserved the room a month earlier, but thought it would be funny to tease me with the idea that we'd be spending our wedding night down the hallway from his parents. Despite its rather unauspicious beginning, the hubster and I have enjoyed 13 very happy years together.


And he hasn't stopped taking advantage of my gullibility yet! What about you? Are you totally gullible? How have pranksters taken advantage of you? C'mon, tell me I'm not the only one out there who falls for everything ... If you're here from the Hop, thanks so much for stopping by. Leave me a comment so I can stop by and check out your blog. Have a wonderful (read: uneventful) April Fool's Day!

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