Monday, July 25, 2011

YA Victorian Detective Novel Thoroughly Charming

(Image from Indiebound)

When 12-year-old Mary Lang gets sent to the gallows for stealing to survive on the mean streets of Victorian London, only one thing can save her: Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls. Run by two indomitable women, the institution sponsors needy, but clever young women, training them to become secretaries, teachers, governesses, etc. It's only after five years at the school that Mary (whose last name has been changed to Quinn in an effort to hide her criminal past) realizes it's also headquarters for a secret, all-female detective agency. For which she's now being recruited.

Mary's first assignment seems simple enough. While working as a lady's companion to spoiled, 18-year-old Angelica Thorold, she's to listen for any whispers about the girl's father's business. It's hardly the cloak-and-dagger adventure Mary envisioned; in fact, it's a tedious babysitting job that's yielding very little useful information. It's only when Mary discovers a 19-year-old gentleman sneaking into Mr. Thorold's office that the assignment starts to get interesting. When said gentleman - handsome engineer James Easton - suggests a collaboration, Mary's nervous. Can she trust the engaging, but often infuriating Mr. Easton?

Together, the pair delve deeper and deeper into Mr. Thorold's affairs, discovering plenty of suspicious activity. The juiciest tidbits, though, come not from his business life, but from his personal one. In the midst of all the intrigue, Mary makes a shocking discovery about her own past. Desperate to prove herself to The Agency by successfully closing the case, Mary must disregard any personal quests and focus on the task at hand. Distracted by the mysteries of her own history, coupled with Mr. Easton's not inconsiderable charms, Mary's feeling decidedly shaken. Can she keep herself in check long enough to finish the assignment? Or will her nerves be the literal death of her?

A Spy in the House, the first book in Y.S. Lee's The Agency series, enchanted me so thoroughly that I hardly know where to begin with my gushing. It's simply an entertaining novel, from its vivid period setting, to its flawed, intriguing characters, to its taut, engrossing plot. The witty banter flying between Mary and James keeps the tone lighthearted, while adding yet another layer to this already captivating story. I loved everything about the book and can't wait to get started on the next one. And the next one. And the next one. And the next ...

(Readalikes: Its sequel, A Body at the Tower by Y.S. Lee)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language (just hells and damns, although there are quite a lot of them), some violence, and vague references to prostitution and opium use

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of A Spy in the House from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Friday's Hoppin'. How 'bout yours?

I haven't done the Book Blogger Hop for a few weeks and since I've got such a fun giveaway going on right now, I thought I'd join in the fun. You should, too. Check out all the details over at Crazy For Books.

This week's question is: What genre of books do you wish you could really get into, but you just can't?

- I would have to say non-fiction in general. It's not that I don't read any non-fiction, but what I do read tends to be memoirs, cookbooks or self-help type stuff. I wish I could get into reading more about history, science, politics, etc. - I would be a whole lot smarter if I could!

How 'bout you?

If you're new to BBB, welcome! I'm so glad you stopped by. If you've been here before, welcome back. Please take a look around, leave me a comment or two, enter my giveaway and please leave me a link to your blog so I can return the favor. I love finding new blogs!

Sweet, Quirky Novel Gets A Little Weird For Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's been four years since cancer stole her father's life, but Donna Parisi still grieves like it was yesterday. The 17-year-old feels as hollow as a corpse, so empty that she can't move on, can't fully engage in her life, can't even enjoy her last year of high school. Her mother and older brother seem to be getting on with their lives, so why can't she?

When Donna attends the viewing of a dead classmate at Brighton Brothers Funeral Home - the same place where her father's funeral was held - it brings back painful memories. It also brings an epiphany and, for the first time in a very long time, hope. The thought has never occurred to her before, but since she's so well-acquainted with grief, wouldn't she make a perfect mortician? Donna's so taken with the idea that she applies for a job at the Brightons' mortuary and, abandoning her half-baked plan to study Communications at the University of Dayton, decides to go to a local college for mortuary science. No one's too thrilled about the idea. Except Donna, who's finally glimpsing a light at the end of her long, dark tunnel of pain.

Using her own experiences to help others gives Donna a new strength, something she'll need to deal with her family's disappointment, her mother's new boyfriend, and her own budding guy trouble. As she marches forward, embracing the world around her with confident resolve, she'll finally learn to say goodbye to her father. And hello to life.

Putting Makeup on Dead People, a debut novel by writing coach Jen Violi, is a strange little book. I want to call it a sweet, quirky, life-affirming novel because that's what it is. Mostly. It just gets weird in spots. Not because of the dead thing - that part is handled with appropriate respect - but because of oddly graphic scenes with Donna's idiot boyfriend and not graphic, but equally odd scenes with a girl on whom she seems to have a little girl-crush. Both of those things detracted from the sweetness of the book, although not the overall poignancy. Although I shed a few tears over the ending, the finale didn't move me enough to negate those weird little moments that kind of ruined the book for me. In the end, I liked the book enough to finish it, but not enough to give it above a C grade.

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

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language (a handful of F-words, plus milder invectives), sexual content, and depictions of underrage drinking

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Putting Makeup on Dead People from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thank you!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shiver Me Timbers! It's a 3-Book Giveaway!

I haven't done a book giveaway in awhile (trekking all the way to the post office in 110 degree heat with my 2-year-old in tow isn't exactly my idea of fun), but I got something in the mail yesterday that I just had to share. See, the people at Scholastic are incredibly generous. Incredibly. So much so that they not only sent me single copies of every book in the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy, but they also sent me a boxed set of the books. So generous, right? Because the company has been very good to me, I'm going to share the love with you. Call it Christmas in July, call it my half birthday (tomorrow), call it I'm-sick-of-summer-and-am -celebrating-that-my-kids-go-back-to-school-in-three-weeks, call it whatever you want - I'm just going to go ahead and call it awesome!

Now for the details:

The picture above shows what's up for grabs. It's a boxed set that includes Shiver, Linger and Forever by Maggie Stiefvater. It's brand new, shrink-wrapped, and sells for $38.13 at Barnes and Noble and $33.37 on Amazon. The books are hardcovers. Nice, yeah?

Now for the real question, how can YOU win the set? Well, first off, you have to leave a comment on this post telling me you'd like to win. I need to have a way to contact you, so along with your comment, please leave a URL to your blog, an email address, or something. I'd love to have you spread the word about the giveaway, so if you chat it up on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, etc., I'll give you extra entries (1 extra entry per method of spreading the word). I'll also give you extra entries for subscribing/Following my blog, liking my Facebook page or following me on Twitter (@bbbforme). You can tell me everything that you did in one comment - no need to post separate comments. The contest will end on August 10 (the day my kids go back to school - yay!) and is only open to readers in the U.S. and Canada only (sorry international readers - the set is heavy and would be too expensive to mail overseas).


Okay, I think that's it. Good luck!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ashes, Ashes: Does It Fall Down? A Little Bit, Yeah.

(Image from Indiebound)

Lucy Holloway no longer fears the end of the world. She's already seen it all, survived it all. In her sixteen years, she's watched the human race decimated by earthquakes, floods, hunger, and a smallpox plague that killed everyone she loved. Only Lucy remains. Living in a makeshift shelter in the wilds of what was once Central Park, she stays alive by hunting the few animals that remain. And hiding from anything human. Sweepers patrol the ruined city streets, searching for easy prey; a young girl living on her own has to be very, very careful.

With water levels rising and a pack of feral dogs loose in the park, Lucy begins to wonder if she can stay in the relative safety of her camp. But where else can she go? The answer comes from an unlikely source - a teenage boy who's been lurking around Lucy's home. She hasn't seen another person in months and doesn't know if she can trust 17-year-old Aidan. His talk of a peaceful commune of survivors living on what was once Wards Island sounds far-fetched. When an incoming tsunami leaves Lucy no choice but to run, she heads to Aidan's haven, a place full of answers and more questions.

When a Sweeper raid devastates the tiny settlement, kidnapping children and infecting adults with the plague, Lucy's anger boils into scorching fury. Tired of lies, tired of unanswerable questions, tired of her hardscrabble existence, she vows to find out what's behind the Sweepers' confounding actions. It's a risky quest, one that will likely be more dangerous than anything she's faced so far. With two companions she's not quite sure she can trust, Lucy marches into enemy territory. She's survived so much already - will this, finally, be the end of her? In a ruined city where nothing ever goes the way it should, one girl risks it all to save a dying world, a vanishing race, and the motley crew that's come to mean everything to her.

In her atmospheric debut novel, Ashes, Ashes, Jo Treggiari introduces an eerie dystopian New York City (just look at that cover!). The desolate, gritty setting portends danger and, thus, grand, survivalist adventure. Does it deliver? Not exactly. I think it lost its edge a little once Lucy follows Aidan. From there, it gets predictable, often thriving on coincidence and crazy, half-baked plans that would never really work. On the plus side, I loved the setting. Treggiari's descriptions of the ruined city helped me see it - probably a little too clearly. It's also a clean, fast-moving story that kept me entertained despite the plot holes, underdeveloped characters, and the romance that grew too fast to convince me. According to the author's website, sequels may be in the works. Would I read them? why yes, I believe I would.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a teensy bit of Exodus by Julie Bertagna)

Grade: C

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

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

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tense Family Drama Convinces Me Riggle's A Writer to Watch

(Image from Indiebound)

Considering the mistakes she's made in the past, Edna Leigh Casey can hardly believe she's landed someone as stable as Michael Turner. Despite the ten year difference in their ages, 26-year-old Casey feels understood and valued by Michael, so much so that she's agreed to marry him. In the meantime, they're living together in the quaint Heritage Hills area of Grand Rapids, Michigan, playing house with Michael's three children. Although the kids react to Casey's presence with varying degrees of disdain, she's determined to make the situation work. Even when she wants to scream, she keeps her lips tightly sealed. After all, Michael appreciates Casey so much because she's the opposite of his hysterical ex-wife, Mallory. But all the tongue-biting is starting to wear on Casey and she wonders if it's time to come clean to her very exacting fiancee - about her dubious past, about her doubts concerning stepmotherhood, about his moody silences, even about her real name.

On the day Casey decides to leave Michael, breaking their engagement in order to keep her secrets buried, Michael's 14-year-old son disappears. Dylan's always been a quiet, responsible kid, not the type to skip school or take off without telling anyone where he's going. Lately, Casey had even been getting him to open up a little. Knowing she can't abandon the Turners at such a terrible time, Casey stays, determined to help bring Dylan back home. Mallory also insists on "helping," which involves moving her drama queen derriere in for the duration. Her presence stirs up the kids, pushes Casey and Michael even farther apart, and generally makes Casey want to scream. When Casey reaches her breaking point, she has to make a crucial decision - she either has to find her voice or stick to her original plan and leave. Either way, she could lose Michael and the kids. Forever.

Things We Didn't Say by Kristina Riggle is one of those tense family dramas that keeps me riveted while making me feel totally depressed at the same time. There are lots of things I like about it - the portrayal of a patient, loving father with full custody of his kids, for one - but the overall tone of the book left me a little blue. I don't even know why, really. Overall, the story kept my attention, the characters grabbed my sympathy, and the skilled writing helped me feel like I was right in the middle of the action. The novel didn't knock my socks off, but it did convince me that Riggle's a writer to watch. And you know I'll be watching.

(Readalikes: The writing style reminds me a little of Jodi Picoult's.)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Things We Didn't Say from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

New Dear America Novel Tackles Civil Rights Movement

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When 12-year-old Dawnie Rae Johnson dreams, she dreams big. That's about all she can do when it comes to her two biggest goals in life - meeting baseball great Jackie Robinson and becoming a doctor when she grows up. Neither's likely to happen for a poor colored girl living in small, segregated Hadley, Virginia. Little girls with no money can't travel to Brooklyn to meet baseball stars and students at dingy Mary Mcleod Bethune School don't grow up to be anything special. Everybody knows that. Even Dawnie, with her keen intellect and bold fantasies, realizes the futility of wishing too hard for something that will never come to pass. Still, a girl can dream, can't she?

Dawnie's stunned when a landmark Supreme Court decision (Brown v. the Board of Education) gives her an unbelievable opportunity to start turning her dream of attending medical school into a reality. When Prettyman Coburn, Hadley's all-white school, is forced by law to allow black kids to enter its doors, Dawnie's the first - and only - colored student to show up. Despite the protesters spitting on her from the sidewalks, despite the other kids staring her down, despite members of Dawnie's own community accusing her of acting "uppity," Dawnie's determined to get the education she deserves. But when her best friend deserts her, her father loses his job for supporting Negro rights, and the Johnsons have to rip their phone from the wall to stop hassling phone calls, Dawnie can't help but wonder - is integration really worth it?

In With the Might of Angels, a new addition to Scholastic's excellent Dear America series, Andrea Davis Pinkney uses the made-up diary of a fictional girl to tell an honest, compelling story about one of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of us are familiar with the story of Ruby Bridges, but Pinkney's quick to point out that hundreds of other African-American children took equally courageous steps, some singlehandedly integrating schools in their areas. Dawnie represents all of them. She's an engaging narrator - smart, spunky, and completely sympathetic. Intertwined with the book's main conflict are several subplots that lift the tension, offering lighthearted moments which allow the story to feel both realistic and hopeful. Fans of historical fiction, especially those with an interest in the Civil Rights Movement, won't want to miss this one.

(Readalikes: The Dear America series reminds me of the American Girl historical novels. With the Might of Angels is similar to other children's books about the Civil Rights Movement, although I can't think of any specific titles. Can you?)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for tension and some violence

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Kick-'Em-While-They're-Down Fourth Book Ups the Ante In Already Exciting YA Dystopian Series

(Image from Indiebound)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Plague, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier books in the Gone series. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

"Kick 'em while they're down" must be the motto of Michael Grant, author of the YA dystopian Gone series. I mean, I get that you have to have conflict to keep a story gallopping along, but seriously? Haven't the kids of Perdido Beach, California, suffered enough? First, everyone aged 15 and over disappeared in a mysterious poof. Then, the young survivors noticed a strange dome enclosing their town, barricading them off from the rest of the world. As the weeks wore on, with no help in sight, the streets of the sleepy beach town turned into a war zone, with armed children battling it out for food, water, shelter and control of the weird new world they nicknamed the FAYZ (Fall-Out Alley Youth Zone). As if all of that wasn't bad enough, things in the FAYZ - animals, even people - started evolving in terrifying ways. Oh, and then they discovered the Gaiaphage, a being constructed of pure evil, who's hell-bent on destroying the children's every last hope ...

And that's only in the first three books.

Plague, the recently-released fourth installment in the series, introduces a new threat: a violent, mutated flu virus is sweeping through town, leaving a trail of corpses in its wake. Dahra's meager medical knowledge can't explain the disease and Lana, the Healer, can't cure it. Which is bad, but not the worst thing happening in town. The water supply's running out, Drake's trying to break out of prison, Orc's slurping booze like it's lemonade, Sam's off on some half-baked exploration adventure, Little Pete's burning up with fever, and Astrid's contemplating murder. Still - not the worst things going on in the FAYZ. What is the worst thing? Well, that would be the bloodthirsty monster devouring the Hunter from the inside out. And its friends. The most powerful kids in town can't stop the destruction, can't stop the creatures from eating everything - everyone - in their paths. After everything the kids have endured, will this finally be the end of the FAYZ? Or worse, will the nightmares just keep on coming?

Knowing Michael Grant (and the fact that there are two remaining books in the series), you should probably go with the latter.

Four books into a series, I'm usually starting to get bored. Not so in this case. Grant keeps things so lively, I don't dare look away. I'm not saying this is great literature - really, the writing's just so-so - but it's a fun, exciting story that keeps jutting off in surprising new directions. As much as I don't want the books to end, I'm anxious to see how the story plays out. The possibilities truly are endless. And you know how much I love that.

(Readalikes: Similar to the other books in the series - Gone, Hunger, and Lies; also reminds me a little of The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials by James Dashner; and a bit of the Chaos Walking series [The Knife of Never Letting Go; The Ask and the Answer; and Monsters of Men] by Patrick Ness)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for violence, mild language, some sexual content, and slurs related to race and homosexuality

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Monday, July 11, 2011

6 American Jews + 1 Abandoned Bulgarian + 4 Ethiopian Orphans = A Family??

(Image from Indiebound)

What do you get when you mix six white American Jews with an abandoned Bulgarian boy and four Ethiopian orphans? Chaos, for starters. Eventually, though, you get a family. The Greene-Samuel Family of Atlanta, Georgia, to be exact. How did these 11 people meld different backgrounds, different personalities, and different expectations into one happy, workable unit? That's the question Melissa Fay Greene tackles in her parenting memoir No Biking in the House Without A Helmet. With trademark humor, the journalist describes the tumultuous blending of cultures that rocked her household when she and her husband, already the parents of four, decided to adopt five more children.

Quick to eschew so-called "adoption addicts," Greene insists, "Donny and I have steered by the light of what brings us joy, what makes us laugh, and what feels right and true" (7). That inspiration led them to orphanages in both Bulgaria and Ethiopia, where they found, among vast numbers of needy children, the five destined to become their own. But, as Greene soon discovered

Adoption seems so theoretical, and fun, until you realize you will have to put one foot in front of the other in real time, through actual streets of a city with an impossibly exotic name, on a continent you've never been to, surrounded by people rapidly speaking in many languages of which you will understand not one word - all with the goal of bringing back a traumatized young human being from very far away to your everyday midtown American life (120).

The reality involved yanking terrified children away from everything familiar, shoving them into a blinding new world full of unimaginable sights and sounds, overwhelming their palates with rich, foreign foods, and trying to convince them that the brutal, survival-of-the-fittest mentality by which they'd been governing their lives no longer applied. And that was just the first week. Each time Greene added another child to the mix, she found herself dealing with everything from bouts of post-adoption depression to frustration over her inability to communicate with her non-English speaking children to fear that the new siblings would kill each other long before they had a chance to bond. Through it all, the Greene-Samuels relied on their faith, their senses of humor and, most of all, each other, to turn their mismatched crew into a family.

Maybe I'm just predisposed to like adoption stories, but I found this one compelling on a lot of different levels. I enjoyed Greene's wry take on life, her honesty, and the compassion with which she tells the stories of her children. It's impossible not to laugh with her, empathize with her, and appreciate her determination to create a strong, nurturing family out of eleven very different people. Although there were certain ideas I wish Greene had explored more in the book, overall, I found it both informative and entertaining. No Biking in the House Without A Helmet is a book for all parents and all families - no matter how they were formed.

(Readalikes: Um, Jacquelyn Mitchard called the book "Cheaper By the Dozen for a new planet," which I think describes it very well.)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language (a handful of F-bombs, plus infrequent use of milder invectives) and a small amount of crude humor

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Amish Novel Refreshingly Clean, Quiet

(Image from Indiebound)

On a peaceful summer night in Indiana, an Amish father falls asleep while driving his family home in their buggy, causing a freak accident that kills his two young daughters and sends his pregnant wife into premature labor. Nineteen years later, the tragedy still looms over the Sommers family, casting a dark shadow of grief over them all. No one feels the weight of the long-ago accident more than Marianna, who has spent her life trying - and failing - to be exceptional enough to replace her two dead sisters.

Just as Marianna's beginning to find her own way, her father announces his intention to move the family from the close-knit Indiana community they've always known to the wilds of Montana. Being the perfect daughter means never arguing, never questioning, but Marianna's horrified at the thought of leaving. What will happen to her out in the Englisch world? Can she hold onto her faith or will she be lured away from God, just like her older brother? Everything she wants, including a future with handsome Aaron Zook, is in Indiana. Torn between obeying her father and following her heart, Marianna must make one of the most important decisions of her life.

Her choice will change everything.

Beside Still Waters, the first book in an inspirational new series by Tricia Goyer, is a contemporary novel with a soft, old-fashioned feel to it. Which doesn't mean it dodges "real" issues or darts away from truth. In fact, I think it portrays the Amish in an honest way, showing that however homogenous they may seem, each is an individual with his/her own thoughts, emotions and struggles. Because of this, Marianna becomes a character who's easy to identify and empathize with, even though she comes from a world vastly different from most of our own. The story does become predictable and the poor editing gets annoying, but all in all, I enjoyed this one. Seriously, reading Beside Still Waters felt like sticking my feet into an ice cold stream on a scorching summer day - clean, cool, and refreshing. Not the most exciting thing, maybe, but a pleasurable diversion nonetheless.

(Readalikes: Reminds me of other Amish novels, particularly those by Beverly Lewis)

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Beside Still Waters from the generous folks at MotherTalk Book Reviews, for whom this review was written. The official Mother Talk disclosure statement is as follows: "I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of the Beside Still Waters campaign and received a copy of the book and a promotional item to thank me for taking the time to participate."

Friday, July 01, 2011

Books, Reviews & Recipes, Oh My!

(Image from book's website)

When I first heard about Christy Dorrity's idea to compile a cookbook pairing mini-reviews of her favorite books with scrumptious, complementary recipes, I thought it sounded fabulous. When she mentioned using quotes from other book bloggers' reviews of the books as well, I thought it sounded even more fabulous. When she decided to use several snippets from yours truly, well, I could hardly contain myself. I found the concept so fun that I just could not wait to see how the project turned out. And, you know what? It was worth the wait because, really, the cookbook is quite fabulous.

The Book Blogger's Cookbook begins with an intro from Dorrity and a Foreword by self-publishing phenom Amanda Hocking. It goes on to showcase 20 books, most of which are YA paranormals. Several book blogger quotes are given for each novel, as well as a recipe inspired in some way by the story. Although I haven't had a chance to try any of the recipes yet, all look scrumptious and easy enough for even novice cooks. Dorrity offers a nice variety of foods to try, ranging from a refreshing fruit smoothie to a creamy, layered dip to rich, chocolatey brownies. You'll be salivating just looking at the gorgeous photos.

My only real complaint with the cookbook is that it's only available in a digital format. You may have noticed my aversion to e-books - I just don't like them! However, I did read the cookbook on my computer and, while it wasn't that bad, I really would have preferred a hardcover, spiral-bound book. That's not too much to ask for, right?

All in all, I enjoyed The Book Blogger's Cookbook, from its inception to its very sweet author to the beautiful finished product. So. Much. Fun. You should probably just zip on over to Amazon and order yourself a copy - for only $2.99, it's a total steal. It's a great resource for readers, book clubs, reviewers, etc. So, why are you still here? Click over to Amazon already!

(Readalikes: I don't know of any other reading -related cookbook. Do you?)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a digital copy of The Book Blogger's Cookbook from the very generous Christy Dorrity. Thank you!

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