Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Middle Grade Murder Mystery Warm, Affirming

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The traveling life might suit her father's personality, but 13-year-old Olivene "Ollie" Love longs for a real home. She yearns to stay in one place long enough to go to school, make friends, get to know her neighbors. She dreams of living in a house that doesn't move, a house that's big enough to hold her family of six, a house equipped with a flush toilet, a Frigidaire and other new-fangled gadgets. It's 1957, after all, and everyone else gets to enjoy such luxuries. Except the Loves—they live in an old travel trailer, which they pull around the South, stopping every time they find a small town that looks ripe for some of the Rev. Everlasting Love's preaching. It's not a bad life, Ollie just wants a better life.

When the Loves pause in little Binder, Arkansas, Ollie heads to town to hand out flyers advertising the three-day revival her father's holding. Along the way, she meets Jimmy Koppel, a scruffy boy about her age. She's curious when she learns his mother's in jail for murdering his father, but she becomes downright furious when she sees how badly Jimmy's treated by the people in town, just because he's one of those "no-good Koppels." When Ollie's new friend confides in her that he knows his mother's innocent, Ollie vows to help Jimmy clear her name. But solving a murder takes time, not to mention the patience of Job, and Ollie has neither. She has to get to the bottom of the mystery before Virginia Koppel is transferred to a prison in Little Rock, before the surly sheriff kicks her family out of town, before Jimmy gets taken away. It won't be easy to find the truth, especially when the people of Binder are happy the Koppel problem will be going away in one fell swoop, but Ollie has to try. No matter how dangerous the consequences may be.

Author Tess Hilmo describes With A Name Like Love, her debut novel, as a "Southern murder mystery full of heart and soul." I happen to agree. It's a warm, atmospheric book with vibrant characters, earnest prose and strong, but subtle messages about the importance of faith, family and friendship. Although religion plays a central role in the story, With a Name Like Love isn't preachy at all, just affirming. A wholesome, uplifting read, this middle grade novel can be enjoyed by both children and adults. If you need a little pick-me-up after reading all the dark, depressing books on the market, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of this one. You won't be disappointed.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a teensy bit of Lesley Kagen's books: Tomorrow River, Whistling in the Dark and Good Graces; also a little of Circle of Secrets by Kimberley Griffiths Little)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence and mature subject matter (child/spousal abuse)

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Yes, They're Mormons, But Why?

(Image from Deseret Book)

Between Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, the "I'm A Mormon" television/billboard ads, and the increasing number of Mormon artists/athletes/politicians/business people in the news, it seems like Mormonism is everywhere. This, for the most part, makes members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints very happy. It may make the rest of you angry, curious or just downright confused. After all, who are these crazy Mormons? And what do they believe? Can people who embrace angels, modern-day prophets and golden Bibles be sane, let alone trusted to lead our nation?

To answer some of these questions, former Deseret News editor-in-chief Joseph A. Cannon, compiled the stories of 53 prominent Mormons (including David Archuleta, Stephen R. Covey, Brandon Mull, Steve Young, etc.) in the new book, Why I'm A Mormon. Asked to discuss what they believe, why they believe and how those beliefs have affected their lives, those interviewed shared very personal experiences about and testimonies of their faith in Jesus Christ. The essays are intimate, enlightening and inspiring.

While the collection may be most interesting to members of the church, it's intended for a wider audience. In fact, Why I'm A Mormon is the first book ever published by Deseret Book's Ensign Peak imprint, which "seeks to offer content regarding Latter-day Saint topics to a broad national audience" (quote from a press release). Because the volume is so readable and faith-sustaining, I believe it can be enjoyed by anyone. I, for one, found it very worth my time.

My favorite section was written by Alex Boyé, a British man of Nigerian descent, who went from being homeless on the streets of London to performing with the world-reknowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Besides having a strong, humble testimony of the Savior, Boyé's voice just gives me goosebumps:


Here are some other quotes from the book that stood out to me:

I am a Mormon because the heft of sound scholarship reaffirms the sweet whisperings of faith."

- Robert F. Bennett, former U.S. senator

"... the way the Church is organized, it puts opportunities to help others in my path every day. It facilitates my efforts—and in some instances almost compels me—to practice Christianity, not just believe in it."

- Clayton M. Christensen, businessman and Harvard professor

"Go on a mission. To some it may seem like the most ridiculous, silly, nonsensical thing to do. Think about it. You're nineteen years old. You're going to give up school, home and family, a social life, your car, sports, friends, maybe a scholarship. You're going to give up the good life. For what? To go out and lead a highly regimented, spartan life of rejection? It makes no sense! and it won't make any sense until you add one element into the equation—that at the end of the day, the gospel of Jesus Christ is really true. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what it claims to be. Joseph Smith saw and heard what he said he saw and heard. We are led by a modern prophet. Once you add this into the mix, going on a mission is the most logical, "of course" thing you could ever do."

- Larry Gelwix, high school rugby coach whose story inspired the movie Forever Strong

"Why am I a Mormon? I'm a Mormon because the way I was taught to communicate with God works. I'm not sure I could believe in a religion that offered less than a personal relationship with my Heavenly Father."

- Brandon Mull, #1 New York Times bestselling author

"From the moment the airplane went up in flames, I was praying. I knew God would never leave me. I knew it then and I still know it now.

I never lost my faith in God or blamed Him, even through my struggles to heal, my multiple surgeries, my physical changes, and the role these all play in my children's lives (and mine). In fact, I am thanking Him every day for this trial. I feel honored to carry it, and I hope I am doing it in a way that is pleasing to Him."

- Stephanie Nielson, blogger (NieNie Dialogues) and plane crash survivor

"This is what being a Mormon gives me: context, understanding, and the peace of home. I am a Mormon because belief is life, and I don't want a life without it."

- Steve Young, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback

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

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G for nothing offensive

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Why I'm a Mormon from the generous folks at Deseret Book. Thank you!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Self-Discovery Novel As Funny As It Is Empowering

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's not that Myra Morgan's life in the (fictional) small town of Landon, Utah, is bad, it's just ... demanding. With her parents both working full-time, it's up to the 17-year-old to keep her four rambunctious little brothers fed, clothed and out of the hospital. That's a 24/7 job in and of itself, but Myra's also got to keep up with her schoolwork, slave away at her part-time job, and try to find a few spare minutes to spend with her boyfriend, Erik. She's barely got enough room to breathe as it is, but when her pregnant older sister moves back home, Myra feels like she's about to explode. With Melyssa's incessant complaining about the very inconvenient baby growing inside her, Myra's parents' non-stop bickering, and her brothers' constant demands, she's ready to run away from home. Then Erik breaks up with her, taking what's left of Myra's sanity with him.

When Myra hears about a scholarship competition, the winners of which get to spend the summer doing research in the Galapágos Islands, it sounds like the perfect opportunity for escape. The only problem is the $1000 entry fee. And the fact that she'll be competing against none other than her former boyfriend, Erik. But Myra's desperate for a change—so desperate she'll work humiliating jobs, risk upsetting her parents, even go on nature hikes with a nerdy grad student. Anything to win the scholarship. But when it really comes down to it, Myra has to make a gut-wrenching choice—chase her own dream or put it aside to take care of the people who need her? Does she have the courage to do what she wants to do or will she be forever tied down by the responsibilities of home and family?

Girls Don't Fly by Kristen Chandler is an upbeat, funny novel about one girl's struggle to find herself amidst all the chaos of her life. A self-proclaimed "doormat," Myra has to learn to speak up for herself, fight to have her own needs fulfilled, and choose for herself what—and who—is most important in life. Her plight will resound with anyone who's ever felt torn between duty and desire (and who hasn't?). Although the story does get a little melodramatic and far-fetched at times, Girls Don't Fly is, overall, a fun, empowering novel that encourages self-nourishment while lauding the importance of family, friendship and following your dreams.

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Friday, February 24, 2012

Before I Go To Sleep A Riveting Story, Brilliantly Told

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I know I'll go to sleep tonight, and then tomorrow I will wake up and not know anything again, and the next day, and the day after that, forever. I can't imagine it. I can't face it. It's not life, it's just an existence, jumping from one moment to the next with no idea of the past, and no pan for the future. It's how I imagine animals must be. The worst thing is that I don't even know what I don't know. There might be lots of things, waiting to hurt me. Things I haven't even dreamed about yet" (194).

Imagine waking up every day not recognizing your surroundings—not your home, not your possessions, not even your husband. Imagine having to relearn everything, every single day. Imagine relying on other people to explain who you are, where you've been, and what you've done in a life you can no longer recall. This is reality for 47-year-old Christine Lucas, who's suffered from amnesia ever since an accident knocked out her memory. Now, she must rely on a man she doesn't know—despite the fact that she's been married to him for 22 years—to help her remember herself. Even if it's just for one day.

When Christine finds the diary she's been secretly keeping—and forgetting—every day, she discovers that things are not exactly what they seem. As she combs through both the diary entries and the blurry memories floating through her damaged mind, Christine realizes she can trust nothing, no one, maybe not even herself. Trapped in a terrifying world where nothing makes any sense, she must figure out who she is and who she's not, what is true and what is not, what really happened to her and what did not. And she has to do it now, today, before she goes to sleep and forgets everything ...

As you can tell, it's difficult to describe Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson without giving away too much. The book doesn't even have a real back cover blurb. I'm not sure how to discuss it in a way that's spoiler-free, so I'll just say that I loved this taut psychological thriller. Watson builds the story slowly, almost painstakingly, making sure the reader feels Christine's confusion, fear and helplessness. As she puts her life together, piece by piece, the suspense grows, exploding into a tense, thrilling conclusion. Before I Go To Sleep is, quite simply, a riveting story, brilliantly told. Only two words more: Read it.

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

Grade: A-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Before I Go To Sleep from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours.






Thursday, February 23, 2012

Youngest, Oldest, Only, Or Middle—What Does Your Birth Order Say About You?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Have you ever looked at your siblings and wondered what makes them tick? Why, for instance, is your oldest brother or sister so driven, so exacting, so uncompromising? How about the baby in your family? Why can't he/she settle down? Why does he/she treat life like one big party, refusing to take anything seriously? And what about you? What makes you so demanding or so laidback or so serious-minded? Does it have anything to do with your siblings and the order in which you all came into the same family? Dr. Kevin Leman, a psychologist who's written more than 30 books on marriage, parenting and other family relationships, believes it does.

In The Birth Order Book (I read the Revised and Updated version, published in 2009), Dr. Leman discusses the idea of birth order influencing people's actions and personalities. While he admits the concept can't explain everything about a person or a family (both of which are affected by a virtually limitless list of variables throughout its lifetime), he presents pretty strong evidence to support his claims. We all know the birth order stereotypes: oldest children and only children are aggressive, goal-oriented people; middle children are easygoing, natural peacemakers; youngest kids are fun-loving comedians. Dr. Leman explains why this is so often the case. Of course, families don't always work out so predictably, but the psychologist has reasons for this, too, and, while some of his theories seem a little too convenient, a lot of them make a lot of sense.

In addition to talking about the usual stereotypes, Dr. Leman also talks about how birth order is affected by things like divorce, death, adoption, and so on. Using vivid examples, he shows how families evolve because of these kinds of life changes. His evaluations aren't always spot-on (I could think of exceptions to just about all of his rules), but more often than not, they are. It's fascinating. Not to mention a little eerie.

Besides using it to psychoanalyze yourself and others, of what use is the information in The Birth Order Book? Well, according to Dr. Leman, knowing about birth order can help you better understand your spouse (leading to a stronger marriage), your children (helping you become a better parent) and even the clients you may encounter at work (creating a more successful business as well as a larger personal income). He gives specific ideas for doing each of these things, using examples from both his professional and personal lives.

Will Dr. Leman's obvious enthusiasm for his subject make a believer out of you? Maybe or maybe not, but either way, The Birth Order Book is a fun, easy read that will have you looking at your siblings—not to mention everyone you encounter—in a whole new light.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG (It's been a little while since I read this book, but I don't remember anything offensive)

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is Your Name Alison? Then Congratulations to You!

So, as it turns out, Alison is a very lucky name to have. Congratulations to Alison and alisonwonderland, both of whom won a copy of Enjoy Every Sandwich by Lee Lipsenthal, M.D. If you will both please send your snail mail addresses to me at blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM], I'll pass them onto the book's publicist who will get them in the mail to you ASAP.

Thanks to all who entered the contest. Stay tuned for more book giveaways!

Tiaras + Glass Slippers + Magic Wands = Self-Centered, Narcissistic Material Girls?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"'Princess' is how we tell little girls that they are special, precious. 'Princess' is how we express our aspirations, hopes, and dreams for them. 'Princess' is the wish that we could protect them from pain, that they would never know sorrow, that they will live happily ever after ensconced in lace and innocence" (81).


If you're the mother of a little girl, you're no doubt familiar with the Disney Princess phenomenon. How could you not be? The princesses—Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Tiana, etc.—decorate everything from clothing to bedding to cans of Spaghettios. Their wholesome, inspiring images appeal not just to young girls, but to parents, who find the innocent, fairy tale magic appealing in the increasingly risque world of pop culture. But how innocent is the multibillion dollar "girlie-girl" industry (which includes not just the Princesses, but Barbie, American Girl, etc.), really? Is it doing what parents hope it's doing—encouraging imaginative play, teaching girls to reach for their dreams, and empowering them to embrace femininity, but not be limited by it—or is it turning sweet little princesses into self-centered, narcissistic material girls who expect to be treated like royalty, no matter how they act in return?

To find out, Peggy Orenstein, a writer and mother of one daughter, studied all things pink—from the Princesses at Disneyland to historical dolls at American Girl Place to the backstage world of child beauty pageants. As she trolled through this frothy pastel world, she discovered some shocking trends, issues that convinced her to approach the pretty Princess world with caution. All mothers want their daughters to feel attractive, confident and empowered, but not if it means turning out spoiled brats who are so greedy, selfish and materialistic that they can't function in the real world. As Orenstein examines this troubling fantasyland phenomenon, she offers encouragement and information with the goal of arming parents against the potentially damaging effects of Princess culture on their daughters.

While I don't agree with everything Orenstein says ("I expect and want my daughter to have a healthy, joyous erotic life before marriage. Long, long, long before marriage" [129] - I mean, what mother wants that?), I found Cinderella Ate My Daughter to be both entertaining and disturbing, revealing and troubling. Orenstein writes with an engaging, mother-to-mother tone that allows readers to feel her passion and concern for young girls everywhere. Whether you find Orenstein's attitude toward the sparkly girlie-girl world hysterical and exaggerated or convincing, if not right-on-the-money, one thing is certain: She'll give you something to think about.

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

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs) and frank talk about sexuality

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Cinderella Ate My Daughter from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Little More Magic, A Little Less Lecture Needed in Slavery Time Travel Story

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Lillie, a 13-year-old slave girl who's spent her whole life working at Greenfog Plantation in Beaufort County, South Carolina, knows she shouldn't even be dreaming of freedom. If the thought ever leaked out of her brain and across her lips, she could face serious punishment, even death. Entertaining such notions is as dangerous as handling an angry rattlesnake, but Lillie does it anyway. Freedom is an especially cruel dream for her, since she was supposed to have been liberated along with her mother and 6-year-old brother in exchange for her father's service with the Confederate Army. Only when her papa died, he had a large amount of money on his person, more than any slave could possibly have gained honestly. Not alive to defend himself, her father was branded a thief. His dishonorable discharge negated the promises made to him by his owner, keeping Lillie and her family trapped on the plantation.

Already devastated by the death of her father, Lillie is heartbroken when she learns her little brother, Plato, is to be sold. She can't stand the thought of him leaving and she knows her mother would—literally—not be able to live through another loss. Lillie has to think of a way to stop the slave buyers from taking Plato, but what can a small, powerless girl like her do? Maybe nothing, alone. With the help of some ancient magic, though, she might just be able to save her brother and a few other people, too. What Lillie doesn't realize is that messing with hoodoo of any kind can be dangerous and that traveling back in time might mean learning truths she's not ready to hear. Was Lillie's father really as virtuous as she believes him to be? And, if he was, can she clear his name in time to save Plato?

I've read a number of slavery stories, but I can't remember ever encountering one with a time travel element. Until I picked up Freedom Stone by Jeffrey Kluger, that is. I'm always interested in children's books on slavery and I was curious to see what the author—a writer and editor at Time Magazine, who wrote The Sibling Effect as well as other non-fiction books—might do with this kind of story, one so dissimilar from his usual fare. And, of course, I had to see how he used the magic of time travel to enhance its telling. My conclusion? I liked the book, but didn't love it. The omniscient point-of-view made the tale feel a little too distant, a little too lecture-y. I'm all for getting a good history lesson while I read, I just want it to be so well woven into the story that I forget I'm learning while being entertained. The ending also seemed too rushed to me, making Lillie's fight for her freedom feel too easy. All in all, though, I enjoyed the story.

Now that I know Kluger can tell stories that are intriguing and entertaining—whether fiction or non—I'll be keeping a close eye on him to see just what he's going to do next.

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mature subject matter and violence

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Friday, February 10, 2012

Need A Little Life Inspiration? Have I Got the Book Giveaway For You!

You've probably noticed that I don't read a lot of inspirational-type books. I probably should scatter some enlightening reads in among my dark dystopians, but, yeah, that doesn't always happen. Still, I like the idea of reading these books, so when I was contacted about reviewing Enjoy Every Sandwich by Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, I readily agreed. I'm so behind with everything right now, though, that I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I will, it just hasn't happened yet.

No matter. Even if I'm a slacker, the book's publicist is offering two of my readers a chance to win a copy of this feel-good memoir. I'm not even going to make you answer a question to be entered—all you have to do is comment on this post. I'll draw the names of two winners on February 20. The giveaway is only open to readers in the U.S. Good luck!

As medical director of the famed Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Lee Lipsenthal helped thousands of patients struggling with disease to overcome their fears of pain and death and to embrace a more joyful way of living. In his own life, happily married and the proud father of two remarkable children, Lee was similarly committed to living his life fully and gratefully each day.

The power of those beliefs was tested in July 2009, when Lee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As Lee and his wife, Kathy, navigated his diagnosis, illness, and treatment, he discovered that he did not fear death, and that even as he was facing his own mortality, he felt more fully alive than ever before. In the bestselling tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie, told with humor and heart, and deeply inspiring, Enjoy Every Sandwich distills everything Lee learned about how we find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Cruel, But Lovely, Tale of Contradictions Brings 1930s Shanghai to Life

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As the second daughter in a traditional Chinese family, comparatively little is expected of 17-year-old Xiao Feng. Unlike her older sister, she will not be required to take lessons on how to speak, dress, dance and flirt. Feng needn't be beautiful or charming or impressive in any way—it is not she who will feel the pressure of marrying well to ensure the social standing of her family. Since the eyes of society really are not on her, Feng is free to dress like a peasant girl and spend her time roaming the gardens with her beloved grandfather.

When a cruel twist of fate turns the tables for Feng, she's forced into a marriage she doesn't want and for which she's wholly unprepared. Thrust into the secluded inner circle of the Sheng Family, Feng must learn to navigate this new world where tradition reigns alongside vicious squabbling, ambitious social climbing, and relentless, stifling boredom. Feng knows the only way to get her elders off her back is to bear the family an heir—a precious, sought-for son. As Feng struggles to please the Shengs, she must grapple with questions of duty, identity and how far a woman in her time and culture will go to find happiness.


It takes a gentle hand to produce a book like All the Flowers in Shanghai. A feminine hand, you might guess. But, you'd be wrong. The debut novel is the work of Duncan Jepson, a Eurasian filmmaker, who wrote the story as a way to explore the fierce, domineering role of a Chinese mother—the kind he might have had if his own hadn't immigrated to the U.K. in the 1950s. Through the eyes of Xiao Feng, the author brings the turmoil of 1930s Shanghai to vivid life, not by focusing on the revolution happening without, but by examining the brutal, tumultuous world within. Although Feng's is a life of emotional hardship, ruthless subjugation, and eternal bitterness, it's described with such care and sensitivity that it seems almost lovely. Even when it most certainly is not. Thus, Jepson seems to say, are the contradictions of China, of tradition, of life itself. This deep, absorbing plunge into one woman's journey through such an existence left me both breathless and heartsick. All the Flowers of Shanghai may not be the most uplifting of novels, but it's a sweeping tale that stays in the reader's heart and mind long after the story ends.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan)


Grade: B


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

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of All the Flowers of Shanghai from the generous folks at William Morrow (an imprint of Harper Collins) and TLC Book Tours. Thank you!

Things That Make Me Go Meh

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As part of ELLE Magazine's Reader's Jury program, I was asked to review two parenting memoirs—Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott (with her son, Sam) and Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood by Anne Enright—and choose which I liked best. A tough job, since the truth is, I didn't care much for either one of them. Is there something about women who become mothers for the first time in their late 30s that just makes them whiny and bitter? Or, is it because these ladies are both tell-it-like-it-is authors who express the things all mothers feel, but don't dare to say out loud? I'm not sure, but sheesh! I'm all for honest, funny takes on the old parenting game, but I prefer them to be light-hearted and uplifting, not gripe-y and depressing.

First published in 2004 (the version I read will be available April 2012), Making Babies actually compares better with Lamott's first memoir, Operating Instructions, which details Lamott's experience as a single, 35-year-old, first-time mother. Like Lamott, Enright is a writer who came to motherhood later in life. After 18 years of marriage, Enright found herself expecting at age 37, then again at 39. Having children, naturally, turned the life of the successful, independent novelist upside-down. Just as naturally, she decided to write about all of those ups and downs, publishing many of her thoughts as essays in European newspapers and magazines. Gathered together in Making Babies, they form an odd, random assortment of musings on babyhood and parenting.

At turns deep, sentimental and strange, the essays run the gamut from thought-provoking to hilarious to just plain old weird. Since there's no real, unifying point to the writings, I found the collection to be a bit too here, there and everywhere for my liking. Overall, I really didn't care for it, although I did find these gems within:

"I thought childbirth was a sort of journey that you could send dispatches home from, but of course it is not—it is home. Everywhere else now, is 'abroad'" (58).

"I can make babies, for heaven's sake, novels are a doddle" (60).

"Children are actually a form of brain-washing. They are a cult, a perfectly legal cult. Think about it. When you join a cult you are undernourished, you are denied sleep, you are forced to do repetitive and pointless tasks at random hours of the day and night, then you stare deep into your despotic leader's eyes, repeating meaningless phrases, or mantras, like Ooh da gorgeous. Yes, you are! Cult members, like parents, are overwhelmed by spiritual feelings and often burst into tears. Cult members, like parents, spout nonsense with a happy, blank look in their eyes. They know they're sort of mad, but they can't help it. They call it love" (148-49).

(Readalikes: Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott)

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 an ARC of Making Babies from ELLE Magazine in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Once Again, I Just Don't Get the Hype ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

So, I've come to a startling realization: I've never read a Michael Crichton book. Not one that he completed before his death in November of 2008, anyway (I watched every episode of ER, though. Does that count?) Mostly, I've discovered, I'm familiar with his novels because of the movies that were created from them—Sphere, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, etc. But the actual books? Nope. The only two I've read—Pirate Latitudes and now MICRO—were either unfinished (the former) or completed by someone else (the latter). Does this make a difference? I believe so, because otherwise, I just can't understand people's enthusiasm for Michael Crichton. Blasphemy, I know.

For those of you who are, maybe you'll enjoy his newest, MICRO. The book, completed by thriller writer Richard Preston (click here to read an NPR interview about how the novel was created), concerns a group of interns lost in a deadly microscopic world overseen by a psychotic scientist. It's kind of hard to explain, so let me use the jacket flap copy, which does so quite nicely:

In a locked Honolulu office building, three men are found dead with no sign of struggle except for the ultrafine, razor-sharp cuts covering their bodies. the only clue left behind is a tiny bladed robot, nearly invisible to the human eye.

In the lush forests of Oahu, groundbreaking technology has ushered in a revolutionary era of biological prospecting. Trillions of microorganisms, tens of thousands of bacteria species, are being discovered; they are feeding a search for priceless drugs and applications on a scale beyond anything previously imagined.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, seven graduate students at the forefront of their fields are recruited by a pioneering microbiology start-up. Nanigen MicroTechnologies dispatches the group to a mysterious lab in Hawaii, where they are promised access to tools that will open a whole new scientific frontier.

But once in the Oahu rain forest, the scientists are thrust into a hostile wilderness that reveals profound and surprising dangers at every turn. Armed only with their knowledge of the natural world, they find themselves prety to a technology of radical and unbridles poower. To survive, they must harness the inherent forces of nature itself.

An instant classic, MICRO pits nature against technology in vintage Crichton fashion. Completed by visionary science writer Richard Preston, this boundary-pushing thriller melds scientific fact with pulse-pounding fiction to create yet another masterpiece of sophisticated, cutting-edge entertainment.

Sounds intriguing, no? I thought so, too. The problem, once again, is not in the novel's premise, but in its execution. Now, my husband (who has fond memories of reading Jurassic Park to his youngest brother as a bedtime story) insists that the beauty of a Crichton novel lies in the science. I happen to believe that science is all well and good, but that if you're trying to create exciting fiction then you're going to need a little more than just cold, hard facts and concepts. For instance, you should have some colorful characters, people who speak and act in interesting ways. You don't want cliches or stereotypes, and you certainly don't want emotionless paper dolls. Once you've created some lively folks, you should let them engage in informative, but entertaining conversations. Some kind of action is required in a story, of course, and yet, you cannot make it the only thing. There has to be some human emotion (not melodrama) involved so that readers feel connected to the story and its cast. Most importantly of all, though, is dynamic storytelling. Settings, characters, and plot events need to be described in a way that makes them live and breathe in the reader's imagination. Without all this, you just have science and, I don't know about you, but I don't think that makes for much of a story. A documentary, okay, but not a fictionalized thriller.

In case you can't tell, MICRO just didn't do it for me at all. Even though (as you can probably tell) science isn't really my thing, I think I could have enjoyed this book if it had had all the things I mentioned above. It didn't. For me, then, it became dull. I felt so little connection to the characters that I really didn't care whether they lived or died. Well, I guess I cared enough to finish the book, but that's it. Like Pirate Latitudes, it left me thinking, "What's all the hype about here? I just don't get it." Maybe this is just a classic case of "different strokes for different folks," but I really do believe that I can enjoy a novel on any subject under the sun—provided the story is told well. For me, MICRO didn't fit that bill at all.

My task now, I think, is to go back and read a real Crichton book. I think I'll start with Sphere, since that's the movie I like best. Unless, of course, there's a written version of ER ...

(Readalikes: Reminds me a little of Jurassic Park—the movie version, since I haven't actually read the book)

Grade: C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence/gore, and sexual innuendo

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

Monday, February 06, 2012

Magical Story Not So Magical

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When 15-year-old Lucy Wrenn falls in love for the first time, she falls hard. So hard that, when her boyfriend breaks up with her, she's not sure she can recover. Without Alex in it, her life is dull, colorless, not worth living. She can barely function without him. The only question in her mind is: How can she convince him to come back to her? The only answer seems to be: The Heartbreakers. Lucy's not too sure about joining up with Olivia, Gil and Liza, three beautiful girls who are able to draw any—and every—guy they want to them. The trio gets results, sure, but Lucy finds the threesome's power a little terrifying.

The Heartbreakers are willing to help Lucy get Alex back, but the plan will only work if Lucy can get a guy to fall in love with her and then break his heart. All within the next seven days. It sounds cruel—too cruel for a bleeding heart like Lucy—not to mention impossible. Except that with a little magic and some coaching from the Heartbreakers, it's starting to look not just doable, but also addictingly fun. As she learns to wield her new powers, Lucy will have to ask herself who she really is, what she really wants, and how many hearts she's really prepared to break in order to win back the boy she loves.

Two things drew me to The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten: its tantalizing cover (Ooh, pretty!) and its premise (not entirely original, but intriguing nonetheless). After reading the book, those are still my two favorite things about it. Why? Well, because, besides Tristan, I found most of the characters unlikable. I also thought the story got long, dull and depressing. It just didn't speak to me, didn't capture me and—except for a fun little tidbit at the end—didn't surprise me. Sequels will be forthcoming, no doubt, but I won't be holding my breath. Because, frankly, I won't be reading them.

(Readalikes: I should be able to think of a million titles, but nothing's coming to mind. Suggestions?)

Grade: C-

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

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

Friday, February 03, 2012

It's That Time Again ...

So you may (or may not) have noticed that I've been a bit MIA from the blog. Every year around this time, I sign up to do Boot Camp at the annual LDS Storymakers conference (actually, this year I'm doing Publication Primer, which is a little bit different version of Boot Camp). It's an intense, all-day critique experience where budding authors give and receive feedback on fiction writing. It's fun, but intimidating. Even though participants only have to submit 10-15 pages to participate, having that deadline gives this bleeder (meaning I sweat over every word I write, worrying that it's not perfect—even in a rough draft) the motivation I need to actually work on the novel that's been sitting in my head for several years now. I've got half a dozen chapters now and am working on more, but man, writing is a time-consuming thing to do. So focused have I been that I'm behind on everything—reading, reviewing, housework, everything. It's nice to get this story purged from my head, though.

Hm, I'm not sure what the purpose of this tangent is (I guess that's why it's a tangent), except to say that I'm going to LDS Storymakers and you should, too. It's a great conference for writers.

Speaking of LDS writers, I'm excited to be part of the Whitney Academy again this year. The Whitneys recognize excellence in fiction writing by authors who are also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The finalists in all 7 categories were announced today. Winners are decided by the Academy, a group made up of LDS writers, booksellers, bloggers, etc. Members of the Academy are asked to read all 35 of the books on the list or, at least, all the titles within one category. I'm going to try to do the former so that I can vote for best novel overall, but we'll see how it goes. Like I may have mentioned I've been a little preoccupied lately.

At any rate, here's the list of finalists. I was disappointed that more of the books I loved and nominated (Circle of Secrets by Kimberley Griffiths Little and Back When You Were Easier to Love by Emily Wing Smith, for example) didn't make it to the final round, but I'm excited to explore some new novels and authors. Okay, here's the list for real. BTW: I crossed out the titles I've already read and the asterisks in the list denote books that are eligible for the Best Novel by a New Author award.

General:

Before I Say Goodbye by Rachel Ann Nunes
Gifted by Karey White*
Evolution of Thomas Hall by Kieth Merrill
The Walk: Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans
The Wedding Letters by Jason F. Wright


Historical:

Daughter of Helaman by Misty Moncur*
Fires of Jerusalem by Marilyn Brown
Isabelle Webb: The Pharaoh's Daughter by N.C. Allen
Letters in the Jade Dragon Box by Gale Sears
Miss Delacourt Has Her Day by Heidi Ashworth

Romance:

Borrowed Light by Carla Kelly
Captive Heart by Michele Paige Holmes
Count Down to Love by Julie N. Ford
The List by Melanie Jacobson*
Not My Type by Melanie Jacobson

Mystery/Suspense:

Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry
Bloodborne by Gregg Luke
If I Should Die by Jennie Hansen
Rearview Mirror by Stephanie Black
Smokescreen by Traci Hunter Abramson


Speculative:

The Alloy of Law: A Mistborn Novel by Brandon Sanderson
I Don't Want to Kill You by Dan Wells
The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card
A Night of Blacker Darkness by Dan Wells
No Angel by Theresa Sneed*

Youth Fiction Speculative:

My Unfair Godmother by Janette Rallison
Shifting by Bethany Wiggins
Slayers by C.J. Hill
Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
Variant by Robison Wells

Youth Fiction General:

Girls Don't Fly by Kristen Chandler
Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams
Pride & Popularity by Jenni James
Sean Griswold's Head by Lindsey Leavitt
With a Name like Love by Tess Hilmo*

As you can see, I've got my work cut out for me! I'll be keeping track of my progress on my right sidebar—kind of a personal challenge—so you can follow along with me.

How about you? What do you think of the finalists? Which books did you love? Which are you excited to read? And, most importantly, will I be seeing you at LDS Storymakers?

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