Saturday, March 31, 2012

No Angel Odd, Clumsy Read

(Image from Deseret Book)



Heaven, as it turns out, isn't all harps and clouds.  Still, Jonathan Stewart much prefers it to that cess pool known as Earth.  He did his time as a mortal; he's not about to go back.  He's made it abundantly clear to the yahoos at HR that he has no interest, whatsoever, in becoming a guardian angel.  Jonathan's stunned, then, when he's assigned to watch over Celeste Knight, who's about to embark on her own Earth journey.  All post-mortal spirits are required to do one guardianship, so Jonathan has little choice in the matter.  At least he was wise enough to request a spirit who's marked for an early death—while Jonathan's return to Earth will be torture in the extreme, at least it will be short.

What Jonathan doesn't realize is that spirits like Celeste can choose when to die.  And Celeste isn't about to give up too early.  Frustrated by her stubbornness, Jonathan nonetheless decides to do his job as he does everything else—perfectly.  It's not easy, though, to keep a young Celeste away from all the dangers Earth life has to offer.  Not only does he have to steer her away from erratic drivers, rogue lightning bolts, rusty swingsets  and the like, but he also has to battle the Sheydim (Satan's angels) who want to enslave Celeste (and every other mortal) to their master.  It's no picnic, but, along the way, Jonathan discovers (to his utter surprise) that he cares for his kind-hearted charge, feels responsible for her eternal salvation.  In fact, he realizes that he'll do anything, move Heaven and Earth if he has to (and he does), to make sure she returns to her Maker unscathed.

It's difficult to describe the plot of No Angel, Theresa Sneed's first published novel, because the fact is, it's confusing.  Not to mention just ... odd.  Plus, the story's got some serious plot holes, very clumsy editing and one supremely unlikable main character, all of which made the book difficult for me to read.  I know it's supposed to be an uplifting, inspiring read and I guess it is, or would be, if the writing were better.  As is, the whole presentation just drove me crazy.  The horrible truth:  I raced through No Angel because I couldn't wait to toss it aside and move on to something else. 

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Emerald City by Alicia K. Leppert and a tiny bit of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis)   

Grade:  D

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

To the FTC, with love:  I bought No Angel at Deseret Book with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Despite Newbie Mistakes, Debut Novelist Shows Potential


(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's easy to become invisible in a city of 600,000 people. Olivia Tate should know. The 20-year-old floats through the streets of Seattle, so wrapped in grief and sorrow that she

feels hollow, empty, like a ghost drifting silently among the living. When her burden grows too heavy, she reaches for a bottle of Valium, hoping to dull the pain. Forever. She's shocked when she wakes up in a hospital, even more so when she meets her rescuer, a quiet 22-year-old named Jude West. Not only does Jude save Olivia's life, but he sticks around for weeks afterward, always making sure she has what she needs.

His presence makes all the difference for Olivia. Jude's friendship helps her heal, gives her hope. He's so good to her, makes her so happy, that she ignores all his weird little quirks—like how he never invites her over to his apartment or talks about his family or the fact that he has no real job, but always has plenty of money. It's only when Olivia begins to

remember disturbing details about the night of her suicide attempt that she realizes just how much Jude's been keeping from her. Her suspicions seem crazy, unbelievable, but what if they're true? Does she really know Jude? Does she really want to? If he is what she thinks he is, what does that mean for their growing relationship, the one that's rapidly turning into something that's much, much more than just friendship? Will the secret Jude keeps tear them apart forever?

It's difficult to describe Emerald City, a debut novel by Alicia K. Leppert, because, really, it has no plot. The main characters lack concrete story goals, which means the tale has no driving force behind it, no direction. It rambles here, there and everywhere, losing oomph with every purposeless turn. This is a newbie mistake, one I see often in first novels. Still, it makes a huge impact on the reader's enjoyment of a story, especially since the novel also suffers from lifeless prose, flat characters and some pretty big leaps in logic. My biggest issue (besides the no-plot thing) is with Olivia. I'm not sure I've ever met a more pitiful heroine. She's sympathetic, at least at first. But her wallowing gets old pretty darn quick, especially when it becomes apparent that that's all she ever does. Olivia's so self-centered that only once in the entire novel does she do something for anyone but herself—and that's to leave a paltry (35 cents!) tip for a street musician. Olivia's entire aim in the story is to make herself happier by focusing on, you guessed it, herself. This selfishness made me lose any sympathy or respect I had for her, which also stood in the way of my enjoyment of Emerald City.

Given all my complaints, you might think I detested every word of the story. Not so. The book's premise, while not all that original, has plenty of potential. As do the characters. In fact, most of what's wrong with Emerald City could have—and should have—been fixed through a session or two with a good, tenacious editor. Leppert has a lot to learn, for sure, but I did catch enough glimpses of capable writing throughout her debut to convince me that she will learn and she will improve with each book she writes. Maybe her next novel will do more for me than this one did. Let's hope.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a lot [too much] of the movie City of Angels, also of the book No Angel by Theresa Sneed and a little of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)

Grade: C-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Emerald City from its generous author and her publisher, Cedar Fort. Thank you!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

It's the Mistborn World, Just Funnier, Sexier And, If Possible, Even Cooler

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I went all fan girl about Brandon Sanderson the last time I reviewed a book by him (here), so I'm not going to do that this time. Much. Yeah, never mind. I'm totally going to gush this time, too. Because, really, as much as I loved the first books in Sanderson's Mistborn
trilogy, in some ways, I liked The Alloy of Law even better. It's got everything I admired about the earlier novels, just with a more lighthearted tone, an intriguing mystery, even a little steampunk goodness. It's the Mistborn world made funnier, sexier and, if possible, even cooler. I know, right? Pure awesomeness.

The story takes place 300 years after Vin and Elend make their last stand against Ruin in The Hero of Ages. In the ensuing years, Scadrial has transformed into a progressive, modern land. Electric lights keep the city streets and the homes of the wealthy aglow, while railroads take transportation to a whole new level. Skyscrape
rs reach for the skies, their jaw-dropping height inspiring hope, awe and the promise of more advances to come. Magic may seem out of place in this new world, but Allomancy is still very much alive in Scadrial. Powers are not necessarily flaunted by their owners, especially those living within the city of Elendel, and yet they are used for various and sundry purposes.

Lord Waxillium "Wax" Ladrian, a rare Twinborn (meaning he wields both Allomantic and Feruchemical powers) prefers to use his skills in a less subtle way. The 42-year-old has spent the last 20 years out in the Roughs, wielding his special talents against all manner of ruffians. Maybe order can never be brought to the wilds, but he can at least make sure justice is served as often as possible. Keeping such uncouth company has made Wax unfit for the society life he left behind in the city, but when a family tragedy strikes, he finds himself reentering the glamorous world of the wealthy. He's not too thrilled about his new responsibilities—including the pressure to find a wife—but Wax is resigned. He's head of Ladrian House now and must act accordingly.

But, when a string of train robberies becomes increasingly dangerous, Wax knows someone has to intervene. It shouldn't be him, of course, but he might just go crazy if it isn't. With the help of a dashing old friend and an alluring new one, Wax sets out to solve the mystery. In doing so, he must evaluate the mistakes of his past, the purpose of his present and the goals of his future. There's not a lot of time for musing, though, not with a dastardly villain plotting his demise. It's a time for action, a time for Wax to decide who he is, what he wants and how to save his friends from peril. If he can't figure out the truth in time to stop what's happening, the entire land could be in grave danger.

I can't do justice to the book's plot, so you're just going to have to trust me when I say The Alloy of Law is worth the read. Even if you're not into sci fi/fantasy-ish novels, you're going to dig this one. It is sci fi, but it's also got a lot of crossover appeal since it has a Victorian feel, dystopian elements, a steampunk vibe and just, I don't know, lots of crazy-good stuff. Sanderson knows how to tell a balanced story, creating appealing characters, fascinating worlds and scenes that combine action with mystery with humor with romance with ... everything. Bottom line: Love Sanderson, love this book. Raving fan girl out.

(Readalikes: The Mistborn trilogy [The Final Empire; The Well of Ascension; The Hero of Ages] by Brandon Sanderson)

Grade: A

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought The Alloy of Law from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wright's Newest More Hit Than Miss


(Image from Barnes & Noble)

You know how I have that little quirk (which one, right?) that makes it impossible for me to start a series from anywhere but the beginning? Well, I'm proud to say I overcame that bit of OCD in order to read The Wedding Letters by Jason F. Wright. I'm running out of time to read all the Whitney finalists, especially since I have to cram them in among all my other reviewing
responsibilities, so I skipped The Wednesday Letters and dove right into its sequel. I wouldn't suggest doing it that way, though. Like always, I recommend reading a series in order. This time (only!), it's a does-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of thing.

Anyway, the story starts when Noah Cooper, a senior at George Mason University and a budding artist/illustrator, runs into Rachel Kaplan. Literally. As he tries his best to make up for hitting the grad student with his truck, he finds himself falling deeply in love with her. She doesn't seem to mind. Noah figures
taking her to meet his family will seal the deal forever—everybody loves Malcolm and Rain Cooper, as well as the charming B&B in rural Virginia where they live and work. Not only does Rachel fall for the Cooper Family, but she agrees to become one of them. Noah couldn't be happier.

It doesn't take long, though, for the wedding plans to go awry. Even though Rachel adores the family's "Wedding Letters" tradition, reading them brings up a dark secret in her past, a secret that could stop the wedding forever. Malcolm and Rain are also keeping a secret, the announcement of which will no doubt shock their children. As Noah tries to keep his whole life from imploding, he'll learn a thing or two about family, forgiveness and the fortitude to fight for the things—and people—he loves.

The Wedding Letters is predictable, of course. Cheesy, too, although not quite as much as I expected it to be. As you would guess, the short novel's also warm, positive and uplifting. The great romance between Noah and Rachel falls a little short for me, as it feels a bit spark-less, but I really grew to like the Cooper Family as a whole. I enjoy the fact that they aren't a perfect family, but that their love for each other comes through to the reader loud and clear. Speaking of the Coopers, I did get a little confused over who was who and what was what as far as relationships and such go, but I'm sure that's mainly due to not having read The Wednesday Letters. All in all, though, I enjoyed this read. Wright's books are kind of hit and miss for me, so I was glad to discover that this one was more of the former than the latter.

(Readalikes: The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright; Wright's books also remind me of those by Richard Paul Evans and Nicholas Sparks)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Wedding Letters by Jason F. Wright from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain. Thank you!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mean Girl?

I've been mulling over the topic of negative reviews—both the writing of them and the receiving of them—for a while now, wondering if I really wanted to address the issue and just how many people I might offend in the process. Then, I thought, "What the heck?" I'm known in the book blogosphere for telling it like it is, so why shy away now? Here you have it, then, my unfiltered opinion on a subject that affects all authors and reviewers: negative reviews.

First of all, I have to say that we book bloggers do what we do because we love books. We love reading them, we love promoting them, and we especially love discussing them with friends, family, neighbors, even random strangers at the dentist's office. We spend our free time (because, remember, no one's paying us to do this) analyzing what we read so that we can spend even more of our free time typing up a review, replying to reader comments and emailing links around to authors/publishers/publicists. Doing this takes time. Lots of time. Time that could be spent on family, friends, sleep, housework or myriad other things. Why would anyone do such a thing? Simple: We love books.

Why, then, do we sometimes trash them in so public a manner? I can't answer for every book blogger, but I can explain my own rationale and here it is: reading a book requires the expenditure of time and, often, money. Because both are precious, readers want to know if a certain book is worth it. My job, as I see it, is to answer this question for them. The best way I can do that is to evaluate the book in-depth, asking the same things I would of any other product—Did it work for me? Did it live up to its hype? Was it well-crafted or hastily thrown together? Did it fulfill its intended function? Am I happy that I bought/used it? Giving glossed-over or half-baked answers doesn't help me or anyone else. So, I say exactly what I think, because even though it's just my opinion, that's the reason people come to my blog in the first place.

Now, what I call honesty, many people (including this author) call mean. For this reason, lots of book bloggers opt not to publish negative reviews at all. While I understand their decision, I don't agree with it. I don't want to waste my valuable time on books rife with dull characters, stilted dialogue, flat writing, glaring copyediting errors, etc. Neither do my readers. Just as I rely on straight-talking reviewers to steer me away from lousy reads, my readers depend on me. I refuse to let them down. So, I'm honest. Fair (at least I think so), but always, always honest.

Because of my conviction that honesty-is-the-best-policy, I often write things that could be construed as mean. Especially if you happen to be the author I accuse of creating a boring cast, drab scenery or a plot so holey it could rival Swiss cheese for ... you know, holey-ness. I get that books are authors' babies. I get that criticism can hurt. I get that me giving a book a "D" might make its author want to punch me in the nose. Believe me, I get it. But when a "baby" is made public and its "parent" is asking people to spend their precious time and money on a product that may or may not be worth it, it's only fair to expect people to evaluate it and share their feelings—however positive or negative—with other would-be customers. My evaluation of a book may make a writer spitting mad, but I'd rather have them upset with me than to have one of my readers say, "Why did you lie to me? I trusted you."

Just as book bloggers struggle with the question of whether or not to post negative reviews, I know authors wrestle with how to react to them. Should they shoot off a nasty email to the blogger, letting him/her know exactly where he/she can stick his/her review? Should they post their own nasty comments on the reviewer's blog so that everyone reading it can see just how much the writer's been wronged? Or, even better, should an author write their own post, publicly shaming book bloggers and their mothers, too? Should authors call attention to a negative review? Ignore it? Laugh about it? What's the most appropriate response?

Well, that depends on how much a writer cares about his/her career. I know it's a terrible double standard, but the fact is, if an author wants to succeed, the best thing for him/her to do is to take negative reviews in stride. They happen. Reacting in an outraged and public manner will only paint an author as a thin-skinned whiner, losing them readers while, at the same time, gaining the reviewer followers (because who doesn't love a good drama?). Even if the blogger's attack is vicious and unfounded, it's probably best to just let the review slide and move on. A terrible double standard, I agree, but that's the way it is.

Does this give book bloggers license to say whatever they want? Of course not. Professional writing (many published authors, of course, argue that blogging does not qualify as "real" writing, which makes me wonder why, then, they care so much about negative reviews written by hacks like us?), in my opinion, should be respectful, well-founded and, above all, fair. If I say a book is dull, I explain why. If I cite bumpy writing, a bumbling plot or characters who are paper-doll flat, I try to back myself up with examples. If I give a book a D, you better believe I've got my reasons.

Speaking of my reasons, let me make one last point: A review is simply one person's evaluation of a product. Maybe you agree with their opinion, maybe you don't. I can't count the number of times people have responded to a less-than-favorable review I wrote by saying, "I know you didn't like this book, but I'm going to go ahead and try it," or "You might have loved this one, but I couldn't stand it." Which is fine—wonderful, even—since I always dig a lively book discussion. My point is that I don't think negative book reviews do nearly as much damage as some people think they do. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think there's really something to that old adage about any publicity being good publicity. I mean, would authors rather deal with negative reviews or no reviews at all?

So, here's my advice for authors: Remember that a book review is an evaluation of a product, not a person, and that reacting to a negative one in a public way does more damage to your career than good. And for bloggers: Regardless of what anyone says, you hold a lot of power in those little fingers of yours. Use it to promote books in a way that's engaging, honest and fair. Together, we can blast the world with book love, while, at the same time, promoting a community where the free exchange of ideas/opinions leads readers to books they'll love, resulting in writers getting attention from fans who are devoted and sincere. Because, really, isn't that what we all want?

Thoughts?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Thomas Hall Takes Inspirational Fiction In The Right Direction

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Renowned painter Thomas Hall is used to being chosen to work on all the most exciting and lucrative art projects in the San Francisco area and beyond. His skills are so desired that employers are willing—if not eager—to accept his demanding conditions, from
enormous paychecks to private work
spaces to his choice of snack foods. Thomas is so used to having things his way that he's never stopped to consider the fact that the constant pampering has turned him into a selfish, egotistical jerk. It's not his personality that matters to most people, after all, it's his painting.

At least that's what he thinks until he meets 27-year-old PR director Susan Cassidy. Thomas is accustomed to being approached by beautiful women, but this one isn't like the others. Cass isn't looking for a date, she's asking for a mural. And not just any mural. She's after something special to decorate the walls of the new children's wing at St. Mark's Hospital. The agnostic Thomas balks when Cass informs him that the piece needs to center around Jesus Christ. Already at work on a more prestigious mural—one that, ironically enough, celebrates Charles Darwin—Thomas dismisses Cass' offer.

When his life starts to fall apart and he's forced to accept the job he first rejected, Thomas finds himself standing in front of a blank wall trying to envision a mural based on a man whose existence he knows little about and believes in even less. Pushed up against an impossible deadline, Thomas needs to forget about his doubts and just paint. But, there's an injured little girl with an astounding amount of faith, a police officer with an impossible story and a PR rep who believes in everything Thomas doesn't. Encounters with each one of them changes the artist, making him wonder which is the biggest lie—Jesus Christ or Thomas Hall. As he wrestles with the mural, Thomas must reevaluate everything he knows, everything he believes, everything he is and find the courage to accept the truth, however disastrous it may be.

I've mentioned before—probably a few times—that inspirational fiction is really not my thing. I'm not opposed to pick-me-up type novels, I just want them to go easier on the sap and heavier on the substance, if you know what I mean. The Evolution of Thomas Hall by Academy Award-winning filmmakerKieth Merrill does this better than any of the other titles it's up against in theWhitney Award competition. Which isn't to say it's perfect. It's not. At 454 pages, the novel's laborious, both overwritten and under-edited. Plus, it features a character who's just not all that likable—even after he "evolves." Still, the book's more readable than I thought it would be, probably thanks to short chapters and enough action to keep the plot moving along (if not swiftly). Although I didn't love it, I found The Evolution of Thomas Hall thought-provoking and uplifting, a book that's faith-promoting but not as cloyingly preachy as other books of its type.

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

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received a copy of The Evolution of Thomas Hall from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain. Thank you!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Think Deseret Book Doesn't "Do" Bold? Think Again.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Okay, are you ready for the boldest premise I've ever seen in a novel published by Deseret Book? Here you go:

Twenty years ago, Rikki Crockett left Spanish Fork, Utah, vowing never to return. She'd had it with the town, the LDS Church, and, especially, Dante Rushton. The boy who had stood by her through all the misery of her childhood had grown into a responsible, devoted young man—so much so that he'd chosen two years of indentured servitude as a missionary over marrying Rikki. Disgusted, she had taken off, trading cold, conservative Utah for sunny, open-minded California.

Two decades later, Rikki's back in her hometown with little to show for her time away. Marked by heartache and foolish mistakes, her years in California produced only two good things: her children. It's them she's thinking of now. She can't think of a better place for the kids to be raised than safe, sheltered Spanish Fork. They're going to need that stability when Rikki does what she does best—leave.

First, though, she's got to get through to Dante. Maybe he won't listen—after all, he's now a husband, a father, even a bishop. But he's still the only man she trusts, the only one who's never let her down. She needs him now, more than she ever has. The only problem is getting him to see that maybe, just maybe, she's got something he needs, too.

I know, right? The bishop's old girlfriend comes swishing into town, determined to get his attention, despite the fact that he's married and in a position of authority. It's downright ... racy. Of course, there's more to Before I Say Goodbye by Rachel Ann Nunes (including a not-very-surprising surprise)than meets the eye, but still, you have to admit it's a bold kind of story for Deseret Book to have taken on. Even the characters have a little bit of bite to them. Rikki's got an edge, of course, but Becca, Dante's perfect Mormon wife, has one, too. It's probably not enough of one to be totally believable; still, it gives Nunes' portrayal of LDS life a realistic feel. Because of these things, I liked the novel a whole lot more than I thought I would. It's still predictable and syrupy, with some bumpy writing in places, but overall, I found it to be a sensitive and touching read.

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

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Before I Say Goodbye from the generous folks at Deseret Book. Thank you!

Monday, March 19, 2012

To Kindle Or Not to Kindle? That Is (No Longer) The Question.

Quick! Peek out the nearest window. Are pigs flying? Are zombies shuffling down the street? Is the apocalypse commencing? 'Cause I'm pretty sure this is the end of the world.

Why?

I bought a Kindle. And not just any Kindle, but a Kindle Fire. Yes. I. Did. Me—the one who's so anti e-reader that I had never actually touched my husband's Kindle (the one he's owned for nigh on 3 years) until last week. I have always sworn that I would never ever ever contribute to the death of real books in any way, shape or form and now I've gone and done it. Oh, the shame.

Even worse? I like the Kindle Fire. It's a fun little gadget. I'm so not a gadget kind of person and yet, I'm enjoying this one. Not only can I read books on it, but I can also play games (Anyone into Words With Friends? Play me—I'm sjwordnerd), listen to music, watch movies and so much more. I kind of love it.

Here's the real question, though: How does reading on the Kindle Fire compare to reading real books? It doesn't, of course. I still much, much prefer the latter. But, I don't mind reading on the Kindle, which totally surprises me. I don't think I'll ever be a total e-reading convert—I'm not that much of a sell-out—but I'll definitely be using my Kindle reading to supplement my real reading.

You may be wondering about my policy (stated so vehemently on my left sidebar) to not accept e-books for review. That will stand for now since I'm still learning all the ins and outs of e-reading. Rest assured, though, that I'm sloooowlllly making my way into the 21st Century, so maybe I'll allow e-books sometime soon. Maybe.

For now, I'm reading PDFs of some of the Whitney finalists. My first Kindle read was Dan Wells' novella, A Night of Blacker Darkness, which is hysterical and by far my favorite of his books. As for the first full-length novel, that honor goes to The List by Melanie Jacobson. Since the author will be my instructor for the Publication Primer class I'm taking at the upcoming LDS Storymakers conference, I was a little worried about reading her. Turns out, I enjoy her writing style. Her book's lighthearted and fun. It could use a plot, but still, I'm liking it. Look for reviews of both these titles soon (well, sort of soon).

So, what do you think of my Kindle-buying decision? Are you shocked? Outraged? Or just told-you-so smug like my husband? What's your opinion on the Kindle Fire? If you haven't abandoned me yet for being such a hypocrite, I'd really like to know what you think: Real books or e-books? Kindle v. other e-readers? Susan's a sell-out or just a practical person facing the inevitable? Discuss.

At Least the Cover Speaks to Me ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After nine years of dealing with infertility, 33-year-old Susan Weller and her husband, Brent, finally get the baby they've been dreaming of for so long. Adopting Anna, an infant whose birth parents died in a car accident, replaces the cruel emptiness in Susan's heart with a joy she's never known. Not only is her daughter perfect in every way—healthy, smart, beautiful, happy—but she's actually more than that. She's ... special. Like an angel. She's got an otherworldly quality about her, something that's difficult to understand, let alone describe. It just seems that when Anna enters a room, it becomes instantly brighter. When she's present, people are nicer, teachers are more effective, and the world at large seems a kinder, happier place.

Susan's astounded by Anna's abilities. She knows she has to protect Anna—if anyone knew about the girl's extraordinary gift, they would want to study her, exploit her. Susan can't let that happen. But, the older Anna gets, the harder it becomes to explain why she's so different. Especially to Anna herself. Torn between trying to keep her daughter safe and letting her use her special talents to help those around her, Susan must decide where to draw the line.

Ugh. Describing the plot of Gifted by Karey White is difficult because, really, it has none. It's simply the tale of a child who changes everyone who comes in contact with her. The premise isn't bad at all, it's just not developed well enough to make a compelling novel. Add in flat characters, a meandering storyline and the author's preference for telling vs. showing and the book just doesn't stand a chance. Which is a bummer because the cover really speaks to me—unfortunately, it's the only thing about Gifted that does.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult)

Grade: C-

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

To the FTC with love: I bought Gifted from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Anything He Writes, I Will Read. Amen.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: Although this review will not contain any spoilers for The Hero of Ages, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessors. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

I usually prefer to write my own plot summaries, but sometimes I just don't feel like reinventing the wheel, you know? The back cover copy for The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson does the job well, so here you go:

Killing the Lord Ruler to end the Final Empire was obviously the right thing to do, wasn't it? With the return of the lethal form of the ubiquitous mists, increasingly heavy ashfalls, and ever more powerful earthquakes, Vin and Elend are no longer so sure. Long ago, Ruin—one of the primal beings who created the world—was promised the eventual right to destroy all things. Now that Vin has been tricked into releasing him from the Well of Ascension, Ruin apparently intends to collect.

The conclusion of the Mistborn trilogy fulfills all the promise of the first two books. Revelations abound, connections rooted in early chapters of the series click into place, and surprises, as satisfying as they are stunning, blossom like fireworks to dazzle and delight. It all leads up to a finale unmatched for originality and audacity that will leave you rubbing your eyes in wonder, as if awaking from an amazing dream.

There's not a lot more to say except that I love the Mistborn series. The first two books enthralled me, as did the third. The world Sanderson creates in the series is so complex, so detailed and so utterly compelling that it's difficult not to get lost in it. Like the novels that came before it, The Hero of Ages offers a little bit of everything—adventure, romance, mystery, fantasy, etc. There's so much going on in the book that it never gets boring. And that's saying a lot for a 724-page novel. The bottom line is this: Sanderson is a master storyteller, absolutely in a class by himself. Anything the man writes, I will read. Amen.

(Readalikes: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension and The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson)

Grade: A

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought The Hero of Ages from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Give Me A Story, Not A Sermon

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

After losing his wife, then his business, house, cars and all the other fancy trappings of his formerly successful life, Alan Christoffersen decides to outwalk his grief by hoofing it from his home near Seattle to the beach in Key West, Florida. He's made it to the outskirts of Spokane, Washington—only about 318 miles from home—when he's mugged by a group of teenage thugs. Too injured to resume his journey right away, Alan decides to hunker down in Spokane until he's recovered enough to resume his trek.

Alan's taken in by a kind stranger named Angel, who offers him room and board for as long as he needs it. Although the woman lives up to her name in every way, Alan becomes concerned about the dark depression that settles over her with disturbing frequency. After some strange encounters, Alan realizes how little he actually knows about Angel. It's clear she needs help, but are her problems too big for him to handle? Especially when he's still dealing with his own issues? As Alan tries to figure out what to do about Angel, he also has to make another decision: should he continue with his long walk or stay in Spokane with the people who are fast starting to feel like family.

Since The Walk by Richard Paul Evans failed to impress me, I didn't have a lot of hope for its sequel, Miles to Go. I figured the same things that bugged me about the former would probably bug me about the latter and I was right. Evans' writing was still more tell than show, more sap than substance. His characters remained flat, their relationships so underdeveloped they never felt real. Because of the mysterious Angel, the first half (or so) of the book at least had enough action to be somewhat interesting. Not so for the rest of the novel. All in all, I liked Miles to Go a teensy bit more than The Walk, but, truthfully, I really wasn't wild about either. I've said it before and I'll say it again, inspirational fiction is just not my genre. I want a story, not a sermon.

(Readalikes: The Walk by Richard Paul Evans)

Grade: C+

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Monday, March 12, 2012

And, Once Again, I'm Not a Fan ...

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You may have noticed I'm not much for inspirational fiction. There's a reason for that. On the whole, I've found that books in this genre tend to be preachy, predictable and so ooey-gooey it's nauseating. No offense to those who adore this kind of thing, but personally, I keep my distance. Why, then, am I reviewing The Walk by Richard Paul Evans? Simple: The second volume in the series is one of this year's Whitney Award finalists. Because I have a serious case of reading OCD, I couldn't dive into the second book without jumping into the first. I didn't want to do either, mind you, but I did. That's just the kind of devoted, self-sacrificing contest judge I am. Uh huh.

Anyway, The Walk concerns 32-year-old Alan Christoffersen, a successful advertising executive who's enjoying the very best life has to offer. He's got a luxurious house, a zippy sports car, a beautiful wife, and a wall full of business honors and awards—all the trappings of a happy life. Or so Alan thinks. When tragedy strikes, his perfect world begans to crumble. As Alan watches everything that's important to him slip away, he becomes so grief-stricken and depressed that he contemplates suicide. Then he does something even crazier: he decides to walk from his home near Seattle all the way to sunny Key West, Florida.

As Alan tries to outwalk his grief, he gets a taste of the adventure, danger and exhaustion that comes from crossing so many miles on foot. But what about the clarity he was hoping to find from his extended nature walk? Is he gaining a new direction in life or just striding away from his problems? As Alan puts one foot in front of the other, he'll have to decide who he really is, what he really wants, and how far he'll really go (physically and metaphorically) to find the answers.

Preachy? Check. Predictable? Check. Ooey-gooey? Check, check, check. The Walk must, therefore, be inspirational fiction at its finest, right? Maybe, but what I found was a whole lot of tell-not-show storytelling, flat characters and underdeveloped relationships. Alan's idea to walk to Florida made no sense to me since he seemed to have no real, concrete motivation to do so. The biggest problem for me, though, was that, while there was enough going on in the beginning of the book to keep the story moving forward, the majority of the novel is spent on the road with Alan. Which would be okay if the details were interesting, but they're just not. Reading about every town he crosses into, every diner he enters, and every meal he inhales gets tedious and boring. I had to drag myself through it, kicking and screaming, until the end, when something exciting finally happened.

Although the book deals with grief, I have to say it is more uplifting than my usual reading fare. It's definitely a feel-good book, so if you like that kind of thing, you'll probably dig this one. But, for me, The Walk was too unrealistic, too saccharine and too preachy. The author, I think, was trying so hard to teach a powerful life lesson that he forgot how effectively that can be done through the subtleties of good storytelling. Which, come to think of it, is my absolute biggest beef with inspirational fiction. So, yeah, while I can appreciate the aim of this genre, I'm still just not a fan.

(Readalikes: The Walk: Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

And My Love/Hate Relationship with OSC Novels Continues ... *Sigh*

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Although Danny North has grown up in an isolated compound in the mountains of western Virginia, surrounded only by members of his family, he's never really felt the love. Unlike his vast collection of aunts, uncles and cousins, Danny's not special. While the rest of them practice their magical, godlike powers, he can't. Because he has none. Considering who his parents are, Danny should be the most talented member of the clan. And yet, he's not. He's a lowly, misfit drekka—a person who should have powers, but doesn't.

As Danny grows up, struggling to decide what he is and where he fits in with his strange family, he makes a startling discovery: he can create "gates," which allow him to move about the compound unnoticed, invisible. This revelation leads to an even greater understanding—Danny's not a drekka, he's the most powerful mage to enter the world in a thousand years. As a gatemage, he should be able to move between lands, between times. Danny has no idea how to actually do that, but he knows that rival clans—heck, even his own clan—wouldn't hesitate to kill him just for one shot at using his power as their own.

On the run from his family, Danny must find the answers to all the secrets that have been withheld from him, secrets about his people, his powers and, most of all, himself. Finding his way in the modern world, of which he's never really been a part, is hard enough for Danny, but with the angry, warring clans chasing him, it will become downright life-threatening. If Danny can't figure things out fast, he may lose his talent—not to mention his life—before he has a chance to understand just how powerful he really is.

Orson Scott Card books are always hit and miss for me. Some I love (Pathfinder, the Women of Genesis series), some I loathe (Ender's Game, Saints). The Lost Gate, the first entry in OSC's new Mithermages series, falls somewhere in between. While I enjoyed the idea of the book, I wasn't so impressed with its execution. I liked the beginning and end, both of which had enough action to satisfy, but got irritated with the middle, since it just got ... weird. As for the book overall, the writing is bumpy, the characters are so-so and OSC's intense world-building gets in the way of the actual story. So, yeah, I found this one disappointing. Not too surprising, considering my love/hate relationship with Card novels, but still, I always hope.

(Readalikes: Um, I don't know. Suggestions?)

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Friday, March 09, 2012

Plotless, Cheesy, Predictable—I Could Go On, But Why?

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Every girl in Farmington, New Mexico, loves gorgeous Taylor Anderson. Except Chloe Hart. The 17-year-old despises Taylor, who really doesn't need a league of admirers since he's already his own biggest fan. Why he seems determined to win Chloe over is a mystery to her. They're obviously not meant to be together. Not even as friends. Except when she actually gets to know Taylor, she discovers there might be more to him than just his cover model face. Which isn't going to stop her from hating him, of course. No matter how charming he is, Chloe refuses to fall for Taylor—until she realizes that's exactly what's happening.

I'm not going to belabor the point here: I gave Pride & Popularity, the first book in The Jane Austen Diaries series by Jenni James, a D because it deserves it. On the bright side, the novel is quick, clean and teaches some good life lessons. On the not-so-bright side, the writing is terrible, the editing sloppy, the characters flat, the dialogue unnatural, and the plot nonexistent. I could go on, using words like cheesy, predictable and unrealistic, but you get the message. If the book wasn't a Whitney Award finalist, I wouldn't have read past the first page.

I know that's a harsh assessment, but, as Randy Jackson (of American Idol fame) likes to say, "I'm just keeping it real." Of course, I could be totally off-base here, especially since Pride & Popularity gets (mostly) rave reviews on sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc. If you've read it, what's your keeping-it-real opinion? Am I crazy? Have I lost all sense of what makes a good book? What's your take?

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

Grade: D

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought Pride & Popularity at Deseret Book with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Warm, Upbeat, Fun—My Unfair Godmother Another Charmer From Rallison

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"Wishes are powerful things. You can't expect them to change the world without changing you, too" (171).

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for My Unfair Godmother, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from My Fair Godmother. Although the books both work well as standalones, as always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Considering what a mess her life has been lately, 17-year-old Tansy Miller isn't all that surprised to discover that even her fairy godmother is defective. Chrysanthemum "Chrissy" Everstar is nothing like the kindly old soul who granted Cinderella her heart's desire—she's more like a ditzy prom queen who doesn't know her tiara from her glass slippers. Which isn't too far off the mark. Chrissy is, in fact, not the brightest of students at fairy godmother school. Unless Chrissy can pull off some quick extra credit projects, her grades won't be good enough to get her into university. Which is where Tansy comes in. If Chrissy can change her from pathetic to princess, it will do wonders for both of them.


Tansy's not sure what to think of Chrissy, but she's not about to say no to the three wishes she's offering. It's only when the wishes start going horribly wrong that Tansy remembers she's dealing with a godmother who's only fair. Now, Tansy's stuck in the Middle Ages trying to outfox the trickster Rumpelstiltskin on her own. Okay, she's not exactly alone, but that's an even bigger problem—not only is she responsible for getting herself home, she has to worry about returning her family and a cute guy from her high school, none of whom are too happy with their one-way ticket to fairy tale land. With Chrissy off flitting around somewhere, Tansy can't count on magic. All she has is her own wit and determination. If that's not enough, she'll be stuck in a drafty old castle spinning straw into gold—for the rest of her life.

Popular MG/YA author Janette Rallison infuses My Unfair Godmother with the same warmth and humor that made the first book in the series (My Fair Godmother) such an enjoyable read. Tansy's a funny, sympathetic heroine whose adventures are original and entertaining. While she learns some important lessons from her adventures, the book never feels preachy. It's just pure, vintage Rallison—warm, upbeat and lots of fun. I loved it.

(Readalikes: My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison and Princess for Hire by Lindsey Leavitt)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought My Fair Godmother at last year's LDS Storymakers conference with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Strong, Sympathetic Heroine Makes Shifting Stand Out

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Maggie Mae Mortenson's been in and out of so many foster homes, she knows better than to get her hopes up too high—no matter how ideal her new situation may seem. After all, it's only a matter of time. Before too long, the 17-year-old will no doubt get picked up by the police for indecent exposure or prostitution or something and then she'll be kicked to the curb. Just like last time. And the time before that. And the time before that. Maggie Mae just hopes she can make it to graduation before the inevitable happens.

Because it will happen. As soon as the full moon glows bright in the sky, she'll shift into an animal, leaving behind her clothes, her humanity, her last shot at normality. She can't stop it. Her only hope is to stay invisible, hiding her secret as best she can.

Although Maggie Mae vows to keep her head down in her new town—that's the best way, after all, to keep her secret safe—it only takes a few minutes for her to become the most talked about student at Silver High School. Using her unnatural speed, Maggie Mae breaks a school track record, earning the attention of the wealthiest, most popular guy at school and the anger of his former girlfriend. While the vindictive Danni Williams gets busy making Maggie Mae's life a living hell, Maggie Mae's just trying to survive. She's got a good thing going with Mrs. Campbell, her stern but kindly foster mom; she's enjoying her part-time job as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant; and she can't deny her growing attraction to gorgeous Bridger O'Connell. Even with Danni's constant bullying, Maggie Mae's getting attached to Silver City, New Mexico, something she knows she can't do. It's too risky.

When a stranger shows up in town hunting for Maggie Mae, she knows she's let things go too far. Everyone who knows her is in danger. The Skinwalkers who stalk Maggie Mae won't stop until they kill her, stealing her mysterious power. Can she keep the monsters away from the town she's come to love? Or will her animal instinct be the thing that destroys everything—and everyone—she's come to care about?

I know, I know, the story I'm describing sounds just like every other YA paranormal on the market. But, guess what? It's not plot that makes Shifting stand out, it's characterization, specifically that of Maggie Mae Mortenson. Debut author Bethany Wiggins crafts her heroine carefully, taking the time to make sure readers know Maggie Mae, feel for Maggie Mae, and care about what happens to Maggie Mae, before throwing her into the perilous conflict that lies at the heart of the story. As a result, she's one of the most sympathetic (but strong) characters I've ever encountered in teen fiction. I felt her pain so thoroughly that I didn't really care if her story lacked originality or got predictable or had some plot holes. Maggie Mae made it engaging and enjoyable. I'm not sure what's coming next from Bethany Wiggins (a sequel, perhaps?), but I'll tell you this—I can't wait to find out.

(Readalikes: Reminds me of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Firelight by Sophie Jordan, the Need series by Carrie Jones [Need, Captivate, Entice] and a little of the Wolves of Mercy Falls series [Shiver, Linger, Forever] by Maggie Stiefvater)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought Shifting from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Jury's Still Out on C.J. Hill ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Tori Hampton has it all—beauty, wealth, athleticism, popularity and the prestige of being a senator's daughter. Her only quirk? The 16-year-old has a weird, inexplicable obsession with dragons. Ever since she was a kid, she's had the urge not only to understand them, but also to destroy them.

Tori's fixation leads her to a rundown dragon-themed summer camp in the D.C. area. At first glance, it looks like a normal camp—dingier than the Cancun resort she vacationed at last year, of course, but normal nonetheless. Then, things start getting strange. Tori's led to a secluded, secret part of camp, where a group of not-very-friendly teens sneers at her million dollar wardrobe, salon-styled hair and obvious lack of camping know-how. Her suspicion mounts as they put her through a rigorous course, testing her skills with rifles, horses and physical fitness. It's only after she proves herself capable that she's told the truth: Tori, along with the other kids in the special camp, are dragon slayers. An evil dragon lord is raising the beasts with the intention of using them to take over the U.S. It's up to Tori and her cohorts to save the country.

It's all so unbelievable that Tori's not sure she even wants to stay at camp, let alone be a Slayer. She wants to understand her powers, yes, but to go up against a real, live dragon? That's crazy. And it's not like the other Slayers care a fig about her, so why shouldn't she march right on back to her McMansion and forget all about ancient monsters attacking the U.S.? While Tori's deciding what to do, she's also struggling to prove herself to the other Slayers, resist the attentions of not just one, but two boys, and to understand the unbreakable connection she feels to the dragons. Does she have the courage to be a Slayer? Does she have a choice? When the inevitable happens, she'll have to decide who she really is and what she really wants—before it's too late for her country and everyone in it.

Since I love Janette Rallison, a very nice local woman who writes funny, upbeat novels like My Fair Godmother, I thought for sure I'd adore Slayers, the first novel she published under the pen name C.J. Hill. Yeah, not so much. The idea of a group of dragon-slaying teens intrigued me, but the story just couldn't keep my attention. It's too long, for one thing, and the characters never develop enough to feel like anything more than names on a page. I didn't feel a real connection to any of them, nor did I feel any connection between them, which made the Tori-Jesse-Dirk love triangle especially irritating. While Slayers did have a few exciting parts, mostly it just bugged. My conclusion? I'm still a big Rallison fan, but the jury is still out on C.J. Hill ...

(Readalikes: Reminded me of The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and a little of Firelight by Sophie Jordan)

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought Slayers from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

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