Sunday, September 30, 2012

Girl Power Self-Help Book Empowering, But Not Earth-Shattering

(Image from Tribute Books)

How do successful women turn their personal challenges and tragedies into victories?  That's the question that plagued life coach Annmarie Kelly in February of 2011 as she waited for a call from her doctor, telling her whether or not she had cervical cancer.  Although her problem turned out to be much less severe than cancer, Kelly never forgot the deep pondering she'd done during that topsy-turvy period between receiving alarming test results and waiting to get a possibly life-threatening diagnosis.  These thoughts led Kelly to write Victorious Woman!, a book about women who have overcome serious obstacles in life.  As she talked with each of these ladies, she paid special attention to what tools they used to turn their hardships into victories. 

Nine women are featured in the book.  Each has a unique story.  Some have dealt with serious illness, spousal abuse, homelessness, heart-wrenching problems with their children, legal battles, career struggles, depression, addiction and much, much more.  How did they deal with it?  With tears, initially.  Then, they got to work.  They left abusive situations, sought higher education, demanded better jobs, got treatment for health problems/addictions, and, in myriad other ways, fought for what was important to them.  Along the way, they each found an inner strength they never knew they possessed.

Kelly uses each vignette to illustrate tools all women can use to turn their own hurts into helpful lessons that push them toward achieving the goals they've set for themselves.  Things like courage, proactivity, goal-setting, and planning are demonstrated by each of the women featured in the book.  After each story, Kelly includes a "Stepping Stones to Victory" section, which offers thoughtful questions for the reader.  She encourages readers to write the answers to the questions in a journal, allowing them to think about what each woman's story has taught them.  Kelly's hope is that this kind of deep self-reflection will help women make positive changes in their own lives, leading them to their own victories.

Victorious Woman! isn't really my kind of book.  I knew that when I agreed to be part of its blog tour.  Still, I thought I'd give it a try, thinking, hey, maybe I'll learn something.  I mean, we can all use a little encouragement and inspiration in our lives, right?  And this one definitely provides that.  Although the book gets long, it's better written than I thought it would be.  Very readable.  Still, I got bored with it, especially since all of the stories seemed to be demonstrating the same principles.  Overall, I didn't relate to most of the stories, so while they were inspiring, I didn't find them all that relevant, if that makes sense.  My conclusion?  If you like girl power-type self-help books, you'll probably like this one.  If you don't, you won't.  If you're kind of so-so about them, then you'll probably feel as I did about this one—it's just okay.  Empowering, but nothing really Earth-shattering or special.   

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

Grade:  C+

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for mild language and (brief, non-graphic) discussions of adult subjects like domestic abuse, sex, etc. 

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Victorious Woman! from the generous folks at Tribute Books in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!   


Friday, September 28, 2012

YA Issue Novel Another Didn't Love It, Didn't Hate It Kind of Book

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If 16-year-old Loann Rochester could have any wish, it would be this—to trade lives with her older sister.  Why?  Because Claire is everything Loann's not.  She's tall, thin, beautiful, smart and popular.  To walk in her shoes, even for a day, would be to know total perfection, absolute happiness.  If only.  Since wishes never come true outside of fairy tales, Loann's stuck with her own life as a short, plump, red-haired nobody. She might as well be invisible.  With Claire around, no one will ever notice Loann.

Except someone is noticing.  Unless Loann's completely delusional (which is entirely possible), gorgeous Josh Garrison is noticing. Which would be incredible, if he wasn't Claire's boyfriend.  And that's another thing—what's up with Claire?  She's acting distant and secretive, even from Josh and her other friends.  Loann's already got her own friend drama as well as some boy drama and even some drama drama to deal with, she's not sure she can handle sister drama, too.  But as Loann makes a disturbing discovery about where Claire's all-consuming quest for perfection has led her, she realizes that Claire's in serious trouble.  Life or death trouble.  And Claire seems hell-bent on choosing the latter.  As Loann tries to save her sister, she'll have to come to terms with her own limitations and rely on an inner strength she never knew she had.

Never Enough, a sophomore novel by contemporary YA author Denise Jaden, is pretty much what you'd expect from a teen issue novel.  It tells a story that's affecting and believable, even if it's one you've heard a million times before.  While I didn't find either Loann or Claire to be particularly memorable as characters, I definitely felt the strength of their bond as sisters.  Since that relationship formed the heart of the book, everything else in the novel felt authentic to me.  Still, Never Enough didn't have enough originality to really wow me.  Overall, I thought it was just okay, one of those didn't-love-it-didn't-hate-it kind of reads.         

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Saving Ruth by Zoe Fishman and Purge by Sarah Darer Littman)

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Never Enough from the generous Denise Jaden.  Thank you!   

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Shusterman Earns My Fan Girl Adoration Again. And Again.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers from Unwholly, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor Unwind.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

So, I have this thing for Neal Shusterman.  Kind of an embarrassing fan girl thing.  I love him.  I mean, really love him.  But, see, the man earns my admiration with every single book he writes.  Everything he pens speaks to me on multiple levels.  He's that good.  If you haven't read him—and gone gaga over his abundant talent—then something is wrong with you.  Seriously wrong.    

The proceeding public service announcement was brought to you by your friendly neighborhood book blogger.  

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let's talk about Unwholly, the newest entry in Shusterman's Unwind trilogy.  The long-anticipated second novel in the series continues the stories of Connor, Lev, Risa and the other AWOLs, but not directly.  It begins with a different set of kids—several of whom are scheduled to be unwound in the near future (unwinding = "The process by which an individual is dismantled.  By law, 99.44 percent of a person must be used and kept alive in transplant."  Parents can choose to unwind their children after the age of 13) and one who is a strange kind of miracle, something no one (not even the reader) has ever seen before.  As their lives intersect with each other and with Connor's crew, headquartered at an aircraft graveyard in Arizona, all of their tales contribute to the (fictional) debate over unwinding.  Is it moral?  Is it criminal?  Should the government be allowed to kill hundreds of (mostly) unwanted children in order to save those considered more worthy?  

Connor Lassiter, of course, believes that unwinding is the cruelest, vilest idea anyone has ever dreamed up.  And he will risk everything—even his own life—to stop the procedure from happening.  Maybe it's a losing battle, too much trouble for the overworked Connor, but he has to do what he can.  If only he could push away the everyday problems of his charges, deal with the new kid determined to stage a coup, and figure out how to make Risa happy—then, maybe he could concentrate on fighting the evil that is unwinding.  With trouble, in many forms, on the horizon, the Akron AWOL needs to get his head in the game.  And fast.

The plot may sound a little unfocused, but it's not.  Not at all.  Unwholly is just as complex, just as absorbing, just as impactful as Unwind.  Maybe even more so.  This truly is a brilliant series, one I can't recommend highly enough.  Shusterman fans everywhere will agree with me—you don't want to miss these books.  They're incredible and I don't say that very often, so just trust me on this one.  Have I ever steered you wrong?  I didn't think so.      

(Readalikes:  Unwind by Neal Shusterman)

Grade:  A

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

New YA Techno Thriller Gets A "Meh" From Me


Waking up in a strange place with no recollection of how you got there is never a good thing.  Especially when you find yourself restrained on a hospital bed in a place that's obviously not a hospital.  When Noa Torson, a 16-year-old runaway, surfaces in just such a situation, she's shocked, confused and very angry.  She remembers nothing about being captured, but she's a hostage, which means someone has been taking advantage of her.  For what purpose, she doesn't know.  All she does know is that she has to get away from them.  Now.

After she escapes from the "hospital," Noa prays the organ snatchers—or whatever they are—will leave her alone.  No such luck.  Goons trail her wherever she goes.  As Noa sneaks around Boston, trying to evade her trackers, she searches her dark memory for clues as to what happened to her.  Whatever the "doctors" did, it must have been something big.  The men aren't giving up the search for her.  Plus, Noa feels ... different inside.  

Strange things are also happening to Peter Gregory, a 17-year-old computer "hacktivist."  To find the answers to his questions, he teams up with the best hacker in Boston—Noa.  Together, they set about solving the weird mystery of which they both seem to be a part.  With a powerful enemy only one step behind them, Noa and Peter need to figure out what's going on before they both end up in the "hospital" or worse—dead.

Don't Turn Around, the first YA thriller by adult crime writer Michelle Gagnon, starts off with a bang (not a literal one, but still ...).  The cat-and-mouse adventure keeps up a frantic pace until about the middle of the novel, when it starts to drag.  Part of the problem is the plot itself—it's not just unrealistic, it's unoriginal, a combo that also makes it predictable and boring.  Add to that a hero and heroine who aren't particularly likable or even rounded-out enough to feel real.  Given all that, I found this book disappointing.  I may be the only one, since it gets good reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.  For me, though?  Meh.     

(Readalikes:  Kirkus called Don't Turn Around "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for preteens and teens."  As I haven't read Stieg Larsson's book yet, I don't know if this is an apt description or not.  What do you think?)

Grade:  C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG-13 for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), violence and depictions of underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Don't Turn Around from the generous folks at HarperTeen.  Thank you! 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Have YOU Done Any Good in the World Today?

(Image from Deseret Book)

Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from March 1995 until his death in January 2008, once said:  
It is not enough just to be good.  You must be good for something.  You must contribute good to the world.  The world must be a better place for your presence.  And the good that is in you must spread to others.  
In her new book, Standing Up in a Sit-down World, Merrilee Boyack talks about specific ways we can all follow the prophet's counsel to do good in the world.  Boyack, a popular speaker at events like BYU Education Week and Time Out For Women, is also an attorney, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an author, a life coach, and a busy community activist.  She knows exactly what it's like to feel overwhelmed, but she also knows how good it feels to spend time making a difference in the lives of others.  To that end, she suggests easy ways all of us can contribute to the welfare of our friends, families, communities and the world at large.

While Boyack's message is nothing new—especially to members of the church who learn to serve others from the moment they toddle into Nursery (if not before)—she did say a few things that struck a chord with me.  First, she talks about the difference between offering to help and actually doing it.  I don't know about you, but I'm pretty good at the former, not so great at the latter.  Boyack, though, insists that "[doing good] requires action" (75).  She suggests opening your eyes and ears to the needs of the people around you, listening when the Spirit prompts you to help, then having the courage to follow through.  A lesson I definitely need to learn.  Second, she assures us that, since all of us are unique and have different talents, we can serve in the ways that are most comfortable and satisfying to us.  Third, she reminds us to be bold.  Stand up for your values, for your rights, for your beliefs.  Even the smallest of voices can make a difference.

It's obvious from all the examples she shares in the book that Boyack not only believes what she's preaching, but also practices it every day.  Her enthusiasm is definitely catching.  While Standing Up in a Sit-down World might not offer anything really profound or original, it does serve as a great reminder of the power of serving others.  At only 106 pages (including an appendix, list of references and an index), it's a quick, motivating read that will inspire all who read it to not just be good, but to "be good for something."

While we're on the topic, I wanted to share this gorgeous rendition of "Have I Done Any Good?" by Alex Boyé and Carmen Rasmusen Herbert.  It's ... stunning.



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

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Standing Up in a Sit-down World from the generous folks at Deseret Book.  Thank you!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Margolick Tells the Story Behind the Story of a Powerful Photograph

(Image from NPR Books)

On the morning of September 4, 1957, reporter Will Counts snapped a photograph that would haunt not just the nation, but also the two girls pictured most prominently in the image.  Both of them were 15 years old, both were looking forward to becoming juniors at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and neither knew just how much their faces would come to symbolize the explosive issue of school integration.  The two girls, who did not know each other when Counts took their picture, would become forever linked because of one powerful photograph.  

Because her family did not own a telephone, Elizabeth Eckford did not receive the message to meet the rest of the Little Rock Nine before school on September 4.  They planned to enter Central High School together.  Elizabeth ended up walking alone.  The solitary figure in white became an easy target for the crowd of protesters that gathered outside the school.  In the midst of the mob stood Hazel Bryan.  Like the people around her, she jeered and taunted Elizabeth, making it clear how she felt about a black girl daring to enter the hallowed halls of her high school.  At that moment, Counts' camera clicked, capturing Hazel, her lips pulled back and teeth bared, looking like a lion stalking its prey.  The photo seemed to say everything that needed to be said about the situation in Little Rock.  Published in the Arkansas Democrat later that afternoon, the picture struck an immediate chord with all who saw it.  In today's terms, it went viral.  All over the country, outraged Americans demanded swift and aggressive action to be taken in Arkansas.  

As far as most people know, that's it.  Integration happened, end of story.  Except it's not.  Central High did not integrate right away and, when it finally did, its black students suffered all kinds of indignities.  Elizabeth was never the same after her experience there.  And even though, as an adult, Hazel sought and received forgiveness from Elizabeth, she never quite got over the shame of having her worst moment captured on film for millions to see.   

The story behind the story of Counts' iconic photograph so fascinated David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, that he wanted to write an article about it.  The article turned into a book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.  Although it may not sound like a page turner, I found myself reading it until way past my bedtime, promising myself over and over that I'd just read one more chapter.  That's the beauty of a well-told story—it draws you in, not letting you go until you've reached the end.  And, often, not even then.  This is how I felt about Elizabeth and Hazel.  I found it totally engrossing.  Also interesting, eye-opening, sad, and thought-provoking.  I'm glad I read it and I know I'll never look at the Eckford/Bryan photo in the same way again.   

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine and the Dear America Book, With the Might of Angels by Andrea Davis Pinkney)

Grade:  B

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R for strong language (a few F-bombs, plus milder invectives, including racial epithets) and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, September 14, 2012

Gentle YA Dystopian A Little Too Tame

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Dystopian stories are—almost by definition—bleak, bloody and brutal.  Which is why Safekeeping (available September 18, 2012), a new YA novel by Karen Hesse, is such an oddity.  It is, without a doubt, the gentlest dystopian I've ever read.  Not that it's all bright and cheery.  It's not.  But it's not as tension-filled as other books of its type either.  Which is a good thing.  Except when it isn't.  

When the story opens, 17-year-old Radley Parker-Hughes is on a plane, coming home after volunteering at an orphanage in Haiti.  She knows the U.S. has changed in the time she's been gone, she just doesn't realize how much.  At the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, she's greeted by armed soldiers, a crippled Internet/phone system, and a list of strict new laws, one of which prohibits her from crossing state lines without prior government approval.  Radley assumes her parents will arrive, clear up any problems and whisk her back to Vermont, rescuing her as they always have.  When Radley's parents fail to show, she realizes the scary truth—she's on her own in a world that's become not just unrecognizable, but increasingly dangerous.  

With no way to contact her family, no way to get home, Radley does the only thing she can: she starts walking.  As she treks across the changed land, she battles hunger, exhaustion, and the desperate actions of other travelers.  Even after spending weeks in the hardscrabble streets of Haiti, Radley finds herself woefully unprepared to deal with this grim, new reality.  Without her parents around to save the day, what will become of Radley Parker-Hughes?  If she has only her own wits to rely on, how will she ever survive?  

If you've read The Road (I haven't) or seen the movie (I have), then you know what kind of story I was expecting from Safekeeping, which has a similar premise.  What I got was something much different.  Sure, the books have common elements, but, like I said before, Safekeeping tells a gentle, almost sedate story.  In fact, it's too calm.  Only the fact that it's a short, spare novel kept it from being a total snooze fest.  For me, it just didn't offer enough conflict or depth to be as compelling as it could have been.  And then there are the photos.  The text is interspersed with black and white photos the author snapped herself, which is cool, although I don't think the pictures really enhanced my reading experience.  They were just too ordinary, you know?  Maybe that was the whole point and I missed their deeper meaning, but meh, the photos really didn't do much for me.  Overall, I found Safekeeping a fast read, just not a very exciting one.  I know I whine a lot about YA dystopians being too similar, but this one was a little too different for me.  What can I say?  I'm complicated.        

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy and a little of Ashfall and Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin)

Grade:  C+

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Safekeeping from the generous folks at Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan).  Thank you!  Check out all the new YA books coming out from Macmillan at Fierce Reads.          

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

BBAW: "Meeting" the Mystery Woman Behind Pretty Books


One of my favorite parts of the wonderful annual event that is Book Blogger Appreciation Week has always been the blogger interview swap.  It's just fun to get to know the people behind the blogs I read, you know?  I've never participated in the swap before, but I thought it would be fun to join in this year.  Plus, I love that the focus of BBAW is no longer on awards—now, it really is just about celebrating the amazing book blogging community and I wanted to show my support for BBAW's re-focused mission.

I'm so glad I participated because I got to "meet" Stacey, an awesome reviewer who blogs from her home in London, England.  Not only does she post reviews on her blog, Pretty Books, but she also showcases photos of books and other fun things in her life on tumblr.  Through exploring her blog, I discovered that we share many of the same favorite books/authors.  Now that her blog is bookmarked on my Reader, I can check it often.  Yay!

Stacey asked me lots of thoughtful questions.  Mine for her weren't nearly as interesting, but she indulged me anyway:

Me:  You don't share a lot of personal information on your blog.  Can you tell us all a little about the mystery woman behind Pretty Books?
Stacey:  For someone who runs a blog, I'm actually quite a private person online! I think it's because I've been using the internet for about 11-12 years — since I was 11 — and I'm wary about what personal information I put online. But I'm a 23-year old-living in London (although I was born in what Londoners would call the countryside!) and I have lived here most of my life. I'm currently working in book publishing as a sales and marketing assistant, yet I'm one of the unusual bunch who didn't study English at university, but Sociology. I am deathly afraid of ladybirds (or should I say, ladybugs) but a huge fan of Taylor Swift.  

Me:  Besides the book reviews you do at Pretty Books, you also have a tumbler site where you post pictures of books.  How did you get into photography?  Besides books, what other subjects do you enjoy taking pictures of?
Stacey:  When I first joined Tumblr, I really didn't know what it was for, but then I came across wonderful food blogs with photos of amazing desserts, all things chocolate, and then eventually I started following book blogs. It just looked like so much fun and so very 'me'. So one night, I created prettybooks and posted a few photos of my favourite 'pretty' books and bookshelves. I never thought that that over 2 ½ years later I'd still be running it. I actually do not take the majority of photographs on my blog - they're submitted by followers, reblogged, or are wonderful bookish things I find on the internet. I take photos with my iPhone — I don't own a camera — but they're either photos for the blog or random photos I send to my friends, like of what I'm eating (yes, I'm one of those people!).

Me:  We have a lot of favorite books (The Chaos Walking series, UNWIND, THE BOOK THIEF, HP, etc.) and authors (J.K. Rowling, Jodi Picoult, Neal Shusterman, Patrick Ness, etc.) in common.  Since you obviously have *impeccable* taste, I'd love to know which new authors you've discovered in recent years.  Who would you recommend to a fellow Rowling/Picoult/Shusterman/Ness fan?
Stacey:  For fellow dystopia fans, I'd suggest Pure by Julianna Baggott, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, and Divergent by Veronica Roth. For fans of The Book Thief I HAVE to suggest Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys - it's one of the most memorable books I've ever read. The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock is also a recent favourite and is set during the German occupation of Guernsey. I think A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is also still a lot less known than Chaos Walking and it shouldn't be because it's such a beautiful book. Sister by Rosamund Lupton is one of those 'crime for people who don't like crime'-type books and I think Picoult fans will really enjoy it! Also her second novel, Afterwards. 

Me:  With the Olympics being in London this year, a lot of Americans (and probably others throughout the world) have re-discovered their love for all things English.  What are the Top 3 things (gold, silver and bronze) that make you proud to be a Brit?  
Stacey:  I'm lucky enough to live close to the Olympic stadium (and I got to watch the hockey!) and I absolutely love that the opening ceremony was so British, and so perfect, and I'm glad everyone around the world has enjoyed London 2012 too!

Gold: I hope this isn't too political but I'm constantly appreciate of the National Health Service (NHS). Good health isn't a privilege, it's a right!

Silver: I love how we love to complain about everything in Britain (the weather in particular!), but when anyone else steps in we become incredibly protective and patriotic. 

Bronze: I love how in every situation, queuing is held as the one social norms and must never be broken (or we'll start tutting). It's a quirky habit we can't seem to shake. 

I also didn't mention this because it's rather typical, but I love how we truly celebrate books, reading, and literacy, so much that it was featured in the two opening ceremonies. We started World Book Night (where 1 million books are given away) and we have Harry Potter, Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl postage stamps! 

Me:  In the introduction to your blog, you admit to being an unabashed book sniffer (I am, too!).  What are your other favorite smells?
Stacey:  Ah, there's so many! Coffee, fresh bread, bacon frying, fresh autumn air. I also love the smell of candles burning on a birthday cake. 

Me:  You mentioned that you'd love to have your own library someday.  What would it look like?  What books would you absolutely HAVE TO HAVE in order for your library to be complete?
Stacey:  I'd really just love a cosy personal library with bookshelves on three walls, and maybe a big comfy chair or cosy nook. I love for it to have a secret door so no one else would know it was there! I'd be happy surrounded by all my favourite books. 

Isn't Stacey great?  I had a good time getting to know her a little bit and I hope you will, too.  You'll love her reviews—they're thoughtful and smart—as well as her beautiful book stack photos.  Pretty Books is an excellent blog, one I'll definitely be keeping my eye on :)

If you want to see her interview with me, click here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Come August Affecting, But Not Amazing

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Gabriel has never been the most ordinary slave laboring at Virginia's Brookfield Plantation.  As the "milk brother" of the master's son, he has spent much time in the Great House, playing with Thomas Henry Prosser, being doted on by Mrs. Prosser, even learning to read and write.  As he grows, Gabriel realizes that his "busy mind" will never be content on a plantation, that he, himself, will never be free unless he can be his own man.  After working in Richmond as an apprentice blacksmith, he becomes even more certain—he needs his freedom.  But he can't leave without his family, so he plans to buy escape for all of them, starting with Nanny, the washerwoman who will soon become his wife.  

When Gabriel's plans go awry, he decides to take a more aggressive stand.  He's heard about Touissant-Louverture, a former slave whose successful fight for freedom abolished slavery in Haiti.  He's also heard rumbles from white dissenters in Richmond.  If all who oppose slavery fought it boldly, wouldn't the leaders of Virginia and the U.S. hear their pleas?  As Gabriel battles for the rights he knows he deserves as a human being, he'll learn just how much freedom costs—in blood, sweat and tears.

Come August, Come Freedom (available September 11, 2012), a historical YA novel by Gigi Amateau, brings the cruelty and injustice of slavery to life with spare prose and poignant scenes.  Gabriel is a sympathetic character, not just because he's owned by another man, but because he's brave, loyal and true.  Although his story is difficult to read, it reminds us of the price real slaves paid for the right to be their own masters.  That being said, I didn't love Come August, Come Freedom.  The prose is a little too skimpy and distancing for my taste.  While I cared about Gabriel, I didn't know him enough to really become invested in his story.  Because of this, Gabriel's tale just didn't pack the kind of punch other books of this type have had.  It is a quick read, though, and one that has stuck in my mind nonetheless.  Overall, though, there are many other books about slavery that spoke to me stronger than this one did.  


Grade:  C+

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Come August, Come Freedom from the generous folks at Candlewick Press.  Thank you!

Quick, Quirky MG Novel Asks What's Really Important

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In Dennis Acres, Missouri (Population: 53), deep, dark family secrets aren't buried, they're discussed—at the gas station, the post office, the Mexican restaurant (no need to specify which one since there's only one), even on the local radio station.  Benny Summer would prefer to keep his family issues on the down low, but that's just not happening.  Everyone knows his mother took off.  And now that his father's junk shop has closed, meaning their house is crammed to the rafters with useless stuff, it's pretty easy to see the truth about that, too.  There's no use denying it:  Benny's got an absent mom and a dad who cares more about his possessions than his marriage.  Or his son.  It's more than the 12-year-old can handle.

Things take a turn for the worse when Benny's teacher enters Dennis Acres in a contest for America's Most Charming Small Town.  With everyone in town putting the pressure on Benny's dad to clean up, Benny doesn't know what to expect—salvation or disaster?

Homesick (available September 18, 2012), a new middle grade novel by Kate Klise, is a quick, quirky story about a boy and his strangled relationship with his father.  Using the issue of compulsive hoarding as a backdrop, Klise weaves a tale that asks the reader to consider what's really important in life.  Young audiences likely won't care about the book's lesson, they'll simply be drawn to Benny with his authentic voice, his heart-tugging plight, and his cast of oddball friends.  The very contrived ending kind of soured me on the story, but, all in all, I enjoyed Homesick.   

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu and Keepsake by Kristina Riggle)

Grade:  B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for mild language (no F-bombs) and intense situations

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

Saturday, September 08, 2012

And It Could Have Been So Intriguing ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After years of war and chaos, things in the U.S. have finally settled down.  As long as citizens comply with the Moral Statutes—new laws governing everything from what people can read to how they're allowed to dress to which religion they're able to practice—they're safe.  Breaking the rules means paying a hefty fine, being sent to prison, or worse.  If soldiers from the Federal Bureau of Reformation (FBR) take you away, chances are you'll never be heard from again.  

Seventeen-year-old Ember Miller's seen enough people disappear to know how serious the government is about upholding the laws, no matter how ridiculously strict they may be.  So, she does her best to stay under the radar, doing nothing that might draw the FBR's attention to her and her rebellious single mother.  It's not easy.  In fact, it's impossible.  Soldiers soon arrest Ember's mother for violating Article 5 (having children out of wedlock).  Now a piece of government property, Ember's taken to a girl's reformatory run by an anti-feminist group called the Sisters of Salvation.  She knows she can't stay there, knows she has to escape and find her mother—but how?  No one's ever made it out of the reformatory before aging out at 18.  Not alive, anyway.  Maybe she won't survive an escape attempt either, but she has to try.

As Ember battles the brutal soldiers of a fanatical government, she'll have to decide who to trust and what to risk in order to save herself and her mother.

Article 5, the first book in a new YA dystopian trilogy by newcomer Kristen Simmons, offers a premise with some unique possibilities.  Unfortunately, the book leaves most of those unexplored, focusing instead on Ember's incarceration and subsequent flight across several states.  So many YA dystopians have this exact plot that it makes Article 5 feel dull and unoriginal.  Intriguing characters can often save the day in such novels, but not in this one—Ember's whiny, selfish and irritatingly naive.  The rest of the cast are flat and/or stereotypical.  All in all, Article 5 disappointed me.  I was hoping for something unique and, although the story could have gone in some interesting directions, it just didn't.  Maybe subsequent books will, but I don't think I'll be sticking with this series long enough to find out.      

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Eve by Anna Carey, as well as Ashfall and Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin)

Grade:  C

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Article 5 from the generous folks at Tor Teen (a division of Tor/Forge).  Thank you!       

Gentle War Horse Proves That Love Conquers All—Even the Most Painful Wounds of War

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Joey, a gentle red bay colt, is purchased by Mr. Narracott, he gets his first taste of the cruelty some men—particularly drunk men—like to unleash on weaker beings.  The young horse misses his mother, fears his new owner and wonders what is to become of him in the hands of the angry Mr. Narracott.  Then, Joey meets Albert, his owner's 13-year-old son.  Albert is as kind as his father is mean, as soft-spoken as his father is harsh, as determined to love Joey as his father is to break him.  Although Joey still shies away when Mr. Narracott comes for him, he knows that as long as he has Albert, everything will be okay.

Then, World War I bears down on England.  Albert is too young to enlist, but Joey is just what the Army's looking for—he's a strong and healthy recruit.  Mr. Narracott needs the money the Army's offering him, so he sells Albert's horse to them.  After working on the farm, Joey knows all about sore muscles, but the exhaustion he feels on the battlefield is something else altogether.  Along with the other war horses, he has learned to charge the enemy, transport wounded soldiers and carry heavy artillery.  With gunshots roaring in his ears, he must do his duties bravely, even as his friends—both equestrian and human—fall all around him.  Joey is determined to survive the war for one reason: Albert.  He must see his friend again, no matter how impossible that reunion might seem. 

I'm not much for books with animal narrators, but War Horse by Michael Morpurgo has received so much praise that I knew I had to read it.  While I'm not sure the book quite deserves all the attention it's been given, I did enjoy the story.  It's a quick, heartwarming read about an animal's love for his owner, a boy who's also been his kind and loving friend.  With a true and heartbreaking look at how war destroys—and sometimes solidifies—such bonds, War Horse is an uplifting tale that proves love conquers all, even the most painful wounds of war. 

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

Grade:  B

If this were a movie (and it is!), it would be rated:  PG for mild language, violence (including animal cruelty) and scenes of peril    

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

Friday, September 07, 2012

On This One, Believe the Hype

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ahhh, hype.  Usually, I ignore it altogether since, in my experience, most fussed-over books don't deserve all the attention that's being heaped on them.  Sometimes, though, I do give in.  And, sometimes, I'm even glad I did.  Take Gone Girl, a new psychological thriller by Gillian Flynn, for instance.  It sat on my Kindle for quite a long time before enough of my friends raved about it for me to say, "Alright, alright, I'll give the book a try."  A (very) short while later, I read the last screen, finally let out the breath I'd been holding since the first page (that's how it seemed, anyway) and said to myself, "Whoa, that was the freakiest, twistiest, turniest mind-screw I've ever experienced."  Seriously.  Well, okay, maybe I didn't actually say that out loud, but I definitely thought it. 

If you haven't read Gone Girl yet, don't despair, because I'm not going to give anything away.  I'm not even going to give you much of a plot summary, since I don't want you to go into the novel with any preconceived notions.  Here's the official jacket copy:

Marriage can be a real killer.

One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong. The Chicago Tribune proclaimed that her work “draws you in and keeps you reading with the force of a pure but nasty addiction.” Gone Girl’s toxic mix of sharp-edged wit and deliciously chilling prose creates a nerve-fraying thriller that confounds you at every turn.

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?

With her razor-sharp writing and trademark psychological insight, Gillian Flynn delivers a fast-paced, devilishly dark, and ingeniously plotted thriller that confirms her status as one of the hottest writers around.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a teensy bit of Before You Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson)

Grade:  B+

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Gone Girl from the generous folks at The Crown Publishing Group via Netgalley.  Thank you!


Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The One Where I Talk About ... That

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat:  I'm a huge prude.  I don't think that's a bad thing in this tell-all (and on Facebook, no less!) world.  I don't even think I'm that unique, especially not among Mormon women.  Really, I can't be the only girl out there who doesn't like to talk about ... well ... you know ... that.  So, you can imagine my response when I received an email asking me to review a book titled Real Intimacy: A Couple's Guide to Healthy, Genuine Sexuality.  It was that last word that got me (*blush*).  I thought, no way do I want to read about that, let alone write about that.  Then, I paused.  After all, the book was written by three family therapists specifically for married Mormon couples.  Maybe, I could learn something.  So, I read it (I admit to placing a Post-It note over the subtitle so I wouldn't get any curious kiddos asking me what the book was about) and now I'm going to review it.  The blush is already creeping up my cheeks ...

Like I mentioned, Real Intimacy was written by three family therapists (Kristin B. Hodson, Alisha B. Worthington and Thomas G. Harrison), all of whom are LDS and practice in Utah.  Their aim?  To speak to married couples (the advice they give is directed toward Mormon couples, but is applicable to couples of any religion) candidly about sexuality.  This isn't something that happens a lot in most LDS households, which pretty much ensures that young brides and grooms are completely clueless about sex until their wedding nights (and, often, for a long time afterward).  Thus, the authors seek to not just explain the basics, but also to help couples achieve the kind of healthy, nurturing intimacy that makes marriages strong.  

What I like most about the book is the authors' definition of intimacy.  They believe that true intimacy isn't just about sex, but about closeness in four areas—physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual.  Only when all of these are in balance, they say, can we create true oneness.  The authors spend most of the book talking about how couples can find this balance.  They discuss issues that are unique to LDS couples (and others raised in strict religious settings), as well as those that can be found in marriages of all type (pornography, infidelity, sexual abuse, etc.).  Using case studies, they talk about how real couples have confronted and dealt with such issues.  In dealing with your own issues, the authors recommend being frank and honest with your spouse, trusting them with your innermost fears, doubts and insecurities.  While the book does bring up specific sexual issues, it's mostly about communication with and consideration for the most important person in your life.

Real Intimacy is a quick read (less than 200 pages, not including appendices).  Each chapter also includes a "Nuts and Bolts" section which summarizes in about a page what has been talked about in the preceding section.  This makes the book an especially fast and easy read.  Or, if you want the most valuable information (in my opinion, anyway) just read the "His Approach, Her Approach" chapter.  It provides an excellent chart showing how men and women look at things (including sex) in completely different ways.  

All in all, I think Real Intimacy provides some excellent information for married couples.  It's nothing revolutionary, to be sure, and the writing could definitely use some improvement.  I also would have liked more discussion of issues unique to LDS marriages.  Still, it's a valuable book that would be useful for any couple, whether they've been married for 5 months or 50 years.  

Visit the authors' very informative website by clicking here

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of And They Were Not Ashamed by Laura M. Brotherson)

Grade:  B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R, only because it talks about sex in a very frank and straightforward way.  The book is geared toward married adults, which is the audience for whom it is most suited.

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Real Intimacy from the generous folks at Cedar Fort via the lovely ladies over at SparkPoint Studio, LLC.  Thank you!        

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Fast-Paced, Intriguing and Super Cheap: What's Not to Love About Sulan?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Sulan Hom's got everything.  At least compared to most people in San Francisco.  Once upon a time (so her parents say), the city was a flourishing metropolis, filled with happy, well-fed people.  Now, it's a crumbling refugee camp packed to the brim with the starving and desperate.  Vicious gangs patrol the streets.  The Anti-American League, a bloodthirsty terrorist group, bombs targets regularly, destroying food shipments and educational institutions—anything to bring the bankrupt U.S. to its knees.  In the midst of such chaos, the Homs are lucky to have their own apartment, tiny though it may be, in a building protected by armed guards.  They're lucky to get food on a regular basis, lucky to have a life that's as secure as it can be in times like these.  Sixteen-year-old Sulan even gets to attend a virtual high school, the most prestigious one in existence, a place for up-and-coming geniuses like herself.  

Sulan should feel safe, but she doesn't.  Spending all of her time trapped in an apartment building hasn't taught her any street smarts.  Outside, she would be completely vulnerable, as helpless as a kitten.  Although she's more like her scientist father, what Sulan really wants is to be like her mother, a tough ex-mercenary.  Li Yuan refuses to teach her, insisting that the only thing Sulan needs to be concentrating on is her studies.  As Anti-American League violence grows, Sulan knows she can't wait any longer.  She has to learn to fight.  And she will.  No matter what her parents say.

But training in a virtual landscape is different than battling enemies in the real world.  When her family's move to a corporate compound goes horribly wrong, Sulan's new-found survival skills will be put to the test.  A very real, very serious, very deadly test.  With her life on the line, Sulan will use every weapon (literal and figurative) in her arsenal to fight for the things that matter most—family, friendship and fealty to her dying country.    

Sulan (Episode 1: The League), the first book in a new "dystopunk" (dystopian+cyberpunk) YA series by Camille Picott, took me completely by surprise.  To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this unassuming, self-published novel.  Then I starting reading and, before I knew it, I couldn't stop.  Sulan is an imaginative, fast-paced story that's not just well-written, but well-plotted and well-populated with intriguing characters.  Seriously, I couldn't swipe through screens fast enough to see what was going to happen next.  Is it a flawless novel?  Nope, but guess what?  It's a thoroughly engrossing and entertaining one.  Even better, it's super cheap (just $3.49 on Kindle or Nook), so there's really no reason not to read it.  Trust me, you won't be sorry you did.

(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), violence and very mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-copy of Sulan (Episode 1: The League) from the generous Camille Picott via Premiere Virtual Author Book Tours.  

    

Monday, September 03, 2012

Wonder Deserves Praise for Graceful Prose, Touching Message

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

August Pullman's got a face that makes small children scream in fright.  Even adults can't stop themselves from reacting to it—they gasp, wince, stare or turn away in disgust.  The 10-year-old tries not to take offense.  After all, he knows what he looks like.  He does.  But he also knows that on the inside he's just an ordinary kid.  If others could look past his facial deformities and get to know him, they'd see there's more to August than just his Elephant Man exterior.

Because of all his health problems, August has never attended public school.  Until now.  He's nervous about starting 5th grade, even though the principal at Beecher Prep assures him all will be well.  Can August convince his new classmates to give him a chance?  Or will they, like everyone else, fail to see anything but his Halloween mask of a face?  

Wonder, a debut middle grade novel by R.J. Palacio, has been lauded all over the book blogosphere for its graceful prose and touching message.  It deserves the praise.  It absolutely does.  Wonder is an important book, one that teaches kindness and empathy without feeling too heavy-handed.  Heartwarming and hopeful, it's the kind of book that needs to be read by every child.  The story didn't blow me away like it did other reviewers, but it definitely spoke to me.  As it will, no doubt, to you.    

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers; Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult; Butter by Erin Jade Lange; and The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux)

Grade:  B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for depictions of underage smoking and subject matter that is more suitable for older middle graders

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find 

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Term "Dying to Fit In" Takes On A Whole New Meaning in New YA Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

At 423 lbs., "Butter" can barely move without fighting for breath.  Waddling down the hallways of his ritzy Scottsdale, Arizona, high school is just plain torture—not because his classmates tease him, but because they don't.  Even the bullies feel sorry for him now.  He's too pathetic to warrant a glance from them, let alone from a thin, beautiful girl like Anna McGinn.  Sure, Butter can pour his heart out to her online (as long as Anna continues to believe he's the cool, confident "SaxMan," anyway), but in real life?  Not a chance.  She'd probably throw up if she knew that Butter, the blob who sits behind her in English class, has the hots for her.

Butter has tried to slim down, he really has.  He's gone on special diets, attended fat camp every summer, even starved himself to lose the weight.  Nothing works.  After he humiliates himself at school one day, he's officially ready to give up—not just on dieting, but on life.  Butter creates a blog, announcing to the world that he's planning to eat himself to death on December 31st.  And he's going to do it live on the Internet.  He's prepared to tell anyone who asks that it's all just a big joke, even though the thought of dying sounds more tantalizing by the day.  Then, something weird happens:  the in-crowd at Scottsdale High starts swarming around Butter.  They're not there to talk him out of his impending suicide, they're clamoring for all the macabre details of Butter's death plan.  Suddenly, bizarrely, he's the most popular guy on campus.  And, just as suddenly, he's not so sure about the suicide thing.  He knows that wimping out of his big plan will cost him all of his new-found friends, but, then again, how can he kill himself when he's just discovering what it feels like to truly live?  With everyone gleefully counting down the days until his death, Butter must make the biggest decision he's ever faced in his 16 years on planet Earth—live or die.  

With a premise as shocking as that one, you just know Butter (available September 18, 2012), a debut novel by Arizona journalist Erin Jade Lange, is going to be one of those disturbing, no-holds-barred kind of stories.  And it is.  It's also sensitive, thought-provoking and, ultimately, empowering.  Anyone who's ever struggled to accept themselves as they are (and, really, who hasn't?) will sympathize with Butter.  He's funny, talented and self-deprecating—the kind of person everyone would love, if only they could look past the extra pounds to see the kid beneath the fat.  The fact that our hero is contemplating suicide (an act I find unforgivably selfish) does diminish him as a character for me, especially since the decision to kill himself seems to pop up out of nowhere.  Still, I devoured Butter's story, as anxious as anyone to find out what he'd do in the end.  I had a few issues with the novel (of course I did).  Overall, though, I enjoyed this modern take on the old dying-to-fit-in story.  It offers a little something different—and I like that.       

(Readalikes:  a little bit like Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Butter from the generous folks at Bloomsbury Children's Books via Netgalley.  Thank you!
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