Thursday, January 31, 2013

Atmospheric and Haunting, The Cutting Season Gets High Marks From Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Caren Gray never intended to return to the Louisiana plantation where she grew up.  Serving in the "big house" was her mother's ambition—never hers.  But, here she is anyway, walking the land where slaves once toiled.  If she'd been born 150 years earlier, Caren would have been working alongside those dark-skinned workers—her ancestors—cutting cane, polishing the master's silver, and raising a family in the tiny slave cottages that still stand on Belle Vie's vast grounds.  Instead, she makes good money managing the plantation, inviting everyone from schoolchildren to senior citizens to visit and learn from its history.  Maybe it's not the career she imagined for herself, but it works for the 37-year-old single mother.

Then, comes a terrible discovery:  the body of a young migrant worker is found on the grounds of Belle Vie. Murder.  Caren doesn't recognize the dead woman, but the vicious killing rocks her to her core.  She's always felt safe at Belle Vie (the plantation's ghosts notwithstanding), but now she worries—are she and her 9-year-old daughter safe living in such an isolated spot?

As the police struggle to find the murderer, Caren finds herself and many of the people she works with at the center of the investigation.  Caren knows she didn't commit the crime, but who did?  Was it someone who knew the woman well, a fellow laborer, perhaps?  Or a local, upset with the migrant workers for "stealing" jobs that could belong to him?  And then there's Groveland—plenty of people are angry with the corporation's aggressive land-grabbing tactics.  Could a fanatic protester have gone too far?  Or is the killer something less down-to-Earth?  Because, as no one but Caren knows, this isn't the first murder to have happened on the grounds of Belle Vie.  Maybe the slaves are finally getting their revenge ...

Although I didn't care much for Attica Locke's debut novel, Black Water Rising, I loved her sophomore attempt.  The Cutting Season offers just about everything I look for in a literary thriller—a twisty plot, complex characters, a vivid setting, skilled writing, etc.  Atmospheric and haunting, the story kept me mesmerized from beginning to end.  I don't give out A's very often, but this one definitely deserves—and receives—high marks from me.    

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a teensy bit of Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman)

Grade:  A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R for strong language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence and mild sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Cutting Season from the generous folks at Harper Collins.  Thank you!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New Bracken Paranormal More of the Same Ole, Same Ole

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ruby Daly wakes up on her 10th birthday expecting the usual fanfare—hugs, kisses and chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast.  That's not what happens.  Not by a long shot.  What does happen gets Ruby sent away to a government-run camp for "special" kids like her. Six years later, she's still there, still trying to understand the dark, dangerous powers swirling inside her.  The harsh "rehabilitation" camp hasn't changed Ruby, except to make her more cautious, more lonely and more scared.  Kids on the "outside" don't live past age 10; kids in the camp do, but to what end?  To become powerful machines with no families, no friends, no futures?  Ruby doesn't want that kind of "life."     

When Ruby sees a chance to escape the camp, she takes it without looking back.  But "freedom" isn't quite what it's cracked up to be either.  Now, she's on the run, hiding from various enemies, one more cunning than the next.  She doesn't mean to involve anyone else in her problem, but hooking up with a small band of fugitives like herself might be the only thing that can save her.  Or kill her faster.  As her pursuers get ever more desperate, it's starting to look like the latter ...  

The Darkest Minds, a new paranormal YA novel by Alexandra Bracken, has received all kinds of buzz around the book blogosphere.  I'm still trying to figure out why, exactly.  Yes, it's an intense, non-stop action kind of book, but, the story line feels way too familiar.  Like something I've read before—over and over and over.  Same goes for the characters, the romance, the, well, everything.  Add copyediting issues to the mix and you see why The Darkest Minds just didn't earn my eternal book love.  It kept me reading, I will say that.  It just needed some originality, a streamlined plot and a better-developed cast.  In other words, a major re-write.  No biggie.      

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of the Gone series by Michael Grant; Doomed by Tracy Deebs; and a little of the Unwind series by Neal Shusterman)

Grade:  C

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Darkest Minds from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion.  Thank you!

  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Trigiani's Second YA A Little too Ho-Hum For Me

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

After spending a year at a boarding school in the middle of Nowhere, Indiana, 15-year-old Viola Chesterton is thrilled to be back in New York.  Brooklyn just feels right.  It's home—the place where people get her clothes, get her shoes, get her.  Sure, she misses her roommates from Prefect, but here she has her family and her original BFFAAs, Andrew Bozelli and Caitlin Pullapilly.  Viola can't wait to spend the summer with her besties, eating at all the restaurants she's missed, bicycling in Prospect Park, and sunbathing at Rockaway Beach.  It's going to be perfect.

Then, Andrew announces that he'll be spending most of the summer at a sleepaway camp in Maine and Caitlin mentions her new, full-time job at a dental office.  Suddenly, Viola's perfect summer is looking a little ... lonely.  When a cute British teenager moves into the Chesterton's downstairs apartment, she perks up—oooh, the possibilities—but Maurice has someone else in his sights, someone whose parents don't want her even going near a boy.  Before she knows it, Viola's summer has become a whole lot more exciting than she ever dreamed it could be, just not necessarily in a good way.  She's running interference for Caitlin and Maurice, interning for a cranky lighting director, and trying to figure out what exactly is making Andrew act so weird around her.  Viola's cracking under all the pressure.  She can't help asking herself some uncomfortable questions:  Was coming home the right thing to do?  Does she fit in in Brooklyn anymore?  Did she leave her heart—not to mention her true friends—back in Indiana?  Viola's going to have to decide where she really belongs.  If, of course, she survives what is turning out to be a very interesting summer ...

As much as I adore Adriana Trigiani's adult novels, I haven't loved the author's YA series.  I'm not sure why, since its filled with the same kind of warmth as her other books.  It's just that our heroine—Viola—doesn't quite do it for me.  She's funny, for sure, but she's also kind of self-centered and whiny.  Plus, Viola in the Spotlight doesn't offer much in the way of a plot.  So, while the book's entertaining enough, it's not going to stick out in a crowd of contemporary YA novels.  I really want to love this series, but it's more ho-hum than I would have expected from an author like Trigiani.  In the end, I found Viola in the Spotlight, like its predecessor (Viola in Reel Life) to be just okay.  Bummer.  


Grade:  B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for nothing offensive, just content most suited for readers aged 12 and up

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Viola in the Spotlight from the generous folks at HarperTeen.  Thank you!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Stunning, Sweeping, Superior—No Matter Which Words You Choose, Unbroken Is Amazing

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In 1936, Louis Zamperini—a California boy born of two Italian immigrants—was on top of the world.  After breaking records in his home state and beyond, the 26-year-old runner traveled to Berlin to compete in the Olympics.  He didn't medal, but that didn't dim his dream at all—he simply trained harder, his sights set on the 1940 games.  Little did Zamperini know that that competition would never occur.  Or that a few years later, he'd be trapped in a Japanese prison camp, his finely-toned body wasting away from the effects of starvation, dehydration and frequent beatings.  Louis Zamperini's journey from one extreme to the other is a tale so incredible, so inconceivable, so totally unbelievable that it can only be fiction.

Except it's not.

It's easy to see why journalist Laura Hillenbrand chose Louis Zamperini's story to be the subject of her second book.  The tale has all the daring, desperation and drama of the most action-packed thriller.  The fact that Zamperini is a real person just makes it more affecting.  As she did in Seabiscuit—her best-selling debut—Hillenbrand breathes vivid life into her hero, drawing readers into Zamperini's story with subtle, but significant skill. I'd put off reading Unbroken, despite fervent recommendations from family and friends, because it just didn't sound like "my" kind of book.  Here's the thing, though:  It didn't matter one whit.  Unbroken hooked me from the very first page, stunning me with each new detail, mesmerizing me with every word, every scene.  Absorbing doesn't begin to describe this one.  Stunning, epic, sweeping—I don't even know which words to use.  Except for these two:  read it.  

(Readalikes:  Other books about WWII and the prison camp experience, although no specific titles are coming to mind.  Help?)

Grade:  A

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG-13 for language (one F-bomb, plus milder invectives), violence, and disturbing scenes/subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Unbroken from Changing Hands Bookstore with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Two Sisters, Two Choices, Zero Hope of Survival

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Sofia "Fia" Rosen knew she was different, even from the beginning.  Her super reflexes—always perfectly honed—just weren't natural.  In her 17 years on God's green Earth, she's never met another person with the same infallible instincts.  Perhaps, she is the only one.  They certainly believe so.  They see her vast potential as a spy, a weapon, an assassin.  They will not let her go.  They know Fia won't resist them, not when they hold that which is most precious to her hostage.    
Annie Rosen's not as "gifted" as Fia and thus not as useful to her captors.  Still, her abilities as a Seer come in handy—for them and for her.  Mostly, Annie's visions leave her trembling and terrified; in them, Fia's always in danger.  Annie may be blind, but she can see what's happening to her little sister.  And she doesn't like it, not one bit.  But, as much as she's encouraged it, Annie knows Fia will never try to escape Them, not as long as They have Annie.  

Caught between two impossible choices, Fia must decide how far she's willing to go to keep her sister safe.  How much can she risk before she no longer recognizes the girl in the mirror?  Can she sacrifice Annie to save herself from becoming a monstrous killing machine?  Is there no escape for the two girls?  Fia's instincts are flawless, but even she can't see a way out of this one ...

Mind Games, the newest paranormal offering from Kiersten White (available February 19, 2013), takes a darker turn than the author's Paranormalcy trilogy.  In her latest, White uses stark, staccato prose, to create a tense, action-packed story that grabs the reader's attention from paragraph one and just doesn't let go.  It's exciting, for sure, but also confusing as it vacillates between past and present.  In the end, I enjoyed this fast-paced read, without totally loving it.  With a little more background, a little more build-up, I probably would have liked it more.  Still, you better believe I'll be reading the sequel, if only to find out what the fierce, unpredictable Fia does next. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books about teenagers in possession of deadly powers, I just can't think of any specific titles.  Ideas?)

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Mind Games (via Edelweiss) from the generous folks at HarperTeen.  Thank you!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Another Decent (But Not Dazzling) Contemporary YA

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Aggie Winchester's got better things to worry about than who'll be elected Prom Queen.  Goths don't care about that kind of stuff anyway.  And she is a Goth.  Kinda.  She's got the heavy makeup, the black clothes and the don't-mess-with-me glare—it's just that sometimes she feels like a goody-to-shoes playing dress-up.  Still, Prom's the least of her concerns.  Especially when she's dealing with her mother's cancer, her ex-boyfriend's stupid games and news of her best friend's pregnancy.  Who has time to waste on a lame-o school dance?  

Then, the unthinkable—or, at least the totally unbelievable—happens:  Sylvia Ness is nominated for Prom Queen.  Sylvia is Aggie's BFF.  Her fierce, Goth girl BFF.  The one who's going to be a mother in less than a year.  It's a controversy that sets the whole school, the whole community ablaze.  Weirdest of all, Sylvia actually wants to win.  And while she's courting votes, Sylvia's cozying up to the popular crowd, ignoring Aggie, who's supposed to be her best friend.  Aggie needs Sylvia now more than ever, but all she's got is goofy, bass-fishing Fitz Peterson.  

Aggie doesn't know how to solve any of her problems.  Heck, she can't even figure out what should be the easiest question of them all—Who is she, really?  A goody-goody?  A Goth?  Neither?  Both?  She doesn't know anymore.  But, as Aggie tries to figure it all out, she'll learn some important lessons about family, friendship and, believe it or not, fishing.  

It's hard not to relate to a heroine as confused and conflicted as Aggie Winchester.  She may not be the most likable girl out there, but she's definitely sympathetic.  She's also funny, tough and, in spite of herself, tender.  Still, her story drags a little, especially at first.  When it picks up, though, the novel becomes engrossing, thoughtful and real.  While I didn't absolutely love The Implosion of Aggie Winchester by Lara Zielin, I liked it well enough.  The writing's solid, the characters are interesting and the plot kept me entertained.  So, all in all, a decent read.  

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

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Implosion of Aggie Winchester from the generous folks at G.P. Putnam's Sons (a division of Penguin Young Readers Group).  Thank you!

     

Monday, January 21, 2013

Finishing and Following Through: How One Woman Changed Her Life By Doing Just That (You Can, Too!)




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Every January, a new crop of weight loss books pops up.  Some promise do-it-quick diets, others fast, fat-blasting exercises—all assure would-be "losers" that they can be skinny, without spending too much time, money or energy.  Uh huh.  Finished Being Fat, a new inspirational memoir by Betsy Schow, isn't like that.  Yes, it's about a 30-year-old woman who loses 75 pounds in a year.  Yes, it chronicles her journey from couch potato to marathon runner.  But, no, it's not a how-to book.  It's not a diet book.  It's a book about changing your life through hard work, determination and a staunch refusal to give up on a goal—no matter what.
As a chubby child, Schow endured ridicule from her peers, pressure from her parents and loathing from herself.  She tried every diet in the book.  Nothing worked—at least not for long.  By the time she reached 30, Schow was still overweight, still depressed, still convinced that a worthless person like her shouldn't even bother trying because she would never succeed.  She simply was not a finisher.  She was someone who talked big, planned big and failed big.  Following through just wasn't in her DNA, apparently.  

Then, Schow had an epiphany:  what if she did finish something?  Like, say, a marathon?  Determined to prove she could do the impossible, the stay-at-home mom got off the couch and started training.  Replacing negative self-talk with positive affirmations, she kept running through inclement weather, injury, exhaustion, and every other kind of roadblock.  But as the marathon date approached, Schow balked—could she really, truly cross the finish line?  Run 26 miles?  Impossible.  Or was it?

While Schow's regimen seemed a little extreme to me, I still found her story inspirational and motivating.  She writes with warmth, humor, and a down-to-Earth sensibility that will speak to anyone who's ever dreamed of doing the impossible.  Her advice on finishing is spot-on.  While I enjoyed just about everything about Finished Being Fat, the poor copy editing drove me nuts.  Typos always jolt me out of a narrative, spoiling the experience for me.  Overall, though, I found the book both compelling and convincing.   

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

Grade:  B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for nothing offensive, just themes more suitable for teens/adults

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Finished Being Fat from the generous folks at Cedar Fort.  Thank you! 

Friday, January 18, 2013

No "Filler" Books Here—Rossi's Second Act Keeps Up the Intensity

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for Through the Ever Night, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Under the Never Sky.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Deadly Aether storms, a dwindling food supply, rebellion among his people—as the Tides' new Blood Lord, 19-year-old Peregrine's got plenty to worry about.  Not to mention the fact that his nephew's still being held hostage by the Dwellers.  And, speaking of Dwellers, Perry hasn't seen Aria for months.  He's tried to convince himself it's for the better, that she belongs with her own people, but that doesn't stop the ache he feels when she's not around.  He has enough problems.  He needs to forget about her.  If only he could ...

Then, one day, Perry catches the scent of her on the wind.  Aria's back.  He's overjoyed, but the rest of the tribe isn't as certain.  Trust a Dweller to walk among them?  It goes against everything the Tides believe.  It's bad enough that Perry's allowing Aria to live with them, but if they knew how he felt about her—that he wants to make her his bride—they'd turn on him for sure.  He can't let his people know, not until he's solved their other problems first.

Aria's got her own troubles.  If she doesn't find the Still Blue—a mythical, Aether-free land that may not even exist—Consul Hess will kill Perry's nephew.  And Talon's not the only one in danger; something's wrong in Reverie.  If Aria can't figure out how to save her Dweller friends in time, they could perish, too.  As much as she wants to cling to Perry and never let go, she's got her own duties.  

As the two of them work to fight their enemies, they'll find themselves in combat with each other as well.  Can their love survive the strain of it all?  Or, are they better off living apart, sticking with their own kind?  Will their worlds endure?  Will they?  

I'm always a little nervous to read the second book in a series.  Often, they act as fillers between more exciting volumes, stalling the action instead of furthering it.  Well, rest assured, such is not the case with Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi.  There's plenty of conflict here, as well as character development and intriguing new subplots.  It keeps up the intensity of the first book, while adding original elements to keep  the overall story interesting.  There's lots to love in this exciting series that really does just keep on getting better.  


Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Through the Ever Night (via Edelweiss) from the generous folks at Harper Teen.  Thank you!  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

YA Immigration Novel as Exciting and Powerful as, well, a Fire Horse Girl

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Everyone knows that girls born in the Year of the Fire Horse take on that animal's worst traits—stubbornness, willfulness, independence.  All are qualities guaranteed to bring shame upon her family.  With such a portentous zodiac sign, 16-year-old Jade Moon Chang doesn't stand a chance.  Every move she makes in her little Chinese village is watched, judged.  Finding a man willing to marry such an unlucky girl is the worry of her father and grandfather.  Jade Moon fears the same, but for different reasons.  The last thing she wants is to remain in her tiny town, leashed by a husband who controls her every step.

Then, a stranger arrives, changing everything.  Sterling Promise, Jade Moon's adopted cousin from Hong Kong, comes bearing an amazing opportunity: a chance to live in America.  It sounds too good to be true, especially coming from the smooth-talking Sterling Promise.  Still, Jade Moon can't contain her excitement.  Not only is she leaving Jinjui Village, she's going to America!  A Fire Horse is sure to be welcome in that modern, enterprising world.

But, it's 1923, and Chinese immigrants aren't exactly welcomed to the U.S. with open arms.  In fact, they're held at Angel Island, near San Francisco.  A survey of her fellow detainees confirms that Jade Moon could be held there for days, weeks, even years—as long as it takes to determine she qualifies to stay in America.  If she doesn't pass muster, she'll be deported.  Jade Moon can't let that happen, but as the weeks roll by, she knows she can't remain on Angel Island either.  What is a Fire Horse girl to do?  Take matters into her own hands, of course.  As Jade Moon takes command of her own destiny, she steps right into San Francisco's ugly underbelly.  It's an adventure, sure, but not one anyone—even a Fire Horse girl—is likely to survive.

The Fire Horse Girl, a debut novel by Kay Honeyman, brings the Chinese immigrant experience to vivid life in a story that's as exciting as it is heartfelt.  Jade Moon is a sympathetic heroine, likable because of both her bravery and vulnerability.  Her adventure doesn't gloss over the harsh realities faced by Chinese immigrants in the 1920s—it celebrates their courage.  The Fire Horse Girl kept me thoroughly engrossed, totally entertained and thoroughly charmed.  I loved it.     

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books about Asian immigrants coming to the U.S., especially those by Amy Tan and Lisa See)

Grade:  B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for mild language (no F-bombs), violence and references (brief and not overly graphic) to prostitution

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

  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Plotless Family Saga Too Tangential, Dull For This Impatient Reader

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Although Bakerton, Pennsylvania, may not look like much, it's the kind of small town people never want to leave.  Heaven knows, coal mining isn't the most glamorous work, but it sustains many of Bakerton's residents, offering steady—if dangerous—employment.  Neighborhoods like Swedetown, Little Italy and Polish Hill provide affordable housing, close-knit communities, and a sense of belonging.  Generations of families live there, die there.  

Rose Novak, a 43-year-old widow, hails from Italy, but lives on Polish Hill because of her late husband.  Her five children have all grown up in the neighborhood, under the watchful eyes of people they've known all their lives.  Unlike so many others, the oldest Novak kids can't wait to leave home, whether it's for war, work or education.  The younger are tasked with the care of their increasingly frail mother.  As the various Novaks struggle to find their places in a changing world (the novel begins in the 1940s), they will contemplate the meanings of home, family, and duty.

My plot summary of Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh is abnormally skimpy because the novel actually has no real plot.  It's a family saga, one in which all of the characters, young and old, experience various amounts of trouble.  Many of the scrapes they get themselves into are entertaining.  But, because the scenes don't really fit into an overall story arc, the novel comes off as episodic and tangential.  For me, it just plain got dull.  Haigh writes with skill, there's no doubt about that.  So, maybe it's me—I can be an impatient reader.  Whatever the reason, I quickly grew bored with the novel's slow build and meandering storyline.  I appreciate Haigh's ability to bring a place, a time and a people to life, I just wanted it all to play out against an overreaching plot, a good mystery or scandal—you know, something I could really sink my teeth into—and that didn't happen.  Always a bummer.   

(Readalikes:  Haigh has written a new book of short stories about Bakerton [although I haven't read it] called News From Heaven

Grade:  C+

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

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


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Wolf" Book Is Still Vintage Picoult

(Images from Barnes & Noble)

It's no secret that I love Jodi Picoult.  I mean, it says right on my left sidebar that she's one of my very favorite authors.  And it's true.  Her books speak to me—they don't just keep me entertained, they also force me to consider polarizing issues from all sides.  They make me think.  Still, when I spied the hardcover version of Lone Wolf (see below), I hesitated.  Wolves?  The plot summary sounded Picoult-like, but I just wasn't sure.  I mean I like animals and all, I just don't always enjoy reading whole books about them.  So, I stalled on this one for most of 2012.  Then, one day, I was in a Picoult kind of mood and I decided to give Lone Wolf a shot.  And, guess what?  While the plot does sort of revolve around wolves, the novel is really about how tragedy affects a family.  In other words: it's vintage Picoult. 

The story goes a little something like this:  When Luke Warren—a wolf expert known for his unorthodox ways of studying the animals—is severely injured in a car accident, it throws his already-fractured family into a tailspin.  His ex-wife, Georgie Ng, left him several years ago when she realized she would never mean as much to Luke as his beloved wolves.  Edward, Luke's 24-year-old son, had it out with his dad six years ago and hasn't seen the man since.  Seventeen-year-old Cara knows Luke's not the most traditional of fathers, but she loves him fiercely and can't bear to see the most alive man she knows in a coma.  When it comes to a decision of whether or not to take Luke off life support, each member of the family has a different idea.  Ultimately, it's up to his children, who disagree vehemently on what their father would have wanted.  As they duke it all out in the hospital and in court, Edward, Cara and Georgie reflect on the enigma who is Luke Warren.  Which of them knows him best?  Did he really care about any of them?  And, most importantly, who's the most qualified to decide Luke Warren's fate for him?  

Will the fight draw the broken family together again or tear them apart forever?

I know some readers have tired of Picoult's story "formula," but, like I said, it works for me.  It is, in fact, the thing I like most about reading her.  Picoult always forces me to empathize, to see things from other people's perspectives, to open my mind and heart while considering how different issues affect different people.  Both character- and plot-driven, her books always move at a swift pace, remaining tense and suspenseful until the very end.  Lone Wolf is no exception.  It's not my favorite Picoult book ever, but it still provided vivid reminders of why I love this author so much.  She's just that good.     

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other Picoult books, especially Handle With Care)

Grade:  B

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R for strong language, sexual content, animal violence/gore, and depictions of underage drinking/partying

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

Monday, January 14, 2013

Speechless Could Have Said It Better

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Secrets are not safe with 16-year-old Chelsea Knot.  Everyone knows that.  The juicier the gossip, the more likely she is to spread it.  That's just what it takes to guarantee her place at the top of her high school's food chain.  So, when Chelsea learns a classmate's shocking secret, there's no way she's going to keep it to herself.  But sharing her discovery has terrible consequences.  A boy is beaten almost to death.  When Chelsea identifies his attackers for the police, she's labeled a traitor.  Shunned by the A-listers who used to be her friend, Chelsea finds herself in a place she's never been: the bottom.    

Unwilling to let her big mouth hurt anyone else, Chelsea takes a vow of silence.  Not everyone gets what she's doing, but she sticks with her plan, refusing to utter a word, even when she's ridiculed and bullied.  It's not easy, not at all.  And, yet, it's in the quiet that she learns to hear herself, to know herself, to forgive herself.  But will others do the same?  Or is Chelsea doomed to spend the rest of her high school career as the worst kind of social outcast?

As you can imagine, it's a little hard to feel sorry for the heroine of Speechless, a debut YA novel by Hannah Harrington.  It doesn't help that Chelsea's pretty self-centered, even as she's being "humbled" by her classmates.  Somehow, she just never got roughed up enough for me to sympathize with her.  She's funny, though, and her voice feels authentic.  So, there's that.  And the writing's better-than-average for a teen novel.  There's that, too.  Plot-wise, though, the story suffers because, really, there is no plot.  Chelsea has no clear goal except (it seems) to draw attention to herself, which doesn't do much for her likability.  Overall, I think the novel makes a good point, it just does it in kind of a heavy-handed way and through a heroine who's not all that convincing.  

(Readalikes:  The story reminds me of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)

Grade:  C

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Speechless from the generous folks at Harlequin Teen via Edelweiss.  Thank you! 

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner (Or, Let's Try This Again)

I hate to do this to Jenny, but I've tried and tried to contact her and I just can't find her.  Pooh!  So, I'm going to draw another winner for the I Believe in Jesus Too giveaway.  The new winner is:

Heather 

Congratulations!  Please send me your mailing address (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTcom) and I'll forward it on to Mark S. Nielsen so he can get your book in the mail.

If you didn't win this time, never fear.  I have lots more giveaways planned for this year.  You'll definitely want to stay tuned!


Friday, January 11, 2013

My Lunar Chronicles Extravaganza (With Exclusive Content, A Giveaway & Witty Commentary by Yours Truly)

If you've been paying attention to what's been going on here at BBB in the last little while (and if you haven't, what's wrong with you?), you know I recently found myself a new favorite YA series.  You've probably heard of it because, as it turns out, lots and lots of other bloggers adore it, too.  Usually, I shy away from series that get this much hype, but, this time, I'm glad I didn't.  Why?  Because, y'all, this series just plain rocks.  Really.  It's true.  It's fun, it's original, it's engrossing, it's clean—I mean, seriously, what's not to love?  

In case you've been living under a rock (or in a fortified bunker stuffed with canned food and zombie-fighting gear), let me tell you a little about The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.  This genre-bending series (dystopian + sci fi + fairy tale retelling) stars Linh Cinder, a 16-year-old cyborg who lives with her stepmother and stepsisters in the bustling metropolis of New Beijing.  As a robot/human mix, she's an outcast who (according to her adoptive family) is only useful for her mechanical skills.  With few friends, a deadly plague threatening the city's human citizens and an alien queen hovering above Earth just waiting for her chance to enslave whatever's left of the planet's population, Cinder doesn't have a lot to get excited about.  Except running away.  Then, Prince Kai stops by her stall in the marketplace and everything changes.  For the first time, Cinder feels seen.  And valued.  Suddenly, she has a purpose, one she could never have imagined.  So begins Cinder's desperate quest to save her planet, her future, and the only man she's ever loved ...

I know, right?  And the series is just as good—if not better—than it sounds.  The first book, Cinder, is available now.  Scarlet, which introduces intriguing new characters and conflicts, releases on February 15.  Those of us lucky enough to have read it already can tell you that it's even better than Cinder!  The last two books, Cress and Winter, will be published in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
  

Now for the good stuff ...

-- I mentioned fun, new characters in Scarlet.  One of my favorite is Carswell Thorne.  To introduce the engaging Mr. Thorne, here's what Marissa Meyer herself has to say:


“Captain” Carswell Thorne only ever reached the rank of Cadet in the American military before
he stole the spaceship on which he was stationed, abandoned his commanding officers, and took
off on a sprint of worldwide thefts that he was sure would lead to an early, luxurious retirement.
His ambitions were cut short, however, when he was captured and imprisoned in New Beijing.

His luck changes when another inmate stumbles into his cell during a jailbreak attempt and
Thorne forms a fast alliance with the infamous Linh Cinder herself. Thorne and Cinder may
not hit it off right away, but Thorne is nothing if not confident in his ability to win the hearts
and loyalty of his crew. Plus, he and Cinder have one important thing in common: they’ve
unwittingly become the most wanted fugitives in the galaxy.

Trust me, the man's a charmer!  You're going to love him and the rest of Scarlet's cast.

-- If you want to give the books a try before buying them (although after reading a little bit of the story, you're going to need the whole thing, trust me), you can download the first five chapters of both Cinder and Scarlet to your e-reader for free by using the following links:

Cinder: http://goo.gl/XqLWG
Scarlet: http://goo.gl/S2Bcs

(P.S.  If you do decide to pre-order Scarlet—and you should!— you can send in your receipt to get a free Scarlet-branded lip gloss using this link.)

-- If you—like me—can't get enough of The Lunar Chronicles and want more, more, more, you can download the following short stories for just .99 each:

Glitches (a prequel; the story of Cinder's adoption):  http://goo.gl/ggtcJ
The Queen's Army (the story of a soldier in the army of the lunar queen):  http://goo.gl/bmX4z

-- And, now, the most exciting news of all:  You can win yourself a paperback copy of Cinder, thanks to the generous folks at Macmillan.  All you have to do is use the handy-dandy Rafflecopter form below (please note: this is my first time using Rafflecopter, so if something's screwy, let me know).  The contest ends on January 31.  It's open to readers with U.S. and Canadian addresses only.  Good luck!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Fast, Furious iBoy Gives Time-Worn Superhero Tale A Modern Twist

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When 16-year-old Tom Harvey gets struck in the head by a falling iPhone, everything changes.  Even after extensive brain surgery, he still has fragments of the phone embedded in his brain.  He's assured everyone—his doctors, his Gran, his friends—that he's perfectly fine, but he's not.  Not really.  Because the truth is, Tom's become an actualized App.  He can access any information he wants, at any time.  It's like the most incredible superpower ever and, as Tom soon learns, he can use it to do anything from acing school exams to listening in on phone conversations to bankrupting the entire United Kingdom.  It's awesome.  And terrifying.  Really, really terrifying.

Tom never asked to be Superman, but with his bottomless knowledge and the ability to channel electricity into his hands, he's finally got the weaponry to fight the evil that lurks all around the South London projects where he lives.  He plans to start with the gang bangers who raped 15-year-old Lucy Walker, the girl he's loved since they were both in diapers.  As iBoy, Tom soon gains a reputation for defending the weak, but having a secret, crime-fighting identity is not without its complications.  How far will Tom go to punish and protect?  What will unlimited power cost him and those he loves?  And what will Lucy think when she discovers that the superhero who awes her with his daring is really just plain old Tom Harvey?  As Tom faces his most cunning enemy yet, he'll have to decide who he truly is and how much he's willing to risk in order to embrace the dark, dangerous hero known as iBoy.  

iBoy, a YA thriller by Kevin Brooks, gives the time-worn superhero tale an intriguing modern twist, but asks the same questions:  What would you do if you possessed the ability to do almost anything?  Would you use it for good or ill?  And what would wielding that kind of power do to your basic humanity?  Even though it explores familiar themes, iBoy's got its own flavor.  It's dark and raw, but also affecting.  I sped through the story at the same fast-and-furious pace at which its plot moves because, yeah, it's that compelling.  Did it totally blow me away?  No.  Did it keep me completely riveted and entertained?  Oh, yeah.        

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books about superheroes, although no specific titles are coming to mind ... a little help?)

Grade:  B-

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

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

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Poignant And Hopeful, The Lovely Shoes Speaks to All

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Franny Hall should be excited about starting high school, even if it's just in tiny Eastbrook, Ohio.  But she's not.  While her friends can't wait to go to dances, date older boys, and try out for the cheerleading squad, 14-year-old Franny's mortified by the thought of even trying those things.  She already knows she's hideous, with her deformed left foot and clunky orthopedic shoes, she doesn't need immature high school boys to remind her of that already humiliating fact.  If only she were normal, like her best friend Boots, then she'd be able to enjoy all these new opportunities.  Life has taught Franny that gimps like her shouldn't even bother for fairy tale endings because they just ain't gonna happen.  

Margaret Hall, Franny's beautiful, flamboyant mother, doesn't care what anyone else says—she thinks Franny's beautiful.  And more than capable of dancing, dating and cheering with the best of them.  But her daughter's despair spurns her into action.  She hatches a wild plan that involves traveling to Italy and convincing famous designer Salvatore Ferragamo to create a perfect shoe for Franny.  It's a wild idea—even for Margaret—but one that just might change everything for a self-conscious girl with an uncooperative left foot.  

Based on the author's real-life experience, The Lovely Shoes by Susan Shreve is a story about one girl's quest to accept her body, despite its flaws.  It's an engaging and hopeful tale, one that feels authentic and true.  Every girl can relate to Franny's struggles—not just with self-image, but also with trying to fit in, navigating changing friendships, and falling in love for the first time.  Not to mention discovering the power of the perfect pair of shoes!  Poignant but funny, The Lovely Shoes is a memorable story that will speak to anyone who's ever felt out of place (in other words: all of us).  

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

Grade:  B-

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

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

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Disjointed Titanic Tale Just Okay

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Jane Taylor's used to living an unconventional life.  It's all the 16-year-old's ever known, thanks to her mother's (self-proclaimed) calling as a psychic.  But it's not all she wants.  Jane would love to trade tiny Spirit Vale—a community of mystics near Niagra Falls—for the bustle of the big city.  There, she could be a real journalist, hobnobbing with real people, not watching her mother charm customers out of their hard-earned dollars.  Little does Jane know just how far fate will take her.

When an admirer of Jane's mother sends the family tickets to cross the Atlantic in order to attend a spiritualist convention in London, Jane can hardly believe it.  She has little interest in spiritualism, the value of which she doubts very highly, but a great desire to converse with interesting people, of which she meets many.  Among them are several with uneasy feelings about the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic, which will be occurring in a few days.  Jane doesn't believe in such mumbo jumbo.  At least she doesn't think she does.  But, with two of her sister aboard the ship, can she afford to take the chance?  If Nikola Tesla—a famed, if eccentric scientist—is to be believed, something with is terribly wrong with Titanic.  What, if anything, can she do?  And what does Tesla have to do with the fate of the ship? 

It's been awhile since I read Distant Waves by Suzanne Weyn and I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. This plot of this genre-bender shoots off in all kinds of directions, making it a disjointed and sometimes confusing tale.  While I loved the very ending of the story, other parts of it had me yawning.  I felt the same way about the characters—while they were intriguing, none of them really, really spoke to me.  On the whole, then, I'm kind of ambivalent about this one.  In the end, I found it just okay.  

(Readalikes:  It's like a lot of other Titanic novels, just with a twist.)

Grade:  C

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

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

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Attention: Jenny (The Allgaiers), Please Respond!

Because I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, I neglected to have the entrants in my most recent giveaway leave me their email addresses.  Thus, I'm stuck with a winner, but no way to contact her :(  Duh.  So, if Jenny (The Allgaiers) sees this, will you pretty please email me (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTcom) so I can get your copy of I Believe in Jesus Too sent out?  Thank you!

Friday, January 04, 2013

Funny Janice Wills An Enjoyable Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Like the anthropologist she wants to be someday, 16-year-old Janice Wills observes the natives of Melva High School with a careful, objective eye.  She registers the peculiar nuances of their social hierarchy, their mating rituals, their survival-of-the-prettiest mentality.  But, no matter how many notes she takes, Janice just does not understand how to relate to this strange species, let alone integrate herself into their society.  Her best friend, Margo Werther, thinks the answer is sucking up to the popular girls.  Janice's mother has an even more outrageous idea:  she thinks her daughter should not just enter the annual Livermush Pageant, but actually try to win it.  Since only the cutest girls in town can wear the crown, it doesn't take a PhD to know that Janice Wills has no chance in heck of winning.  Still, she can't resist the chance to study her peers in this most unique of anthropological experiments.  What she learns—curiously enough—is a whole lot about herself.

The Rites & Wrongs of Janice Wills, a debut novel by poet Joanna Pearson, tells a bright, funny story about trying to fit in when everything you do turns out wrong.  Although the plot's not all that original, Janice narrates her story with a strong, sarcastic voice that's upbeat and entertaining.  The book didn't blow me away or anything, but I enjoyed this quick, fun read.  

(Readalikes:  The pageant aspect of the book reminded me a little of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray)

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Rites & Wrongs of Janice Wills from the generous folks at Scholastic.  Thank you!

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Bright, Timeless Children's Tale A Delight

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As the scorching South Carolina summer blazes on, Stella is searching for something—anything—to do.  The long days would be way more exciting if she had a dog to play with, but she doesn't.  All she's got is boring ole Gerald Baxter.  Even though Stella's brimming with grand ideas for adventure, her best friend never wants to try them.  Stella's sick of sitting around playing Crazy Eights with Gerald, she wants to do something.  Something exciting. 

When Stella spots a one-legged pigeon flying through town, she knows this is it.  This is the something for which she's been waiting all summer.  Gerald's not all that enamored with the idea of catching the bird, but Stella won't back down this time.  She's determined to make it her pet, with or without his help.  It won't be easy, though.  Every kid in town—including Stella's rotten older brother—is trying to capture the one-legged pigeon.  Unbeknownst to them all, the bird's already got an owner and Mr. Mineo is desperate to have him back.  And what about Sherman?  The pigeon's got his own ideas about where he wants to go.  With all of Meadville, South Carolina on his tail, where—and with whom—will the one-legged pigeon end up?  

On the Road to Mr. Mineo's, the newest middle grade novel by Barbara O'Connor, is a sweet, timeless kind of story.  It's quick, bright and entertaining—not unlike Sherman himself.  As far as substance goes, there's not a lot, but still, the book's tells fun story that will delight both children and adults.     

(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 an ARC of On the Road to Mr. Mineo's from the generous folks at Farrar Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan).  Thank you!

A New Year, A New Winner

My first giveaway of the year has come to a close and ... drumroll, please ... Jenny (The Allgaiers) has won a copy of I Believe in Jesus Too by Mark S. Nielsen.  Congratulations!  It's a beautiful book and I'm sure you'll enjoy it.  If you would please send me your mailing address (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTcom), I'll forward it on to Mark, who will be mailing out the book.

If you didn't win this time, don't despair.  I'll be hosting lots more giveaways throughout the year.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Okay, I Admit It: I'm A *Little* Challenged

As much as I've always loved reading challenges, I sort of suck at them.  Does that stop me from signing up for some every year?  You'd think the answer would be yes, but it's actually a resounding NO.  They're fun for me, even if I never actually get around to actually completing them.  So, here are the three I'm going to do this year:

Dystopia 2013, hosted again this year by Bonnie over at Bookish Ardour.  Since I did not do well on this in 2012, I'm going to try again.  Because I rocked this challenge last year (oh wait ...), I'm signing up for the Contagion level.  It involves reading 15 dystopian books, which should be a cinch for me.  You don't have to make a list at all, but here are the books I'm hoping to read:

1.  Orleans by Sherri L. Smith
2.  Revolution 19 by Gregg Rosenblum
3.  1984 by George Orwell
4.  The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
5.  The Death Cure by James Dashner
6.  Crossed by Allie Condie
7.  Reached by Allie Condie
8.  Light by Michael Grant
9.  Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
10.  The Giver by Lois Lowry (re-read)
11.  Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
12.  Messenger by Lois Lowry
13.  Son by Lois Lowry
14.  Fragments by Dan Wells
15.  The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

2013 50 States Challenge, hosted by Book Obsessed.  This challenge is one of my favorites because all I have to do is keep track of the states in which the books I read are set.  Easy and fun—totally a win-win for me!

Monthly Key Word Challenge -- This one is hosted by Bookmark to Blog, one of my favorite new book blogs.  It just looks like fun.  You're given a short list of key words each month and you have to read one book with that word (or a variation of it) during that month.

Here's what I plan to read:

January (key word:  freeze):  Frozen by Mary Casanova
February (key word:  family):  True Sisters by Sandra Dallas
March (key word:  gold):  Grace, Gold and Glory: My Leap of Faith by Gabrielle Douglas
April (key word:  light):  Enduring Light by Carla Kelly
May (key word:  shatter):  Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
June (key word:  island):  The Island by Victoria Hislop
July (key word:  dream):  Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake
August (key word:  tree):  The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford
September (key word:  shade):  The Shades of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer
October (key word:  inside):  Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder
November (key word:  number):  Revolution 19 by Gregg Rosenblum
December (key word:  ring):  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

So, what do you think?  I should be able to do these, right?  Right?  How about you?  Do you love or loathe reading challenges?  Are you doing any this year?
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