Saturday, March 30, 2013

Authentic Virtuosity An Engaging Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Grammy-winning violinist Carmen Bianchi only wants one thing:  to win the prestigious Guarneri music competition. The top prize includes serious cash, the use of an antique violin for four years, and performance opportunities all over the world.  But it means even more to Carmen; for the 17-year-old, winning will prove to the world that she's a talented musician in her own right.  Not just because her mother's a famous professional soprano.

Carmen would be a shoo-in if it weren't for Jeremy King, an English violinist who's also 17.  Not only is he gorgeous, but he's the male version of Carmen—a child prodigy who's been winning music competitions practically since birth.  Carmen can't stop thinking about him, obsessing over him.  He's handsome, for sure, but is he, in fact, a better musician?  She doesn't know.  She does know he's an arrogant jerk—ho just happens to understand her better than anyone else.  Carmen absolutely cannot let herself get distracted by Jeremy, the one person who could stand in the way of her fulfilling her fondest dream, but it's happening anyway ...

With Jeremy on the brain, Carmen can't focus.  Keeping herself calm before the competition is hard enough—even with the anti-anxiety pills she pops like candy—but Jeremy's presence is making it downright impossible.  Maybe that was his plan all along, or maybe Carmen just isn't cut out to be a professional musician.  As the competition creeps closer and closer, she'll have to decide what her heart really wants—and needs.

Because Jessica Martinez herself was a child prodigy with the violin, Virtuosity has a very authentic feel to it.  Carmen's the kind of character that speaks to every reader—despite being a world-class musician, she's self-deprecating, down-to-earth, and beset with feelings of inferiority and anxiety.  It's easy to empathize with her, simple to cheer her on.  The story moves along at a good clip, taking interesting turns that lead to intriguing subplots.  To me, the ending felt a little unrealistic and abrupt.  That, coupled with some irritating copy editing errors detracted from my reading experience; otherwise, I enjoyed Virtuosity.  Not as much as I liked Martinez' second novel (The Space Between Us) but still, this one is a solid novel and an engaging read.    

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a bit of Rival by Sara Bennett Wealer)

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, March 29, 2013

Virgin River or Thunder Point? Luckily, We Get Both.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It seems like I'm always talking about romance author Robyn Carr here at BBB.  Simple explanation?  I just love her.  There's something about her books that speaks to me.  Carr recently described the appeal of her novels thus:  
"I think it's the sense of community and that combination of romance and women's fiction.  I'm naturally drawn to strong, capable female characters ... It's very empowering to read about women like ourselves as the characters resolve the issues that threaten their happiness and peace of mind.  It's also empowering to watch smart women choosing and falling in love with men of honor and integrity."
Yep, that's it.

Given my love for all things Carr, it's not surprising that I turned a few (figurative) cartwheels when I found out about her new series.  Not only is it Virgin River-ish, but it's set in a place that is close to my heart—the Oregon Coast.  This new crop of characters all live in and around fictional Thunder Point, a small, tired town on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  Although it's got its own rugged charm, the town isn't trendy like Seaside or Cannon Beach, so it struggles to attract the tourist dollars that run the bigger beachside towns.  Still, Thunder Point is populated by a cast of good, down home folks who care about their friends and neighbors.  It's a tight-knit place where people look after their own.

Helicopter pilot Hank Cooper isn't looking for a place to settle down.  Even if he was, the 37-year-old would never choose a backwoods beach town like Thunder Point.  All he wants to do is to park his fifth wheel in a pretty spot, spend some nice, long hours enjoying his toys, and move on to the next pretty spot.  But when an old Army buddy dies in a suspicious fall, Hank heads to Oregon, intent on figuring out what happened to gentle Ben Bailey.  In doing so, he discovers he's the sole beneficiary of Ben's will—Hank now owns his friend's grimy bait shop/bar/convenience store, as well as the surrounding land.  It doesn't look like much, but as Hank soon finds out, there are people who would kill to get their hands on his late friend's beachfront property.

Although the smartest plan would probably be to set a match to the old bar, Hank decides to fix it up before selling it.  Renovating will require staying in Thunder Point for a bit, which is okay by Hank.  At least for now.  After all, the more time he spends in the little town, the more it's growing on him.  He's getting to know its good citizens—Mac, the deputy sheriff; Gina James, the woman who's so in love with Mac she can barely see straight; strange Rawley Goode, a vet with PTSD; and, of course, there's the beautiful Sarah Dupre and her slobbery mutt, Ham.  They're all so big-hearted that Hank can hardly believe a murderer walks among them.  But someone killed Ben, Hank's sure of it, he just has to figure out who's hiding homicidal tendencies under their harmless facade.  That's becoming more and more difficult the more Hank gets involved in small-town life, the more Thunder Point starts to feel like home ...

The first of the Thunder Point novels, The Wanderer sets the stage for what will undoubtedly become another well-loved series by Robyn Carr.  It has all the elements that have made her previous books so popular—warm prose, sympathetic characters, an atmospheric setting, and a vibrant community that espouses good, old-fashioned values.  Plus, it's got a little mystery to help round out the plot.  While my heart still tilts more Virgin River way, I'm definitely excited to spend some time in Thunder Point.  With two more books coming out this year (The Newcomer in June and The Hero in August), it will be quality time, indeed.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Carr's Virgin River and Grace Valley series)

Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Wanderer from the fabulous and always generous Robyn Carr.  Thank you!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Plotless Family Saga Dull, Disjointed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The hardest books for me to summarize are those that have no plot.  The End of the Point, a literary novel by Elizabeth Graver, is just such a one.  So, you get the back cover copy (which is, after all, professionally written, unlike my amateur attempts):

A place out of time, Ashaunt Point—a tiny finger of land jutting into Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts—has provided sanctuary and anchored life for generations of the Porter family, who summer along its remote, rocky shore.

But in 1942, the U.S. Army arrives on the Point, bringing havoc and change. That summer, the two older Porter girls—teenagers Helen and Dossie—run wild. The children's Scottish nurse, Bea, falls in love. And youngest daughter Janie is entangled in an incident that cuts the season short and haunts the family for years to come.

As the decades pass, Helen and then her son Charlie return to the Point, seeking refuge from the chaos of rapidly changing times. But Ashaunt is not entirely removed from events unfolding beyond its borders. Neither Charlie nor his mother can escape the long shadow of history—Vietnam, the bitterly disputed real estate development of the Point, economic misfortune, illness, and tragedy.

An unforgettable portrait of one family's journey through the second half of the twentieth century, The End of the Point artfully probes the hairline fractures hidden beneath the surface of our lives and traces the fragile and enduring bonds that connect us. With subtlety and grace, Elizabeth Graver illuminates the powerful legacy of family and place, exploring what we are born into, what we pass down, preserve, cast off, or willingly set free.
The novel covers quite a lot of territory both in terms of time and people, but there's really no overall, uniting theme.  It's very episodic, which for me equaled dull.  None of the characters (except maybe Bea) grabbed my interest or sympathies.  So, while in general, I found the book to be well-written, I struggled to finish it.  For me, it seemed boring, disjointed and just not all that engaging.  Graver can write, there's no doubt about that, I just wish she'd given this one a plot.  It would have helped.  A lot.      

(Readlikes:  Reminded me of Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh)

Grade:  C+

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

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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

There's Just Not a Lot to New Robot Revolution Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's been 20 years since the robots humans designed to protect them turned on their creators, enslaving their makers in fortified Cities.  Bullheaded Nick knows all about the robots' fury and cruelty—in his 17 years, he's heard every horror story there is to tell.  Not that he needs to worry.  He hasn't actually seen a 'bot since he was a toddler. Hiding in the wilderness with his family and a handful of others, Nick's only known safety.  It's a relative kind of thing, but still ...

When Kevin, Nick's tech-obsessed younger brother, unknowingly leads the robots right to the family's hideout, everything changes in an instant.  The only home Nick and Kevin have ever known is destroyed, the people they love scattered.  Or captured.  Or, more probably, dead.  Still, the boys and their adopted sister, Cass, can't just let their parents rot in some robot prison.  If there's even the slimmest chance that their mother and father are still alive, the kids have to find them.  They must go to the nearest City, no matter how dangerous the journey.  They have to free their parents, no matter how terrifying the task.

Arriving at the City, the teenagers get another shock.  The robot-controlled metropolis isn't what they thought.  But if the rumors they've heard all their lives aren't true, what is?  What do they do now:  revolt or assimilate?  As the kids figure out their next move, they will have to decide what freedom really means and how much it's truly worth.

As you can probably gather, there's not a lot to Revolution 19, a new YA sci-fi novel by Gregg Rosenblum.  Not a lot of originality, not a lot of complex plotting, not a lot of character development ... I could go on, but I won't.  The fact is, I found this one pretty disappointing.  It's a quick read, yes, but the story revolves around a tired premise.  Add to that a predictable plot, characters who never feel real, gaping plot holes, and ho-hum writing and, yeah, I just wasn't impressed.  Oh well.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a lot of Partials by Dan Wells)

Grade:  C-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Revolution 19 from the generous folks at HarperTeen.  Thank you!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

TTT: What Do You Recommend?

If you're like me (and I know you are!), you get asked for book recommendations all the time.  Despite the number of books I read every year, I still find the "What do you think I should read next?" question to be a difficult one to answer.  Books are such a subjective thing!  Everyone's tastes differ so widely, it's hard to find one (let alone ten) books that have across-the-board appeal.  With that in mind, I give you this week's TTT topic:  Top Ten Books I Recommend Most Often.

If you're unfamiliar with TTT, it's a fun meme, both bookish and list-y in nature, that's hosted by the fabulous ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish.  Feel free to join in the fun!

Okay, here we go.  In no particular order, here are the ten books (or series) I find myself recommending over and over:

1.  The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling -- Duh, I know.  Everyone's going to have these books on their lists, but obviously, there are reasons this series appeals to readers young and old.  The story is engaging, imaginative, exciting and just downright fun.  If you haven't read it yet, you're totally missing out.





2.  The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins -- Another duh, but seriously, these books are such good reads.  Even though it's gory, this series is perfect for reluctant teen readers, boys and girls alike.  The story is compelling, exciting and thought-provoking—a winning combination.


3.  The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer -- It's no secret that I love this YA "rebooted" fairy tales series.  The story is unique, well-paced and absorbing.  Not to mention clean.  Sarah recommended these to me and I've recommended them to lots of people, adults and teenagers alike.


4.  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand -- This one has received lots of hype, but guess what?  It totally deserves it.  This true story is absorbing, horrifying and, ultimately, inspiring.  It's not one I would hand to anyone younger than 15, but I've recommended it to plenty of adults.


5.  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak -- This is one of my favorite books of all time.  It's an unputdownable ode to the power of words, both said and unsaid.



6.  The Shades of London series by Maureen Johnson -- This is another YA series I discovered recently.  Its premise isn't anything super original, but it's still an intriguing ghost-hunting story.  Although the books seem very dark and grisly, they're actually quite upbeat, even funny.  Not to mention mostly clean.  This is another series that has lots of teen/adult crossover appeal.


7.  The Virgin River series by Robyn Carr -- Like I've said many times, Carr is the only adult romance writer I read.  That's because the author has a magical way of making the small towns in which she sets her stories come alive for me.  The people with which she populates these hamlets generally value the things that I do—family, commitment, community and helping others.  Since Carr's novels usually have some strong language and sex scenes, I don't recommend them to everyone, but I still talk them up quite a bit since I love them so much.


8.  Under the Never Sky series by Veronica Rossi -- Yeah, yeah, it's another YA dystopian series, but this is one of my favorites.  The books blend familiar post-apocalyptic elements with more supernatural ones, creating a nice blend of sci fi, paranormal and action/adventure.  It's clever, intriguing and twisty enough to keep most readers interested.


9.  The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson -- I'm not huge on epic fantasy in general, but Brandon Sanderson really knows how to write it.  My friend Robin encouraged me to read the Mistborn series and I immediately fell in love with the story.  Sanderson excels at creating intricate, intriguing worlds—some readers tire of the endless detail, but I don't.  Not at all.  This is a fantastic series that I recommend all the time.


10.  Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys -- This one's a gritty historical YA that's set in a brothel in New Orleans' French Quarter.  So, yeah, it's not a book I recommend to everyone.  Still, it's a very atmospheric murder mystery featuring a most appealing heroine.  It's just a good story, one that's much more uplifting than it sounds.

What about you?  Which books do you find yourself recommending over and over and over?  Do we have any in common?

[All book images from Barnes & Noble]

Monday, March 25, 2013

McBride's Books Similar, But Still Magical

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Toni Ashton never planned to return to Blue Hills, the small Missouri town where her family has been making  wine for over 100 years.  Not permanently anyway.  The 46-year-old has worked hard to make a successful life for herself in St. Louis.  With a flourishing wedding planning business and a relationship that could produce an engagement ring any day now, Toni's content in the city.  But when her mother, the indomitable Evie Ashton, suffers a devastating stroke, Toni knows she has no choice—she must go home.  

Shocked at the shabby state of her mother's property, Toni begins digging through the clutter, intent on finding something—anything—to help her understand the enigmatic woman who gave birth to her.  The two have never really seen eye-to-eye and Toni's determined to find out why.  As her mother lays comatose in a nearby hospital, Toni slowly sifts through Evie's debris, uncovering long-buried mysteries that could change the course of her life forever.  When Toni slips on the little black dress Evie was wearing when she had her stroke, she knows she's found the key to unlocking the secrets of the past, but does she dare confront the visions it's showing her of her own future?  Especially when they feature cozy scenes between her and the man who's trying to take over her family's vineyard?  Opening up the scars of the past is one thing, but toying with the perfect future Toni's so painstakingly built for herself is quite another.  

Can Toni trust the dress' peculiar magic to reveal the truth about her family's past?  It's powerful enough to shatter hearts, but can it mend them, too?  Toni's about to find out ...

After reading—and loving—Susan McBride's The Truth About Love & Lightning, I rushed over to my library's website to check out everything the author had ever written.  Neither her Cougar Club or The Debs series sounded like my kind of thing, but Little Black Dress sure did.  I wanted another atmospheric contemporary tale sprinkled with magic and I got it with this older novel.  True, the story's quite similar to Love & Lightning—a little too similar, in fact—but it's just as engaging.  The complex characters spoke to me, the vineyard setting enchanted me and the magical elements of the story tickled my imagination.  I enjoyed Little Black Dress for the same reasons I liked McBride's newest—it's a warm, magical read that's both sweet and satisfying.  Would I have liked a teensy bit more originality?  Sure, but overall, I'm not complaining.  I dig McBride's writing and will be keeping a lookout for more winsome books from this delightful, new-to-me author.   

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a lot of The Truth About Love & Lightning by Susan McBride and a little of both The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares and The Best Man by Kristan Higgins)

Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find 

     

Saturday, March 23, 2013

It's As Fun and Refreshing As A Day at the Lake

 (Images courtesy of Scarletta Press)

Although I read a lot of picture books (thanks to my 4-year-old story lover), I don't review many of them.  So, when the good folks over at Scarletta Press contacted me about taking a look at the titles they've recently published with their Kids imprint, I hesitated.  Then, A Day at the Lake by Stephanie Wallingford and Dawn Rynders (with illustrations by Erica Pelton Villnave) caught my eye.  The cover looked so inviting that I just couldn't resist taking the plunge (pun very much intended).  

With playful, rhyming text and whimsical illustrations, the book brings the excitement of a lake trip to vivid life.  Readers will enjoy following along as three kids spend a memorable day bobbing about in a rowboat, swimming in the clear water, discovering creatures of all kinds, and watching the sun set after a busy, fun-filled day.  

A perfect read with which to welcome the warm, summer weather (which we're already experiencing here in the Phoenix area), A Day at the Lake will charm water lovers of all ages.







(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of In the Small, Small Pond and In the Tall, Tall Grass by Denise Fleming)

Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A Day at the Lake from the generous folks at Scarletta Press.  Thank you!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Faith-Promoting Historical Falls a Little Flat

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Sarah Carr's husband drowns, the 17-year-old widow is left penniless and alone.  She has no family to take her in, no one at all—except for the babe growing inside her.  Throwing herself on the mercy of a brother and sister-in-law she barely knows, Sarah hopes for the best.  But it's not to be.  Sold into slavery, she's herded aboard a rat-infested ship and taken from Cornwall to the American Colonies to be an indentured servant.  With no means of escape, she puts her life in God's hands, praying to Him daily for deliverance.  

In the midst of her struggles, Sarah meets Alex Hutton, a handsome doctor whose kindness stuns her.  Never has she had a man treat her the way he does.  But, she's a lowborn servant girl and he a gentleman doctor.  It's ridiculous for her to imagine building a life with him.  And yet, she does.  When Alex declares his love for her, Sarah's joy is complete.  He's her savior, her love, the man she wants to marry.  If only she were free to choose him.  She's not—as a woman and a servant she has no rights at all.  

Soon, Sarah's torn from Alex, but she can't give up hope.  Once again, Sarah must give herself over to God's will.  He won't let her down again.  Will he?  Armed only with her faith, she will face every danger, risk everything, if only for one more chance at love—at life.

I've read plenty of books about slavery, but none featuring a young, white woman sold into bondage.  Any human being treated so cruelly is abominable, of course, but it does make for an intriguing subject for a novel.  Unfortunately, Beyond the Valley by Rita Gerlach just doesn't live up to the potential of its premise.  Part of the problem is Sarah herself.  While she spends lots of time reacting to the things that happen to her, she doesn't spend more than a few pages acting to change her situation.  Already a rather flat character, Sarah's also a weak heroine—not good things in a character-driven novel.  Gerlach's dull prose doesn't help matters.  It's just not strong enough to make the story really come alive for the reader.  I do appreciate the fact that Beyond the Valley is a clean, gentle, faith-promoting novel, I just wanted more from it.  

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

Grade:  C

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG-13 for violence, scenes of peril and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Beyond the Valley from the generous folks at Abingdon Press via those at Pump Up Your Book Promotion.  Thank you!    

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Like Robyn Carr's Novels? Meet Their Younger, Sassier Cousin ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After being jilted at the altar, Faith Holland fled her small town in the Finger Lakes Region for good.  Three years later, San Francisco feels like home.  The 30-year-old runs a successful landscape design business, shares an apartment with a good friend, and spends her free time cuddling with her golden retriever.  Life could only be better if she had a nice guy with whom to share it.  Too bad moving on means getting over Jeremy Lyon, the man she's loved since junior high.  The man she still loves.  The man who should be her husband.  

When Faith is summoned home to help scare off the gold-digging snowbird who's set her sights on Faith's widowed father, she realizes a stopover in Manningford might be just what she needs.  After all, her siblings can always use help at the family vineyard.  And there's the old barn that she's been dying to re-purpose as an event venue.  The fact that Jeremy still lives in town has nothing to do with her extended stay.  Nothing at all. Okay, it does, but Faith hasn't even seen him yet.  Instead, she keeps running into Levi Cooper, the arrogant jerk who ruined her wedding.  Just because he's now a decorated war hero and the chief of police doesn't mean he's any more likable.  Or less sexy.  Because he totally is.  Not that she's looking (of course she is -- no heterosexual female could glance away).  Still, he's Levi Cooper, her mortal enemy, which means no way in heck is Faith going anywhere near him.

But as things in Manningford grow ever more complicated, Faith finds herself drawn to her old nemesis.  Is it possible Levi's grown up a little?  Could he have actually turned into a decent guy?  Faith doesn't think so, but amidst all the drama of her small town, her family, and her own dismal love life, it's Levi she finds herself relying on.  Could it be she's been chasing the wrong man all along?  Or, is Levi just toying with her, the same way he always has?  Faith's not ready to risk her bruised heart again—or is she?

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I'm not big on reading adult romances.  There's pretty much only one author writing in this genre who can persuade me to dip into it once in awhile and that's Robyn Carr.  I'm a fan because Carr writes mature love stories laced with themes of home, family, and small town values. From what I can tell, Kristan Higgins does the same.  Kinda.  Now that I'm an expert on Higgins (you know, since I've read one of her books), I'm thinking her novels are like Carr's books' younger, sassier cousins.  The Best Man, at least, features the same kind of small town Carr loves to write about, as well as a similar brand of big-hearted, down-to-earth folks.  And yet, "mature" is not a word I'd use to describe this story.

First, though, the good:  The Best Man is an upbeat, funny novel with a strong contemporary voice.  Despite being over 400 pages long, it hums along at a fair pace, taking time to build up the history and romance between Faith and Levi instead of just insta-loving them together.  Although some of the characters could definitely be called cliché, overall they're a quirky, colorful bunch, who demonstrate everything that's right—and wrong—with small towns.  Also, I liked that Higgins took on some more serious subplots, which kept the plot nicely balanced.

The downside to a fun novel is that sometimes it crosses the line between comical and silly/ridiculous.  The Best Man does this fairly often, mostly because Faith often acts like a clueless 13-year-old (I mean, seriously, what 30+ year old describes another person as the "Lying Liar of Lie-Land [233]"?).  Levi bugged me as well, mostly because it was difficult to appreciate how much he'd grown as a man when he still referred (constantly) to Faith's breasts as her "rack."  I don't know about you, but that kind of immaturity just isn't swoon-worthy to me.  Then, there's the sex.  And, weirdly, since The Best Man is an adult romance (and a bona fide Harlequin, at that) I'm not even talking about graphic sex scenes (since there are really only one or two of those)—I'm talking about how each and every character (which, truly, is only a slight exaggeration) has to talk about or think about sex pretty much 24/7.  It was just too much for me (way, way too much).

So, now that I've practically written a whole novel myself, let's get down to the nitty gritty:  What did I think of The Best Man?  In general, it's a fun, light, engaging romance.  And yet, there were definitely elements that distracted from my enjoyment of the book.  If Higgins ever writes a sweet romance (or even something in the PG-13 range), I would probably give it a try since I like the author's bright, easy style.  Otherwise, I'll leave her novels on the shelf in favor of my "mature" romances, thank you very much!

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Little Black Dress by Susan McBride and a bit of Robyn Carr's novels)

Grade:  C+

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives) and sexual content/innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Best Man from the generous folks at Harlequin via those at Meryl L. Moss Media Relations, Inc.  Thank you!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thin, Readable Volume Motivates, Prepares Potential Missionaries

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Whether they are fresh-faced teenagers or wrinkled senior citizens, there is one thing all Mormon missionaries have in common—their zeal.  Even on the difficult days, they carry an enthusiasm for the work they've been called to do.  They're strong, they're faithful, they're true.  You may not be able to fathom why a person—especially one in the prime of his/her life—would give up 18 months to 2 years to pound the pavement looking for people to teach about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but you can't deny the power of their testimonies.  They believe with a fervor that is plain to see and invigorating to feel.

Because serving a mission is such a monumental and life-changing experience, it's not surprising that many books have been written on the subject.  Benjamin Hyrum White, a seminary teacher in Orem, Utah, adds to the collection with 10 Questions to Answer While Preparing for a Mission. The aim of the book is to "motivate ... and sincerely prepare [you, the missionary] for the most rigorous and most rewarding stretch of service up to this point in your lives" (xii).  To that end, White asks 10 critical questions, including Am I Ready to Work Hard for Over Sixty Hours a Week?  Am I Clean and Worthy to Represent the Lord?    Do I Have An 'Eye Single to the Glory of God'?  And, most importantly, Do I Have a Testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Using scriptural passages, quotes from General Authorities and personal experiences, White dissects each topic, suggesting ways in which potential missionaries can ensure an answer of Yes to each question asked.  

While the information given in the book is nothing new, it does provide an excellent road map for those planning to serve missions.  It's also straightforward, upbeat and encouraging.  My favorite part about this slim volume is actually its structure—it's broken up into short chapters, making it quick and readable, even for those who do not enjoy reading.  The small, thin book is also the perfect size for tucking inside a scripture case for easy, convenient gospel study.  A few copy editing errors keep 10 Questions from being truly polished; nevertheless, I recommend handing it to LDS teenagers especially, as it will help inspire and prepare them for one of the most powerful experiences of their lives: their missions.

(Readalikes:  I haven't read any other books on this subject, but I know they're out there!)

Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of 10 Questions to Answer While Preparing for a Mission from the generous Benjamin Hyrum White.  Thank you (for the book and the nickname)!   

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TTT: My Shelf of Shame

So, Tuesday's fast becoming my favorite day here on ye olde blog.  Top Ten Tuesday—a list-y book meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish—is just too fun.  I'm loving being part of it every week.  It's been fun to read everyone's responses to the weekly question and, of course, to find even more wonderful book blogs to enjoy.  Love it, love it, love it!

Today's topic is another one about which I could go on and on and on, so be glad I'm limited to talking about only the Top Ten Books I HAD to Buy But Are Still Sitting on My Shelf Unread.  Here they are (in no particular order):

1.  A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin -- I was super excited when I found a copy of this one hidden among some random non-fiction titles at Border's final clearance sale.  Since the price was good, I snatched it up with plans to read it right away.  Um, yeah.  It's still gathering dust on my bookshelf so many months (years?) later.

2.  The Selection by Kiera Cass -- The premise of this one sounded intriguing, so I pre-ordered it from Amazon.  I did peek at the first few pages, but other than that, I haven't read a word of it.

3.  The House at Riverton by Kate Morton -- Tons of people have recommended this author and this book, specifically, to me and yet, it sits.

4.  Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick -- I really am going to read this one.  Eventually ...

5.  Everneath by Brodi Ashton -- I've been reading Brodi's blog for ages and even had dinner with her a few years ago.  I love her, I just haven't read her books yet.

6.  Possession by Elana Johnson -- Ditto with Elana.  I've met her several times and have taken some excellent writing classes from her.  I just have yet to actually read anything she's written (besides handouts and blog posts, of course).

7.  The Shining by Stephen King -- In my defense, I have read this lengthy horror novel once.  But, it was a very, very long time ago (like back when I was way too young to be reading King at all).  Last Halloween, I got a hankering for a re-read, debated between borrowing the book from the library and buying it, decided to purchase the Kindle version, then ... let it sit.  Yeah.  It's a trend with me.

8.  Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins -- I've heard nothing but good things about this one, so why does it still linger on my shelf unread?  Couldn't tell ya, but it does.

9.  The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith -- Ditto #8

10.  Paper Towns by John Green -- After reading The Fault in Our Stars, I knew I needed to read everything Green  had ever written.  Someone suggested starting with Paper Towns, so I clicked right on over to Amazon and bought myself a copy.  Have I read it yet?  I plead the Fifth.

Clearly, the problem here has nothing to do with my impulsive book-buying tendencies.  Really, it doesn't.  It truly is more of a too-many-books-too-little-time-to-read-them kind of thing.  That being said, where do you think I should start with this list?  Have you read any of them?  Which are your favorites?  And, most importantly, what's on your list?  I'd love to know!  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Love the Author, Just Not Her Books

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Sara's dad invites her to accompany him on a business trip to New York City, she's ecstatic.  They'll only have one day to fit in his meetings and see all the sights, but that's okay—the 17-year-old can't wait to spend some one-on-one time with her workaholic father.  When the inevitable happens, Sara's not really surprised, just disappointed.  Reassuring her dad that she can entertain herself while he's stuck schmoozing, Sara bites down her anger and vows to do just that.  Armed with her trusty point-and-shoot, she's capturing the city's energy on film when she spies something that really interests her: a mysterious guy in a hoodie advertising her favorite indie band.  Sara snaps a quick picture, an innocent action that sets in motion an adventure the likes of which she never could have imagined.  

Sam's not really in the mood to be the subject of some tourist's vacation shot, but he has to admit there might be something different about this one.  Sara seems almost as lost as he is.  So, he lets her tag along with him as he criss-crosses the city seeking something unique for a very demanding client.  The more he gets to know Sara, the more he wonders if she might be more than just a new friend, but also his salvation.  

Although I love Lisa Mangum as a person (she's funny, down-to-earth, and just super nice), I'm not a huge fan of her books.  Her newest, After Hello, is definitely my favorite of the bunch, but it still just didn't quite do it for me.  The novel has a fun premise—two strangers race against the clock to find something special in a city full of surprises—that, unfortunately, gets too melodramatic and far-fetched to fulfill its charming promise.  Neither Sara nor Sam really spoke to me.  They both seemed tortured and wise beyond their years, which gave their story a dark, unrealistic twist.  Overall, After Hello is a quick read and not a bad one, it just wasn't as engaging or as magical as I hoped it would be.  Bummer.   

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  Suggestions?)

Grade:  C+ 

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

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

TTT: Finally, An Easy Question ...

It's Tuesday, which means it's time to head over to The Broke and the Bookish and check out this week's TTT topic.  The question du jour (I don't know what week is in French) is—What ten books are at the top of your Spring TBR list?  Finally, an easy question!  Phew.  Here's my list, in no particular order:


1.  A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy—Unfortunately, this Irish author died recently, meaning this will be the last book she writes.  I'm excited to read it, but sad that she will never publish another.  *Sniff*


2.  The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult—Picoult is one of my all-time favorite authors and her newest sounds a little different than her other novels.  I'm interested to see what it's all about ...


3.  Orleans by Sherri L. Smith—I've been wanting to read this ever since the ARC came in the mail.  There's just one problem:  I can't find the book!  I put off reading it until it was closer to the book's pub date (which has been and gone) and yeah, it's disappeared.  Ack!  I need to go through all my review books and locate it ASAP.


 4.  Second Chances by Melanie Jacobson—I'm not wild about LDS fiction in general, but if anyone were to change my mind about the genre, it would be Melanie.  She's got an upbeat, contemporary voice that makes her new adult LDS romances fun to read.


5.  The House Girl by Tara Conklin—This is the book I'm planning to read next.  It's back-and-forth-in-time story about slavery sounds intriguing.


6.  Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight—I'm reading this mystery for a blog tour stop in May.  It's about a mother trying to figure out the truth behind her daughter's suspicious death.  Sounds like a good one!


7.  When the Butterflies Came by Kimberley Griffiths Little—I love Kimberley both as a person and as a writer.  She's fantastic.  Her recent books are middle grade novels set in the Louisiana bayou.  Kimberley always creates vivid scenery, complex characters and stories that just speak to me.


8.  Graceling by Kristin Cashore—I mentioned wanting to read this one in my last TTT post.  Most of you were very enthusiastic about the book, so I'm going to give it a whirl and see what I think.


9.  Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson—I think this re-telling of the Bluebeard fairy tale (not that I know what that is—pirates?) sounds excellent.  It comes out tomorrow, so I need to go put it on hold at the library lickety-split.


10.  Seraphina by Rachel Hartman—My book blogging friend over at Sarah's YA Blog has been recommending this one to me for awhile now.  She's never steered me wrong!  

So, what do you think of this list?  Have you read any of them?  What's on your Spring TBR list?

(Note:  All book cover images are from Barnes & Noble, except the one for Second Chances, which came from Deseret Book)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dark, Dystopian Diamond-in-the-Rough Just Needs a Little More Diamond, a Little Less Rough


It's been more than 100 years since the Cataclysm, a nuclear apocalypse that leveled the world's greatest cities and annihilated all but 5% of Earth's population.  Two centuries later, most of the survivors' descendants live in protected Cities.  In Mlena, their lives are ruled by the Commission.  Under the direction of the Prince, the regime determines which couples will be bonded together, how many children—and of which sex—each union may produce, and the fates of anyone who dares to speak out against them.  Despite the restrictions, few Citizens complain.  The alternative is living Outside, where acid storms rage, dragons roar, and other genetically-altered monsters roam wild, threatening any human who steps through the Shield that keeps the City safe.  

As an Exile, Sabah is forbidden to live in Mlena.  She's an orphan, a child who was born after her mother reached Quota and thus turned out of the City—the Commission's version of population control.  Saved by the Mistress, Sabah now lives in the Manor with other Gutterlings.  The large home sits within sight of Mlena, but is shrouded in the mists that pour off the nearby waterfalls.  Once the mighty falls lured millions of visitors to its edges; now, it hides the starrbriar, a powerful flower which the Mistress collects with desperate fervor.  Braving the treacherous falls to gather the plants can only be done by the smallest children, a task the Mistress is not afraid to assign them.  If they perish in the pursuit, there are always more being left outside Mlena's Shield.  

Sabah, the oldest of the Manor children and the caretaker of the others, can't stand the savage ritual, especially when the Mistress refuses to explain why the starrbriars must be gathered.  She's tired of the secrets.  Tired of her futile existence.  When a ban-wolf begins stalking her, Sabah doesn't feel fear, but curiosity.  The beasts are supposed to be ferocious and yet, this one seems almost human.  The more she gets to know Arjun, the more she wonders:  What is the Mistress hiding?  What does Sabah really know about the dangerous world in which she lives?  Who are the true monsters?  And where does she belong—with a woman who sacrifices kids to get what she wants, to the man who helps her, or to the beast that could kill them all?  

I don't accept many self-published novels for review because, in general, I find them to be poorly written, full of editing issues and just really not worth my time.  Occasionally, though, an intriguing premise catches my attention.  Even more rarely, the quality of the writing convinces me to give the book a try.  Such is the case with Edge of the Falls, a dark, dystopian re-telling of Beauty and the Beast by Nazarea Andrews.  Although I didn't love, love, love the book, I can say one thing for sure and certain—this girl can write.  She knows how to create a vivid, atmospheric world that comes alive in the reader's imagination.  Did everything about the place make sense? No.  Still, I found it interesting enough to keep reading.  My enthusiasm started to wane a little with the insta-love between Arjun and Sabah, the bizarre love triangle (square?), not to mention all the dystopian clichés that started cropping up toward the middle of the book.  The story starts out with some original ideas, but it quickly becomes more of the same ole, same ole.  Usually, I care more about characters than plot anyway—this cast, though, really didn't do much for me.  They were all pretty flat and I didn't get why all the males fell so head-over-heels for Sabah, who's moody, fickle and doesn't actually do much to solve her own problems.  

So, in the end, Andrews' way with words impressed me as well as her ability to keep me engaged in Edge of the Falls, even though I wanted a lot more from the story.  Overall, I have to say I'm glad I took a chance on this self-published diamond-in-the-rough—I just would have liked more diamond, less rough.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a lot of Under the Never Sky and Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi)

Grade:  C+

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Edge of the Falls from Nazarea Andrews.  Thank you!

Friday, March 08, 2013

Pro-Abstinence YA Novel Refreshing, But Not Riveting

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

High school senior Val Jensen really isn't one for drama.  Usually.  But when her ex-boyfriend—who's still smarting because she refused to sleep with him—spreads a rumor that she's easy, Val snaps.  She stands up in the crowded lunchroom and yells out the truth for all to hear:  she's a virgin and will be until her wedding night.  Thanks to someone's cell phone camera, Val's impassioned speech hits YouTube, where it goes viral.

At first, she's mortified by all the attention.  Then, Val realizes that she has no reason to be.  By speaking up in defense of abstinence, she has the chance to help teenagers not just in Huntington Beach, California, but all over the country, maybe even the world, make smart decisions about sex.  She has a very good reason, too—her birth mother got pregnant way too early, resulting in Val being placed for adoption when she was an infant.  She doesn't want herself—or any of her friends—to have to endure that kind of heartache.

It's only when Val meets a totally irritating, but completely irresistible rock star that she begins to doubt herself.  Kyle Hamilton's the sexiest guy she's ever met and he's so hot for Val that he's writing hit songs about her.  How can she not give him everything he wants?  But if she does, she'll destroy all the good she's done as Virgin Val.  If she sticks to her guns, though, she may lose everything else.  As her life spirals out of control, Val must decide when to speak up, when to stand down, and how far she'll go to get what—and who—she wants.

I'd never heard of Kelly Oram until her latest novel, V is for Virgin, was nominated for a Whitney Award.  And even though I didn't love the book, I'm glad for the introduction to Oram's work.  She writes with a strong voice and a forthrightness that's both refreshing and instructive (without being too preachy).  Contemporary YA seems to be a natural fit for her.  That being said, I had a few issues with her latest (don't I always?).  Val, for me, is another one of those heroines who's way too into herself to be likable or sympathetic.  Her oh-poor-me-I'm-so-beautiful-that-every-guy-I-meet-falls-in-love-with-me act gets very old very quickly.  Plus, things go a little too smoothly for her.  Like I said before, I can't root for a heroine who doesn't have to fight a little bit to achieve her goal.  There were other things that bugged me about the story, like how Val's (supposedly attentive) parents let her date an older guy (without any protest) and attend wild adult parties dressed like a streetwalker (again, they say nothing?).  Also, the fact that said older guy—and his buddies—are going after high school girls.  And don't get me started on my love/hate relationship with the book's Epilogue.  So, despite the things I did like about this one, V is for Virgin ended up falling kind of flat for me.  Oram's on my Authors-to-Watch list, though, because I think she's got some definite potential.  Let's see if she lives up to it, shall we?

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a lot of Finding June by Shannen Crane Camp)

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a PDF copy of V is for Virgin as part of my involvement with judging for the Whitney Awards.  Thank you!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Finding June: Another Example of Why "Self-Centered Heroine" Is An Oxymoron

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

One of 16-year-old June Laurie's biggest dreams is about to come true—she's joining the cast of the most popular crime show on t.v.  Sure, it's only for a few episodes, but who cares?  She's in.  Which means she'll be spending some serious on-screen time with the delicious Lukas Leighton.  He's the star of every girl's fondest daydreams, including June's.  She can hardly believe the opportunity has landed in her lap, but she's determined to make the most of it.  

June's co-stars aren't sure what to make of the 16-year-old Mormon girl who won't drink coffee and balks at the skimpy costumes she's supposed to wear.  She's not sure either.  June wants this gig so badly she doesn't dare mess it up by asking the producer for something more modest to wear.  Does she?  It doesn't help matters that the Lukas Leighton seems to be falling for her.  Are a part on a t.v. show and the attention of a gorgeous actor really worth compromising June's standards?  As the pressure mounts, she'll have to decide how much she's willing to sacrifice to get what—and who—she wants. 

There are several things I like about Finding June, a sweet YA romance by Shannen Crane Camp (there are lots of things I don't, but we'll get to that in a minute ...).  The cover, for one.  It's got a vintage feel to it that still somehow very clearly says contemporary YA.  Eye-catching for sure.  Also, the fact that Camp's writing about LDS teens without being overly preachy or trying too hard to teach some kind of lesson.  In fact, I think she finds an almost perfect balance between church-y stuff and non-church-y stuff, if that makes any sense.  

That being said, Finding June pretty much annoyed me from the first sentence to the last.  Why, you ask?  Well, it starts with the fact that this story has no central conflict.  It sounds like it does with the whole compromising standards thing, but that's actually sort of a subplot.  And not a very interesting one at that (although it definitely could have been).  In truth, the story really doesn't have much conflict at all.  It's pretty obvious how the book's going to turn out, since this premise/plotline's been done a bajillion times and Crane doesn't bother to throw in any surprises to make June's tale unique.  Plus, June never really struggles with anything.  At all.  She's self-centered, insensitive, clueless and yet everyone loves her and gives her exactly what she wants?  I don't buy it.  For me to really get behind a heroine (or hero), I have to see her fight to attain her goals, I have to see her fail so she can pick herself up and continue to claw her way through her troubles, I have to see her care for someone (or something) beyond herself, I have to find something in her to admire.  That didn't happen with June.  She's too flat, too self-absorbed, too unrealistic.  

I have more beefs with Finding June, but I think I'll stop there.  Suffice it to say, I didn't care much for this one.  Crane's got the right idea, IMHO, she just needs to work on creating deeper, more empathetic characters; plotlines that twist in surprising directions; and richer, more vivid prose.  Piece of cake, right?

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a lot of V is for Virgin by Kelly Oram and a teensy tiny bit of My Double Life by Janette Rallison)

Grade:  D

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-copy of Finding June as part of my participation as a judge for the Whitney Awards.  Thank you!

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