Tuesday, April 30, 2013

TTT: They Get Me Every Time ...


Oooh, I love today's TTT topic:  Top Ten Words/Topics That Instantly Make Me Buy/Pick Up a Book.  It's going to be a fun one.  Before I get started, though, you need to know that this fabulous bookish meme is hosted by the fine ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish.  If you haven't done TTT before, hop on over to their blog, get all the details, and join in.  It's a good time, I promise!  Okay, so words/topics on books that pretty much guarantee I'll pick them up:

1.  Adoption—Even before my husband and I became adoptive parents, I loved stories about adoption.  They made me cry, they made me hope, they just made my mother's heart happy.  Now, especially, I always nab up books—particularly novels—about adoption.  Given my tender feelings toward the subject, it's difficult for me not to be touched by these kinds of stories.


2.  Racial Identity—Although I'm so white my skin burns just from glancing at the sun, my beautiful adopted daughter has the creamy, milk chocolate-colored skin that can only come from a racially-mixed heritage.  Because she's being raised in a white family who lives in a predominantly white community, I worry about how she'll come to view the fact that she's bi-racial.  I'm hoping she'll grow up loving every aspect of herself, including her mixed ethnicity.  Because I think about these issues a lot, I'm always interested in books that examine racial identity, particularly from the point of view of characters who are, like my daughter, both Caucasian and African-American.  Also, books about interracial relationships, African-American history, the Civil Rights movement, racism, etc.

(Favorites:  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; A Time to Kill by John GrishamFeathers by Jacqueline Woodson; Jericho Walls by Kristi Collier; The Help by Kathryn Stockett

3.  Books—This is probably an obvious one, but I'm always drawn in by books about books, reading, and the love of literature.


4.  Small Towns—Books set in small towns always seem to appeal to me.  I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that I was raised in a tiny hamlet, complete with its own cast of quirky characters.  I love the quaintness and comfort such places exude, especially when they're just a cover for something much more sinister (in fiction, anyway).

(Favorites:  The Big Stone Gap series by Adriana Trigiani; The Grace Valley and Virgin River series by Robyn Carr)  

5.  Dystopian/Post-apocalyptic—Either of these adjectives will do it for me every time.  I've been loving on this genre ever since I read Hunger Games and, even though it's lost some of its oomph, I still salivate over new dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels.    

(Favorites:  The Hunger Games trilogy [The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay] by Suzanne Collins; the Under the Never Sky [Under the Never Sky; Through the Ever Night] series by Veronica Rossi; Ashes series [Ashes; Shadows] by Ilsa J. Bick; Orleans by Sherri L. Smith; The Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi; The Shades of the Moon series [Life As We Knew It; The Dead and the Gone; This World We Live In] by Susan Beth Pfeffer, etc.) 

6.  "Psychological Thriller"—Those words always lure me in.  I'm a sucker for a good, mind-bending adventure.  


7.  NOLA—Closely tied to #1 and #2, are books about Louisiana in general, New Orleans in particular  My adopted daughter was born near The Crescent City and has Cajun roots.  So, yeah, I'm always looking for more information on the history, culture and lifestyle of people in this vibrant area of the country.  Many novels are set in and around The Big Easy, so I've got a wealth of them to explore.  


8.  "Atmospheric"—This word makes me seriously giddy.  I will forgive plot flaws, cardboard characters, static dialogue and really, just about anything for a vivid, engaging setting.  Places in books can be just as swoon-worthy as the people!

(Favorites:  The Grace Valley series by Robyn Carr; The Virgin River series by Robyn Carr; The Truth About Love & Lightning by Susan McBride; The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)

9.  Family Saga—I like family sagas for the same reason I enjoy reading books in a series:  you get to know the characters really, really well.  And family relationships are always so interesting to me, both in fiction and in real life.  As long as the family saga in question has an overlying plot that keeps the story from getting to stale, I'm in!


10.  Family Secrets—Closely tied to #9 is this phrase.  Tons of these books are published every year and while some are better than others, it's pretty much a guarantee that I'll pick up a novel that promises a good yarn full of juicy family secrets.  


What about you?  Which words/phrases/topics make you snatch up a book?  And do you have any suggestions for good reads that fall under the categories I listed?  You know I'd love to hear them!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Cute and Magical Circus An Enjoyable Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Lexi Ryan made a stupid mistake.  One that ended up killing her father.  As if the guilt and grief aren't enough to bring the 17-year-old to her knees, she's also got no money, no home, and nowhere she can turn for help.  Before she screwed everything up, Lexi could have run to her best friend, Eli Katz.  He would have done anything—anything—for her.  Not anymore.  Now, she's well and truly alone.  There's only one avenue for Lexi to follow:  she'll have to track down the mother who abandoned her only child in order to pursue a singing career.  Last anyone knew, Callie Ryan was working in Florida with a traveling circus.  It's a start.

At the end of a long Greyhound ride, Lexi finds Circus Europa.  But not her mother.  It's a dead end.  Lexi has nowhere else to go, so she hires on as a glorified pooper scooper.  While shoveling dung, she surprises herself by falling in love with the vibrant, ever-changing circus life.  And the people who keep it running, especially the tall, dark, handsome ones.  When Lexi lands the job of circus fortune teller, she finally feels like she's found her place.  Like she's home.  She still has no leads on her mother's whereabouts, but maybe finding Callie doesn't matter so much anymore.

Then, a surprise visitor shows up and throws Lexi's life into another tailspin.  Just as she was feeling comfortable with her new life among the lions, tigers and bears (oh my!), she has to ask herself the tough questions:  Where is her true home?  What does she want for her future?  And, most importantly, what does family really mean?  As she wrestles with the big questions, Lexi will find the one thing she's been looking for all along:  herself.

Ever since I glimpsed the cover of That Time I Joined the Circus by J.J. Howard somewhere in the book blogosphere, I've wanted to read this debut novel.  So, I was thrilled when a copy showed up on my doorstep, courtesy of the good people at Scholastic.  As soon as I opened the book, I knew my excitement was justified because really, everything about the book is appealing, from its design to its premise to the engaging voice of its heroine.  Sure, there are things about the story that bugged me—it's far-fetched, a bit contrived, not as atmospheric as I wanted it to be, the love triangle (square?) gets a little annoying, etc.  Overall, though I found this one cute and magical.  I enjoyed it.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and a teensy, tiny bit of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern)

Grade:  B

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

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday, More or Less

I usually don't post twice in a day, but I actually sorta forgot that it was Tuesday.  Yeah.  Anyway, since it is the third day of the week, that means it's time for my favorite bookish meme, Top Ten Tuesday.  It's hosted by the fine ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week, our hostesses with the mostesses ask:  What are the Top Ten Books You Liked More/Less Than You Thought You Would?  In the spirit of putting the bad news first, I'm going to start with the latter question.  Here we go:

Books I Liked Less Than I Thought I Would:


1.  Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card—I admit I'm kind of a fair weather fan when it comes to OSC.  Some of his books I like, some I don't.  But, everyone (it seems) talks about how amazing Ender's Game is and ... I just don't get it.  Admittedly, I've only read the first third or so, but I've done that at least three times!  The book's so terribly written that I've never been able to get past that point.  Judging from the enthusiastic responses of readers whose opinions I respect, I thought I would love this one.  Yeah, not so much.


2.  Prized by Caragh M. O'Brien—After I read Birthmarked, I went a little fan girl over this author.  Since I loved the first book in the series, I figured I'd adore the second.  Again ... not so much.


3.  Viola in Reel Life and Viola in the Spotlight by Adriana Trigiani—I love Trigiani's adult books, so I thought I'd really get into her YA series.  Nope.  Even after two installments, I'm still very underwhelmed by it.


4.  Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys—This is another one that readers/bloggers adore and recommend like crazy.  While I understand why (it's definitely impactful), the book didn't wow me.  The prose felt cold and distant, which makes sense considering it's about the imprisonment of innocent people, but still ... Sepetys' second book, Out of the Easy, was much more to my liking.  Even though it also dealt with difficult subjects, it was a much warmer, more satisfying novel.


5.  Beauty Queens by Libba Bray—I loved the cover and the premise of this one.  The beginning made me laugh with its quirky, tongue-in-cheek examination of beauty.  However, as the story went on, it got increasingly bawdy and bizarre.  I read it, but found the experience disappointing.


Books I Liked More Than I Thought I Would:



1.  Cinder by Marissa Meyer—I had an ARC of this one for a year or so before I actually read it.  Why?  The cover.  It showed a robot and, although I like sci fi in small doses, I've never been into robots.  At all.  But, when a fellow book blogger insisted I had to read Cinder, like now, I listened—and totally devoured it.  Now, The Lunar Chronicles is one of my very favorite YA series.


2.  Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult—I adore Picoult so much that I pre-order every book she writes (in hardcover, no less), without even reading the plot summaries.  So, I was a little surprised by the look of Lone Wolf.  Its cover featured a ... wolf.  And while I'm not like an animal hater or anything, I'm really not that into wildlife.  Thus, it took me a while to get around to reading the book.  When I did, though, wow, it totally pulled me in.  And, in case you're wondering, it's not so much about wolves, as about a family dealing with their comatose husband/father.

3.  Unbroken by Laura HillenbrandEveryone raves about this book.  And because the people in my life who kept recommending it to me represented such a variety of reading preferences, I knew I had to check it out for myself.  War memoirs are usually too violent/depressing for me, but Unbroken just grabbed my attention right off the bat and kept me totally and completely absorbed.  Now, I'm one of those people who recommend it to everyone I know!

4.  The Grace Valley series (Deep in the Valley; Just Over the Mountain; Down By the River) by Robyn Carr—You've probably noticed that I don't read much romance.  It's usually too sappy, too graphic, too melodramatic, etc. for the likes of little ole me.  But, my friend kept going on and on about how great Carr is, so I decided to take a chance (although this same person also recommended Ender's Game ...) and it totally paid off.  I love Carr's ability to create vivid towns full of warm, big-hearted people dealing with their problems in the best ways they know how.  The people and places she creates just speak to me!


5.  White Horse by Alex Adams—This book is so incredibly violent and disturbing that I can't believe I read the whole thing.  And liked it.  Because despite the ick factor, this story is very compelling.  And it's got the best last line I've ever read in a novel.  If you've got a strong stomach, I recommend it.  If not, stay away.  Far, far away.        

Birth Memoir Tackles Grief, Disappointment and Finding Beauty Where You Least Expect It

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kelle Hampton is the kind of woman who plans things down to a T.  Including the birth of a child.  As her belly swelled in anticipation of her first baby's arrival, she wrestled with every last detail to ensure the event would go off perfectly.  The 31-year-old knew who would be in the delivery room when her baby came (her husband and best girlfriends), what they would listen to while she pushed (carefully-selected birthing music), which outfit she would don while receiving visitors (a slinky nightgown and a tiara), and that she would distribute handmade party favors (yes, really) to everyone who stopped by to see the newborn.  Everything about the day would be perfect.  Absolutely flawless.  

Then, Nella Cordelia arrived.  With Down syndrome.  And all of Kelle's work toward having the perfect birth experience with the perfect baby flew out the door.  Because, despite her obsessive planning, the baby in her arms was far from the one Kelle had been expecting.  Although she looked as pink and round as the healthiest infant, Nella carried an extra chromosome—and that made all the difference.  As Kelle absorbed the devastating diagnosis, she went through every possible emotion.  Bottom line: she had to learn to love her baby.  The question was how to do so when she felt so scared, so let down, so helpless. 

Kelle found the process so difficult that she poured out all of her feelings about it on a blog that became enormously popular.  In 2012, her blog entries, along with dozens of family photos, were assembled and published as the best-selling memoir, Bloom.  And it's a lovely book, in lots of ways.  The photographs are striking, the prose stirring.  The journey Kelle recounts feels so real and raw that it's almost as if it's happening right here, right now, to you.  It's touching, no doubt about it.  Because even as Kelle recalls even her ugliest thoughts and emotions, she does it with a sincerity that underscores her ultimate message—beauty can be discovered in even the most surprising packages. 

Now, I admit that I almost set this book aside a few times.  The prologue made me roll my eyes and wonder if I could really relate to an adult woman who wore a tiara while receiving visitors in the hospital.  But I persevered.  Later, as Kelle took two hundred pages to work through her grief and disappointment, I found myself more than a little irritated with her self-indulgent whining.  It's eloquent whining, don't get me wrong, but since I'm more of an accept-what-you-can't-change-and-move-on kind of person, it grated on my nerves.  As did Kelle's constant neediness.  Still, I appreciated the honesty and passion with which Kelle told her story.  And even though the book isn't really about the ins and outs of parenting a special needs child, it is about learning how to accept them, to nurture them, and to endow them with the fiercest, most empowering gift you can give them—your undying love.  I can get behind that message, even if it comes from a whiny woman wearing a plastic tiara.

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

Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Bloom from the generous folks at Harper Collins via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!

Monday, April 22, 2013

And the Winner Is ...

We have a winner in my giveaway for a copy of Roses Have Thorns by Sandra Byrd.  Congratulations, Carolyn Rachel!  If you'll please send me (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTcom) your mailing address, I'll pass it along to the publicist who will be mailing out the book.

Thanks to all for entering the giveaway!




Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fast-Paced and Compelling, Crash Another Eerie Hit From McMann

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For 16 years, Jules Demarco has led an unexceptional, even boring, little life.  She drives a totally obnoxious, completely embarrassing food truck to school, always smells like pizza, has few friends and couldn't get Sawyer Angotti to notice her if she set herself on fire.  As pathetic as all that seems, Jules wants it back.  She craves normal, even if her normal kind of sucks.  It's still better than the crazy she's going through now.  Every time she glances at a billboard, window or t.v. screen, she sees a terrifying vision—a crash, flames engulfing a building, nine body bags lined up in the snow.  Seeing things that aren't there can mean only two things:  either she's certifiable or people she knows are going to die.  Either way, she's screwed.  

Jules can't tell anyone about the vision.  Her family's under enough stress—they're struggling to keep their pizzeria open, dealing with Jules' father's obsessive hoarding, and just trying to survive from day-to-day.  Jules refuses to add to the load they're already carrying.  But what else can she do?  As the vision becomes ever more intense, ever more consuming, Jules knows she has to warn the fire's victims.  It's the only way to clear her head, the only way to (possibly) save the lives of nine people.  The problem is convincing the Angottis, the family with whom the Demarcos have been feuding for more than a century, that something terrible's going to happen to them.  The problem is doing it without sounding like a raving lunatic.  The problem is saving the boy she's loved since First Grade without losing him completely.  The problem is ... everything.  Absolutely everything.

While I've enjoyed all of Lisa McMann's YA novels, I knew after a chapter or two that her newest, Crash, would end up being my favorite.  And I was right.  The novel, the first in a new series, keeps the eerie feel that all of McMann's teen books have, but lightens the tone quite a bit.  Which is what made the difference for me.  Crash just has a warmth to it that the other books don't.  Jules' personality definitely contributes to that because even though she's plagued by numerous problems, she keeps her sense of humor.  She's self-deprecating, loyal, and protective—all admirable qualities that contribute to her immense likability.  And, while the idea of a teen using paranormal abilities to solve mysteries/save lives is nothing new in the YA genre, I thought Crash still had a hint of freshness to it.  Overall, it's a fast-paced, engaging story that's compelling, entertaining and surprising (at least at the end).  All that, for me, equaled a very enjoyable start to this new series.  I'm excited to see where it goes from here!  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of the Wake trilogy [Wake; Fade; Gone] by Lisa McMann and a bit of The Body Finder [The Body Finder; Desires of the Dead; The Last Echo; and Dead Silence] series by Kimberly Derting)

Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

TTT: Choose Your Own Adventure

It's that time of the week again and I'm excited about today's Top Ten Tuesday topic.  Our wonderful hostesses over at The Broke and the Bookish actually did not assign a subject for today's list—instead, we were supposed to choose a prompt that we either missed out on or wanted to revisit.  I scanned past TTT topics and decided it would be fun to talk about my Top Ten Favorite Places to Read.  It was actually tough to come up with that many, but I enjoyed the process (which might mean I'm a little hard up for entertainment ...).


1.  The beach—I'm not a big water person, so I spend most of my beach time on the shore.  Which suits me just fine.  There's nothing better than curling up in a beach chair and losing yourself in a good book.  The sounds of waves crashing, seagulls bleating, and children squealing with delight provides the perfect background music to any story line!  I've enjoyed oceanside reading on the beach in Jamaica, Hawaii, California, Oregon, The Philippines, Washington State and Mexico.  Had we stayed longer on Tybee Island, I probably would have done some reading there, too!


2.  The lake—Again, there's just nothing quite as peaceful as relaxing with a book in a beautiful setting.  We like to go houseboating at Lake Powell, a giant man-made reservoir that straddles the Utah/Arizona border.  My favorite thing to do there (besides zoom around on a jet ski) is lay around and read.  It's incredibly relaxing to stretch out on a deck chair with a good book and just enjoy the amazing scenery as well as the happy, laidback atmosphere.

3.  My couch—Although it's much less exciting, the place where I do most of my reading is on the brown sectional in my family room.  It's not the most attractive piece of furniture, but we bought it because all of its seats recline.  Plus, there's a convenient cup holder between the "Mommy and Daddy" seats, so I can keep a cup of ice water handy while I put my feet up and read.  It's not the beach, but it works.

4.  My bed—Way back when my husband and I were in our early 30s (okay, it was only a few years ago, but it feels like forever), we invested in a California King-sized adjustable bed.  We felt like senior citizens when we made the purchase, but oh my gosh, that was some of the best money we've ever spent!  The bed itself is super comfy (I can't sleep well anywhere else), plus you can adjust both ends of the mattress to achieve the perfect position for bedtime reading.  It's heaven.  Seriously.

5.  My bathtub—Here in the Phoenix area, it's blazing hot for most of the year, so I don't spend a lot of time soaking in the tub.  When I do, though, I always bring a book.  Nothing says relaxation quite like filling my tub with hot water and scented bubbles, switching on the fireplace that sits next to the tub and just luxuriating in the cozy warmth of it all.

6.  By the pool—Since desert summers are so intense (and last for a good 9 months), we spend a lot of time in our backyard pool.  When I'm not swimming, I like to sit on the deck in whatever sliver of shade I can find and read while I keep an eye on the kids.

7.  Airplanes/airports—Okay, these aren't my favorite places to read, but I've gotten a lot of reading done both while riding on airplanes or and waiting for them to arrive.  Because that much uninterrupted reading time can be difficult to find at home, I've been known to tell people, "You can drop me at the airport a couple hours early.  I don't mind."  Or, "Don't rush to pick me up.  I'll just sit and read."  Plus, if my book starts to drag a bit, the airport's a fabulous place for people watching.

8.  Waiting rooms—Again, if you gave me a choice of places to read, I'd never willingly choose a waiting room, BUT, I do a lot of reading in such places.  It makes long waits at the doctor's office much more bearable.  In fact, when I wrote an online review for my dentist recently, my one complaint was that they get me back too soon for me to get any reading done!

9.  My front porch—When the weather's nice here, my front porch is actually a perfect reading spot.  It's shady, quiet and really quite lovely.  I'm not sure why I don't spend more time there—I think I sort of forget it exists.  Crazy.

10.  The balcony—Ditto with the balcony.  Our house actually has two connected balconies, both of which offer fair views of the city and valley in which we live.  They're particularly nice spots from which to enjoy our beautiful desert sunsets.  Again, I think the weather is so fiery here most of the time that I forget to sit outside and enjoy the nice weather when it does come around.  Silly me.

So, there you have them, my favorite places to read.  Also, the places that aren't really favorites, just places where I spend lots of time reading.  And, a couple of spots where I should hole up with a book more often.  How about you?  Where are your favorite places to read?  

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Bachelor in Print? It's Jacobson, So I'll Take the Chance ... (with a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Louisa Gibson's as eager to settle down as any other 24-year-old LDS girl.  The problem is finding a guy who wants the same thing.  Which isn't easy in a place like Huntington Beach, California, where the surfer vibe's so mellow that even the most eligible Mormon bachelors don't waste their energy on anything as stressful as dating.  Hanging out in groups of friends is the easier, low-pressure alternative.  Lou's sick of this too-casual attitude toward soul mate searching—and she's going to do something about it.  She's got a plan that will not only get her new marketing firm off the ground, but also bring back the lost art of dating, something that's going to make a whole lot of single girls very, very happy.
Lou's put everything she's got into producing The Mormon Bachelor, a reality dating web series that will do what the popular t.v. show does—Latter-day Saint style.  If her girlfriends' enthusiasm for the project is any indication, the thing will go viral in no time.  At least that's what Lou's praying will happen; otherwise, she'll be living in her Audi.  

When the star of Lou's show bails on her at the last minute, she panics.  In desperation, she turns to Nick Westman, the drop-dead gorgeous actor who also happens to be the most shallow man on the planet.  And her ex-boyfriend.  With Nick as the Mormon Bachelor, the series will be a guaranteed hit, bringing Lou's marketing firm the attention it needs for a profitable launch.  Everything's turning out perfectly—until Lou's forced to become a contestant on her own show.  She already knows Nick Westman is Mr. Wrong, so why does he suddenly feel so right?  And how can she even think such a thing when the success of her big project depends on him finding love with someone else?  With everything riding on her roller coaster feelings, Lou's got to get a grip.  And fast.  

I rarely watch t.v. and when I do indulge, you better believe it's not in "reality" romance shows a lá The Bachelor (I prefer more sophisticated programming—you know, like Hoarders).  So, when I read the plot summary for Melanie Jacobson's newest LDS romance, I hesitated.  But only for a second.  It's Jacobson, after all, and when I said I'd read anything she wrote, I meant it.  Even if it's The Bachelor in print (gag).  And guess what?  Second Chances proved worthy of my trust.  The novel's vintage Jacobson—in other words, upbeat, funny and heart-meltingly (yes, of course, that's a real word) romantic.  I'm not always wild about Jacobson's I'm-beautiful-and-I-know-it heroines (because, after all, there's a very fine line between confident and cocky), but I liked Lou enough to root for her triumph, both professionally and romantically.  Is our girl victorious?  I'm not going to tell you (although you can probably figure it out for yourself), I'm just going to guarantee that you'll enjoy the ride.  I always do when Jacobson's at the wheel.  
 
(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Melanie Jacobson's other novels—The List; Twitterpated; Not My Type; and Smart Move; also of Countdown to Love by Julie N. Ford)

Grade:  B

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

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

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It's okay if you totally skipped over my review so you could get down here, to the good part.  I'll forgive you.  I'll also make this super easy on you:  If you'd like a chance to win a copy of Second Chances for your very own, leave a comment on this post telling me you want to enter.  You must also leave a valid e-mail address so that I can contact you if you win.  The contest will end on April 30th.  Good luck!

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Romantic Suspense Novel's Got Action, But Not Much Else

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As a kid growing up on the mean streets of Porto Alegre, Brazil, Regina da Silva did anything she had to in order to survive.  Anything.  She's not proud of it, only grateful that Noah Anderson rescued her from that pitiful existence.  Noah, an American who made it his mission to help orphans like her, took her in, helped her get a nursing degree, then instated her as co-director of House of Angels orphanage.  Like the man who became like a father to her, Regina spends her days making sure street children have food, shelter and medical attention.  She will never have children of her own, but at least she can mother the kids in her care at the orphanage.  

Unlike Regina, Brooks Anderson wants nothing to do with his father.  Sick of the man's secrecy and lies, he left home as soon as he could, joining the Army so he wouldn't have to live with Noah for one more day.  Even now, as his dad lays dying in a hospital bed, Brooks refuses to forgive him.  Instead, he channels his anger into the rescue missions he performs on his own, using the skills he gained from his military training. 

When Irene, Regina's best friend and co-worker, is killed by an unknown assassin, Brooks' mom begs him to help.  She won't explains her reasons, just pleads for Brooks to get Irene's 3-month-old son safely to the U.S.  Reluctantly, he takes on the assignment.  But what seems like a simple job turns very complicated when Brooks meets Regina, who's not about to let a strange man take the baby she's sworn to protect.  With a murderer tracking their every move, the duo are on the run, doing everything they can to save the baby.  And avoid killing each other in the process.  Thanks to events in their pasts, both Regina and Brooks know how dangerous it is to trust another person, but their survival—and that of an innocent infant—hinge on doing just that.  Can they learn to work together long enough to get the baby out of harm's way?  Or will they all end up more broken than before?

With non-stop action and an exotic setting, Angel Falls by Connie Mann brings a little something different to the genre of faith-based romantic suspense.  Just not enough.  Because the rest of it sags under a predictable storyline, underdeveloped characters, far-fetched plot twists and just an overall feel of the same ole, same ole.  So, while it's always refreshing to find a (mostly) clean, easy, action-packed read, this one just didn't do  much for me.  I wanted richer characterization, an original plot, story turns I couldn't see coming, and more compelling prose.  Overall, then, this one just didn't do much for me.  Oh well.     

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other romantic suspense novels, but no specific titles are coming to mind.  Suggestions?)

Grade:  C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG-13 for violence and references (not graphic) to sex, rape and prostitution

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

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Loved Back in the Day


Once again, it's time for Top Ten Tuesday, a bookish, list-y meme hosted by the fabulous ladies at The Broke and the Bookish.  And, wow, is this week's topic a stumper:  Top Ten Favorite Books I Read Before I Was a Blogger.  It's a toughie, right?  Especially for those of us who have been blogging for a while (BBB was born in August of 2006).  I mean, one of the chief reasons I started this blog was so I could remember all the great books I've read because, without it, my old, feeble mind just comes up blank!  Well, okay, I managed to think of ten, but I'm telling you, it was not easy, not easy at all ...


1.  Twilight by Stephenie Meyer—Yeah, yeah, yeah.  When Twilight first came out, I belonged to a book club with a woman who was related to Meyer somehow (cousin?).  She recommended the novel to us, saying if we all read it, she was pretty sure she could get Meyer to come chat with our book club.  But, when she described the novel as a "teenage vampire romance," we all turned up our noses.  And, it must be said (though it pains me to do so), that by the time she convinced us all to read Twilight, Meyer was much too busy to come to our little book club.  True story.

I remember being embarrassed to read Twilight in public.  Back then (it came out in 2005), adults didn't read teen books unless it was to screen them for their kids (which was totally what I was doing—uh huh).  And yet, it kept me totally entranced.  It still shames me to admit it, but I loved Twilight.


2.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling—The name J.K. Rowling doesn't appear on my blog until 2007, when I reviewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, but I had been reading her ever since the first Harry book came out in the U.S. in 1998.  I remember devouring the series while sitting in the bedroom of my toddler (who's now 14).  He played happily while I read, oftentimes falling asleep before I realized the room had gone suspiciously quiet.  H.P. grabbed me from the get-go, keeping me totally riveted with the story, the characters, the setting, everything.  It will always be one of my favorite children's series!


3.  Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell—I'd seen the movie version of GWTW several times, but I didn't read the book until after I traveled to Atlanta in 2000.  The setting definitely came alive more because I'd visited the setting and the story, of course, kept me totally engrossed.


4.  Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman—I'm not sure why this one sticks out in my mind, except that I remember it being a fun, charming novel that was different than other books I was reading at the time.


5.  Outlander by Diana Gabaldon—I read this fat tome on someone's recommendation and, in no time at all, found myself totally immersed in the story.  It swept me away from the stresses of my every day life, which at the time included bottles, diapers, housework, and all the other chores that come along with stay-at-home motherhood.  I don't know why I didn't continue with the series, but it's one I would like to finish.  Someday.  You know when I have a million free hours to wade through those very, very large books!



6.  Emma by Jane Austen—After Gwyneth Paltrow brought Emma Woodhouse to such charming life on the big screen in 1996, I knew I had to read this book.  Needless to say, it met my (very) high expectations.


7.  Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty—I've never been a huge fan of Westerns, but this classic really captured my imagination.  It's an entertaining read that I should probably re-read soon.


8.  The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown—Like millions of other fans, I found this one edge-of-your-seat compelling.  Is the writing absolutely brilliant?  No, but it's still an exciting and very readable thriller.


9.  A Time to Kill by John Grisham—I loved the movie version of this novel and not just because it's the only  Matthew McConaughey film in which the actor does more than just look pretty.  Nope, it was the storyline that sucked me in.  I'm not a huge Grisham fan, but I did really enjoy this book.  I've been meaning to re-read it for years, but a library copy's still sitting on my desk waiting for my attention.  Soon, I promise!



10.  The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—As disturbing as this novel is, I also found it totally mesmerizing.  It's unique, compelling and memorable.

A stunning realization:  So, as I was typing up this post, I had an epiphany—all the books I listed, except one (Outlander), have been made into movies/t.v. series.  Does this make them stick out more in my mind?  Or, is it just because I selected a crop of very excellent books?  Hm ...

Now that I've searched my tired mind for titles I loved before becoming a book blogger (way back in 2006—yikes!), I'd really like to know which books you adored back in the day.  Do we have any favorites in common?      

Newest Ladies in Waiting Novel Offers a Rich, Poignant Examination of Love and Loyalty (with a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Sweden's Princess Cecelia sails for England in 1565, she takes along an entourage of servants, including her favorite ladies-in-waiting.  Among these is 17-year-old Elin von Snakenborg, a redheaded beauty longing for a change of scenery.  Elin leaves behind a fiancé who's recently fallen for her sister and a dowry that's been gambled away to almost nothing.  With little to draw her back to Sweden, she decides to stay in England, pledging her services to Queen Elizabeth I.  As a foreigner, Elin's received a bit coolly by the other ladies, but it doesn't take her long to bond with the queen.  Thanks to an advantageous marriage,  Elin soon receives the title of Marchioness, making her the highest-ranking woman in all of England (save the queen).  As such, she is able to be more to the monarch than just a maid—she's now a friend, someone Queen Elizabeth depends on, confides in, and trusts.  

Even as a married woman, Elin finds life at court exciting.  The daily gossip always sizzles with tales of romance, deceit and treason.  Enemies constantly threaten the queen, vying for a chance to seize her throne.  As Elizabeth deals with danger—both from within her borders and without—she relies on her ladies-in-waiting to comfort, support and distract her.  Elin fills her role faithfully, doing everything she can to serve the queen she loves.  But when problems within her own home arise, Elin questions whether her loyalty to Elizabeth will cost her more than she's willing to give.  Can she save her marriage, even if it means defying the most powerful woman in the land?  And does she really want to, especially now that she's not sure she can trust her own husband?  In a country already swarming with danger and deception, Elin must decide where her true fealty lies—before her own neck ends up on the chopping block.

Roses Have Thorns, the third book in Sandra Byrd's Ladies in Waiting series, continues the story of England's Tudor queens, as told through the eyes of the women who were closest to them.  Like To Die For and The Secret Keeper, the newest volume in the series brings historic England to vivid life using painstaking period detail as well as a richly-imagined scenes between the principal characters.  Still, while the constant turmoil caused by real, historically-accurate events provides plenty of background tension, the main storyline sags a bit in the middle, growing dull before it picks up again toward the end.  Byrd writes well, but my interest in Elin's plight definitely waxed and waned, depending on the pacing of the plot.  Overall, though, I found Roses Have Thorns to be a rich, poignant examination of love, loyalty and the life lessons we can all glean from the world's very turbulent history.  


(Readalikes:  To Die For and The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd; also reminds me of The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner and Nefertiti by Michelle Moran)

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Roses Have Thorns from the generous folks at Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) via those at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  Thank you! 

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Now for the fun part -- you can win your very own copy of Roses Have Thorns.  All you have to do is leave a comment on this post telling me which historical time period is your favorite to read about.  I will also need an email address so I can contact you if you win.  Easy peasy, right?  The giveaway will end on April 22nd at midnight.  Good luck!

Friday, April 05, 2013

You Know You're a Book Blogger When ...

... you're browsing through the book aisle at a local department store with your teenage son and he's scanning the front and back covers of a novel, a look of genuine confusion on his face.  When you ask what he's searching for, he says, "Where on a book do you find its rating?  Is this one like PG or PG-13?  How do I know if it's appropriate for me to read?"

Excellent question, son!  Maybe you should refer to this awesome book blog I know of called Bloggin' 'bout Books.  Perhaps you've heard of it?

[Image from Wikia.com]

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Orphan Train Offers a Fascinating Look at Family, Foster Care and the Power of Friendship

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

A wealthy widow, 91-year-old Vivian Daly lives in a roomy Victorian off the coast of Maine.  Although she appears to be a woman born into money and privilege, nothing could be further from the truth.  No one knows the true story of how Vivian transformed herself from a poverty-stricken immigrant into a successful businesswoman and now a retired senior citizen living in luxury.  Her remarkable history is packed away in boxes, which sit in her attic gathering dust.  Vivian's told no one her full life story; she intends to take her secrets to the grave.
Then, Molly Ayer arrives on Vivian's doorstep.  On the brink of being kicked out of her newest foster home, the 17-year-old knows her next stop will be juvie—unless she can convince the powers that be of her sincere desire to improve herself.  Community service is the key and, thanks to Vivian Daly's housekeeper, Molly's found just the project to keep her busy.  Cleaning out the old lady's junk-filled attic isn't exactly the teenager's idea of a good time, but she's desperate.  And, okay, a little bit curious.   

As the unlikely duo works together to sort through all of Vivian's keepsakes, they develop a cautious friendship.  The project whisks Vivian back to the dark days of her youth, to the poverty, sorrow and abuse that marked her early years.  Molly's childhood hasn't been so dissimilar.  Both are tight-lipped about their sufferings—Can they learn to trust each other enough to unburden themselves of the baggage they carry?  Or will both women's remarkable survival stories remain forever untold?

Because I'm an adoptive mother (or maybe just a mother in general), I'm always drawn to stories about orphan children.  Such tales yank on my heart strings and claw their way so far under my skin that they float around in my mind for years after I read them.  Orphan Train, a new novel by Christina Baker Kline, will no doubt be the same.  The parallel stories of Vivian and Molly are both heartbreaking, although it's Vivian's that receives the most attention, thus becoming the most memorable.  Vivian's is a hard tale, full of humiliation, loss and woe.  Although fictional, it still offers a fascinating glimpse into the earliest version of foster care in America as well as the real-life experiences of the more than 100,000 children who really were herded onto "orphan trains" and farmed out to families in the Midwest between the years 1854 and 1929.  Molly's modern story isn't much better, begging the question, "Has anything really changed for America's abused and orphaned children?"  It sounds dreary, I know, but Orphan Train also touts the life-changing power of compassion, the importance of education and the true meaning of family.  It all ties up rather neatly as well—probably too neatly, but who cares?  I wanted a happy ending for Vivian and Molly, both of whom won my affection easily and completely.  And I got it.            

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren)     

Grade:  B

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R for strong language, sexual innuendo/content, and violence (including depictions of child abuse/neglect and attempted rape)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Orphan Train from the generous folks at Harper Collins via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The House Girl An Absorbing, Affecting Debut

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Using professionally-written book summaries instead of composing my own (admittedly sub-standard) versions always makes me feel like a lazy bum.  You're just going to have to trust me on this one, though, because I simply could not have created a better, more compelling synopsis of The House Girl by Tara Conklin than this one:
Lina Sparrow is a first-year associate at a lucrative Manhattan law firm who is given the difficult task of finding the perfect plaintiff to lead an historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves. An unexpected lead comes from her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, who tells her of a controversy currently rocking the art world. Experts now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of slaves on her pre-Civil War plantation, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. Lina knows that a descendant of Josephine's would be the perfect lead plaintiff for the lawsuit—if she is able to find one. But nothing seems to be known of Josephine's fate following the death of Lu Anne Bell in 1852. Searching for clues in historical archives, old letters, and plantation records, Lina slowly begins to piece together Josephine's story—a journey that leads her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother's mysterious death twenty years earlier. 

Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, and told through the very different eyes of Lina and the seventeen-year-old house girl Josephine, this is a searing tale of art and history, love and secrets. From the brutality of plantation life to the perils of the Underground Railroad, and from the corridors of a modern corporate law firm to the sleek galleries of the New York art world, The House Girl explores what it means to repair a wrong while asking whether the truth is sometimes more important than justice.*
I know, right?  It's beautiful and perfectly captures the essence of Conklin's stirring debut novel.

As you can see, The House Girl promises a lot—an intriguing historical tale, an absorbing mystery (or two), a rousing adventure, and a powerful journey of self-discovery.  Ambitious aims, to be sure, but you know what?  The book delivers all of that and more.  Both of its heroines are fascinating women with complex personalities and engrossing back stories.  Their tales are woven together with care, creating plenty of suspense to keep readers turning pages.  Conklin's prose sometimes feels austere, but overall, it's appropriate to the novel's tone and lovely in a way that's both precise and arresting.  While the story gets a little predictable, it's still makes for an affecting read—one I highly recommend.        

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Cutting Season by Attica Locke)

Grade:  B

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

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

*Plot summary from promotional materials written by Ben Bruton, Senior Director of Publicity at Harper Collins.

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Guilty One A Decent Mystery That Kept Me Guessing To the End

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When London solicitor Daniel Hunter meets his newest client, he doesn't see a murderer—he sees himself.  If it hadn't been for the kindly foster mother who took him in as a boy, it could have been Daniel sitting in a jail cell, accused of committing a violent crime.  For this reason, Daniel finds himself drawn to young Sebastian Croll, even though he knows better than to get too attached to a client.  But, the 11-year-old just looks so small, so helpless.  Seb's a strange kid, that's all too apparent, but did he really pick up a brick and use it to bash in a playmate's head?  Daniel believes Seb when he insists he's innocent.  
As Daniel works with Seb's family, it becomes clear that something's very wrong in the Croll household.  The situation reminds Daniel so much of his childhood that he's swept into painful memories of his own troubled past.  And of Minnie—the woman who saved and destroyed him at the same time.  

While evidence against Seb piles up all around him, Daniel must decide how best to defend the child many believe to be a murderer.  Daniel just wants the truth:  What really happened between the two young boys?  How did one end up dead? Is it possible that Seb really did kill his 8-year-old neighbor?  Does Daniel believe him only because of Seb's similarities to himself?  And will it really matter in the long run, when it's up to a jury—not Sebastian's defense team—to decide between guilt and innocence?  

The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne tells a chilling story about troubled children, the abuse they suffer, and that which they sometimes inflict on others.  It's a heartbreaking novel that stresses how badly children need loving, attentive parents as well as professional help for disturbing behavior patterns.  Plotwise, the novel moves along at a steady enough pace, giving readers a very full picture of Daniel's character.  The courtroom part of the story does get predictable; still, The Guilty One is a decent mystery that kept me guessing until the very end.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a lot of Defending Jacob by William Landay and a bit of House Rules by Jodi Picoult)

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Guilty One from the generous folks at Harper Collins via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!
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