Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Happy Birthday, Matilda! (With a Giveaway)

(Image from Penguin)

For a girl who's been madly in love with books her whole life, it's amazing how many novels—especially classics—I haven't gotten around to reading yet.  Really, it's embarrassing.  The average high school senior has probably read more time-honored literature than this English major.  Shameful.

Especially when it comes to famed children's author Roald Dahl.  Up until very recently, I had read exactly one of the twenty or so books he penned for kids (he also wrote stories for adults, a couple of cookbooks, television/film scripts and an autobiography).  One!  So, when the good folks at Penguin Young Readers offered to let BBB help with a blog tour to celebrate the anniversary of Matilda's publication, I jumped at the chance.  Could there have been a more perfect time to introduce myself to one of literature's favorite kindergartners than on her 25th birthday?  I thought not.

If you haven't had the chance to "meet" her yet, let me give you the lowdown on this lovable scamp:

Matilda is the 5-year-old daughter of the deplorable Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, who think of her as "little more than a scab."  The two are too "gormless" to realize they've somehow created a child with a truly extraordinary capacity for learning.  By three years of age, Matilda has taught herself to read; at four, she's devouring Dickens, Faulkner and Hemingway.  Her abilities are not just limited to literature—every subject she encounters, she masters.  Matilda's incredible knowledge surprises everyone except for her parents, who accuse her of making up stories to get attention.  When the young genius starts school, she encounters two educators with very different teaching styles—kind, open Miss Honey and the nasty, narrow-minded Miss Trunchbull.  As Matilda navigates this strange new world, she discovers some amazing things about the enormous power that lives inside every child.

Although Matilda isn't the absolute best children's book I've ever read, it is immensely enjoyable.  I loved it because it expresses everything that is both difficult and wonderful about childhood.  It's a story not just about finding the courage to be yourself, but also about using your unique talents to help people.  And maybe teach some nasty folks a few lessons along the way :)

*** 

Because Matilda loves books, I was asked to write a little bit about how I discovered my love of the written word.  Here's the prompt I was given:

“I think it’s safe to say that Matilda falls head over heels in love with books. She takes a wagon to gather them from the library. She hides away in her room and reads them for hours. She loves the worlds, the knowledge, the writing. What was it like for you to fall in love with books for the first time? Was it similar to Matilda’s experience?"     

Because my house was always filled with books, which I often saw my parents enjoying, I was drawn to them almost from the moment of my birth.  According to my mom, I learned to read before entering kindergarten and, well, I just never stopped.

Unlike Matilda's parents, mine encouraged my love of reading.  My mom took me to our little hometown library often when I was a kid—just not often enough to keep up with my insatiable appetite for books!  Since I couldn't persuade my mom to drive me down to the library (which was about 1/2 mile from my house) every single day, I frequently made the trek on my own two feet.  I didn't own a wagon like Matilda (pity!), so I'd stack as many books as I could up against my chest and set out for home.  The walk to the library was all downhill; not so the return trip.  My whole body ached by the time I made it back home, but having a dozen or more new books to savor made the agony so very worthwhile.

Like Matilda, I used books for escape—not from a terrible home life, just from a childhood that felt a little too ordinary for this starry-eyed dreamer.  I loved sinking into stories that allowed me to visit exotic places, meet colorful characters, and go on exciting adventures without ever leaving the safety of my home.  I did what Mrs. Phelps, Matilda's local librarian, advises her to do:  "Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music."  To me, book words created the most beautiful symphonies of all.  Still do.

What about you?  Have you read Matilda?  Was your experience with learning to love literature similar to hers?  To mine?
*** 

(Readalikes:  Matilda's story reminds me a little of Harry Potter's, while the tone of the book made me think of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:

To the FTC, with love:  I borrowed a copy of Matilda from my daughter.  Thanks, babe!

***

Now, for the good part:  To spread the Matilda love, the good folks at Penguin Young Readers are sponsoring a giveaway.  One reader will win a Matilda-themed prize pack, which contains: a paperback copy of Matilda (the edition featured in the picture at the top of this review), one copy of the Matilda Broadway soundtrack (yes, it is a hit Broadway play—click here to read my author friend's short, but enthusiastic review of it), and a Matilda the Musical Broadway poster.  Nice, right?  Since I'm about to head off on vacation, I'm not going to bother with putting together a Rafflecopter thingie—just go ahead and leave a comment on this post saying that you're interested in winning.  On July 10, I'll use Random.org to choose a winner.  Please, please, please leave a valid email address in your comment.  Your entry will be invalid if you forget this very important step.  Also, the contest is open to readers with U.S. addresses only.  Good luck!

There's No Easy Way to Say It: This One's a Bit of a Disappointment

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for No Easy Way Out, it may inadvertently spoil plot surprises from its predecessor, No Safety in Numbers.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

It's been a week since police locked down the Shops at Stonecliff—a mega-mall in Westchester County, New York—trapping hundreds of people inside.  Thanks to an airborne virus, the crowd has thinned considerably.  Many of the detainees now lay on gurneys in the office supply store turned medical center.  And they might just be the lucky ones.  The rest of the mall's population is fighting hunger, gang violence, boredom and fear.  Although the senator's working hard to establish some semblance of order inside the quarantined mall, it's still a tense, dangerous place to be.  Especially when the only way to escape seems to be in a body bag.

With gangs of armed teenagers roaming the corridors, the senator knows she has to do something.  She enlists the help of Marco Cavajal, who agrees to spy on the problematic youths in exchange for keeping his precious universal key card.  What the senator doesn't know is that Marco's running his own little side operation.  And he's not the only one.  Someone close to the senator's going behind her back every chance they get.  The only thing Marco knows for sure is that he can't trust anyone.

Meanwhile, the other teens—Lexi Ross, Ryan Murphy and Shay Dixit—have their own problems with which to deal.  With a mounting death toll; a dwindling food supply; little contact with the outside world; and different factions trying to overthrow the mall's patchwork government, there's plenty of trouble to go around.  The biggest question of all is not when the mall people will be released, but if they will.  And the answer?  Well, it's looking like a big, fat never.  Can the teens find a way to escape?  Or will they, like everyone else, be stuck in the deadly mall until disease or an act of desperation takes them down?

Although I had issues with No Safety in Numbers, the first book in Dayna Lorentz's dystopian series about four teens stuck in a quarantined mall, I applauded it for being a fast, entertaining read.  At a little over 250 pages, it trotted along fast enough to keep me interested, if not totally riveted.  The newest installment, No Easy Way Out (available for purchase July 16, 2013), is almost double the length of its predecessor.  And, it's got the same problems as the first book, namely weak character development; a simplistic plot line; and ho-hum prose.  Which means the story sags quite a bit.  It also feels too redundant.  I wanted some surprises, some conflicts that up the ante for the people in the mall.  And that just didn't happen often enough in No Easy Way Out.  Overall, I found this one overly-long and ultimately, disappointing.  I still really like the premise behind this series—the execution, not so much.  Bummer.

(Readalikes:  No Safety in Numbers by Dayna Lorentz; also, although this series doesn't have supernatural elements, it reminds me of the Gone series [Gone; Hunger; Lies; Plague; Fear; Light] by Michael Grant)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence/gore, depictions of underage drinking, and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of No Easy Way Out from the generous folks at Penguin Young Readers Group.  Thank you!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Thousands Trapped in a Locked-Down Mega-Mall with a Deadly Virus? Intriguing Premise, Meh Execution.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

At a suburban mega-mall in Westchester County, New York, thousands of shoppers weave in and out of 150 different stores and restaurants.  It's just another Saturday at the mall.  Until a teenage bus boy finds an odd-looking device in the shopping center's HVAC room.  Authorities lock down the enormous mall, imprisoning a very large crowd of shoppers.  While police comb the place trying to understand the nature of the threat, the people grow restless.  As what was supposed to be a few hours of detainment turns into an overnight stay, they become scared.  Angry.  Suspicious.  Then, people start to get sick.  Really sick.  So sick it's obvious that the detainees have been exposed to something much more sinister than just a bomb threat.  There's something in the mall's air that authorities don't want released.  Which means none of the people trapped in the mall are going anywhere anytime soon.

As hours turn into days, the people inside the mall must learn how to adapt to their new society.  With babies wailing, teenagers roaming wild, and people of every age collapsing from illness, it's barely-controlled chaos. How long will it take before the food runs out?  Before there's no clean water?  Before the mall's pharmacy runs out of meds for diabetics and others who are chronically ill?  Will the detainees be released before there's outright anarchy?  Will they be released at all?

In the middle of the mess are four teenagers:  bus boy Marco Carvajal; senator's daughter and computer geek, Lexi Ross; football hotshot, Ryan Murphy; and Shay Dixit, a lonely Indian-American girl, whose only goal is to keep her elderly grandmother and mischievous younger sister safe.  As the four interact, friendships will develop, rivalries will grow, plans for escape will be made and answers will be sought.  With more and more people dying, it's up to the teenagers to find a way out of their dangerous prison—before it's too late for them all.

No Safety in Numbers by Dayna Lorentz is the chilling first book in a YA dystopian series about Marco, Lexi, Ryan and Shay's adventures inside a locked-down mega-mall.  The premise intrigued me from the start.  It's a creepy idea, sure, but one that definitely feels more realistic than an impending zombie apocalypse.  That being said, the book lacks something in character development, plot intricacy and the overall quality of writing.  The novel is fast-paced and exciting, an entertaining read if not a particularly well-crafted one.  I'll read the sequel because I happen to have it on my shelf; otherwise, I probably wouldn't continue.  So, yeah, here's my assessment in a nutshell:  interesting premise, weak execution, entertaining enough to keep me reading, but not necessarily clamoring for more.  

(Readalikes:  its sequel, No Easy Way Out (available July 16, 2013).  Also, although this series has no supernatural elements, it still reminds me a bit of the Gone series [Gone; Hunger; Lies; Plague; Fear; Light] by Michael Grant)

Grade:  


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), violence and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find 


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

TTT: Easy, Breezy Summer Readin'

It's time again for my favorite weekly bookish meme: Top Ten Tuesday.  It's hosted, as always, by the lovely ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish.  Today, they want to know what's at the top of everyone's summer TBR list.  Mine looks a little something like this:

Top Ten Books at the Top of My Summer TBR List


1.  The Distance Between Us by Kasie West—I'm reading this contemporary YA romance right now (it comes out on July 2, I believe) and, although it's pretty fluffy, I'm enjoying it.  It's a classic rich boy meets poor girl love story, set in a beach town in California.  Although it's set during the Fall months, it's the kind of light, fun book that's perfect for summer reading.


2.  Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs—I always get excited when a new Temperance Brennan novel comes out.  This is one of my favorite adult series.  Since the book doesn't come out until August, I was thrilled to get an ARC of this one via Edelweiss.  I can't wait to see what adventures Tempe has this time around.


3.  The Newcomer by Robyn Carr—Adult romances really aren't my thing, so I generally avoid them like the proverbial plague.  Unless, of course, they're written by Carr.  She's a warm, lovely person whose personality really shines through in the books she writes.  They're romances, yes, but they're also stories about communities, families and people who value things like integrity, fidelity and loyalty to one's family, friends and country.  Carr's newest series, set on the Oregon Coast, is just as appealing as her Virgin River and Grace Valley books.  The Newcomer is the second installment in the series and it looks like a perfect summer read!  The novel comes out in about a week, but thanks to the generous Robyn Carr, I already have a copy sitting on my shelf.  


4.  Matilda by Roald Dahl—Believe it or not, I've never read Matilda.  So, when the good folks at Penguin asked if I'd like to review it as part of the celebrations for the book's 25th Anniversary, I could not resist the opportunity.  Look for my review soon!


5.  World War Z by Max Brooks—Even though it's not really monster season, I love a good zombie yarn.  I just got this one from the library and hope to get to it soon.


6.  The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr—Zarr's books are kind of hit and miss for me and her newest has gotten mixed reviews, so we'll see what I think of this one.


7.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman—I pre-orderd this one from Amazon because, well, it's Neil Gaiman.  People are saying it's really weird, though, so know I'm really interested to see what it's all about!


8.  Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley—I'm not sure why this novel about escaping polygamy sounds so intriguing to me, but it does.  It sounds a little heavy for the easy, breezy days of summer and yet, it's one I definitely want to get to soon.


9.  Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein—I've been seeing this one advertised on Amazon and I think it looks excellent.  It's a MG book about a kid who's trapped in a new library created by a genius game master.  He has to find clues and solve puzzles to find his way out.  It's being billed as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Night at the Museum, which just totally intrigues me.  The book comes out on June 25th.  I can't wait to see what it's all about.


10.  The Kill Room by Jeffery Deaver—Deaver's books are pretty hard core, but I enjoy his series about quadriplegic forensic expert Lincoln Rhyme.  Rhyme's a brilliant character and his adventures are always fast-paced and compelling.  I hope the hold list at the library moves fast because I can't wait to read this one.  

Have you read any of these?  What did you think?  And, what's at the top of your summer reading list?      

A FAYZ Finale (*Sniff, Sniff*)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Light, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Gone novels.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

More than a year has passed since everyone over the age of 14 vanished from Perdido Beach, California.  Those left behind, residents of a domed area dubbed the FAYZ, have learned to fend for themselves—and not just for food, water and shelter.  They've had to battle a deadly plague; giant, bloodthirsty worms; feral coyotes; and, worst of all, each other.  While some have used their strange new superpowers to do good, others have caused only destruction.  Chaos is what The Gaiaphage—a horrifying, control-hungry monster—wants and that's exactly what it's getting.  Now that the dome has turned opaque, spectators can see what's happening in the FAYZ.  They're outraged, not just because there are children trapped inside, but because of what those children have become.

Despite the news helicopters buzzing around outside the dome, the fast food signs glowing in the night, and the hundreds of people gathered to peer inside, nothing much has changed in the FAYZ.  Sam's group is hunkered down at the lake; Cain and his cronies rule the town; Astrid's autistic brother, Little Pete, is MIA; and Diana's stuck with the psycho baby that emerged from her own womb.  Gaia's gaining strength by the hour.  She's bent only on destruction—of her nemesis, Little Pete; of the FAYZ and everyone in it; and of the world beyond.  Fighting Gaia is impossible.  The kids can't survive against her mighty power, especially if they can't learn to stand together.  Even if they do, even with their strongest mutants on the front lines, even then, there's a good chance none of them will make it out of the FAYZ alive.  And yet, Sam refuses to go down without a fight.  Can Sam and his friends foil the Gaiaphage and save the world or will their efforts all be in vain?

Call me a sadist, but I'm sad to see the FAYZ end.  It was inevitable, of course, and truly, I'm impressed at how Michael Grant was able to up the ante in each of the books until, finally, bringing the series to a dramatic, yet satisfying, conclusion.  I've enjoyed all the novels and Light is no exception.  It's got all the action, drama, suspense, and even humor that I expect from these books.  And while I didn't absolutely love the ending, it felt right.  

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Gone series [Gone; Hunger; Lies; Plague; Fear] by Michael Grant; as well as other YA dystopian novels)

Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, June 14, 2013

I Was Totally Loving It Until ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Danielle Levine's used to feeling like an outcast, even at her special school for "high-potential kids with learning disabilities."  Even there, her OCD makes her a total freak.  How does the 18-year-old with the unruly red hair deal?  By chronicling everything she thinks and feels in exhaustive detail.  She collects her writings—school essays, e-mails, letters, personal "me-moir" entries, etc.—in a perfectly organized, color-coded binder she hides under her bed.  

Since Danielle doesn't have much of a life in the first place, she's not expecting anything different from her senior year of high school.  She'll do what she always does—blend into the scenery, lust after gorgeous Jacob Kingston from afar, and, above all, keep her weird, obsessive rituals to herself.  The one place she can't seem to restrain herself, though, is in the essays she writes for English class.  That's how she ends up in an off-campus social skills class with kids who are even less communicative than her.  Her last year of high school cannot possibly get any worse, can it?

It can.

Danielle has a place to vent all her anger, humiliation, self-loathing and fear, not to mention a cool aunt who always gives excellent advice.  But, Danielle still longs for a real friend, someone her age who understands her.  Jacob would do very nicely.  Too bad that option's about as likely as Danielle fitting into a pair of size 2 jeans.  Fortunately, friendship is closer than it seems.  So is happiness.  Even for a chubby ginger with a major case of OCD. 

The first thing that drew me into OCD, The Dude, and Me, a debut novel by Lauren Roedy Vaughn, is the voice.  Vaughn's a high school teacher English teacher, who's definitely got the lingo down.  Danielle feels authentic, like a real teenager struggling with all the problems with which real teenagers struggle every day.  But, it's her painfully distorted view of herself that makes her so sympathetic.  Because I found Danielle such a compelling heroine, I enjoyed all her jottings about life, love and The Big Lebowski.  In fact, I was loving everything about the novel—until Daniel came along.  Not only does he embody one of the biggest clich├ęs in contemporary YA lit, but he also has some disturbing quirks and illegal hobbies.  Why those things needed to be mentioned is beyond me, since honestly, they contributed nothing to the story and made me think less of both Daniel and Danielle.  Call me a prude, but there you go.  Overall, I found OCD, The Dude, and Me engrossing, but the Daniel thing really derailed my enjoyment of the book.  Which is a real bummer.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little bit of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:

 for strong language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder invectives), sexual innuendo/content and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of OCD, The Dude, and Me from the generous folks at Dial (an imprint of Penguin Books) via those at Pump Up Your Book Promotion.  Thank you!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Look—Shiny!

Since a lot of you access this blog via some kind of feed reader, I wanted to make sure you knew about a few fun design changes here on BBB.  If you're reading it on the actual web page, you've probably already noticed my new pretties.  Nice, huh?  I've been wanting to re-do my left sidebar to make it less text heavy and more eye-catching.  Since I have no talent in that arena, I contacted my favorite graphic designer, Jerilyn, for help.  She's the one responsible for all of my blog's lovely graphic elements—the header, buttons, backgrounds, etc.  I've gotten tons of compliments on them over the years and it's all thanks to her!  Jerilyn's work is fun, whimsical and just perfect for the vibe I'm going for here at BBB.

First, if you're reading this via a feed reader, click on over to my actual blog.  Now, notice the awesome new info-graphic at the top of my left sidebar.  I actually wrote the text a number of years ago, but hadn't decided how to use it—until now.  Paired with Jerilyn's wonderful illustration (so perfect!), it just encapsulates everything I want people to know about this blog.  Now, scooch your eyes on over to my right sidebar.  Take a gander at the shiny new info-graphic that explains my grading/rating system.  Adorable, right?  I think it provides valuable information while being super cute at the same time.

I'm so pleased with Jerilyn's work that I wanted to give her a huge shout-out.  She's a talented graphic artist and photographer who's very easy to work with.  If you need work done on your blog or if you're looking to order some custom invitations (birthday, wedding, baptism, etc.), she's your girl.  Check out her website and her new Etsy page, Picadilly Lime Design Studio.  I promise you will not be disappointment in anything she designs!

So, tell me, what do you think of the new designs?

Mermaid the Perfect Novel to Savor Over Long, Lazy Days of Summer

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Stay-at-home mom Jenny Lipkin is doing just fine, thank you very much.  She's left behind her career as a magazine editor to raise her daughters, 2-year-old Betty and baby Rose.  So what if her Park Slope apartment's about the size of a Twinkie?  Or if her husband doesn't make enough money to afford one of the fancy new strollers all the other moms are sporting?  So, Jenny's not as svelte or skilled as the other women around her.  So what?  She's happy enough.  Isn't she?  Actually, she's tottering on the brink of insanity.  She loves her kids, but they're sucking all the life out of her.  She loves being at home, but it's making her crazy.  She loves her life, but it's not turning out quite the way she's planned.  And then there's the unrelenting heat; it's boiling her brain.  That, combined with new-mommy sleep deprivation, is enough to make Jenny want to crawl into her bed (baby spit-up spattered sheets, be darned) and never, ever come out.

Then, her husband bails.  Harry's disappearance isn't even all that unusual—he's a gambler, who goes on frequent binges—but it's enough to put Jenny over the edge.  Especially when weeks roll by with no word from him.  Numbed by anger, fear and desperation, she makes a shocking decision, one that will change her life forever—just not in the way she thinks.

With help from a very unlikely source, Jenny looks at her life in a whole new light.  As she changes her attitude and approach, she finds herself starting to become the woman she's always wanted to be.  But a little attitude can go a long way and when Jenny crosses a line she swore she never would, it's time to step back and ask herself the tough questions:  Who is she, really?  What does she truly want?  How much is she willing to sacrifice to finally find happiness?

I wasn't sure what to expect from The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn, but the novel surprised me.  In a very good way.  From the first sentence of her story, Jenny proves herself to be the kind of honest, self-deprecating character with whom any woman can relate.  She's funny and sympathetic and so real, you just want to reach out and hug her.  Even when she messes up big time, you feel for the girl.  This is a character-driven novel and Jenny Lipkin's more than strong enough to carry it.  The book's got some annoying typos/copy-editing errors, but overall, I ended up really enjoying The Mermaid of Brooklyn.  It's a fierce, empowering read, a perfect novel to savor during the long, lazy days of summer.

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

Grade:  B+

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Mermaid of Brooklyn from the generous folks at Simon and Schuster via those at BookSparks PR.  Thank you!


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I've Been Over It For Awhile Now ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Dead Silence, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Body Finder novels.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

With her unique ability to match a victim's "echo" to the "imprint" carried by the person responsible for his/her death, Violet Ambrose has never felt particularly normal.  But now that she carries her own imprint, she feels like even more of a freak.  It doesn't help that the imprint is a haunting music box tune that trills through her head constantly.  The music invades her dreams, her every thought, and each breath she dares to take.  It's making her crazy.  Maybe literally so.  She's popping pills to help her sleep, but that means revealing her weakness to the last person she trusts with her feelings—Dr. Lee.  But, if she doesn't take the medication, she can't function.  And she has to function in order to help the special investigative team of which she's a part.  She has no choice.  If she doesn't do what her superiors need her to do, her loved ones will be punished.  There's no way Violet will allow that to happen.  

When Violet is drawn to a beautiful, lakeside estate where a family has been brutally murdered, she finds herself entangled in the mysterious crime.  As detectives question one of her classmates, Violet gets the distinct impression that the police have the wrong guy.  The only way to clear her friend's name is to find the person who's truly responsible for the family's grisly deaths.  But, once again, that puts Violet in the path of a killer.  And this one is like none other she's encountered so far.  

As if tracking a madman isn't enough of a strain on Violet's fragile psyche, she's also got boy trouble.  Her heart's torn between warm, comfortable Jay and the daring, dangerous Rafe.  And then there's her grandmother's journals, which are giving Violet a disturbing peek into just how far and wide her superiors' influence really goes.  And, of course, there's the whole trying-to-have-a-normal-senior-year-in-high-school thing which, frankly, isn't going so well.  Can Violet sort out all her problems before it's too late?  Or is this mesmerizing new killer the one who will finally best the indomitable Violet Ambrose?   

When I finished the first book in the Body Finder series by Kimberly Derting, I was practically salivating for the next installment.  And, you know what?  It just wasn't that drool-worthy.  In fact, none of the other novels in the series have impressed me nearly as much as the first did.  The series— which I had very high hopes for after the first book—kind of dwindled into a been-there-done-that-not-too-thrilled-about-doing-it-again thing.  The plots got generic, the writing clumsy, and the characters remained pretty static.  I still love the whole imprint/echo idea, but the originality of that premise just didn't pan out in the rest of the books.  That being said, there are definitely things I enjoyed about Dead Silence: it's fast-paced; the subplot about Violet's grandmother's journals adds depth to the overall story; as does our heroine's internal struggle with her own guilt over causing someone's death.  And yet, the love triangle is annoying; the characters act way too mature for their age; the male main characters have no personality; and some of the story elements are so far-fetched it's ridiculous.  So, yeah.  Although I begged God for a sequel to The Body Finder, three books later I'm not all that sorry the series is ending.  I've been over it for awhile now.       

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Body Finder series [The Body Finder; Desires of the Dead; and The Last Echo]; also the Wake series [Wake; Fade; Gone] by Lisa McMann)

Grade:  B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R for strong language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence/gore, sexual innuendo and the depiction of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Dead Silence from the generous folks at HarperTeen.  Thank you!  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Compelling WWII Novel an Impressive Debut

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After the catastrophic events of Kristallnacht, Berlin's remaining Jewish residents knows they can never be too cautious.  With tensions between them and the Nazis running so high, a single misstep can mean a bullet in the head.  Or, worse, a one-way trip to a concentration camp.  Simon Horowitz is a wealthy Jewish banker whose position has made him exempt from registering his religious preference with the government.  But, in November of 1939, his luck runs out.  SS officers forcibly remove him from his bank, evict his family from their home, and steal priceless family antiques—including a 1742 Guarneri del Ges├║ violin.  Even as Simon withers away in Dachau, he can't stop thinking about the remarkable instrument in the hands of the heartless Nazis.  

Seventy years later, 14-year-old Daniel Horowitz is tiring of life as a violin prodigy.  He's sick of attending a special school, spending hours practicing and not being allowed to play baseball with his friends for fear of injury to his hands.  Even though he's just won a prestigious international competition, David's ready to quit music altogether.  His family's musical legacy be darned, he just wants to be a normal kid. 

When Maestro Rafael Gomez—a world-renowned conductor—hears Daniel play, he's blown away by the boy's talent.  With some instruction, Rafael knows the teenager can become one of the greatest violinists the world has ever known.  The only problem is convincing Daniel to continue playing.  Not an easy task.  When Rafael discovers the Horowitz Family once owned a precious Guarneri, he sees a brilliant solution to his problem.  If Rafael can find the lost violin, perhaps he can not just right a decades-old wrong, but also entice young Daniel to re-enter the musical world.
As the Maestro digs into the history of the priceless Guarneri, he's floored by everything he learns about the treasured violin and its indomitable owners.  It's an incredible tale about family, faith, and the enduring power of music.  The Maestro knows he can negotiate a happy ending to the tale, but only if he's willing to sacrifice his own career.  How much will redemption cost them all?  And is it worth the enormous price?

The Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas, is a sweeping, impressive debut.  A little too ambitious, maybe, but still, it's a vivid, engrossing read.  Although I would have liked the narration to be a bit more intimate (I never felt really, really connected to the characters, especially the contemporary ones), I ended up enjoying the story quite a lot.  The Keeper of Secrets isn't a perfect book, but it's definitely a compelling one.  

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

Grade:  B-

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

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

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Did It Make Me Think? Yes. Did It Make Me Yawn? Also, Yes.

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How many times has a frustrated parent lamented, "If only kids came with an instruction manual!"  Well, guess what?  They do.  Yes, really.  And, where might you find this elusive book of parenting advice?  Simply open your scriptures.  Within the pages of the Bible, The Book of Mormon, and other volumes of holy writ, you will find every lesson a person needs to learn in life as well as examples of how to teach it to your children.  In Parenting with Spiritual Power, LDS teacher and author Julie K. Nelson assures parents that if they will study the stories in the scriptures along with teachings from modern prophets, they will have a clear, step-by-step guide to rearing good, obedient children.   

In the book, Nelson discusses 20 powerful doctrines taught in the scriptures that provide valuable lessons for children (and their parents!), including the power of faith, forgiveness, agency, sacrifice and the loving correction of rebellious behavior.  Nelson reviews the stories of famous scriptural people like Moses; Joseph and Mary; Adam and Eve; Alma and Amulek; and Captain Moroni, then discusses how to apply what these people learned in your own life and those of your kids.  Along with quotes from modern-day prophets, Nelson proves how important each of these doctrines are not just for children, but for all of us.

Nelson provides some very useful information in this short book (it's less than 200 pages).  It's nothing parents, especially those of the LDS faith, haven't heard before and yet it's the kind of stuff that can't be repeated often enough.  Still, I found myself growing a little bit bored with Nelson's detailed recountings of stories I've heard over and over throughout my life.  Parenting with Spiritual Power is a short book that felt really long to me.  I'm not sure why because it's not badly written, it's just exactly what you would expect from an LDS parenting book.  There's nothing that really makes Parenting with Spiritual Power stand out.  My conclusion?  This is a helpful book, but not a terribly exciting one.  Did it make me think?  Yes.  Did it make me yawn?  Also, yes.  In the end, it was just an okay read for me.  

(Readalikes:  Hm, I don't read a lot of books like this [although I probably should], so I can't think of anything.  Can you?)

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 Parenting with Spiritual Power from the generous Julie K. Nelson via the folks at Cedar Fort.   

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Missing Boy Shatters Illusions of Perfect 1950s Suburbia in Moving Is This Tomorrow

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When Ava Lark's husband abandons her and their young son, she has no choice but to move on.  Waltham, a working-class Boston suburb, seems like a soft place to land while she licks her wounds.  It's the kind of neighborhood where doors are never locked and kids roam freely between neighbors' houses.  It's seems like the perfect place to raise 7-year-old Lewis.  And it probably would be if his mother wasn't an unapologetic divorce├ę and a Jew to boot.  While Ava's shunned by the other moms, Lewis finds acceptance with the only other fatherless kids on the block—Jimmy and Rose Rearson.  The three misfits become close pals, so close that when 12-year-old Jimmy vanishes in 1956, it rocks his two best friends to the core.  The entire neighborhood is shocked by the boy's disappearance, especially as the weeks drag on with no clue as to his whereabouts.  Suspicion naturally falls on Ava, on whom Jimmy had an obsessive schoolboy crush.  Ava's shocked to find herself being treated as a suspect—she felt sorry for her son's lonely best friend and is as anxious as everyone else to have him home, safe and sound.

Jimmy's disappearance continues to haunt both Ava and Lewis.  In 1963, the latter is still trying to find his way in life.  At 18, Lewis works as a nurse's assistant in Madison, Wisconsin.  It's satisfying work, but he still feels lonely and adrift.  When he receives a disturbing update about Jimmy's disappearance, he's thrown back to his turbulent childhood in Waltham.  Reuniting with Rose, Lewis sets out to find out some truths about the past.  The answers are almost more than he can bear.  Now, he has to decide whether to seek justice for his missing friend or let old secrets lie.  

Although Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt isn't exactly a light, summer read, it is a compelling one.  With a cast of realistically flawed (although not overly likable) characters, a vivid historical setting and a probing mystery, it's got the makings of a fine suspense novel.  Unfortunately, sloppy copy editing as well as some sagging in the middle of the story distract from an otherwise well-written tale. Is This Tomorrow needs some tightening, true, but, in the end, I enjoyed this moving novel about friendship, family and the power of forgiveness.     

(Readalikes:  Reminded me Lesley Kagen's books, Whistling in the Dark and Good Graces)

Grade:  B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R for strong language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder invectives), references to illegal drug use and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Is This Tomorrow from the generous folks at Algonquin Books via those at BookSparks PR.  Thank you!


Monday, June 03, 2013

It Made Me Laugh, It Made Me Think, It Made Me Curse, It Made Me Cry ...

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Isabelle McAllister and Dorrie Curtis aren't family, nor are they exactly bosom buddies.  But, when the 89-year-old widow finds herself in need of a favor—a very big favor—Dorrie's the only person she can think of to ask.  Despite their differences, the two women have grown close over the years and yet, there's plenty they don't know about each other.  Isabelle's not sure she's ready to spill all her secrets; still, she knows she can't do what she needs to do without Dorrie by her side.  

Dorrie's grown fond of Isabelle during the years she's been styling the old woman's hair.  Still, Dorrie's  dumbfounded by her client's strange request.  She knows Isabelle's too elderly to drive herself from their home in Texas all the way to Cincinatti.  She also knows she'd do anything for Miss Isabelle, even if the woman won't divulge the reason for the trip.  What Dorrie doesn't know is why Isabelle chose her for this task, or what awaits them in Ohio.  Truth is, it doesn't matter.  Dorrie could use a little vacay—all that time on the road will give her time to ponder her own troubles, while learning more about the enigmatic Isabelle McAllister.

The women make a strange pair—Isabelle's an elderly white widow, Dorrie's a black, single mom in her 30s.  But, as the pair drive across the country, they discover they have more in common than not.  And, as Dorrie hears the story of Isabelle's forbidden romance with the son of her family's black housekeeper during the early 1940s in a Kentucky town African-Americans weren't even allowed to step foot in after dark, she realizes that a little of Isabelle's courage might be just the thing she needs to conquer her own fears.  

One glance at the cover of Calling Me Home, a debut novel by Julie Kibler, is all it took to convince me I needed to read this book.  The plot summary just intrigued me more.  It was the author's bio, though, that really sealed the deal.  Why?  Because, it explains that Isabelle's story grew out of a bit of Kibler family lore.  How irresistible is that?  Very.  Even better, Calling Me Home lives up to its gorgeous cover and beguiling premise.  It's warm, tender, vibrant, heart-breaking—everything a great story should be.  Some of the plot "surprises" weren't all that surprising but still, this novel made me laugh, made me think, made me curse, made me cry.  I loved it.    

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little of The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Jericho Walls by Kristi Collier)

Grade:  A-

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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, June 01, 2013

After Third Book in Body Finder Series, I'm Feeling ... Lukewarm

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(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for The Last Echo, it may inadvertently spoil plot surprises from earlier Body Finder books.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Violet Ambrose is used to keeping her special ability to match the "echoes" of a dead person and his/her killer under wraps.  So, she's having a little trouble with the whole collaboration thing.  Even among the other "special" teenagers who make up the investigation team of which Violet's now a part, she feels like a freak.  The others all have their own brand of psychic power, but no one can do what she can.  And yet, Violet wishes there was more she could do, something to stop murderers before they act, instead of just helping to catch them afterward.

There's one part of working with a team that's really messing with her ability to concentrate on the task—or crime—at hand.  One person, actually:  Rafe.  Violet's felt a connection with the gorgeous bad boy ever since they met.  He drives her crazy and yet, there's a literal spark that ignites whenever they're together.  Violet's boyfriend, Jay Heaton, isn't too thrilled about the guy either.  Which makes it all very awkward and confusing and ... distracting.

Violet can't afford to be focused on anything but the case she's investigating.  A serial killer, dubbed "The Collector," is murdering college girls in the Seattle area.  With no leads for the police to follow, it's up to Violet and her team to find out who's behind the killings.  But, every step she takes toward the murderer brings her closer to a cold-blooded monster—one who thinks Violet Ambrose will make a perfect addition to his grisly collection.  Can she find him before he finds her?  

When I read the first of Kimberly Derting's Body Finder books, I could hardly contain my excitement for this thrilling new series.  The second installment, however, dampened my enthusiasm quite a bit.  With The Last Echo, the third book, I'm still feeling ... lukewarm.  The idea that anyone who kills—whether in the line of duty, while hunting animals, on accident, or intentionally—forever carries with them imprints of their victims still fascinates me.  It's a unique concept and, hands down, my favorite part about this series.  The rest of it is starting too feel stale, like every other teenager-with-supernatural-powers-police-procedural.  Sometimes I can forgive a same ole, same ole story if I absolutely adore the characters, but that's just not the case here.  Still, I have to give Derting credit for writing fast-paced, entertaining mysteries, even if they're far-fetched and none too original.  

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Body Finder [The Body Finder; Desires of the Dead; Dead Silence) series by Kimberly Derting; also the Wake trilogy [Wake; Fade; Gone] by Lisa McMann)

Grade:  C+

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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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