Thursday, October 31, 2013

Author Chat: An Interview with Laura Bickle

Happy Halloween, everybody!  I'm so excited to welcome Laura Bickle to my blog today.  She's the author of a new YA dystopian series that takes place in Amish country.  So intriguing, right?  After I read The Hallowed Ones and its sequel, The Outside, I had to know more about Laura and how she came to write these books (both of which I enjoyed immensely).  Here's how our conversation went down:

Me:  You've written several books for adults (under the pen name Alayna Williams). What made you decide to write for teens? How is it different than writing for an older audience?

LB:  I began wanting to write a rural fantasy – something a bit different from the urban fantasy I had
been writing. I love urban fantasy very much, but I wanted to turn it around a bit and see what
darkness is like from a rural perspective. Once the story was complete, I sent it to my agent. I
thought about whether it would work best in the contemporary fantasy or the horror market.  

And to my surprise…she said I’d written a YA novel.

So I re-read the book, and it began to come together for me. I never explicitly gave Katie an age.  Katie was dealing with many of the issues that young adults deal with: questioning authority, creating her own identity, and developing her own moral compass.

It was a happy serendipity. I’d wandered into new territory for me, territory that’s challenging and also really exhilarating.

Me:  What made you switch from the urban fantasy genre to horror? And, why vampires?

LB:  Most of the fantasy I’ve written has something of a dark side, so it was a short leap to horror for me. I love writing about things that go bump in the night.

Vampires are admittedly a hard sell right now. But I wanted a supernatural adversary for Katie that would challenge her faith and have some historical aversion to religious symbols and holy ground. Old school vampires are that, and if I avoided using them because of market saturation, I would not have been doing a service to the story.

Me:  In THE HALLOWED ONES and its sequel, THE OUTSIDE, you write about Amish people living in a secluded religious community. Do you have any experience with the Amish? What kind of research did you have to do in order to get all the details right?

LB:  I spent some time visiting the Amish settlement near where I live. I also did a good deal of reading…there are a lot of great books out there that look at the Plain way of life from a sociological perspective. National Geographic has also done a number of very good documentaries about the Amish. Many of the ideas were very foreign to me. For example, the Amish do not wish to be connected to the outside world, so power lines, phone lines, and electricity aren’t used. That kind of voluntary isolation is fascinating to me. The only parallel I can draw in my own life is when storms came through our area and we were without phone, cable, electricity, and internet for a week. It was very still and very peaceful.

I’m acutely conscious that I can’t know or understand everything about the Amish, never having lived in an Amish community. But I learned enough to develop an immense respect for the Amish way of life.

Me:  What intrigued you about this kind of setting? How does it make your vampire story unique?

LB:  I grew up not too far from a large Amish settlement - my parents would take me to visit on weekends when I was a little girl. I really admired the self-sufficiency of the Amish, how they remained separate from the modern world and kept very close to the earth for survival.  When I was creating this series, I thought that they’d be uniquely-equipped to survive a large-scale disaster. The isolation became some interesting material to work with, as they know that something terrible has happened to the outside world in my story, but they don’t know what it is.

Me:  You don't see a lot of YA books (especially horror novels) about faith and religion, yet this is actually the thing that intrigued me most about the story. Granted I'm not a teen, but still ... were you nervous about how a more philosophical/spiritual story would be received by your target audience? And, how do you think teens will relate to Katie?

LB:  Yes – I was nervous about how it would be received. Katie is unlike any of the heroines I’ve written before, as her religion is an integral part of her life. I didn’t want to minimize that or be untrue to who she is as a character.

Katie’s story is very much a coming of age story as she figures out what she believes and why.  Katie goes through many trials as she grows up, and I wanted to explore the tension of her becoming an individual from a very collectivist society. I think that’s something we all can relate to – becoming our own person, distinct from our family and the people around us. We ultimately have to make our own decisions and decide where the good of the many outweighs our own personal good.

Me:  Speaking of Katie, she's a very relatable, unique character. How did you make her feel SO real?

LB:  Thank you! I wanted her to be believable in her reactions and the way she tries to make sense of the world. She always approaches her decisions with compassion, which I think is an admirable trait. She’s much more compassionate and much stronger than I could ever dream of being, but she questions herself…which is something that I believe all thinking people do.

Me:  I love the question that lies at the heart of THE HALLOWED ONES and THE OUTSIDE -- If God doesn't exist, does it really matter what we do? Katie obviously thinks it does, but how would YOU answer this question for yourself?

LB:  I think how we act is what matters, bottom line. What we do has great impact in the world, and I think it’s important that we act with integrity and compassion, regardless of what might be waiting for us in the afterlife.
 

Me:  THE OUTSIDE ties everything in Katie's world up in a very satisfactory way, BUT I already miss the characters. Will we be seeing more of them in future books?

LB:  No plans just yet for further adventures! I never rule anything out, but I think that Katie has come full circle in her story.

Me:  What are you working on now?

LB:  I have another YA project and another contemporary fantasy project in the works…I can’t say much about them now, but stay tuned for details!

Me:  Since today is Halloween, I have to ask: do you love the holiday, hate it or fall somewhere in the middle? What was the best costume you ever wore? Or the biggest Halloween scare you ever experienced?

LB:  I love Halloween. When I was a kid, I think I was Wonder Woman for five consecutive Halloweens. I loved running up and down the street with my friends, clutching a sack of candy.  What’s not to love?

Today, I just pass out the candy (often in costume). We have a giant inflatable black cat that we set up on our porch for Trick or Treat night, and the neighborhood kids really enjoy him.  Here’s a picture of me last year, dressed as Chell from the video game Portal.

I don’t know what this year’s costume is going to be, but I’m sure we’ll have fun!

Me:  Thanks so much for visiting BBB today, Laura!

Mormon Mentions: Laura Bickle

If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain:  My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?).  As a member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media.  Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here.  Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying.  It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture. 

Here goes:

It's natural that a book about what happens to one girl's faith as she faces the apocalypse would discuss religion, in all its various forms.  In the beginning of The Outside by Laura Bickle, the three main characters—Katie, Alex and Ginger—are discussing what different religious groups teach about the end of the world.  Alex says

"Mormonism has the idea that darkness will cover the earth, and that evil will burn in fire."

"If we were only that lucky," Ginger muttered.

(Quote from Page 21 of ARC)

Darkness blanketing the earth and the wicked being burned during the Last Days are not beliefs specific to Mormonism.  Both are, in fact, found in the Bible.  Darkness is discussed in Isaiah 60:2, a verse which seems to refer to both a literal darkness over the land and a spiritual darkness in the hearts of the people.  Anyone who's studied the Bible knows that light/darkness are used often as symbols, the former referring to Jesus Christ/righteousness, the latter to Satan/wickedness.  The wicked being burned as stubble is talked about in Malachi 4:1.  Whether this is a literal burning or a figurative term for sins being judged, I have no idea.

As grim as the so-called "Signs of the Times" are, Mormons and other Christians believe that these events are harbingers of Christ's Second Coming.  Thus, they should be anticipated with hope, not terror.  Mormons have always been urged to prepare for the event, both temporally and spiritually, for "if ye are prepared, ye shall not fear" (Doctrine and Covenants 38:30).  The LDS people have also been told repeatedly not to dwell on the frightening aspects of the Lord's Second Coming, but to look forward to the Last Days with courage, faith and joy.  I think this statement from Joseph Smith, whom Mormons honor as a prophet of God, sums it up quite nicely:

 “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.” 

Looking for the Perfect Halloween Read? Your Search is Over ...


(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for The Outside, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, The Hallowed Ones.  As always, I recommend reading a series in order.)

With blood-thirsty vampires haunting the land, feasting on anything that moves, it's more dangerous than ever to be "outside."  But Katie can't stay in her isolated Amish community.  She's been banished for helping an "English" man, for putting his life above those of her people.  Now, she's heading north with Alex Green, the 24-year-old Canadian who's stolen her heart; Ginger Parsall, an older woman who's determined to find the family she hasn't heard from since the vampires took over; and Katie's valiant horse, Horace.  Alex is leading them across the border, where he hopes to find his family alive and well in Canada.  If only they can make it in the same condition.    

It's a brutal new world outside, one few survive.  Just when it looks like Katie and Co. won't make it either, they are rescued by unlikely angels.  The glowing band of luminescent people seem to have the perfect solution for keeping vampires at bay, but at what cost?  Does altering themselves make them just as inhuman as the blood-suckers they're trying to exterminate?  In a world where nothing is safe, who can Katie look to for guidance and protection—the God who has abandoned her?  Her superhuman saviors?  Alex?  Or is it simply up to her to save herself and those she loves?  

Like The Hallowed Ones before it, The Outside by Laura Bickle is a character-driven horror novel that asks important questions about faith, family and what it takes to survive—humanity intact—in a world gone mad.  Katie continues to be a sympathetic character, one who's more mature than the average YA heroine, yet whose struggles to know and remain true to herself feel authentic.  Her story rages on in The Outside, just as heart-poundingly intense as ever.  Original and satisfying, this series begs to be read for so many reasons.  If you're looking for a chilling, Halloween-worthy tale, look no further.  Bickle's YA Amish horror novels are guaranteed to please.    


Grade:  



If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received and ARC of The Outside from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Thank you!    

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The One Where My SBP Love Takes a Bit of a Hit

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for The Shade of the Moon, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Last Survivors books.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Four years after an asteroid smacks into the moon, leading to Earth-wide death and devastation, Jon Evans (Miranda's younger brother) is living the good life.  Well, as good as it gets in a ruined world.  The 17-year-old is a "clave," one of the lucky people chosen to live inside Sexton, a protected enclave in Tennessee.  As long as Jon continues to shine on the soccer field, he's guaranteed food, shelter and safety for himself, his stepmother and his young stepbrother Gabe.  One wrong move, though, and he's out.  If he steps out of line, he'll become just another "grub" eking out a meager survival outside the enclave.  Still haunted by the horrific deaths of people he loved, Jon can't help feeling guilty—not just for surviving when so many others perished, but for all his family sacrificed in order for him to live.  He can't screw up this opportunity to make something of himself.

When Sarah Goldman—an outspoken teenager from Connecticut—moves into Sexton, Jon finds himself fascinated by her passion for equal rights.  Sympathizing with grubs is a good way to get herself kicked out of the enclave.  Jon knows he should stay away from subversives like her, but he can't.  With Sarah's voice echoing in his head, he starts to see his protected life in a whole new light.  How can he justify feeling safe and sated, when his own family, the very people who sacrificed their own lives to ensure his survival, struggle for every bite of food they can find outside the enclave?  How can he play soccer, of all things, while they suffer?  Is Jon better than the grubs because he's an athlete?  And is he willing to risk his own safety to help those less fortunate?  As the pressure mounts, Jon must decide—once and for all—who he is and what he stands for in this mad new world.

YA author Susan Beth Pfeffer never intended to write a fourth book in her popular Last Survivors series.  But, her fans (including me) begged for another book.  So, she wrote one.  I've been eager to read The Shade of the Moon ever since I heard about its impending creation and maybe, just maybe, I was expecting way too much from it.  Because, truth is, as much as I enjoyed the rest of the books in this series, I wasn't wild about this last installment.  Why?  It had a lot to do with Jon, who's just not a very sympathetic character.  Also, his insta-love with Sarah got annoying; the story lacks a lot in the plot department; the writing's choppy; and subtlety is just not one of this novel's strengths.  The Shade of the Moon is a tense, conflict-filled page-turner, yes, it's just not nearly as compelling or well-crafted as the previous books in this series.  Am I disappointed because I expected way too much from this novel?  Probably.  And, yet, it really isn't as good as its predecessors, so I'm feeling totally justified here ... I still love SBP for her sense of humor (her blog's hilarious) and her loyalty to her fans, but dang it, I wanted a lot more from this book.  Ah, well.  Life goes on, doesn't it?

(Readalikes:  The previous books in this series [Life As We Knew It; The Dead and the Gone; This World We Live In])

Grade: 


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Shade of the Moon from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Thank you!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sharratt's Newest Is, Well, Illuminating

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The story Mary Sharratt tells in her newest historical novel, Illuminations, seems like pure fiction.  And yet, it's based in fact.  Hildegard von Bingen, a young German girl, really was given to the Catholic Church as a tithe in 1106, when she was just eight years old.  Even as a very small child, Hildegard reported seeing visions, something that must have confounded her family, surely leading them to push her into a religious life.  She began her "career" as the handmaiden of 14-year-old Jutta Von Sponheim.  The two girls (and possibly one other) became anchorites at a remote monastery, where they were bricked into a tiny anchorage and "buried with Christ."  In essence, they were dead to the world, now living just to exalt Jesus with their silent devotion.  Only a small screen looking into the church kept the children from total isolation—through it, they received their meager meals, as well as limited communication with the resident monks, and visits from pilgrims who revered Jutta for her example of extreme piety.  

Sharratt imagines the thoughts and feelings that must have accompanied Hildegard through the 30 years she endured in her anchorage prison.  As her youth ebbed away, the nun took comfort where she could, most especially in her great visions of God as a warm, embracing Mother.  Sharing what she saw, however, often brought trouble.  Some regarded Hildegard's visions as heretical, others as profound.  As she wrote about her visions in essays, poems and songs, she became known as a seer, a prophetess.  After her time in the anchorage came to an end, Hildegard also gained a reputation as an influential abbess, an outspoken defender of women and a prodigious scholar who railed against corruption in the Church and government.  Always surrounded by controversy, Hildegard von Bingen was excommunicated near the end of her life, a condemnation that was only lifted a few months before she died.  In October 2012, she was finally canonized by the Vatican and honored as Doctor of the Church, "a solmen title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine" (quote from an interview with Mary Sharratt).  

Hildegard von Bingen's fascinating and dramatic story comes to life under Sharratt's skillful rendering.  Although the novel's skimpy on plot, the author manages to keep it interesting by examining Hildegard's relationship with Jutta; her beloved brother, Rorich; and even a kindly monk on whom she develops a hopeless crush.  Whether these small dramas actually occurred or not doesn't matter—they keep the story from getting too odd or dull.  As for Hildegard's religious fanaticism, I found it intriguing, if not wholly convincing.  Overall, I enjoyed Illuminations.  It's not the kind of book that's going to appeal to everyone, but for those who venture between its pages, expect a reading experience that is, well, illuminating.    

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

Grade:

  

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for sexual innuendo and references to rape

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Illuminations from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via those at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  Thank you!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

This Time, Dessen Does It Right

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you saw her on t.v. modeling the latest fashions from Kopf's Department Store, you'd think 17-year-old Annabel Greene has it all.  She's beautiful, poised and—on-screen at least—beloved by everyone who knows her.  In reality?  Not so much.  Ever since the night her best friend turned on her, Annabel's become an outcast.  She floats through her school days like a ghost, saying little and trying her best to ignore the lies about her that swirl through the hallways.  She can never tell what really happened at the party that ended her friendship with Sophie, so she buries her pain, pretending it doesn't hurt to be shunned.  Home should be Annabel's refuge, but that hasn't been so for awhile now.  With her sister's anorexia and the constant pressure from her mother/agent to take on additional modeling jobs, home feels more like a battlefield than an oasis.  Not that she can bring up any of her concerns; that's not the Greene Family way.  So, Annabel keeps her mouth shut, her head down and her troubles to herself.  

Then, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Owen Armstrong.  A loner who's never without his iPod, Owen's like his music: "dark and angry and loud" (66).  His no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is personality scares Annabel, but their budding friendship means everything to her.  Even though she doesn't dare trust him with her secrets, she feels most like herself when she's with Owen.  The more time she spends with Owen, the more Annabel wants to unburden herself, not just to him, but to everyone around her.  Does she dare to speak up about the fateful night that changed everything for her?  Will Owen hate her when he realizes how much she's kept from him?  Can Annabel risk alienating the one person  who's on her side?  Or is it better to embrace the Greene Family tradition and keep everything bottled up inside her? 

Few authors of contemporary YA are as well-loved as Sarah Dessen.  After reading the author's latest, The Moon and More, I really couldn't figure out why.  Then, I picked up Just Listen.  Now, I get it.  I've heard Dessen fans say that the author just gets teenagers and that's very evident as she tells Annabel's story.  With pitch-perfect voice, a balanced blend of humor and drama, as well as warm, engaging prose, Just Listen really does get it right.  It's a fast, compelling read with messages that speak to us all.  I'm not a Dessen die-hard yet, but you better believe I'm going to be checking out the rest of her books.  And soon.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Speechless by Hannah Harrington; Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; The Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez, and Touch by Francine Prose)

Grade:  


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language (a few F-bombs, plus milder invectives), sexual innuendo/content and depictions of underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, October 25, 2013

Pulse-pounding SYLO Hits Intended Target

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Things on Pemberwick Island, Maine, don't change much from year to year.  The tourists come, the tourists go, and life moves on for the locals.  Bored with small-town life, most of Pemberwick's teenagers can't wait to leave the island behind.  Not 14-year-old Tucker Pierce.  His family hasn't been in Maine very long, but he loves the area's rugged beauty, the island's quaint, laid-back charm.  It beats living in some dirty, crowded city any day.

Tucker's peaceful island world is shattered when Marty Wiggins, a senior tailback, collapses during a high school football game.  His sudden, inexplicable death stuns everyone, especially Tucker, who saw the rage and confusion brewing in Marty's eyes just before he died.  The football player isn't the only islander acting weird—suddenly, everyone seems to be consumed with an unnatural and deadly kind of aggression.  Something weird is definitely going on.  

Then, SYLO, a mysterious military group, invades the island, taking things from weird to worse.  The soldiers allow no one on or off the island and offer no explanation for their actions.  Have the islanders all been infected with some crazy virus?  Are more people going to die?  And what's with the strange, humming aircraft that circle Pemberwick, but only at night?  Cut off from the outside world, with no t.v. or Internet access, Tucker has no idea what's going on.  He only knows he has to find out.  With the help of his best friend, Quinn, and Tori, the girl he's been crushing on forever, Tucker will figure out what's happening on his island.  Even if it means putting everything—and everyone—he loves in grave danger.

With plenty of pulse-pounding action to keep the pages turning, SYLO by D.J. MacHale is an exciting read that will appeal to even the most reluctant of readers (especially if they're male).  The plot's pretty cliché, the characters pretty cardboard, the writing pretty average, but the story moves along at a frantic pace, making you keep reading in spite of the book's hang-ups.  SYLO's overly long and totally far-fetched, but it wasn't a horrible read.  It's entertaining, anyway.  When I finished the book, I handed it to my 14-year-old son and—no surprises here—he's been riveted since Page 1.  Does SYLO hit the spot for its intended audience?  I'd say yes, yes, it does. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other YA dystopian books, although no specific titles are coming to mind)

Grade:  


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

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


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Odd, Quirky Middle Grade Novel Doesn't Quite Sway Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Being the daughter of a dedicated disaster volunteer is not easy.  Every time a tornado blows through or a hurricane whips up somewhere in the U.S., Cass's mother flies to the rescue.  Cass tries to feel only pride in her mother's important work—after all, how silly is it to envy a disaster victim?  Besides, the 10-year-old's fondest dream is to join her mom on one of her life-saving crusades.  As soon as her mom returns to little Olyn, Alabama, Cass plans to present her with the idea.  In no time, Cass knows, she and the famous Toodi Blue Nordenhaur, will embark on all kinds of epic, disaster-busting road trips.  They'll be partners, meaning Cass will never have to be separated from her mother again.  She can't wait to implement this perfect, foolproof plan. 

When Toodi finally comes home, Cass gets disastrous news.  Not only is her mom leaving again, but she refuses to take her only child with her.  Cass blames her boring, old dad for the betrayal.  She refuses to forgive him, even when he insists they take their own super-exciting road trip in an ancient RV nicknamed The Roast.  Cass can't imagine anything more boring than traveling with her meat salesman father.  It's only when he introduces her to a magical force called Sway that Cass begins to wonder if there might be more to her dull, dependable dad than meets the eye.  And, if he really can make amazing things happen, then maybe, just maybe they can convince Toodi to come home for good. 

As much as I like the premise behind Sway by Amber McRee Turner, the follow-through just didn't quite do it for me.  The book's a little too quirky, a little too odd for my tastes.  It's a quick, upbeat read, though, and one that teaches some great lessons about family, friendship and finding the good in even the rottenest of situations.  Overall, I thought it was just okay.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Savvy by Ingrid Law

Grade: 


If this were a movie, it would be rated:



for some scary situations and vague references to marital infidelity

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mormon Mentions: Jennifer DuBois

If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain:  My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?).  As a member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media.  Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here.  Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying.  It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture. 

Here we go:

In Cartwheel, a murder mystery by Jennifer DuBois, we meet Sebastien LeCompte.  The boy with the oh-so-pretentious name lives next to the accused murderer in the crumbling mansion his parents left behind when they were killed in a plane crash.  The wealthy young man is an eccentric and agoraphobic, not someone who ventures very far from home.  Naturally, then, he's confused when he hears a knock on his front door:

"Nobody ever came to his door anymore; even the Mormon missionaries were sick of him, having learned long ago that he'd do absolutely anything to detain them (he told himself that this was due to high-minded social experimentation, and not grave and crushing loneliness)" (70).*

Probably the most noticeable representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are its missionaries.  Currently, there are around 80,000 men and women serving missions all over the world.  Young missionaries (men are allowed to serve at 18, women at 19) are generally assigned to proselyte, meaning they spend their time (2 years for boys, 18 months for girls) teaching people about Jesus Christ and His plan for all of us.  Older, married couples can also serve, although their mission assignments are more varied.  Some are called to staff Church historical sites, work with genealogical records/research, do clerical jobs for mission offices, teach religion classes to college students, etc..

Although many missionaries are sent to exotic locales, a mission is not a vacation—it's a full-time responsibility that is not just voluntary, but also paid for by the missionary and his/her family.  During their missions, junior missionaries are asked not to watch television, listen to popular music, play on the Internet or contact friends/family except via letters, emails and bi-annual phone calls (on Christmas and Mother's Day).  Despite the many sacrifices they are asked to make, most missionaries find these years of dedicated service to the Lord to be among the most fulfilling of their lives.

Want a peek at what missionaries do all day?  This is a great video from Mormon Newsroom about missionaries serving in in the U.K.:




Mormon missionaries are known for their enthusiasm and tenacity.  They believe so strongly in the message they're giving that they want to share it with everyone.  In reality, they probably would not have "given up" on Sebastien, especially since the things they teach—faith in God, helping other people, eternal families, etc.—are, in fact, the very things that can combat depression and loneliness.

If you want to know more about missionaries and what they do, please visit:  http://mormon.org/missionaries

Cartwheel Compelling, But Not Satisfying

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Andrew and Maureen Hayes have already been through the worst tragedy parents can face.  The loss of their baby daughter traumatized them so thoroughly that nothing has ever been quite the same.  They raised two more girls—with extreme fear and caution—then divorced, and now live separate lives.  Even now that their daughters are grown, the pall of Janie's death remains, coloring the family's every interaction.  

When the estranged couple receives the shocking news that their 21-year-old has been arrested in Buenos Aires on charges of murder, they brace themselves for another heart-wrenching maelstrom.  They know their daughter is innocent.  Lily may be thoughtless and naive, but she's never been violent.  And yet, her roommate, another American college student, has been viciously stabbed to death.  All the evidence points to one suspect:  Lily.  As incriminating emails, damning photos and illuminating DNA results come to light, the case becomes more unsettling still.  Everyone, from the Hayes' to their lawyers to the corner store gossips want to know:  What really happened on the night Katy Kellers was murdered?  Did Lily kill her roommate?  And, if she didn't, who did?  The strange boy in the crumbling mansion next door?  A leering bartender?  Katy's host father?  Through it all, the Hayes' must answer the most disconcerting question of all:  How well do they really know their own child?  

Like the strange story of Amanda Knox—the American student arrested in Italy in 2009 for the fatal stabbing of her roommate—Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois tells a tale that's both lurid and mesmerizing.  It's less a murder mystery, though, than an examination of an already fractured family facing yet another insurmountable trial.  Watching the Hayes' stumble their way through the situation begs the question:  How would I react in a similar situation?  A disquieting thought, to be sure.  With this rumination lingering in the background, Cartwheel is a gripping, character-driven novel that's as intriguing as it is frightening.  It's also pretty dang depressing.  Overall, I found it compelling, but not all that satisfying.      

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Defending Jacob by William Landay)

Grade:

     
If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, sexual content and depictions of illegal drug use/underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Cartwheel from the generous folks at Random House via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Clean, Compelling Steampunk Mystery? It's About Time!

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Katharine Tulman is used to doing her snooty aunt's dirty work—literally and figuratively.  Without Aunt Alice's charity, the 17-year-old would be on the streets, so she keeps her head down and does what has to be done, whether it's reprimanding one of the servants, pawning jewelry to keep the widow's estate running or cleaning up after her spoiled younger cousin, Robert.  Katharine's newest assignment, though, has to be the most repugnant of all.  Aunt Alice is convinced her brother, Frederick, is squandering the family fortune, of which Robert is the sole heir.  Katharine's task?  To assess the situation—meaning she must find evidence of Frederick's insanity and ensure that he's locked away in a lunatic asylum, thus freeing up funds for Robert and his greedy mother.  It won't be a pleasant task—which is why Aunt Alice refuses to do it herself—so Katharine must grit her teeth and be done with it.  She can't risk losing her guardian's favor.  

One look at Stranwyne Keep, her uncle's crumbling old mansion, and Katharine's ready to bolt.  Roaming its strange interior, which is cluttered with ticking clocks and creepy automatons, does nothing to soothe her anxiety.  Something is not right at her uncle's residence.  Not right at all.  It's clear Stranwyne Keep's tiny staff—only a stiff housekeeper, a mute boy, and a mysterious young man about her age—can't wait to be rid of Katharine.  She's glad to leave, but not before she sees her uncle, a meeting the staff continues to delay.  

When the secret of Stranwyne Keep is finally revealed to Katharine, she doesn't know what to do.  Can she rat out the gentle "Mr. Tully," thus endangering every single person at the Keep?  Or does she risk her own livelihood by lying to Aunt Alice?  The longer she stays with her uncle, the more she wants to shield him and Stranwyne Keep from the outside world.  But how does she protect the mysteries of her uncle's estate, especially when she doesn't know them all?  With her heart and head both in a whirl, Katharine must make an impossible decision, one that could bring destruction down on a whole group of innocent people.  And destroy the only happiness Katharine's ever known.  

The Dark Unwinding, the first book in Sharon Cameron's steampunk YA series, is as intricately wound as one of Mr. Tully's clocks.  With engaging characters, an intriguing mystery and a plot that keeps you guessing, it's one of those novels that appeals from its first word to its last.  I love how the story moves quickly when it matters, but not so fast that it skimps on world and relationship-building.  Cameron's slow, steady story-sculpting guaranteed that I cared—about the characters, about their world, and about how Katharine's choices would affect them all.  In case you can't tell, I adored this clean, compelling story.  I'm pretty sure you will, too.  

(Readalikes:  A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron)

Grade:

  
       
If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language, violence and intense situations

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Middle Grade Titanic Adventure a Little Dry

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When a worker's ticket for R.M.S. Titanic falls into the hands of young Patrick Waters, the dishwasher seizes the opportunity to board the magnificent ship.  If only he can pass himself off as much older than his 12 years, he can join Titanic's "Black Gang," like his older brother James.  Although he manages to pull off the charade, it's soon clear that Patrick's too delicate to labor in the oppressive heat of the boiler rooms.  Instead, he trains to be a waiter.  As he serves passengers under the direction of the exacting Mr. Webb, he makes a shocking discovery—strange things are afoot on the luxury liner.   

John Francis Berryman, a book lover and thief, is also on board under false pretenses.  He's keeping a close eye on Harry Elkins Widener, a wealthy rare book collector.  The First Class passenger has something Berryman would kill to get his hands on, a treasure that could make him (and his boss) rich beyond his wildest dreams.  The only trouble is finding it.  Berryman can't exactly stroll into Widener's stateroom, especially now that the meddling Patrick Waters has become Widener's personal attendant.  The thief can't risk blowing his cover, but he must get the treasure he seeks.  How can he complete the task, especially when it becomes readily apparent that the R.M.S. Titanic is sinking?  It's time to risk it all for the treasure Berryman wants more than anything else in the world.  So what if it requires the elimination of a young Irish waiter? 

Dangerous Waters, a new middle grade novel by Gregory Mone, offers a quick, rollicking adventure that will tickle the fancy of both Titanic enthusiasts and mystery lovers.  The story's a little dry (*groan*), especially for its intended audience, but it's still entertaining.  Bibliophiles will be especially interested in the large role books play in the plot, leading to gems like this one:
Inside, he breathed in the musty, aged smell of thousands of books.  That book dust was fresh sea air to him.  So much weathered leather, so many brittle yellowing pages.  All that hardened cloth and browned book-binding glue.  He found it completely invigorating (3). 
So, yeah, young readers might find that Dangerous Waters drags too much for their tastes.  I'd still recommend it, however, as it's a fun adventure story that explores the fate of a real treasure that disappeared along with many others when Titanic sunk into the sea.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Distant Waves by Suzanne Weyn and Gordon Korman's Titanic series (Unsinkable; Collision Course; S.O.S.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and intense situations

To the FTC, with love:  I borrowed a copy of Dangerous Waters from my kids' elementary school library as part of my volunteer work with the school's reading program.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Some Forceful Reading

I've been a tad bit absent on ye olde blog lately.  A 9-day road trip to the Midwest with the fam will do that to a person!  For October Break, we drove from our home in the Phoenix area out to lovely Nauvoo, Illinois, a city founded by early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).  It wasn't a straight-through drive—we made lots of stops—but still, wow!  We spent a lot of time in the van (you should have seen the layers of bugs I had scrubbed off it at the car wash yesterday).  A good time was definitely had by all, though, as we visited relatives, toured Mormon history sites, explored the Leavenworth/Kansas City area, and enjoyed lots of family bonding time (which mostly sounded like this:  "He's touching me!  Mom, make him stop!" and "Are we there yet?" and "I know we just passed a Rest Area and I was totally going to go, but I didn't and now I really, really need to go to the bathroom.  Can we go back?").  Yep.  Seriously, though, it was a good, enriching little vacay.

I haven't uploaded any of my pictures yet, so I'll show you my favorite from those my husband snapped with his phone:

This is my kids standing on the banks of the Mississippi River at sunset.  Cool, no?

I know everyone loves hearing recaps of someone else's family vacation, but lets talk about books, shall we?  Since it's the third day of the week, it's time for Top Ten Tuesday, a fun meme hosted by the lovely ladies at The Broke and the Bookish.  Today's topic has to do with books you were "forced" to read, either for school, work, or because a friend, family member, or pushy blogger (as if!) compelled you to do so.  I'm not sure if we're talking about the Top Ten Best Books We Were Forced to Read or the Worst, so I figured I'd do five of each.  Ready?  Here we go:

Top Five Worst Books I Was "Forced" To Read    


1.  The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger—I had to read this for a course at BYU (I know, right?).  Classic or not, the book's crass and vile.  I hated it.


2.  Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman—Technically, this is a poem not a novel, but oh my heck-fire, what a self-indulgent snooze fest!  Yawn, yawn and more yawns.



3.  The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand—I forced myself to read this one since it's supposed to be a grand literary classic, but man, I had a hard time finishing it.  Snooze-a-palooza.  


4.  The Heretic by Andrew Feder—Many moons ago, when I was just an infant in the book blogging world, I forced myself to read every book I received for review.  Back then they were few, far between, and mostly terrible.  This one was especially bad.  Nowadays, if I hate a review book, I just close it, but then I finished them all.  And gave them scathing reviews, which ticked off the authors (especially Mr. Feder).  Live and learn, folks, live and learn.   


5.  Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card—I've talked about my tried-to-love-it-but-still-loathe-it attitude toward this book.  After attempting to read it several times, I finally just gave up the dream.  Then, Hollywood had to go and make it into a movie and now my husband says he won't take me to see it until I finish the novel.  Bah!    

Top Five Best Books I Was "Forced" to Read


1.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis—I read this at some point in my elementary school career and I can still remember how vividly the story came to life in my imagination.  


2.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith—This was part of the required reading for a Children's Lit class I took at BYU.  It's a lovely book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.


3.  Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery—I'm not sure if this was "assigned" reading or just something I read at the suggestion of a favorite elementary school teacher, but I fell in love with its characters, story and Montgomery's (very) descriptive prose.


4.  Cinder by Marissa Meyer—Sarah (of Sarah's YA Blog) isn't a pushy blogger at all, but she did recommend Cinder to me several times.  And very enthusiastically.  I opened the book with reluctance (I mean, robots?  C'mon!), but was sucked right in and ended up loving both Cinder and its sequel, Scarlet.


5.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling—Okay, no one really forced me to read this, but it was getting so much buzz that I had to give it a try.  This was in the days when I felt weird reading children's lit (being an adult and all), especially fantasy, which has never been my favorite genre.  Guess what?  Harry Potter changed all that.  Now, I read tons of children/teen books, fantasy and otherwise—without an ounce of shame! 

So, there you have it.  What do you think of my list?  What are the worst and best books you have ever been "forced" to read?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Grim, Gripping Not a Drop to Drink Not to Be Missed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Lynn knows survival in her harsh, drought-plagued world depends on one thing: water.  If she and her mother want to live—and they do—they must protect their pond with everything they've got.  The 16-year-old has been taught to show no mercy to trespassers; if someone edges too close to their precious supply, Lynn shoots to kill.

It's not until tragedy strikes and the teen finds herself defending the pond alone that she begins to question her mother's extreme caution.  Is it possible that some strangers can be trusted?  With danger lurking on the horizon, does Lynn dare ask for help in defending her water?  Or will showing even an ounce of weakness make her a bigger target?  Lynn's mother taught her to trust no one, depend on no one, help no one, but now she's got to make her own choices—can she risk putting her life in someone else's hands?  What about her heart?  As threats to her priceless pond creep closer and closer, Lynn must learn to defend more than just her property.  Only one question remains:  Will she survive?

Describing Not a Drop to Drink, a debut novel by Mindy McGinnis, well enough to do it justice is pretty much impossible.  At least for me.  Suffice it to say that the post-apocalyptic YA story is a grim, gripping tour-de-force made all the more horrifying by its utter believability.  No other tale of this type has spooked me quite as much as this one.  Harsh as it is, though, Not a Drop to Drink has plenty of heart.  Surprised? It's true that Lynn can be a difficult character to like, but as she opens up, she reminds us what it really means to be human.  While I won't go so far as to label this novel "hopeful," I will give it a few other adjectives: strong, mesmerizing, thrilling and, yes, lovely (in a bleak, brutal kind of way).  If you read only one YA dystopian this year, make sure it's this one.  I can pretty much guarantee you won't be disappointed.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of any that are really similar.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence/gore, language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives) and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Not a Drop to Drink from the generous folks at Harper Collins.  Thank you!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Easy, Breezy Summer Novel A Little Too Easy, Breezy

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

While other people spend their summer vacations playing on the sparkling beach in Colby, North Carolina, Emaline does not.  The 18-year-old would definitely not mind spending endless hours sunbathing or snorkeling or pedaling a bike along the pier, but she's hardly a carefree tourist.  She's got a job, a demanding one, one that ensures the town's summer people enjoy their stays in her hometown.  As the official greeter and make-sure-everyone's-happy person for her family's vacation rental business, Emaline gets to deal with guest requests, guest complaints and, worst of all, her older sister's irritating know-it-all business management style.  She can't wait to leave it all behind when she goes to college in the Fall.

Well, okay, there's a (not so) small part of her that wants to stay in Colby for the rest of her life.  Maybe the small town doesn't have a lot to offer in the way of educational advancement, but it's where she feels most content, most at peace.  Does she really want to leave her warm, crazy family behind?  And what about Luke Templeton, her perfect, loving boyfriend?  Can their relationship survive the distance?  

When Emaline meets Theo Burns, an NYU film student who's in Colby for the summer working on a documentary, she begins to see just how small her life really is.  Through him, she realizes how tired she is of being "just [a] supporting player in someone else's summer" (67).  But, does she have the courage to step onto center stage?  Especially if it means taking big risks that come with serious consequences?  Pulled between the comfort of her safe little life in Colby and the promise of better things awaiting her in the big, wide world, Emaline must decide who she really is and what she really wants.  Before her bright, pivotal summer fades away forever. 

The Moon and More, the newest offering from teen favorite Sarah Dessen, is exactly what it appears to be—an easy, breezy beach novel that's as light and entertaining as the best of summer days.  Although it's a lengthy 435 pages, the book's got a bubbly tone that keeps it from feeling too weighed down.  While that's all well and good, a stronger central conflict would have helped the story feel more focused and substantial.  Emaline's inner struggle seemed flimsy to me, which made her decisions too predictable.  So, all in all, I enjoyed The Moon and More, I just thought it prattled on for way too long considering its underdeveloped plotline.  Since this was my first foray into Sarah Dessen territory, it's possible I was expecting way too much from it.  And, really, the novel didn't disappoint, but it didn't wow me either.   


Grade:  


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


for language (no F-bombs), mild sexual innuendo/content and references to underage drinking/partying
           
To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Moon and More from the generous folks at Penguin.  Thank you!
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