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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Get Happy Brims With Warmth, Humor (With a Giveaway)

(Image from Egmont USA)

Minerva Watson knows not to expect too much for her sixteenth birthday.  Even though she's been hinting for months about the beautiful ukulele she's dying to possess, her mother's the queen of clueless gift-giving.  When the FedEx man shows up with a surprise present, Minerva is shocked to see that it's from the father she hasn't seen since she was three years old.  Seeing the name Keanu Choy blows all thoughts of ukuleles from her mind.  According to the return address on the package, Minerva's dad lives in nearby Chicago.  According to the card he included, he wants to get to know her.  Unsure how to feel, Minerva hides the gift in her closet, knowing her mother would explode if she knew about it.  

While Minerva's trying to decide what to do about her father's sudden, out-of-the-blue interest in her life, she's got other things to worry about.  There's her exhausting new job as a birthday party princess, the money she still needs for her precious uke, and the confusing gymnastics her heart performs every time she's near Hayes Martinelli.  As if that weren't enough to give her an ulcer, she also needs to find the courage to ask her mom for the truth about Keanu Choy.  But, does she really want to know?  Does she dare let the man who walked out on her over a decade ago back into her life?  When she woke up on her birthday morning, Minerva thought the only thing she needed to be happy was a ukulele; now she wonders about the things she's been missing all her life and if it's worth risking everything to get them.

For a YA novel that clocks in at under 230 pages, Get Happy by Mary Amato, is surprisingly difficult to summarize.  Why is that?  Probably because Minerva has no real story goal, so the plot feels unfocused, more episodic than purposeful.  Which isn't to say the novel isn't entertaining.  It is.  Get Happy brims over with warmth, heart and humor, making for a bright, fun tale—with substance.  Still, the novel's flimsy plot, coupled with its selfish, whiny heroine stopped me from loving this one. In the end, it was only an okay read for me.  I did appreciate the book's clean, hopeful tone—something that's rare in YA books—I just wish Get Happy had been a little better crafted.  Ah, well.

Note:  One of the fun things about Get Happy is that it includes lyrics for songs Minerva makes up throughout the book.  Amato, who not only sings and plays guitar and ukulele, but also writes songs, has paired the lyrics with chords so that you can actually play/sing Minerva's songs yourself.  You can find the music in the back of the book.  If you'd like to hear songs from both Get Happy and Guitar Notes performed, visit Amato's website at: .

Also:  If you want more opinions about Get Happy, follow along on its blog tour.  You can check out the tour page here.  Be sure to visit Unorthodox Mama, who is also reviewing the book today.)

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for intense situations and brief mention of prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Get Happy from the generous folks at Egmont in exchange for my participation in the book's blog tour.  Thank you!


Now, for the exciting part.  Egmont is providing one copy of Mary Amato's Get Happy for a giveaway here at BBB.  If you want a chance to win, please comment on this post and tell me what makes YOU happy.  Be sure and include a working email address so that I can contact you if you win.  Also, please note that the giveaway is only open to readers with a U.S. or Canadian mailing address.  I will choose a winner on Wednesday, November 11.  Good luck!      

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Warm, Witty Painting Kisses Gives Me All the Feels (With a Giveaway)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After the devastating scandal that broke her heart and shattered all the illusions of happiness her fancy Manhattan life seemed to offer, Lia Carswell came home.  Six years later, she's still too paralyzed to paint the pictures that made her famous.  Instead, she throws her energy into less lucrative projects—slinging hash at a local diner, babysitting her 3-year-old niece, and soaking fresh mountain air into her soul.  She's too busy helping her younger sister make ends meet to worry about petty things like romance and art.  But both are about to come crashing back into her life.  With a vengeance.

When Lia receives word that a wealthy buyer would like to commission a painting from her, she wants—desperately—to refuse.  She promised herself she would never again allow pieces of her heart to be sold to the highest bidder.  And yet, her niece needs expensive therapy to help with her developmental delays.  Lia can't afford to say no to any paycheck, let alone one that could send Chloe to the best school around. 

Crippled by fear and doubt, Lia picks up her brush.  While she struggles to find the muse that turned her art into the most sought after in New York, she's got another problem:  Aidan.  A regular at the diner, he's determined to break her hard shell.  Lia's not into players and their games.  Maybe her laidback, ski-obsessed neighbor has a better chance of warming her heart?

As Lia rides the ups and downs of her suddenly complicated life, she must re-discover who she really is and what she truly wants.  But knowing her heart means finding the courage to follow where it leads, a risk Lia's not sure she can ever take again ...

Melanie Jacobson has published six novels.  I've read them all.  I've liked them all.  But, this one?  My favorite.  Hands down.  At less than two hundred pages, Painting Kisses is a quick, enjoyable read.  Unlike her other books, Jacobson's newest is written for a mainstream audience instead of an LDS one—still, aside from a little innuendo, it's as clean and uplifting as her previous novels.  Filled with her trademark warmth and wit, this one seriously gave me all the feels.  It made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me swoon ... Was the story predictable?  Absolutely.  Contrived?  Yep.  Did I care?  No.  (Okay, a little.)  Overall, though, I loved this one.  It spoke to me.  Jacobson once told me she was determined to write a story that would earn an A from me.  Guess what, Melanie?  You did it.  

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Falling Home by Karen White)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Painting Kisses from the generous folks at Covenant Communications in exchange for my participation in the book's blog tour.  Thank you!


Want to win a copy of the book for yourself, plus a $25 Amazon gift card?  Of course you do!  Use the Rafflecopter below to enter.  Good luck!

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Riveting Winterkill Feels Familiar, But Fresh

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's a little silly to try to write my own plot summary for a book when a perfectly good one—actually, a great one—already exists.  Since re-inventing the wheel is just so last century, I'm going to give you the publisher's version.  Both concise and precise, it offers a brilliant overview of Winterkill by Kate A. Boorman:
Emmeline knows she’s not supposed to explore the woods outside her settlement. The enemy that wiped out half her people lurks there, attacking at night and keeping them isolated in an unfamiliar land with merciless winters. Living with the shame of her grandmother’s insubordination, Emmeline has learned to keep her head down and her quick tongue silent.

When the settlement leader asks for her hand in marriage, it’s an opportunity for Emmeline to wash the family slate clean—even if she has eyes for another. But before she’s forced into an impossible decision, her dreams urge her into the woods, where she uncovers a path she can’t help but follow. The trail leads to a secret that someone in the village will kill to protect. Her grandmother followed the same path and paid the price. If Emmeline isn’t careful, she will be next.   
Taut and compelling, Winterkill is an intense, atmospheric novel that kept me riveted from its first page to its last.  Although it contains many familiar dystopian components, it's really more of a psychological thriller than the usual post-apocalyptic survival drama.  The novel isn't all that original, really, but it's so well crafted that it feels fresh and unique.  In a word (okay, three):  I loved it.

(Readalikes:  The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for violence, intense situation, and brief nudity

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
Monday, October 20, 2014

Remake: Promising Premise, Not-So-Subtle Execution

As Nine approaches her 17th birthday, she—like most teens—is concerned about the decisions she will have to make as she nears adulthood.  She doesn't know what career she should choose.  She's not even certain about the look she's sporting—should she keep her red hair and freckles or change them to something more exotic or, maybe, less so?  And then there's the biggest choice of all: male or female?  Like the other members of her batch, Nine will soon be Remade with whatever alterations she chooses.  She can become tall or short, curvy or petite, blonde-haired or purple-eyed, feminine or masculine.  It's her choice.  She's free to make herself into anything she wants to be.  As long as the Prime Maker approves, of course.

Although Nine is a little apprehensive about the coming changes, she's looking forward to the operation that will allow her to finally become an individual.  But when the plane carrying the batchers to the Remake facility crashes into the sea, Nine finds herself washed up on a shore she's never seen before.  She's rescued by strange people (they claim to be a family, whatever that is) who live simple lives full of hard work and pain.  Hidden away from the eyes of the Prime Maker who rules Nine's world, the islanders toil away with imperfect bodies and inadequate supplies.  Nine can't understand their contentment with such a crude way of life.  Still, the more time she spends with them (especially 18-year-old Kai, who's as irritating as he is hot), the more she realizes that the islanders are more free than she's ever been or ever will be.  Which is precisely what makes them so happy.

When Nine's former life comes calling, she must make the toughest decision of her life—stay on the island as a rebel against the Prime Maker or return to her own world, where she can be Remade into whatever she wants to be?  It's time for her to finally decide who she is, what she wants, and how she's going to make it happen.

I was drawn to Remake, a debut novel by Ilima Todd, because although its premise sounded similar to that of Scott Westerfield's Uglies series, the whole idea of choosing one's gender seemed to bring something new to the YA dystopian table.  Knowing that Todd is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (in other words, a Mormon) made me even more curious to see how she would explore such an ambitious story question.  Open-mindedness, as it turns out, is not the novel's strong suit.  Its message—that marriage is sacred, family essential, and freedom to choose crucial—is absolutely one I believe in, I just think it comes across in the story as very heavy-handed.  Subtlety would have been a much more effective approach, especially in a book aimed at mainstream teens.  But then, subtlety is not something that's plentiful in Remake either.  The story has a very tell vs. show feel to it.  That, along with a confusing, underdeveloped dystopian world, flat characters, and a dull, saggy middle made this a rather disappointing read for me.  Remake isn't bad for a first novel; it just doesn't do enough to stand out.  For me, it ended up being just okay.
Although she lacked a lot in the personality department, I do think teens will empathize with Nine's anxiety about her future.  I also think they'll enjoy her romp on an exotic island, even if it sets up yet another annoying YA dystopian love triangle.  They will probably also appreciate (as did I) Todd's bravery in boldly tackling big issues that are as timely as they are divisive.  And yet, I think they, like me, will long for a more vivid story world, stronger characterization, and a fresher plot.  Don't get me wrong,

(Readalikes:  Remake's premise and plot reminded me of the Uglies series [Uglies; Pretties; Specials; Extras] by Scott Westerfeld and a little of the Under the Never Sky series [Under the Never Sky; Through the Ever Night; Into the Still Blue] by Veronica Rossi)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for sexual innuendo and references to sex, female anatomy, prostitution, etc.

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Remake from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain Publishing as part of the blog tour they're hosting to promote the book.  Thank you!
Friday, October 17, 2014

Vivid Technicolor Details Bring Understanding of Jewish Girl's Plight in Yolen's Holocaust Classic

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Hannah Stern isn't looking forward to another boring Passover Seder with her extended family.  The 12-year-old would prefer to skip it all—the lipstick-laced kisses from Aunt Eva; the senile ravings of her grandfather; the endless droning about Egypt and plagues and the children of Israel.  The traditions force them all to remember the past and Hannah is so tired of hearing about things that happened so long ago they hardly matter in the present.

Opening the door of one's home to symbolically let the prophet Elijah inside is a silly tradition only babies believe in.  When Hannah reluctantly receives the honor of performing the task, she certainly doesn't expect anything unusual to happen.  But it does.  As she steps through the door, her family's modern New York apartment disappears.  Hannah finds herself in a village she doesn't recognize with people she doesn't know.  Everyone calls her "Chaya" and acts like there's nothing strange about her being trapped in a Polish village in 1942.  They laugh when she speaks of magical doors, but Hannah doesn't find her predicament funny at all.  She's studied the Holocaust in school, she's heard her family's terrible concentration camp stories, she knows what's going to happen to the Polish Jews.      As Hannah experiences all the confusion, all the injustice, all the fear her ancestors felt during World War II, she begins to understand why her parents insist on remembering their heartbreaking plight.

Can Hannah use her knowledge from the future to save her ancestors from their devastating fate?  Can she stop the horrors of the Holocaust from happening at all, at least to the people whose blood she will someday share?  And, most importantly, can she find her way home to Hannah Stern's nice, safe life in present-day New York?  Or will she die as Chaya, another victim of senseless Nazi brutality?

I've heard parents say that The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen is too violent, too vivid, for young readers.  And, yet, it's one of the most compelling children's books I've read about the Holocaust.  Why?  Because it comes to such brilliant life with all its rich, Technicolor details.  As you read, it's impossible not to feel as if you're walking in Chaya's clunky black shoes.  Just as it did for Hannah, the modern world falls away, giving you a little bit of an understanding for what a young Polish Jew might have seen, heard and felt as her gentle world crumbled into a ghastly, irrevocable nightmare.  This small book may, at times, be difficult to digest, but, trust me, the understanding that comes from it is worth every hard swallow.  Everyone, children included, should read this touching classic.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books about the Holocaust/concentration camps written for children/teens, including The Diary of Anne FrankNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs); violence; intense scenes; and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Haunting, Hopeful Classic Endures for Good Reason

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kit Tyler's unconventional upbringing makes her an oddity in colonial Connecticut.  Having been raised on the island of Barbados with little supervision from the grandfather who reared her, she's a fun-loving, free spirit who bucks against the strict Puritan society in which she finds herself after her grandpa's death.  The aunt and uncle who have taken Kit in, despite her surprise appearance on their doorstep, hardly know what to do with a 16-year-old who refuses to behave like the other girls in Wethersfield.

Developing a secret friendship with Hannah Tupper—an elderly Quaker woman who has not only been shunned by "polite" society, but also labeled a witch—brings even more trouble for Kit.  Kit's being courted by Wethersfield's most eligible bachelor; if she can just conform and learn to follow the rules (which includes stopping her visits to Hannah's house), she can become one of the most enviable women in town.  Can she resist her natural willfulness?  Or her outrage at the mistreatment of people like harmless old Hannah?  Should she let go of everything that makes her unique, just to fit into a society that fears anything different?  

When a vicious illness strikes the settlement, Kit and Hannah stand accused.  Desperate to clear her good name, Kit must make the most difficult decision of her life—bow to the rigid community leaders or risk death by standing up for what (and in whom) she believes.

It's been a long, long time since I first read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare's Newbery Award-winning masterpiece.  No matter.  I enjoyed it just as much as an adult as I did when I was a kid.  Originally published in 1958, the book tells a haunting story, which plays out against a vivid historical backdrop.  Speare brings Colonial America to life with fascinating detail, giving readers a rich, realistic sense of the setting, in terms of both place and time.  With a blend of adventure, romance and suspense, the plot keeps the story moving right along, making for an engaging, exciting read.  Sympathetic and brave, Kit is a heroine who dives right into the reader's heart, ensuring that they will care deeply about her plight.  Although The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in the late 1600s, it will appeal to anyone—in any decade—who's ever felt out-of-place, misunderstood, or suffocated by a society that doesn't appreciate their particular brand of different.  Compelling and hopeful, it's a classic that should be read again and again.    

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of books about the Salem witch trials, including I Walk in Dread by Lisa Rowe Fraustino; Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill; and Father of Lies by Ann Turner)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and intense situations

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Gritty But Gratifying, The Walled City Not to Be Missed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Hak Nam Walled City is no place for children.  With its toxic brew of "humanity's darkest ingredients—thieves, whores, murderers, addicts," it's a 6 1/2-acre hell "so ruthless even the sunlight won't enter" (5%, uncorrected e-galley).  Kids don't belong here and yet, the city's teeming with them.  Survival of the fittest demands they do jobs that steal their innocence, scar their bodies, and snuff out all the hope they might foolishly harbor in their young hearts. 

Sun Dai Shing runs drugs for the powerful gang leaders who rule the Walled City.  The 18-year-old longs to bring the worst of the overlords to justice in the outside world, but accomplishing that task is impossible.  Even with his position on the "inside" of their nefarious enterprises, Dai can't figure out how to bring them down.  Not without sacrificing his own neck.  With only 18 days left to accomplish his purpose, he's becoming more and more desperate ...

Jin Ling is the fastest, most slippery thief in town.  Disguised as a boy, the 14-year-old girl ekes out a meager existence on the streets of the Walled City.  Always hungry, always on guard, always ready to run, Jin survives for one purpose—to find her older sister.  

Trapped in a brothel run by the most dangerous overlord in the Walled City, Mei Yee longs for freedom.  She dreams of the sea, of her long-lost sister, of flying away from her miserable life.  Sold into slavery by her desperate father, Mei Yee knows she can never return home, but surely, she can find happiness beyond the walls which keep her prisoner.  But, how?  How can she ever escape?  She's seen what happens to the girls who try.  Forced prostitution has to be better than enduring punishments that are far, far worse than death.  

As the fates of the three teenagers entwine, they must learn to break the most important rule of the Walled City—trust no one.  It is only together that they can accomplish their individual purposes, but can they work together without getting all of them killed?  Pitted against the most ruthless gang in the city, they will have to use all of their combined wit, strength and courage to triumph.  The only question is, will it be enough?

YA dystopians are a dime a dozen these days, making it almost impossible to find one that really stands out.  While The Walled City by Ryan Graudin (available November 4, 2014) isn't wholly original (not wholly dystopian either), it's absolutely memorable.  The main characters are well-rounded and sympathetic.  Rooting for them is as natural as despising their enemies.  Vivid descriptions of the Walled City make it come alive as fully as its inhabitants.  These elements, combined with a tense, nail biter of a plot, equal a first-rate thriller.  Horrifying but hopeful, gritty but gratifying, intense but inspiring, The Walled City is not to be missed.  Unfortunately for my dishes, my laundry, and my pile of uncut coupons, I could not put it down.  It's that compelling. 

(P.S.  If the setting of this novel sounds familiar, that's because it's based on Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City, which was demolished in the 90s and turned into a park.  For some unsettling, but eye-opening info on this true-to-life place, click here and here.  

Also, you can read the first 90 or so pages of The Walled City for free on your Nook or Kindle.  You're welcome.)  

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


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (one F-bomb plus other invectives), violence/gore, and depictions of illegal drug abuse and prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-galley of The Walled City from the generous folks at Hachette Book Group via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!)
Thursday, October 02, 2014

Number the Stars A Touching, Triumphant Tale of Courage

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's the Fall of 1943 and Copenhagen is overrun with Nazi soldiers.  Annemarie Johansen pays little attention to them.  They've been controlling the city since Denmark surrendered to Germany in 1940.  Although the 10-year-old still feels uncomfortable with the soldiers' menacing presence, they have become a familiar sight.  It's only when the soldiers begin "relocating" Copenhagen's Jewish residents that Annemarie feels truly frightened.

When the parents of Annemarie's best friend are taken by the Nazis, the Johansen's know it's up to them to keep young Ellen Rosen safe.  They shelter her in their home, telling anyone who asks that she is their daughter.  But Ellen doesn't look like Annemarie and her younger sister—if anyone guesses her true identity, it will mean trouble for all of them.  As the soldiers become increasingly aggressive and violent, protecting Ellen becomes more and more risky.  Annemarie's parents have a desperate plan to smuggle the young Jewish girl into Sweden, but if it goes wrong—and there are a million ways it could go wrong—it could lead them all to their deaths.  

Annemarie longs to be as brave as the heroines of her favorite fairy tales, but she's terrified.  What will happen to her best friend?  And what will become of the Johansens if they're discovered helping a Jew escape?  Annemarie knows she must have courage, but how can she when the world around her is so frightening?  

Number the Stars, Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning middle grade novel, tells a memorable story about a little girl who's forced to face her worst fears in order to save her friend.  Through Annemarie, Lowry shows—and applauds—the incredible courage shown by the Danish Resistance as it secretly ferried almost all of the country's Jews (around 7,000 people) to safety in Sweden.  It's a touching, triumphant story that reminds us that good exists even in the most despairing of situations.  And that a decent world, devoid of hate and prejudice, is always—always—worth fighting for. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other children's books about the Holocaust, including The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, The Diary of Anne Frank, Hidden Like Anne Frank by Marcel Prins and Peter Steenhuis)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language and scary/intense situations

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Crooked River Taut, Compelling

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Despite their parents' unconventional marriage, Sam and Ollie McAlister have enjoyed a fairly normal childhood.  Until now.  When their mother dies, the sisters insist on living with their dad in rural Oregon, even though few people would consider Frank "Bear" McAlister a suitable guardian for two young girls.  The trio live in an old teepee in a large meadow on the property of a kind elderly couple.  A beekeeper, Bear squeaks out a living by selling honey and doing odd jobs.  Most teenagers would balk at this kind of living arrangement, but it suits 15-year-old Sam just fine.  Especially in the summertime, when she and Ollie are free to run wild, picking blackberries, swimming in the river, and eating meals around a campfire.  The winter will be a different story, no doubt, but she and Ollie might be in Boston by then since their maternal grandmother has given Bear only six months to prove he can care for his daughters properly.  If anything untoward happens, she'll take the girls away from their father.  Forever.

Sam can't let that happen, so when she and Ollie find the body of a bloodied young woman in a river bend near their meadow, she knows her family can't be tied to its discovery in any way.  The girls push the corpse on down the river, hoping no suspicion will settle on them.  But when Sam discovers something that belongs to the dead woman hidden in Bear's teepee, she begins to wonder if her dad might be guilty of more than squatting on property that doesn't belong to him.  The town feels the same way—it's not long before Bear is in jail, accused of murdering Taylor Bellweather, a recent U of O graduate.

Despite the police's "evidence," Sam refuses to believe gentle Bear had anything to do with the crime.  But who did?  Sam intends to find out.  Ten-year-old Ollie wants to help, but she hasn't spoken a word since her mom died.  She still can't talk, can't tell her sister about the "Shimmers" that follow her and the things they know.  Even if their ghostly messages could save them all.

Murder mysteries with a tinge of the supernatural thrown in have been all the rage for awhile now, especially in teen lit.  Thus, even though it's an adult novel with these elements, Crooked River (available October 14, 2014)—a debut novel by Valerie Geary—isn't all that original.  And yet, I found it to be a taut, compelling psychological thriller.  Geary brings her setting and characters to such vibrant life that I not only saw them, but cared about them.  The sisters especially earned my affection, so much so that I couldn't put the book down until I found out what happened to them.  Although the novel's ending seemed a little melodramatic, overall, I enjoyed this atmospheric, engrossing murder mystery.    

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Tomorrow River by Lesley Kagen)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder invectives), and violence

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Crooked River from the generous folks at Harper Collins via those at Edelweiss.  Thank you!    
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