Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Rich, Vibrant Forbidden Should Be at the Top of Everyone's Christmas Wishlist

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Shifting sands are part of life in the Mesopotamian desert, but what about shifting hearts?  

As a child, Jayden thought little about her betrothal to Horeb, the son of her father's best friend.  Now that she's 16 and he 20, with their marriage scheduled to take place within the year, Jayden's terrified.  Not just of the responsibilities she will have to take on as a wife and a mother, but of the man she's to wed.  As the next in line to become their tribe's leader, Horeb has become increasingly ambitious, aggressive and cruel.  He's changed.  Maybe she has too, because her stomach twists at the sight of Horeb, let alone the thought of marrying him.  Poised to become the people's next princess, Jayden is the envy of all the other girls in her tribe.  As the daughter of a poor camel herder, she should be thanking God for her impending reversal of fortune.  Instead, she wants to fling herself onto the nearest camel and charge into the desert, fleeing the prison of marriage to a man she has come to despise.

When tragedy strikes on the morning Jayden's tribe begins its annual trek to a far-off oasis, it compounds her trepidation about her future.  More vulnerable than ever, she must make her way through the menacing desert, even though it means marching toward a fate she considers worse than death.  Meeting a mysterious stranger—a beautiful boy from the Southern lands—only shows her how starved her heart is for true love and affection.  Arousing Horeb's jealousy is a dangerous game, one that could cost Jayden her life.  With nowhere to turn, she must make the ultimate choice between duty and love.  

Whether her novels take place on the bayous of Louisiana or in the arid deserts of the Middle East, Kimberley Griffiths Little knows how to make settings come alive.  She has a particular gift for creating rich, atmospheric story worlds that pulse with life, tantalizing the reader with vibrant explosions of sight, sound, and smell.  No matter how exotic the setting, though, Little infuses her tales with the kind of everyday emotion and drama with which we can all relate.  Her newest novel, Forbidden, is no exception.  Jayden might be a Mesopotamian princess-to-be living in 1759 B.C., but today's teens will relate to the way she worries about her sisters, fears the grown-up world, and longs to act on the desires of her heart.  As if an empathetic heroine isn't appealing enough, the novel also offers an action-packed plot, a pulse-pounding romance, and plenty of family/tribal drama.  With something for everyone, Forbidden is unique, masterful—the kind of novel that will delight anyone who enjoys thrilling, passionate tales about family, faith, and the fight to control your own fate.  The first installment in what promises to be a brilliant trilogy, Forbidden should be at the top of everyone's wishlist this Christmas.

(Readalikes:  The publisher likens it to Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for sensuality, mild sexual content, and references to sex/prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Forbidden from the always generous Kimberley Griffiths Little.  Thank you! 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Average, Ordinary Teen Fantasy Needs Something More to Stand Out From the Crowd

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Dealing with demon possession is all in a day's work for the Della Torre Family.  For centuries, they've been walking the streets of Milan, "catching" the city's darkest citizens.  It's a lonely, but important profession, one that's as crucial as it is secretive.    

Mia Dellatorri, a 16-year-old living in upstate New York, knows nothing of her father's history.  He doesn't talk about his family, doesn't discuss Italy, and has certainly never mentioned demons.  Which means she's shocked and utterly unprepared when a particularly nasty one decides to invade her body.  After an exorcism she barely remembers, involving cousins she never knew existed, Mia is shipped off to Italy for her own safety.  Trapped inside an apartment with only her cousins and her history books to keep her company, Mia is restless and scared.  She doesn't want to hide from demons, she wants to hunt them, just like her relatives do.  Can she convince her relations to stop babying her and start training her?  She knows her demon will strike again.  Whether her relations like it or not, this time, she will fight him head-on.  Or die trying.

Okay, I admit it:  I made the plot of The Demon Catchers of Milan—a debut urban fantasy by Kat Beyer—sound a little more exciting than it actually is.  In truth, it gets off to a slow start (after Mia's possession/exorcism, anyway), plodding along until it gets to a very anticlimactic end.  The author spends a lot of time (a lot) building Mia's demon-catching world, which isn't a bad thing, unless it drags down the action without answering important questions, which is what happens in this novel.  Mia doesn't really form a concrete story goal until the last 3/4 of the book, which makes the rest of the tale feel sluggish and unfocused.  Since there's nothing really new or different about the premise of The Demon Catchers of Milan (although the setting definitely appeals), the novel needs something more to make it memorable—superb writing, unique characters, a never-saw-it-coming plot twist—something to make it stand out.  As is, I found it to be just another average, ordinary teen fantasy novel.  Nothing special.  

(Readalikes:  its sequel, The Halcyon Bird by Kat Beyer; the whole demon/mythical creature thing also reminded me of Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series [City of Bones; City of Ashes; City of Glass; City of Fallen Angels; City of Lost Souls; and City of Heavenly Fire] and Tyger Tyger by Kersten Hamilton)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and violence/gore

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Demon Catchers of Milan from the generous folks at Egmont.  Thank you!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Haunting Sarah's Key A Powerful Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

On a summer night in July of 1942, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski awakens to the sound of someone pounding on her front door.  A bolt of fear races through her.  She's heard her parents whispering about round-ups and camps and Jewish men being forced from their homes.  Have the police found her father, who spends every night hiding in the cellar?  Are they going to take him away?  Sarah's shocked when the policemen—French policeman, no less—demand that she and her mother come with them.  In the few minutes she's given to pack her things, Sarah locks her little brother in a secret cupboard, promising he'll be safe until she can come back for him.  

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond—an American journalist living in Paris—is researching the Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup in order to write a story for the upcoming anniversary of its occurrence.  Although the Parisians she talks to are reluctant to speak of it—if, indeed, they've even heard of it—Julia is fascinated by this little known event in the city's history.  The more she discovers about the roundup, which involved the arrests of around 12,000 Jews, mostly women and children, the more horrified she becomes.  When she finds a personal link to one of the roundup's young victims, Julia vows to find out what happened to little Sarah Starzynski and her family.  

Urged by her family and friends in Paris to leave the matter alone, Julia becomes even more determined in her quest.  As her search for the truth becomes an obsession she can't let go of, she finds herself reevaluating her own life, from her marriage to her work to her own future.  

Since I'm probably the last blogger on Earth to read Sarah's Key, Tatiana de Rosnay's bestselling novel, I don't have to tell you what a powerful read it is.  The rave reviews the book's garnered speak for themselves.  Although the events related in the story are similar to those in other Holocaust novels, de Rosnay brings something new to the genre.  Her prose feels a little stiff, but other than that, she tells the kind of compelling, haunting tale that stays with you long after you close the book.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other adult novels about the Holocaust, including Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (one F-bomb, plus milder invectives), violence, and mild sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Sarah's Key with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Intriguing Premise, Disappointing Execution

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Stillwater Bay, Maine, is the kind of tiny, close-knit community where nothing bad ever happens.  Until it does.  

It's been a month since a local teen barged into the elementary school, shooting ten kids and two teachers before turning the gun on himself.  Although the residents of Stillwater Bay are still reeling from the shocking incident, Mayor Charlotte Stone thinks it's time for the town to move past the tragedy.  Re-opening the school, she reasons, will bring some peace to the grief-stricken town.  Her husband, the school principal, feels the same.     

Her best friend, Jennifer Crowne, does not agree.  The thought of innocent children streaming through the halls where her son died so horrifically fills her with a rage so fiery and deep, she can barely suppress it.  Alcohol numbs her fury, but only so much—and only for so long.  Jenn wants the school torn down; it's the only thing that might ease her suffering.  

While residents clash over the school closure/opening issue, Charlotte struggles to keep the community together.  Not only is she losing her best friend, but her husband seems to be hiding something as well.  Jennifer knows she may be giving up everything—and everyone—she loves to fight a battle she can't win, but she has to do it for herself, for her son.  Nothing is more important.

As friends and neighbors chose sides, tempers flare and relationships are put to the ultimate test.  Can a town already so scarred come out unscathed?  Can it weather this most devastating of storms?  The odds are not looking good ...

I'm always interested in books—fictional or otherwise—that look at how communities deal with crises.  The human drama fascinates me.  That's why the premise of Stillwater Rising, Steena Holmes' newest, piqued my curiosity.  But, while the book definitely has drama, what it doesn't really have is a plot.  The story is more reaction than action, which makes it dull.  The central conflict (to close the school or not) just isn't big enough to carry a whole novel.  Plus, the characters remain pretty flat throughout the book.  Jenn is so childish and self-centered that it's difficult to empathize with her.  The other characters run together, making it tough to keep track of who's who.  Even the Big Reveal isn't much of a surprise.  It's predictable and comes so late in the story that the whole novel feels not just unresolved, but unsatisfying.  So, while I liked the idea of Stillwater Rising, overall, I found the read a disappointing one.     

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf, and a little of And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


for mild language (no F-bombs), intense situations, and vague references to sex

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Stillwater Rising from the generous folks at Lake Union Publishing (a division of Amazon Publishing) via those at Booksparks PR.  Thank you!

Friday, November 14, 2014

It's No Secret, French Mesmerizes Me—Every Time

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For most of his 32 years, police detective Stephen Moran has been trying to rise above his "working class Dub" background.  Earning a spot on the Dublin Murder Squad would help his efforts immensely.  If only breaking into the old boys' club were that easy; Stephen might as well be wishing for a seat on the next shuttle to the moon.  In all likelihood, he'll be stuck investigating cold cases from now until forever.

Then, 16-year-old Holly Mackey walks into the police station with a tip she's only willing to share with Stephen.  Knowing this could be the golden ticket that gets him on his dream squad, he hears her out.  What he discovers is chilling.  Holly has brought him a card plucked from a bulletin board, where she and her classmates at St. Kilda's are encouraged to anonymously post their most tantalizing secrets.  The message on the card reads:  I know who killed him.  Him being Chris Harper, a 16-year-old student at a boy's school near St. Kilda's, whose head was bashed in last year.  With the crime still unsolved, Stephen smells a big opportunity to prove his worth—not just to his derisive colleagues, but also to Holly Mackey, who, in all her young innocence, believes him capable of sniffing out a murderer.  

With the help of tough, caustic Detective Antoinette Conway, Stephen hightails it to St. Kilda's to begin his investigation.  The posh boarding school in Dublin's quiet suburbs looks as benign as a sleeping kitten, but it soon becomes clear that dangerous secrets are hiding behind its gentle facade.  Unfortunately for Stephen, the biggest ones circle back to Holly and her small group of close-knit friends.  With the school's headmistress breathing down his neck, an irate Frank Mackey (Holly's father, the star of Faithful Place) watching his every move, and a gaggle of flirtatious, but reticent girls to crack, Stephen's beginning to feel as if he's in way, way over his head.  Who killed Chris Harper?  The frustrated detective is determined to find out.  Even if it means putting Holly Mackey—the girl who trusted him enough to come to him with evidence of a killer on her school campus—behind bars.

As much as I love murder mysteries set in boarding schools, I admit, the premise of The Secret Place, the newest in the Dublin Murder Squad series, does sound a little generic.  But, consider this: Tana French wrote it.  As far as mystery writers go, I've never found her equal (despite repeated Google searches for authors like Tana French) in clever plotting, intriguing characters, and tight, magnetizing prose.  She one-ups herself in The Secret Place, though, because she gives her detectives only one day to solve the puzzling crime at the center of the novel.  Given the tight timeline, you might expect a similarly narrow reading experience.  Not so.  French is skilled enough to not only create multi-layered characters, but to allow us time to know and understand them, even within the framework of a fast-paced murder investigation.  She's that good.  Her books always mesmerize me—this was no exception.  I could do without French's ever-present potty-mouth and the fact that she only writes one book every two years, but other than that, no complaints.  She's a gem.  I can't wait to see what she does next.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Dublin Murder Squad series [In the Woods; The Likeness; Faithful Place; and Broken Harbour])

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Secret Place from the generous folks at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Atmospheric and Alluring, Bayou Bridge Books Should Not Be Missed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Some kids might find living in a dusty old antique store fun.  Not 12-year-old Larissa Renaud.  She thinks it's embarrassing.  And creepy.  Especially when she receives a mysterious call from a girl who refuses to identify herself on an antique telephone that's not even hooked up to an outside line!  Impossible.  Unless the anonymous caller is not of this world ...

As crazy as chatting it up with a ghost may sound, that's not even the strangest thing that's happening to Larissa.  There's the creepy porcelain doll that moves when no one's watching, the swarm of magical fireflies that surrounds her on the banks of the bayou, and an intriguing plantation home that simply cannot exist.  All of them are messages, giving her clues to the secrets of her family's past.  Larissa wants to listen, but she's scared.  Then, her mother disappears.

Larissa's desperate to keep the tragedies of the past from repeating themselves in the present, but what can she do?  Listen to a ghost?  Rely on an old swamp witch?  Only by uncovering her family's long-buried secrets can she change its curse-ridden course.  The task will take every ounce of courage, trust, and determination Larissa possesses—the only question is, can she do what needs to be done?

Ever since I read the first of Kimberley Griffiths Little's middle grade books set in Bayou Bridge, Louisiana, I've been fascinated by the world the author's created in these inter-related stories.  With a rich, vibrant setting; memorable characters; and plots that are part mystery, part magic, they're infused with a whimsical warmth that continually enchants me.  Like its predecessors, The Time of the Fireflies offers some chills with its charms, but that only makes the story more appealing.  Atmospheric and alluring, the Bayou Bridge books offer something for everyone.  Trust me when I say they should not be missed.

(Readalikes:  Little's other Louisiana books—The Healing Spell; Circle of Secrets; and When the Butterflies Came)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for intense/scary situations

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Time of the Fireflies from the always generous Kimberley Griffiths Little.  Thank you!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New Regency Romance Surprisingly Substance-full (With a Giveaway)

(Image from Jennifer Moore's blog)

With all the possibilities the opening of her London Season will surely bring, Lady Emma Drake should be looking forward to it with glee.  Her mind should be swirling with thoughts of fancy gowns, glittering balls, and catching the eyes of the city's most eligible bachelors.  Instead, she's pining away for a man who's as unattainable as the moon—her brother's best friend, Sidney Fletcher.  Emma's been infatuated with the charming sea captain since she was 11.  The problem?  Sidney still sees her as a pesky child, the kid sister he never had.  Even if she could convince him that she's all grown up now, it's not as if he would give up his exciting sea-faring life in exchange for a dull gentleman's existence.  Emma knows the union she dreams of will never be, knows she should give up childish fantasies and find herself a more practical match, but she simply can't erase Sidney from her mind.  
When Emma receives news that Sidney's been captured by French soldiers in war-torn Spain, she's frantic.  Knowing she can't sit around doing nothing while the man she loves is in danger, she stows away on her brother's ship, determined to be part of the rescue mission.  Surely, such a heroic gesture will show Sidney just how much she loves him.  It doesn't take long for Emma to realize what a foolish decision she's made—a war zone is no place for a sheltered, well-bred lady.  With death and destruction all around her, Emma has no idea how she is going to survive Spain, let alone help rescue Sidney.  As the violence escalates all around her, her courage, her cunning, and her conviction will be put to the test.  Will Emma escape unscathed?  Will Sidney?  Most importantly, will Emma's secret desires ever come to fruition?  

Although I don't read a lot of Regency romance, I generally find the genre entertaining with its genteel settings, frivolous plots, and witty banter.  It's the kind of light reading I like to sandwich in between "real" books.  Lady Emma's Campaign, Jennifer Moore's second novel, surprised me by going deeper than the usual parlor dramas.  With its treatment of war violence, PTSD, physical abuse, and other weighty subjects, it offers a lot more substance than I was expecting.  All the derring-do kept the story exciting, heightening the romantic suspense to create a fuller story.  A few things kept me from loving Lady Emma's Campaign, namely Moore's tendency to tell rather than show, which made her characters and setting seem a bit flat.  Overall, though, I enjoyed this one, especially that there's more to it than just a silly romance.

(Readalikes:  Although I haven't read it yet, I assume Becoming Lady Lockwood, Moore's first book [starring Emma Drake's sister-in-law] is similar)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a copy of Lady Emma's Campaign from the generous folks at Covenant Communications.  Thank you!

****


Interested in reading more reviews of Lady Emma's Campaign?  How about entering a giveaway for a $75 gift card to Sweet Salt Clothing?  Stop at each of the following blogs to get more opinions on the book and a chance to win the big prize!


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Thursday, November 06, 2014

Warm Southern Novel Kind of a Hot Mess (Not Unlike Its Heroine)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Joy Talley, the 40-something-year-old spinster of Spavinaw Junction, Oklahoma, decides to fetch a secret something out of her crumbling chimney, she ends up in a coma.  Talley luck being what it is, no one really expects her to come out of it.  What her family and friends don't know is that while Joy might not be able to talk or open her eyes, she's aware of her surroundings.  She can hear her siblings planning her funeral, see the hopeful face of her handsome young doctor, and feel her heart beat a little (okay, a lot) faster when her high school sweetheart walks into the room.  All of these things make her realize how much she needs to wake the heck up and change her pathetic little life.  

As soon as Joy is back on her feet, she plans to come to terms with the secret she's been hiding since she was a teenager.  To do that, she'll have to be honest about all the pain, the ache, and the bitterness that's been corroding her heart for so long.  Once that happens, maybe the old town spinster can even start making decisions for her future, like choosing a man to spend it with—will it be the kind doctor or the very man for whom she's been pining away for two decades?  With her daddy's ghost whispering reassurances into her ear, Joy's determined to put the past behind her and start living again.  If only it were that easy ...

I agreed to read/review Waking Up Joy by Tina Ann Forkner because the book's premise sounded cute.  Plus, I always dig a good Southern yarn filled with warm prose, quirky characters and, most of all, lots of juicy skeletons molding behind genteel facades.  Forkner does include these genre staples in Waking Up Joy, which she also infuses with lighthearted banter, humorous situations, and an inspirational message about forgiveness.  Still, these promising elements just aren't enough to camouflage a rambling, overlong plot; a flat, forgettable cast; and some really, really poor editing.  My biggest beef, though, was with Joy herself—for a "beloved" member of Spavinaw Junction society, she's awfully petty, vindictive, and self-absorbed.  In the end, this novel reminded me of a first draft:  the bones of a great story are there, they just needed to be honed and polished into a tighter, more focused narrative.  As is, I'm sad to say, the novel's kind of a hot mess (not unlike Joy herself), which is a pity because it truly did have a lot of potential.    

(Readalikes:  The tone and setting [not the writing] of this book reminded me of novels by Karen White, Dorothea Benton Frank, and Anne Rivers Siddons)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, mild sexual innuendo/content, and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Waking Up Joy from the generous folks at Tule Publishing via those at BookSparks PR.  Thank you!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Gasp! Another Exciting Series-Ender for McMann

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Gasp, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from Crash and Bang.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After two traumatic experiences with visions predicting deadly, catastrophic events, Jules DeMarco knows not to fool around with the strange gift/cure she and her friends have been given.  That's why the 17-year-old refuses to wait around; she's determined to figure out who will be the next person plagued with the disturbing visions.  Yes, they'll think she's insane.  No, they won't believe her.  It matter—the sooner Jules finds out who's seeing crazy images of a future disaster, the sooner she can stop the tragedy from happening.

With the help of her older brother and her boyfriend, Sawyer Angotti, Jules seeks out all the survivors of a recent school shooting.  But, even when they find the next visionary, they're still stuck.  How can you prevent something awful from happening when you don't know when or where it will occur?  As the teenagers try to make sense of the visions, the horrible scenes become more and more intense, signalling the imminent arrival of a terrible tragedy.  Can they stop it in time?  Can they save innocent lives?  Will rescuing people from certain death mean becoming victims themselves?

If you enjoyed the first two books in Lisa McMann's fun, fast-paced Crash series, you're certain to find this one just as compelling.  The final book in the trilogy (waaahhh!), Gasp follows the same formula as the others.  With a mix of humor, suspense, action and romance, it follows Jules & Co. as they race against the clock to solve a mystery using only the hazy clues they see in strange, supernatural visions.  The I-see-the-future thing is not a terribly original plot device, but McMann uses it well, creating another fast, exciting story that will appeal to even reluctant readers.  I enjoyed Gasp as much as the first two books and am sad to see the series end.  Here's hoping McMann starts up another great teen series—and soon!

(Readalikes:  Crash and Bang by Lisa McMann, as well as McMann's Wake series [Wake; Fade; Gone]

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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