Friday, January 31, 2014

Magical Orphan Train Adventure Teaches Kids About Inner Strength

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Frances Sweeney isn't overly fond of the Lower East Side orphanage where she lives, but at least she and her little brother are together in the home.  It's far better than starving on the streets, that's for sure.  When she receives the news that she'll be boarding an "orphan train" bound for the Midwest, she doesn't know what to think.  As long as the 11-year-old can sneak Harold aboard, maybe it will all turn out okay for the parent-less children.

Jack Holderman has much in common with Frances.  He's also from the Lower East Side, he's also 11, he's also on the train.  The difference?  He has parents.  But the Holdermans have little money with which to provide for their son—it's better to cut him off, send him to greener pastures (literally).  Jack can't help feeling abandoned, especially considering all the horror stories he's hearing about orphans being placed with new families just to get abused and overworked.

As their train chugs toward Kansas, Frances and Jack decide they must escape.  How will they survive on their own?  They don't know, they just know it will be better than the alternative.  And, when they meet another kid who's in charge of a magical land called Wanderville, it seems they've found the perfect home.  But are the children really safe here?  Can young orphans, on their own, really be safe anywhere?  

Wanderville by Wendy McClure channels classic children's series, like Little House on the Prairie and The Boxcar Children, to tell a tale full of adventure, tenacity and hope.  It's about children making their own way in the world, despite the many problems they encounter.  While it seems a bit far-fetched at times, Wanderville is a positive, upbeat historical tale that will remind kids that they're stronger than they think they are—no matter what trials they may be facing.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren and Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and scenes of peril

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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Another Tender Tale From An Author Who Always Knows Just How to Touch My Heart

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Lucy Emery should be excited about her new home on the shore of a beautiful New Hampshire lake.  She's never lived by the water before.  It's a lovely spot, but the 12-year-old's nervous about starting over in a new place.  She's not looking forward to a long, friendless summer, let alone beginning school without knowing a soul.  It doesn't help that her mom's busy working and her dad, a famous nature photographer who promised her lots of father/daughter adventures in New Hampshire, is already off on another out-of-state assignment.

When she discovers that her dad's judging a children's photography contest, Lucy thinks she may have found the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone—not only will the photo scavenger hunt fill up her empty summer days, but maybe, she can use her pictures to convince her dad to pay more attention to his daughter. With the help of her new friend, Nate, Lucy goes in search of photo-worthy vistas.  As she shoots the lakeside with its sparkling waters, towering mountains, and endangered loons, she finds not just beauty, but also a terrible truth.  Revealing it could destroy the only friendship she's got.  Does Lucy dare tell Nate what she knows?  How will the knowledge affect his family?  And what about the photography contest?  If Lucy doesn't win, how will she keep her own relationships intact?  As Lucy battles with herself over what to do, she'll discover even more startling truths—about friendship, family and, ultimately, about herself.

Cynthia Lord has a knack for creating tender, uplifting stories about kids grappling with everyday challenges.  Her newest, Half a Chance, is no exception.  As in her other books, Lord populates this one with likable characters who earn both our sympathy and our admiration.  She moves them around in a rich, atmospheric setting while putting them through their paces.  It's difficult not to care about the outcome of a tale with such a richness of people and place.  I definitely cared.  Half a Chance isn't my favorite Lord book (that would be Rules), but it's still a lovely, poignant story by a writer whose books never fail to touch my heart.  

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Half a Chance from the generous folks at Scholastic.  Thank you!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mormon Mention: Jennifer McMahon

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. 


----

In The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon, Ruthie and her sister are home alone when they spy someone approaching their isolated farmhouse.  Ruthie narrates:

But the reality was, they'd had few visitors over the years: the occasional Mormon or Jehovah's Witness, census takers, a man checking facts for the town assessor's office (quote found at Location 2559 [62%] of e-ARC).

Quotes like these make me chuckle because it's true, Mormon missionaries are a tenacious lot.  They will go to the ends of the earth (literally) to find people interested in hearing their message.  Most proselyting missionaries are young (between 18 and 21 years of age, typically) and full of enthusiasm for sharing their beliefs with others.  It's hard to resist that kind of youthful zeal!  I love the spirit they always have about them—it's a joy that comes from loving and serving the Lord.  Although Ruthie's visitor turns out to be much more sinister than a religious representative, I can definitely see LDS missionaries tromping through the snow to share their message with her and her family.

A word about Jehovah's Witnesses:  Although I have been guilty of ignoring the doorbell when representatives of this church come calling, I have to say that I had several wonderful JW friends growing up.  They were kind, gracious people whom I admired very much.  Also, my mom used to have a Jehovah's Witness missionary who came to see her on a regular basis.  She said the woman was more faithful than her visiting teachers (LDS women are assigned to visit other women in their wards [congregations] each month) and that they always had wonderful conversations about religion.  

What do you do when religious representatives come calling?

Atmospheric and Chilling, The Winter People Another Creepy Hit From McMahon

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I've tried to write a worthy plot summary for The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (available February 11, 2014)—over and over and over.  It's just not coming to me, probably because the one on the back of the book does it so well.  Why bother reinventing the wheel?  Besides, this one's a succinct, spine-tingling thing of beauty:

West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara's farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea's diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother's bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara's fate, she discovers that she's not the only person who's desperately looking for someone that they've lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.

Nice, right?  

So, as much as I enjoyed The Winter People, I have a real love/hate relationship with Jennifer McMahon's books.  Why?  Here's how I explained it in my 2011 review of McMahon's Promise Not to Tell:  
I've probably mentioned this before, but Jennifer McMahon's novels creep me out.  From the freaky covers to the chilling plotlines to the haunting details—everything about them makes me want to dive into my bed, pull a blanket over my head, and chant, "It's not real. It's not real. It's not real." Seriously.  Every time I finish one of McMahon's books, I vow not to pick up another one.  Not to even look at another one.  Because if there's one thing I've learned about this author, it's that if I so much as glance at one of her books, I will pick it up, I will skim the first page, and I won't stop until I finish the story. Even though it will give me nightmares for a week. That's how compelling they are. 
Luckily, McMahon's newest isn't as creepy as some of her others.  At least not in the same way.  The Winter People is still chilling, still nightmare-inducing, still can't-look-away-compelling.  It's just more subtly sinister, if that makes any sense.  At any rate, it's a mysterious, atmospheric horror story that will keep you engaged until the last word—and haunt your dreams for much longer than that.  Not to state the obvious here, but I loved it.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Pet Sematary by Stephen King and Don't Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence/gore and depictions of underage drinking/illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Winter People from the generous folks at Random House via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!              

Monday, January 27, 2014

Books and Movies and 88-Year-Old Entertainers, Oh My!

Okay, so, I'm STILL catching up on book reviews, but at least I've written TWO for books I've read THIS year.  Go, me!  In the rush to get all my reviews completed, though, I almost forgot that I wanted to take a little break and talk about movies.  I'm no movie critic—seriously, I go to the movies about three times a year on average and only watch maybe twice that at home.  It's not that I don't love movies—I do—it's just that I've usually got better things to do (like read).  However, in the last few months, I've actually seen several bookish movies.  Two of them were even in a real, live theater!  I'm going to save my non-theater film for another day so I can review it when I talk about the book it's based on, so that leaves these two:

THE BOOK THIEF:

My husband and I were walking around downtown Chicago one night in early December.  We were near Millennium Park when we saw an ad for some movie and decided, hey, we're footloose and fancy-free in the Windy City, why not catch a flick?  We'd taken the el from the airport to our hotel, so we didn't have a rental car.  Since it was a lovely night, we decided to walk to the nearest theater, which was down by Navy Pier—about two miles away!  I'd been wanting to see The Book Thief, so after our little urban hike, that's what we did.

And ...

I liked it.  Didn't love, love, love it, but enjoyed it nonetheless.  The script stayed pretty close to the book and when it did veer off, I could understand why.  What it did stay very true to was the theme and the feel of the novel.  I knew the film wouldn't get it exactly right, but it did a decent job.  My husband and I were both touched by it.  It gave us a lot to talk about on our 2-mile trek back to our hotel :)

SAVING MR. BANKS:

I realize Saving Mr. Banks isn't based on a book, but it does follow the story of a movie producer (Walt Disney) trying to get the film rights to a book series/character (Mary Poppins) from its author, P.L. Travers.  If you haven't seen the movie, may I suggest that you do?  And soon.  It's one of those warm, endearing films that just makes you want to cheer.  Or sob.  Or both.  Since it deals with some mature subject matter (alcoholism, death, etc.), it's rated PG-13, but I would still label it family friendly.  Truly, it's a wonderful movie.  Even though I sniffled my way through most of it, I fell in love with it.  So much.  I don't know how much of the film's story is absolutely historically accurate and how much has been "Disneyfied," but I don't care.  I adored it.

Whether Walt Disney actually said this or not, I love what his character tells Mrs. Travers:  "That's what we storytellers do.  We restore order with imagination.  We instill hope—again and again and again."  Lovely, right?

Speaking of Mary Poppins, the other night my husband and I went to see one of its stars, Dick Van Dyke.  He and his a capella group, the Vantastix, performed in our area to a packed house.  Most were senior citizens, but that was okay, we had a great time.  The show was excellent—funny, upbeat, very entertaining.  At 88 years old, Dick Van Dyke's still got it going on.  He can sing, he can dance, he can banter with his crazy white-haired groupies ... he's pretty darn spry (maybe it has something to do with his 42-year-old wife?).  As much as I loved hearing him sing Mary Poppins songs, this sweet song was my favorite of all that he and the Vantastix performed (the video's a couple years old, but you get the idea ...):


It was better in person, of course.  And just so, so sweet.  Made me think of all my babies who aren't babies anymore (*sniff, sniff*).

So, have you seen either of these movies?  What did you think?  What other bookish flicks have you seen lately?  Which do you recommend?

Middle Grade Diary Novel Explores History and Mystery of Grand Duchess Anastasia

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

One of my most favorite animated movies of all time is the 1997 Fox film Anastasia.  I love everything about it—the characters, the music, the voice talents, and, of course, the story.  It's full of mystery, romance, humor, courage, redemption, all of it!  I just wish the movie's happy ending echoed what really happened to the grand duchess.  But, the truth is, Anastasia Nicholaievna, youngest daughter of Russia's Tsar Nicholas II, was killed along with the rest of her family in 1918.  Probably.  

Many books have been written about Anastasia, including Carolyn Meyer's middle grade version, which she published in 2000.  Part of Scholastic's Royal Diaries series (a spin-off of its popular Dear America series), the novel explores the life of Anastasia through fictional diary entries.  Recently re-printed with lovely new cover art, the book begins in January of 1914, when Anastasia is just 12.  Through the observations she shares with her journal, readers learn what her day-to-day life must have been like.  Although her father worries about his kingdom, his daughter's more interested in ice skating and performing skits with her sisters—anything to escape her boring studies!  She's feisty, mischievous and, as the year wears on, terrified.  Her country's in trouble, the imperial family at risk of being ousted from their palace home.  As Anastasia's privileged life crumbles quickly and irrevocably, she must learn to be strong even in the worst of times.  Because, for Nicholas II and his family, these are very bad times indeed.  

The diary ends in May of 1918, a couple months before Anastasia's death.  Although the Epilogue gives "the rest of the story," the book's open-ended conclusion leaves room for the reader's imagination to create her own ending.  I choose to believe it happened like it does in the cartoon—with triumph, love, and a whole lot of happily ever after!

While Meyer's Anastasia may not be the greatest historical fiction ever written, I found it to be a quick, intriguing read that taught me some new facts about Russia, royal life and, of course, the mysterious Grand Duchess Anastasia.  

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Royal Diaries series as well as books in the Dear America series)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated: 


for violence and intense situations/scenes of peril

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

Saturday, January 25, 2014

As You Might Suspect, I've Got Some Issues ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Scarlet Killian lives in fear of her own heart.  With a rare, genetic defect that makes the organ pump with abnormal rhythms, she must be careful to stay calm, breathe evenly, and always—always—keep her defibrillator handy.  She's done alright so far, but that's because she hasn't actually done anything.  Homeschooling has kept her safe, away from the drama and insecurities of the outside world.  Now that she's 15, though, Scarlet wants a chance at living like a normal teenager.  She wants to go to school, even if it means constant check-ins with the nurse (who happens to be her stepmom), lugging around heavy medical equipment, and enduring all the whispers that come with being the girl whose heart could stop at any moment. 

High school turns out to be a little more traumatic than Scarlet thought it would be, but she refuses to give up her dream of attending.  Even if it means pushing her heart to pump at dangerously high levels.  It's worth it to have real, live friends who make her feel blissfully normal.  Sure, they're all from her peer mentoring group, meaning they've all got problems.  And yet, the more she gets to know them, the more she likes them.  Jordan Summers, a hot but haunted junior, is especially intriguing.  

Scarlet's new-found independence brings a fresh awareness into her life, changing her perspective on everything.  With that clarity comes some shocking revelations—not just about Scarlet's own self, but also about her family and the helpless vulnerability with which she's always lived her life.  As she starts to see the truth, Scarlet must find the strength to cope, to persevere, and to fight for herself like she never has before. 

Reviewing Broken, the first teen book from C.J. Lyons, a prolific writer of adult thrillers, is going to be difficult.  Why?  Because the majority of Broken feels like your typical YA issue novel.  It's set mostly in a high school and seems to revolve around Scarlet's burgeoning friendships, her growing crush on Jordan, and her fear of dying before she's even begun to live.  Then, the story takes a weird turn.  And pretty much switches genres altogether.  With little warning, we're thrown into the middle of a medical thriller.  The latter part of the novel moves much faster than the former, making for an exciting, edge-of-your-seat conclusion to a story that starts out pretty humdrum.  Which was great.  I definitely enjoyed the faster pace, but the abrupt transition threw me off.  It surprised me a little too much, if you know what I mean.  Maybe I just missed all the foreshadowing, but the big plot twist felt, to me, like it came totally out of the blue.  Because of that and a couple other issues, the novel struck me as bumpy, forced and melodramatic.  So, while Broken kept me entertained on a long airplane ride, it didn't quite come together enough to really satisfy me.         

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

Grade:  


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  I'm not sure.  I read this while on an airplane and, apparently, neglected to make careful notes like I usually do.  I don't remember any strong language, sex or violence, and Laura over at Library of Clean Reads rated the book Clean (read her review of Broken here), so I'm going with a cautious:


To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Broken from the generous folks at Sourcebooks via those at NetGalley.  

Friday, January 24, 2014

Odd Thomas Strangely Charming, Surprisingly Thought-Provoking

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Pretend you're me (Congratulations, your life just got infinitely less exciting!).  You're (voluntarily) attending a 2-day long academic conference at a prestigious university, despite the fact that you're really not all that interested in the subject of the meeting.  Your husband, however, cannot wait to absorb everything being said.  You (gracefully) agree to accompany him rather than lounging at the hotel, book in hand.  Aware that lots of great information will most likely be shared at the conference and you really should pay attention, you resist the urge (barely) to pack along the hardcover novel you've been reading.  Also aware that the speakers might just bore you to tears, you sneak in your Kindle (you know, so you can look all brainy while you secretly read something more suited to those—like yourself, but unlike all those around you—with only average intellectual ability.  When you listen to the first speaker and, about 10 minutes into his address, realize you haven't understood a word he's said, do you (a) give yourself a mental slap and vow to pay closer attention or (b) give up and find a good book on your contraband (not really) Kindle.  If you chose A, you know me too well (scary) or maybe it was just a really obvious choice.  Whatever.  The point is, I started reading Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz while sitting in a classroom at the University of Notre Dame.  And I'm pretty sure I didn't hear another word spoken at the conference, so absorbed was I in the adventures of the book's quirky title character.  

I just can't find a way to properly explain this book, so I'm going to let the cover copy do the talking:
"The dead don't talk.  I don't know why."  But they do try to communicate, with a short-order cook in a small desert town serving as their reluctant confidante.  Odd Thomas thinks of himself as an ordinary guy, if possessed of a certain amount of talent at the Pico Mundo Grill and rapturously in love with the most beautiful girl in the world, Stormy Llewellyn.  Maybe he has a gift, maybe it's a curse, Odd has never been sure, but he tries to do his best by the silent souls who seek him out.  Sometimes they want justice, and Odd's otherworldly tips to Pico Mundo's sympathetic police chief, Wyatt Porter, can solve a crime.  Occasionally they can prevent one.  But this time's different.  A mysterious man comes to town with a voracious appetite, a filing cabinet stuffed with information on the world's worst killers, and a pack of hyena-like shades following him wherever he goes. Who the man is and what he wants, not even Odd's deceased informants can tell him. His most ominous clue is a page ripped from a day-by-day calendar for August 15. 

Today is August 14.

 In less than twenty-four hours, Pico Mundo will awaken to a day of catastrophe. As evil coils under the searing desert sun, Odd travels through the shifting prisms of his world, struggling to avert a looming cataclysm with the aid of his soul mate and an unlikely community of allies that includes the King of Rock 'n' Roll. His account of two shattering days when past and present, fate and destiny converge is the stuff of our worst nightmares - and a testament by which to live: sanely if not safely, with courage, humor, and a full heart that even in the darkness must persevere.                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Compelling, right?  It totally is.  Although the novel does get gory and disturbing, it's also intriguing, exciting and surprisingly thought-provoking.  I love Odd, who's got a strange charm about him.  I do have some major issues with the ending of this book, but I can't talk about it without spoilers, so I'm going to have to keep mum, darn it.  Besides the unpleasant twist at the end, I enjoyed Odd Thomas.  A lot.  Probably too much.  And now I need more—good thing there are lots of sequels!

(Readalikes:  Koontz's books have always reminded me of those by horror master Stephen King; also other novels in the Odd Thomas series)

Grade:


If this were a movie (and I hear it will be soon), it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence/gore, sexual innuendo, and adult themes

To the FTC, with love:  I received a free, finished e-book of Odd Thomas as part of a review I did for Livrada.  Thank you!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

YA Castaway Story Feels A Little Thin

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As much as Robie Mitchell enjoys living with her biologist parents on the Midway Atoll, a collection of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, sometimes a girl needs to hang out with people instead of monk seals and albatross.  That's why she flies to the mainland so often.  In Honolulu, she can spend time with her aunt doing all the fun things she can't do on Midway—going to the movies, getting pedicures, eating out, even getting her nose pierced.  

When her latest visit to Hawaii turns sour, though, Robie's ready to head home.  She boards a supply plane—a familiar enough procedure, although the co-pilot's new—and settles in for the ride.  With a storm brewing outside, it's a rough one.  Especially when the engine starts to give out.  Before she can even comprehend what's happening, Robie—the plane's only passenger—is pushed out of the doomed aircraft into the icy water.  All she's got is a life raft, a package of Skittles and an injured, unconscious co-pilot.  With nothing but ocean all around her, there are a million dangers for Robie to worry about.  Especially as the hours wear on with very little hope of rescue.  A lone teenage girl can't possibly survive.  Can she?

Castaway stories are as old as the hills, so finding a new and different way to tell one can't be easy.  Which explains why The Raft, a survival story by S.A. Bodeen, feels like the same ole, same ole.  It's exciting, sure, as Robie deals with the usual adrift-at-sea problems—hunger, thirst, sunburn, sharks, holes in the raft, etc.—but the plot stretches mighty thin in places.  While the fact that she's pretty much alone makes Robie's plight all the more perilous, I longed for more human drama in this story.  Without it, the tale feels as flimsy as, well, a leaky life raft.  The Raft kept did keep me entertained on a long plane flight (although it maybe wasn't the best in-air reading choice), but it left me feeling kind of meh.  In the end, this one just didn't impress me all that much.  Ah, well.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Sharks & Boys by Kristen Tracy)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


 for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and intense scenes of peril

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Atmospheric and Odd, Devil An Absorbing Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Although she's only 17, Violet White feels stuffy and stale, like life has already passed her by.  Living in a crumbling old mansion at the edge of the sea only makes her seem more faded, as if she belongs to some bygone era.  Her peers find her odd, as does her twin brother, Luke.  Violet can't help it—she's a solitary kind of person, one who lives more in the past than in the present.  Her parents—both artists living in Europe for the time being—aren't around to push her out of her shell, so she remains curled up in our own little world.  Luke intrudes when he wants to, but only to make caustic remarks about the eccentricities of his sister.  Which are many.  

When the twins realize they are running out of money, with the prospect of parental abandonment likely to continue for the foreseeable future, they decide to rent out the guesthouse on their property.  To their surprise, a tenant pops up right away.  To their even greater surprise, River West is a handsome, wealthy 17-year-old, who's also on his own.  With his crooked smile and devil-may-care personality, the visitor seems destined to shake up Violet's summer.  From the moment she sees him, she's drawn in by his playful charm; before she knows it, he's as embedded in her life as sunshine and salty, sea air.  

That's when strange things start occurring in Violet's small seaside town.  People are seeing things, believing things, doing things so weird and foreboding that she doesn't know what to think.  Something's obviously off.  Is River somehow to blame?  Is he something much more sinister than he seems, some kind of devil in disguise?  Or is he just a normal teenage boy having some innocent summer fun?  Whichever it is, one thing is clear:  after River West, Violet White will never be the same.  

I'm not sure exactly what I expected from Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a haunting debut by April Genevieve Tucholke, but it wasn't what I got.  The way I described it in my notes is: odd.  Because it is.  The characters are odd, the story's odd, and the setting's creepy-odd.  Which isn't to say the novel's not compelling because it certainly is, it's just ... different.  Atmospheric, with a very gothic feel, the story's definitely absorbing.  It kept me reading and, overall, I enjoyed it.  It's an odd book, though.  Very odd.

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing's really coming to mind.  Any ideas?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

TTT: My Reading Wishlist


If your favorite authors came to you and said, "What would you like my next book to be about?" what would you say?  Which themes would you suggest?  What settings?  What kinds of characters?  This week's Top Ten Tuesday prompt asks us to answer this exact question.  It's such a fun topic that I couldn't resist joining in.  If you want to get on this bandwagon (and you totally do), click on over to The Broke and the Bookish to learn how.  I know I'd love to hear your take on this topic.  In the meantime, here are the Top Ten Things on My Reading Wishlist:

1.  Adoption—Adopting my daughter was such a huge, pivotal moment in my life that I will always be interested in discussions of this subject.  I'm fascinated with stories about birth mothers, birth fathers, adoptive mothers, adoptive fathers, adopted children, their siblings, and everyone else involved in the process.  Interracial adoption is relevant to my situation, so of course, I'm especially interested in that side of the issue.  Fiction, non-fiction, whatever—I just want more books about adoption.

2.  Bi-racial and African-American main characters—Along the same lines, I'd like to see more heroes/heroines who look like my beautiful, bi-racial daughter.  She lights up whenever she sees a brown-skinned, curly-haired child on t.v.—I want her to find the same kind of connection in books.  I think stories about kids/teens of color exploring their racial identity are fantastic, but I'd also love to see more novels where race isn't the central theme, more stories where they're just ordinary kids/teens solving ordinary kid/teen problems.

3.  Arizona—I am, admittedly, kind of an Arizona hater.  After moving here from greener, moister climes, I have little love for the desert in which I live.  It's boiling hot, bone dry, and dirt brown.  Not my favorite climate or landscape.  And yet, I see some great setting potential here—how about a survival story that takes place in the Grand Canyon?  Or a murder mystery set during a houseboating trip on Lake Powell?  Or an action/adventure in the desert, with its extreme weather and threatening wildlife?  Surely, there's a story lurking around here somewhere ...

4.  Teens facing crises of faith—I know novels about religion are hard-sells (unless, of course, they're about polygamous Mormons, fanatical cults, etc.), but I'd love to see more stories about teens grappling with their beliefs about God, especially if they differ from those of their parents.  I also enjoy novels about religious people, especially teens, struggling to be "good" in a world full of temptation.

5.  Cults—I admit, I find these kinds of books endlessly fascinating.  Why?  I have no idea, I just do.

6.  Obesity/weight issues—Most YA novels are, at least in part, about self-image.  I'd like to see more of them about kids who are obese/struggling with weight.  It's an important topic and one I think would resound with readers of all ages.

7.  Stay-at-home moms—I know we don't seem like the most exciting characters in the world, but I think some great books could be written about SAHMs.  Just think of all the potential conflicts for a novel: kids, husbands, boredom, identity crises, neighborhood mysteries/dramas, etc.

8.  YA murder mysteries (no supernatural abilities involved)—Is it just me or is the market seriously lacking in classic murder mysteries for teens?  And I don't mean the kind that are solved through supernatural means.  I'm not even talking about "kid detective" stories necessarily, just contemporary murder mysteries that teens solve or help to solve.

9.  Books/reading—As a bibliophile, I always love reading about books.  I love stories set in bookstores, stories where book worlds collide with the real world, stories about characters who love books, etc.

10.  Original post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels—Seems like an oxymoron, I know.  I still love this genre, but it's getting so stale.  There's got to be a new and different take on it out there somewhere, right?  Right?

So, that's what's on my reading wishlist.  How about yours?  And, have you read any good books that fit into the categories I've listed?  I'd love any recommendations.

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Powerful and Poignant, Laurie Halse Anderson's Newest Is Not to Be Missed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


Unlike most teenagers, 17-year-old Hayley Kincain's never gone to high school.  She's spent the last 5 years traveling with her dad, a truck driver who prefers life on the road to anything else.  Hayley knows he's trying to outrun the nightmares that have plagued him ever since he returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.  He might be able to fend them off for a few days or weeks, but they always come back.  Always.  No matter how thoroughly he tries to drown his memories in alcohol or forget them with mind-dulling drugs, they're always waiting to beat him up and tear him down.  Hayley watches her dad like a hawk, savoring his good days and fearing the dark ones.  With anxiety attacks coming more and more frequently, she's terrified, not just for her father, but also for herself.

Though Hayley should probably be thrilled with her dad's decision to move back to his childhood home in upstate New York, she's not.  She's scared—scared of going to school, scared of meeting new people, scared of someone discovering her turbulent home life.  Hayley vows not to let anyone get that close.  Not even Finn, the cute boy who obviously wants to get to know her better.  Especially not Finn.  If he knew the truth, he'd run as far away from the Kincains as he could go.

As Andy Kincain's PTSD gets increasingly worse and Hayley's plagued with disturbing flashbacks of her own, she begins to wonder if maybe it's all too much for one teenager to handle.  But what can she do?  How can she save them both?

Laurie Halse Anderson is one of those authors whose books I will always pick up and read.  With novels like Speak and now The Impossible Knife of Memory, she's proved herself to be a skilled, sensitive writer who explores tough issues with a deft, yet delicate hand.  Her people and places come to such vivid life that readers can't help becoming ensnared in their stories.  Anderson's newest novel is no exception.  It's a sharp, compelling tale made even more affecting because it stems from the author's own experience dealing with her father's PTSD.  Powerful and poignant, The Impossible Knife of Memory is not to be missed.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Miles From Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams and A Blue So Dark by Holly Schindler)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), sexual innuendo, violence and depictions of alcohol abuse and illegal drug use

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

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Weighty" Novel Entertaining, Relatable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Being a plus-sized teen is no fun.  No fun at all.  Just ask 16-year-old Ann Galardi.  Her weight makes it tough to fit into the cute fashions everyone else is wearing, let alone a swimsuit that doesn't make her look like a whale.  And forget about attracting a hot guy.  They don't even glance her way.  It doesn't help that Ann lives with her petite, perfectly-disciplined stepmother.  Nope, that just makes everything worse.   

When her favorite aunt asks Ann to be a bridesmaid at her upcoming wedding, Ann panics.  The thought of trying to squeeze her size 17 body into some hideous gown is enough to make her break out in hives.  There's only one solution:  get rid of the excess pounds.  Ann's only got 10 weeks to melt off 45 of them, so she needs a diet that's fast, easy and guaranteed to work.  When she sees an infomercial for a miracle weight loss plan, Ann's sold.  It's a spendy little diet, but she's committed.  Vowing to tell no one what she's doing, Ann starts the program.  As she struggles to stick with it, she makes some huge discoveries—not just about herself, but also about friendship, acceptance and her not-as-perfect-as-she-seems stepmom.  Armed with this new knowledge, can Ann reach her goal in time?  What if she can't do it?  What if she can?  

So, I've noticed a lot of "weighty" fiction on the market lately.  It's an interesting issue (genre?), one that's increasingly relevant, even in the teen world.  These books appeal to me, especially when they're all about learning to accept yourself no matter what size you are (which most of them are).  I have no problem empathizing with a heroine like Ann—anyone who's ever been swimsuit shopping or gotten stuck in a too-small garment in a too-public dressing room can feel her pain.  And yet, I felt like she didn't struggle quite enough to learn her lesson about self-acceptance.  Does that sound heartless?  Probably, but I felt like her attitude shifted too suddenly to feel realistic.  Other than that, I enjoyed 45 Pounds (More or Less) by K.A. Barson.  It's not going to make my favorites list, but the novel's entertaining, funny, relatable and sends an important message that women of all ages need to hear.    

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


for language (no F-bomb), depictions of underage drinking/partying, and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, January 17, 2014

More Pulse-Pounding Action Keeps Series Interesting

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for Prodigy, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Legend.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After their desperate escape from Los Angeles, June Iparis and Day Wing are on the run, heading toward Vegas.  As the Republic's two most wanted criminals, it's not easy to hide in the bustling city.  A group of Patriot rebels takes them in, but their help comes with a price—June and Day must assassinate the new Elector, Anden Stravropoulos.  The pair are all about taking down the Republic, but murder?  It doesn't help that their new leader wants none of the same things his father did or that he appears to be legitimately trying to change things for the better.  The Patriots want him gone; June and Day are expected to make that happen.

As June and Day head into Denver to plot Anden's demise, June's wracked with indecision.  What if Anden actually does the things he's promising to do for her country?  Can she really kill him, when he might be the only one capable of bringing about change and progress?  Or should she put a halt to the revolution before it's too late?  June's trying to focus on her mission, not the way Anden looks at her, believes in her, makes her feel—she needs to think like the cold, callous soldier she's been trained to be.  But that's not easy when so many are counting on her.  Will she make the right decision?  Can she save her country from ruin?  And, what about Day?  Has their union been a huge, disastrous mistake?  June's got to straighten out not just her head, but also her heart, before her warring feelings get in the way of her duty.

Like Legend before it, Prodigy by Marie Lu is an intense, exciting adventure about two courageous teens intent on changing their world.  With constant action, a heady romance, and lots of political intrigue, it's an entertaining tale from beginning to end.  This series doesn't bring a lot of originality to the genre, but it's an enjoyable one, nonetheless.   

(Readalikes:  Legend and Champion by Marie Lu)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

   

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Saying Goodbye to the Guilt (Sorry, Blog Tours)

It's hard to express just how fun and satisfying book blogging is for me.  It really is such a good time.  I'm secure enough in my nerdiness to admit that publicly (not that it will surprise any of you).  As much as I love this gig, though, there are parts of my "job" that make me feel stressed, pressured and guilty.  Yes, I'm talking about blog tours.  I've tried cutting back, agreeing to review only the books I'm really, really, really interested in and yet, I still find myself signing up for more tours than I can handle and then having trouble meeting those commitments.  This makes me feel both embarrassed and guilty.  It's not the blog tour coordinators or anyone else making me feel this way—it's me!  I can't control myself.  So, I am officially resigning from participation in blog tours.  In addition, scheduled reviews will no longer be available, except in the special cases described below.  I feel terrible doing this, but I know it will help me remain sane and keep blogging fun.

What's going to happen to the tours for which I've already signed up?  I will honor those engagements to the best of my ability.  However, no new tour stops will be scheduled from here on out.  I'm still interested in reviewing books, of course, but only those that can be evaluated within my own time frame.  If that doesn't work for you, then you'll have to find a different reviewer.  I'm still open to hosting giveaways, author interviews, product reviews (of at least a semi-bookish nature) and cover reveals/tour stops/guest posts for authors with whom I have previously worked or with whom I would like to work.  In addition, I may be open to scheduling an occasional tour stop, but only for books published through a traditional, established publisher (i.e. Harper Collins, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, Deseret Book, etc.) or written by authors to whom I've given positive reviews in the past.  Anyone is welcome to email me with questions or queries, just be aware that unless your book meets the above guidelines, I will probably not accept it for review.  

Just to make everything crystal clear, I will no longer be participating in blog tours.  If you run a tour company, you can take my name off your contact list or you can continue querying me.  It's totally up to you. If you are an author, publicist, intern, etc. looking to have a book reviewed in an open time frame, please feel free to query me.  I'll accept or decline requests in the same way I always have—based on how much a book appeals to me.

I hope all this makes sense.  If you have questions or comments, you're always welcome to email me.  I love getting your ideas and feedback, so don't hesitate to communicate with me.

Thank you for understanding!  I really think this decision will help me be a better, more relaxed, more efficient reviewer.  And that's what we all want, right?

It's Not the Most Original YA Dystopian on the Block, But So What?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

June Iparis and Daniel "Day" Wing are both 15-year-olds living in a city that used to be one of the biggest, most glamorous metropolises on the west coast of The United States.  Now, Los Angeles is part of The Republic, a crumbling country that's always at war with its neighbors, The Colonies.  Military might is essential for The Republic's victory and June was born to lead great armies.  Hailing from one of the wealthiest, most important families in the area, she's a military prodigy, destined to take her place in the highest circles of Republican society.  Smart, beautiful and confident to the point of cockiness, June's got the whole world at her feet.  Day is June's polar opposite.  The city's most notorious outlaw, he's made an art form out of his rebellion and loathing of a government he sees as corrupt.  He may not be the most dangerous criminal on the streets, but he's definitely the most wanted.  Lucky for him, no one knows what he really looks like, let alone when—or where—he'll strike next.

When Metias, June's beloved older brother, is murdered, Day becomes the primary suspect.  In her grief and anger, June vows to see the criminal hanged.  As June tracks him across the city, she begins to understand that with Day, not everything is as it seems.  But is he telling the truth about Metias' death?  And if he is, what does that mean for June?  While doggedly searching for answers, June must decide who she can trust—not just with the truth, but also with her heart.

I read a lot of YA dystopians, some of which intrigue and entertain me, some of which do not.  Legend, the first book in Marie Lu's best-selling series, happens to fall in the former category.  It's not because the plot's overly original (it's not) or because the writing's breathtakingly beautiful (nope) or because the characters are so incredibly real (uh uh)—and yet, the story's very compelling.  I flew through the pages, practically spraining a wrist as I raced through the book to find out what happened next.  It's just intense and exciting like that.  In the end, I really didn't care that Legend felt like lots of other novels in this genre, I just enjoyed the read.  And, truth be told, I kind of love it when that happens.  

(Readalikes:  Prodigy and Champion by Marie Lu)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Offering a Satisfying End to An Entertaining Series

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

As queen of Ludania, Charlaina di Heyse—"Charlie" to her friends—has had her share of ups and downs.  She's instituted big changes in her battered country, advances that, she hopes, will improve everything from education to communication.  Not all of her subjects approve of this "progress," however.  Rebel groups are having their say—loudly and violently.  Then, there's the gruesome message Charlie receives from the Queen of Astonia.  The monarch's offer, as distasteful as it is, may be the only thing that can stave off war.  Charlie will do anything to save her country from a bloody invasion, but what if it means sacrificing everything—and everyone—she holds dear?

With Sabara's voice needling Charlie from within, her essence growing ever stronger, Charlie's desperate to be rid of the not-quite-dead queen.  But, is she desperate enough to cast the evil inside her into someone else?  Even if it means preserving Ludania?  Torn between saving herself and the country she loves, Charlie must make the ultimate choice, possibly the ultimate sacrifice.  Is she strong enough to withstand Sabara's influence, once and for all?  Or will she cave, unleashing an ancient evil back into the land she's sworn to rebuild?  With the safety of Max, Brook, Aron, Angelina and all of her other family members and friends riding on her decisions, Charlie can't afford to choose the wrong path.  But, with Sabara's voice echoing so loudly in her head, how will she find the right one?  

The Offering, the exciting conclusion to Kimberly Derting's Pledge series, is as intense and action-packed as its predecessors.  I whipped through it, anxious to see what would happen to Charlie & Co.  The ending of the tale didn't surprise me a bit—it was satisfying, if not amazing or mind-blowing.  Which is fine.  What I expected, you know.  The series as a whole disappointed me a tad, as I saw some intriguing sparks of originality in The Pledge that I hoped would carry through the whole trilogy and ... just didn't, really.  I also wanted better character development, especially among the men, whom I had trouble telling apart.  Overall, though, I enjoyed the series.  It's not my favorite YA dystopian, not by a long shot, but the books were entertaining enough to keep me reading.  And, you know, that's actually saying quite a lot :)

(Readalikes:  The Pledge and The Essence by Kimberly Derting)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Offering from the generous folks at Simon & Schuster through those at I Am A Reader Not A Writer blog tours.  Thank you!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Book Spotlight: Degrees of Courage by Shari Vester

I love book blogging.  So much.  It's a lot of fun for me, but sometimes, well, sometimes it gets overwhelming.  And stressful.  And exhausting.  In the crush, things occasionally get overlooked or forgotten.  Take Degrees of Courage by Shari Vester, for instance.  I was supposed to review it today, but I haven't even cracked the cover.  So, I'm going to go with a book spotlight instead.

First, the back cover blurb:

Degrees of Courage tells the story of three women of a Hungarian family—mother, daughter, and granddaughter—their lives set against the most dramatic and turbulent decades of the 20th Century.  Set apart by generations, each is confronted with problems beyond individiaul control, be iturn-of-the-century Victorian prejudice, devastating wars, or life under a terror-driven regime.  To cope, they carried on with equal courage but with vastly different outcomes: one was able to overcome, one was destined to break under pressure, and one turned all to her advantage.

Although the story is semi-fictional, loosely based on family history, it also contains strong elements of historical truth familiar to many people, especially to Hungarians who lived through the horrors of the Second World War and the subsequent Communist takeover that led to a bloody revolt against the hated Stalinist dictatorship.

Degrees of Courage is a testimony of what it took to live in an age and time when today's "Let it be" mentality was simply unimaginable.
Second, the book trailer:



Lastly, here's the link to the book's official blog tour page at Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tours.  There, you can find more information about the author and view a schedule of the book's upcoming tour stops.

Enjoy!

Derting's Dystopian Series Continues to Satisfy

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

Now that Queen Charlaina di Heyse—Charlie, as she prefers to be called—sits on Ludania's throne, it's time to implement all the changes she's been dreaming about since she was a girl.  She abolishes her country's demeaning caste system, encourages all citizens to speak one language, outlaws public hangings, and looks to neighboring countries for ideas on how to modernize her struggling land.  Charlie can't imagine anyone not embracing such improvements, but there's a growing faction that wants things back the way they were.  And the rebels will stop at nothing—not even assassination—to get what they want.

As trouble in Ludania goes from bad to worse, Charlie's desperate to keep her head in the game.  The problem?  Although she fought infiltration from the essence of cruel Queen Sabara, she didn't quite triumph over her old nemesis.  Not 100%.  Sabara's still inside her, whispering to Charlie, urging her to let Sabara—a cunning and experienced ruler—take over.  It would be so easy to give in, to allow Sabara to make all the decisions, but Charlie refuses to let that happen.  She cannot let Sabara's particular brand of evil out to play.  To keep her contained, Charlie must grapple with the insidious voice inside of her.  And she can tell no one—not even Max—what lives inside her.

With her country on the brink of war, Charlie travels to a summit of queens.  As inexperienced as she is, she will need all her wits about her to handle them.  Especially knowing a traitor dwells in her midst.  Charlie's advisers can't help her.  But there is one who can—if only Charlie will succumb to the enticing whispers of Queen Sabara's ancient essence, if only she'll hand over her Queendom to the one who ruled it with an iron fist.  For the good of Ludania, will Charlie finally give in?

When I first read The Pledge, the initial book in Kimberly Derting's YA dystopian trilogy, I was impressed by the original touches the author brought to a genre that seems to grow staler by the minute.  The second read-through didn't blow me away quite as much, but I still found myself enjoying the story.  Re-reading its predecessor did make the next novel in the series, The Essence, much more exciting for me.  And yet, the tale loses a lot of its freshness in the second installment.  Character development continues to be a problem, especially among the men, most of whom are completely interchangeable.  Despite all that, I had a hard time putting The Essence down.  The book's got plenty of action, plenty of romance, plenty of adventure—plenty to hold a reader's interest.  The Essence isn't my favorite dystopian book ever, nor is this one of my favorite post-apocalyptic series of all time, but both are intriguing enough to satisfy.  So, yeah.

(Readalikes:  The Pledge and The Offering by Kimberly Derting)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated: 


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find



 
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