Monday, March 31, 2014

Jenny Oaks Baker's Newest Makes a Believer Out of Me. Almost.


I'll be honest, I don't listen to a lot of violin music.  Too many years of attending screechy elementary school orchestra concerts may have ruined the instrument for me forever!  Kidding, kidding—I love that my kids, along with all their classmates, get to learn to play violin.  It's just that when I'm listening to music, I prefer rock or pop to classical.  I need songs I can sing along to, you know?  Which, come to think of it, might be why I decided to accept this CD of violin music for review.

I'd heard of Jenny Oaks Baker, an LDS, Juilliard-educated, Grammy Award-nominated violinst, but until now, I had never listened to any of her music.  Something about her newest CD, though, made me want to change that.  As you can probably surmise from its title—Classic: The Rock Album—it includes violin versions of popular (singable!) rock ballads.  From well-known oldies like Yesterday (The Beatles) and Scarborough Fair (Simon & Garfunkel) to more recent hits like Sting's Fields of Gold and Everybody Hurts by R.E.M., the CD offers a nice variety of recognizable songs on its ten tracks.

Although I appreciate beautiful violin music, I admit I've often found it snooze-inducing—that's not true at all with Baker's newest collection.  Even the more melancholy numbers feel not just upbeat, but also uplifting.  While I enjoyed all of the pieces, my favorite is Liverpool Suite, a medley of Beatles songs.  It's lively and fun—the perfect choice for Track #1.

So, did Baker's latest convince me to head right over to Spotify and download as much violin music as I can find?  Well, no.  However, it did remind me how lovely the instrument sounds in the hands of a master.  And, okay, that it wouldn't hurt me to listen to more inspiring music (especially when played by Baker), even if it doesn't have any words.  A serious epiphany, I'm telling you!

Classic: The Rock Album, which comes out on April 7, can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Deseret Book, and other retailers for under $20.  

To the FTC, with love:  I received a free copy of Classic: The Rock Album in exchange for an honest review from the generous folks at Deseret Book.  Thank you!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Steelheart: It's Thrilling, Just Not Uniquely So

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Dave Charleston has only one goal:  kill the man who murdered his father.  Easier said than done, especially since the killer isn't a man at all.  Not anymore.  Steelheart is an Epic, an ordinary human turned super being.  With the power to control the elements, he is merciless and unstoppable.  Other Epics live in Newcago, preying on its human population in their own uniquely sadistic ways, but none dare to challenge Steelheart for rule of the city.  Thus, the super monster enjoys supreme reign, meaning he does anything he wants to anyone he chooses at anytime he wants.  Invincibility has its perks.  

Only 18-year-old Dave knows the truth.  Only he has seen Steelheart bleed.  Only he knows that the metallic man can be wounded, even killed.  Exactly how this is done Dave isn't sure—he just knows it's possible.  Convincing others of this fact, however, is a whole 'nother ballgame.  If only Dave can make the Reckoners—a small, but effective group of human resistance workers—believe him, then maybe he'll stand a chance against the mighty Steelheart.  Maybe not, but he has to try.  He craves revenge, justice and freedom from the cruel tyranny of the power-hungry Epics.  Will he get it?  Or will he die trying?  
Steelheart, the first book in a new YA series by veteran sci fi/fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson, offers an action-packed story set in a harsh dystopic Chicago.  It's a tale stuffed to bursting with danger, death and dazzling super beings.  An intense page-turner that never really stops to take a breath.  It's not the kind of thing I usually read, but hey, it's Sanderson, so I gave it a shot.  Given how much the author's Mistborn series enthralled me, maybe I was expecting too much from Steelheart because, although this novel thrills, it does so in kind of a generic way.  I'm sure I'm going to be in the minority on this, but I found Steelheart a little disappointing.  The characters didn't pop for me, the prose seemed kind of stale and the world-building (which I've come to think of as Sanderson's very own super power) just wasn't up to par.  For me, the whole story lacked the originality I've come to expect from this author.  So, yeah.  I know lots of readers adored this book—unfortunately, I'm really not one of them.  Not that I detest the book or anything, I just found it frustratingly average.  Ah, well.

(Readalikes:  This isn't my usual genre, so I can't think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  

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

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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Taut, Haunting And We Stay Short on Plot, Long on Hope

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Paul Wagoner walks into his high school with a loaded gun, Emily Beam is as shocked as everyone else.  She didn't know he'd take their break-up so hard, didn't know he'd end his own life, didn't know the tragedy would shatter them both.  Still reeling from it all, 17-year-old Emily is sent to Amherst, Massachusetts for a fresh start.  Her new boarding school might as well be on another planet, it's so different than what she's used to, but at least no one knows her there.  In this new world, she drifts through her classes like a ghost, writing poetry in an effort to come to terms with all that's happened to her over the past few months.

With the spirit of Emily Dickinson wafting through the town of Amherst—where the famous poet lived her entire life—it's no wonder the grieving teenager is drawn to her.  The writer's ethereal presence seems to hijack Emily Beam's brain, her presence a comfort as Emily works through her grief.  Between her obsession with the poet and her new friends in Massachusetts, a tentative hope starts to fill Emily.  Is it possible to move on after all that's happened?  Can she really start over, putting the past behind her and looking toward the future with eagerness?  Maybe.  Just maybe.

As you can probably tell, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard is a little short on plot.  Because of that, it seems unfocused and a bit anticlimactic.  Still, its taut, haunting prose (and poetry) pulls the reader in, making us care about what happens to Emily Beam.  Although the story as a whole is kind of bleak and depressing, it ends on a triumphant, hopeful note.  Overall, then, it's a decent book, just not one that really moved or amazed me.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-word, plus milder invectives), mild sexual content and adult subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, March 24, 2014

It's Clean, Upbeat, Fun ... And I Still Gave It a D

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

For June Laurie, an 18-year-old actress from California, life is just about perfect.  Her recurring role on a popular t.v. crime show has helped her launch a successful acting career, she's still very much in love with her best friend/boyfriend Joseph, and they're both about to embark on a whole new adventure as freshmen at Brigham Young University (BYU).  June's never been to Utah, but as a devout Mormon, it's always been her dream to visit.  Now, she'll be living in the state, studying theater at the well-known LDS college.  As much as she'll miss her friends on Forensic Faculty, she can't wait to move on with her life.  

June knew going off to college wouldn't be easy, but she didn't expect the transition to be this hard.  Her new roommates already have their own lives and friends; Joseph is keeping his distance so he can focus on his upcoming mission; and the other theater majors aren't as welcoming as June expected them to be.  Lonely and disappointed, she finds herself pining for her old life in California.  Especially when an old friend makes a surprise appearance, reminding June that Joseph's not the only boy in the world.  She hasn't experienced this much drama since her last t.v. taping.  Caught up in all the turmoil of her strange, new life, June must decide—once and for all—who she is, what she wants and where she really belongs.

Finding June, the first book in Shannen Crane Camp's YA series about a young, LDS actress trying to find her way in the world, came to my attention last year when it was nominated for a Whitney Award.  As much as I liked the premise of the book, I cared little for its heroine, its melodrama and its bumpy prose.  It received a D from me.  Considering that, I was a little surprised to find its sequel, Chasing June, nominated for an award in this year's competition.  Hoping for a better-written novel this time around, I jumped right in—and came up empty.  My main beefs?  Plot, for one.  An annoying love triangle formed the main conflict, which turned me off right from the beginning because I couldn't understand why one guy would like a girl as self-absorbed as June, let alone two.  It would have worked much better as a subplot.  Also, June.  Ugh.  She's not developed well enough to be sympathetic or particularly likable.  Since she gets everything she wants without having to try very hard, she never grows as a character or as a person.  With no interests outside of clothes, boys and acting, she comes off as superficial and snotty.  Frankly, I can't stand her.  My biggest beef with this series, though, is that it barely explores the part of its premise I find most interesting—that of an LDS actress trying to maintain her standards while also working to build a career in the cutthroat world of Hollywood stardom.

On the bright side, Finding June is a clean, upbeat read that straddles the fence between young adult and new adult, thus appealing to older teens who want more mature drama without graphic sex, language, etc.  Although there are LDS themes in the book, it's really not preachy.  Non-LDS readers should be able to enjoy it without too much confusion.  Also, can I tell you how much I love the covers on these books?  They're adorable.

So, let's recap:  while Chasing June—like Finding June—offers a fun, uplifting, PG-rated story, it lacks too much in plot, characterization, and writing to earn more than a D from me.  Ah, well.

(Readalikes:  Finding June by Shannen Crane Camp)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-copy of Chasing June, provided by the Whitney Awards Committee, for use in judging contest finalists.  Thank you!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Light, Funny Break-up Tale Vintage Leavitt

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Mallory Bradshaw's boyfriend of thirteen months cheats on her with some cyber chick he's never even met, the 16-year-old is livid.  She's so upset, she decides to swear off boys forever.  Then, she discovers an old list of goals her grandmother wrote in 1962.  The quaintness of it (run for pep club secretary; sew my own homecoming dress; host a dinner party, etc.) strikes a chord in Mallory's wounded soul.  Her grandma obviously lived in a softer, more innocent time, an era when boys didn't cyber-cheat on girls they claimed to love.  Mallory vows, right then and there, to bring back those simpler days.  Ditching her cell phone, computer, iPod and anything else that didn't exist in her grandma's teenage years, Mallory embarks on a quest to check off every item on the goal list.  So what if she can't sew on a button to save her life?  Who cares if her school hasn't had a pep club in 50 years?  Mallory's going to do everything on her grandma's list, even if it kills her.  Which it just might.

As Mallory attempts to follow in her grandma's footsteps, she finds the path back to the good ole days to be a little rockier than she imagined.  Her friends think her attempt to "go vintage" is crazy, and Mallory's starting to agree.  When she seeks inspiration from her grandma (who doesn't know about her granddaughter's attempt to step back in time), the older woman seems distant and unwilling to reminisce about the past.  Is it possible that her teenage years weren't as easy-breezy as they seem?  Undaunted, Mallory continues her journey which, really, has always been about one thing:  finding her own identity.  As she struggles to complete the list, Mallory learns some important lessons—about finishing what she's started, about her grandma and, ultimately, about herself.  

Vintage is a good way to describe this novel because it's everything you'd expect from the always upbeat, always funny Lindsey Leavitt.  With its warm, peppy tone; its quirky, relatable characters; and its pointed, but not preachy moral, Going Vintage is vintage Leavitt.  Which is what makes the book so fun.  Is it the most original story I've ever read?  Nope.  The most impactful?  Nuh uh.  Still, it's a light, enjoyable tale that's perfect for the lazy days of summer, which are coming all too soon ...

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

Grade:




If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Going Vintage from the generous folks at Bloomsbury via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Whitney Award Nominee A Taut, Lyrical Thriller

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Some books are so difficult to describe, I don't even bother trying to write my own plot summary.  All the Truth That's In Me, a stark, riveting YA mystery by Julie Berry, is one of these.  So, let's start with the official back cover blurb:
Four years ago, Judith and her best friend disappeared from their village of Roswell Station.  Two years later, only Judith returned, permanently mutilated, reviled and ignored by those who were once her friends and family.

Unable to speak, Judith lives like a ghost in her own home, silently pouring out her thoughts to the boy who's owned her heart as long as she can remember—even if he doesn't know it—her childhood friend, Lucas.

But when Roswell Station is attacked, long-buried secrets come to light, and Judith is forced to make a choice: continue to live in silence, or recover her voice, even if it means changing her world, and the lives around her, forever.

This startlingly original novel will shock and disturb you; it will fill you with Judith's passion and longing; and its mysteries will keep you feverishly turning the pages until the very last.
Although she's written half a dozen books, I'd never heard of Julie Berry until All the Truth That's In Me was nominated for a Whitney Award.  The novel's worthy of one, for sure.  It's well-written, tightly-plotted and uniquely told.  Our heroine—the very empathetic Judith—tells a harrowing tale, one that's full of mystery, sorrow, shame and, ultimately, redemption.  While the book is mostly clean, it's not an easy read. What is it, then?  How about surprising, disturbing, and absorbing?  I still had some questions by the end of the book, but overall, I found this one very satisfying.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of All the Truth That's in Me from the generous folks at Penguin.  Thank you!



Monday, March 10, 2014

A Death-Struck Year: YA Historical Fiction Done Right

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Although a vicious strain of Spanish Influenza has swept from Europe to the U.S., killing thousands all over the world, Cleo Berry feels safe.  After all, the 17-year-old lives in Portland, Oregon, far from any reported cases of the disease.  While Cleo's brother and his wife—her guardians—are away on an anniversary trip, she's boarding in the student dormitories at her private high school.  She misses her large, quiet house, where she doesn't have to deal with a bunch of loud girls sharing her space, clogging up the communal sinks, and "borrowing" her things.  Cleo's not sure how she's supposed to bear such indignities for six whole weeks.

Then a group of soldiers at Washington State's Camp Lewis falls ill.  It's Influenza, way too close to home.  As a precautionary measure, the Portland Department of Health prohibits public gatherings and closes all schools.  With her brother still gone and the family's housekeeper away, there's no one to watch over Cleo.  She goes home, anyway.  On her own in a city that's reeling from its first cases of the deadly flu, Cleo's not sure what to do with herself.  

When Cleo sees an advertisement begging for volunteers to help the Red Cross nurses treat flu patients, she feels drawn to the cause.  Knowing her brother would never approve of her taking such risks, she sends word that all is well, there's no need for him to return early from his trip.  It's a lie.  The housekeeper hasn't returned to look after her and Cleo's spending so much time at the hospital she's forgetting to sleep, eat, and look after her own health.  How long will it be before she's struck down by the disease?  Is helping strangers really worth so great a risk?  What will Cleo, all alone in a dying city, do if she's the one who needs life-saving aid?  As more and more people perish from the flu, Cleo must decide what's most important:—aiding those who are already dying or saving herself.  

A Death-Struck Year, a debut novel by Makiia Lucier, paints a vivid and harrowing picture of what it must have been like to live through the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic.  Through Cleo's eyes, the reader sees—and feels—the panic, the fear, and the horror caused by this deadly natural disaster (according to Wikipedia, the 1918 flu outbreak infected about 500 million people worldwide, killing 50-100 million of them).  Despite its bleak subject matter (and Lucier gives plenty of grisly details), this is a warm novel that offers hope even in the grimmest of circumstances.  With tight prose, sympathetic characters, and an evocative setting, it's historical fiction done right—a rarity in the world of YA lit.  Fans of the genre, teens and adults alike, should not miss this absorbing novel.   

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


for language (no F-bombs), blood/gore, and vague references to sex (STD's, birth control, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A Death-Struck Year from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Thank you!
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