Friday, June 20, 2014

LOST-Ish YA Adventure Novel Enjoyable-Ish

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The last thing 17-year-old Charley Crowder remembers doing is standing in the Target parking lot in Roswell, Georgia, clutching a bag full of clothes she needed to return.  Which makes no sense at all.  How did she go from doing the most ordinary task in the world to waking up naked in a bed of rocks on a deserted island?  It's not an ordinary island either—some kind of weird juju swirls in its tropical air.  But what does it mean?  How did she get to this mysterious place?  Why is she all alone?  And how does she return to her life in Georgia?

Just when Charley's convinced she's going to die alone on the island, she meets Thad Blake, a 17-year-old snowboarder from Whistler, Canada.  The leader of a small, ragtag band of teenage refugees, Thad welcomes her into their village and tries to explain the rules of the strange world they call NIL.  No one understands all the ins and outs of the place, but there is one indisputable point:  each of  the island's residents has exactly 365 days to escape the island or else they die.  Thad's time is running out, a fact that distresses Charley the more she gets to know—and love—him.  If they're going to have any kind of future together, they both need to get back to the real world.  The key to freedom is figuring out how NIL works.  Charley's got some new theories, but can she figure out NIL's mysteries before it's too late?  Or will she lose the man of her dreams just when she's finally found him?

I love the whole LOST meets The Maze Runner premise behind Lynne Matson's debut novel, NIL.  It promises mystery, adventure, romance, suspense—all the ingredients for a perfect YA thriller.  The real question is, does it deliver on its promise?  Not exactly.  The story does offer plenty of mystery and high-stakes adventure, but it's also plagued with insta-love, underdeveloped characters and plot holes.  Not to mention a cheap, anticlimactic ending.  I'm not saying the book's not entertaining—it is—I was just hoping for more complexity, more mystery, and better development of both the setting and the characters.  In the end, NIL disappointed me a little.  Maybe my expectations were too high, but hey, I get excited when I see a premise with such great potential.  And it makes me sad when a book doesn't quite reach it.  I'd still recommend NIL if you enjoy a quick, entertaining adventure/survival story, just don't expect too much from it.

(Readalikes:  reminded me a little of The Maze Runner by James Dashner)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence/gore, mild sexual innuendo/content

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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why? Morbid Curiosity. Conclusion? Never Again.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

True crime stories have never really been my thing, but that changed (at least temporarily) when I read my first Ann Rule book.  Rule—a former Seattle police officer—writes about notorious modern murderers, examining their crimes by looking at their lives, their victims' stories, and the police work that went into bringing the killer to justice.  Her first book, The Stranger Beside Me, chronicles her search for a vicious serial killer who she's stunned to discover is her nice, quiet co-worker, Ted Bundy.  It's gruesome, but fascinating stuff.  Rule is obsessed with figuring out why such people do the things they do.  The question intrigues me as well, which explains why I've read a half dozen or so of her books.    

While I'm still interested in the psychology behind violent crime, I stopped reading these types of books because they are, by nature, graphic and disturbing.  So, why did I suddenly decide to pick up In Cold Blood—a classic of the genre—after all this time?  Simple:  morbid curiosity.  Conclusion?  Never again.  However compelling, true crime is just too gory and too depressing for me. 

You probably know the story behind In Cold Blood, but here's a quick summary:  On November 15, 1959, on a remote cattle ranch near Holcomb, Kansas, two teenagers and their parents were murdered in their home.  The Clutters were a well-respected family, known for their fairness and generosity.  Why four of them were shot at close-range on an otherwise ordinary night, no one could guess.  The brutality of the crime shocked residents of the tiny town, baffling police officers and causing gentle farming folk to look on their neighbors with newly-acquired suspicion and paranoia.  

With few clues to go on, law enforcement officials hardly knew how to proceed.  As they followed the few leads they had, they found only more questions.  A nonsensical crime became even more confounding. 

In Cold Blood, the product of four years of research by Capote, traces the case from beginning to end.  Although Capote insisted that every word in the book was true, he's been criticized for fabricating scenes and misquoting witnesses.  Some call In Cold Blood a "true crime novel."  Whatever the case may be, it's an engrossing book.  That being said, it's also (like I said above) gory and depressing.  Very depressing.  The book focuses less on the psychology behind the killers' actions than on the actions themselves, so for me, it didn't hold quite the same appeal as Ann Rule's books.  All in all, though, it's a fascinating, well-told story about a tragic crime that ruined a family and shattered the innocence of a quiet, Midwestern town.   

(Readalikes:  I haven't read any other historical true crime books, but In Cold Blood definitely reminds me of modern ones like those written by Ann Rule)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, disturbing images, and sexual content

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

Because She's An Auto-Read Author, That's Why

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Do you have auto-read authors?  You know, writers whose books you grab, no matter what, just because their name appears on the cover?  I do.  Lots of them, in fact.  Case in point:  Mary Higgins Clark.  My dad introduced me to her books back when I was in junior high.  Even though she's always written for adults, Clark keeps her stories pretty much PG-rated, so I could enjoy her novels even as a teen.  And I did.  She writes in short, addictive chapters that kept me up way, way, way too late on many a school night.  All these years later, the format of her books remains the same, but the quality of Clark's writing seems to have tanked.  Or maybe I've just matured as a reader.  Whatever the reason, I'm finding her newer mysteries increasingly formulaic, predictable and annoyingly tell-y (as opposed to show-y).  And yet, I still put my name on the library's waiting list every year when a new Mary Higgins Clark mystery comes out.  Why?  I don't know!  I guess it's because I know what to expect with her—I get a fast, clean, entertaining story that requires little brain work on my part.  Some days, that's a definite win-win for me.  

Having said that, I have to admit that Clark's newest, I've Got You Under My Skin, does change up her usual formula just a bit.  The novel revolves around Laurie Moran, a 36-year-old t.v. producer.  Although she has a successful career and a charming young son, Laurie is still haunted by the murder of her beloved husband five years ago.  Especially since his killer warned that her son would be next.  Half a decade has passed with no threats, but she still can't allow herself to breathe easy.

Given all that, Laurie feels a little uneasy about her newest production project.  The true-crime reenactment program, focused on cold cases, could be the key to boosting her station's ratings.  Not to mention her career.  So, despite her misgivings, she's going forward.  The series premiere will be a doozy, too, reuniting all the suspects in the infamous "Graduation Gala" murder.  Filmed on location at the glamorous mansion where the crime occurred, the show will have enough glitz and drama to attract millions of viewers.  Especially if it leads to the discovery of a killer.  What Laurie doesn't know is that the Graduation Gala killer isn't the only one lurking around the set ... and this one's got his eyes on her.

Like I said before, I've Got You Under My Skin isn't great literature or even a very complex or clever murder mystery.  What it is is mindless entertainment, a fast, easy way to kill a few hours.  If you're looking for a effortless beach or airplane read, you can't go wrong with Mary Higgins Clark.  

(Readalikes:  Other books by Mary Higgins Clark)

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, June 10, 2014

My Top Ten So Far ...


It's been awhile since I've participated in Top Ten Tuesday and I've missed my favorite weekly meme.  This week's topic didn't require much thought, so it seemed like a good time to jump back into the fun.  This time around, the lovely ladies at The Broke and the Bookish want to know about the Top Ten Books I've Read This Year.  I always keep a running list of the books I've finished, using asterisks to mark those I enjoyed most, so it was a cinch to recall my favorites.  Here they are, in no particular order:






1.  The House at Riverton, The Distant Hours, and The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton—Since these three novels are by the same author, with lots of similarities in theme and story, I'm going to count them as one.  Morton excels at writing lush family sagas and I loved each of these.  If you forced me to choose a favorite from among the three, I'd probably go with The Forgotten Garden, but seriously, I enjoyed all of them.



2.  A Death-Struck Year by Makkia Lucier—Good historical YA novels are not exactly plentiful, so I'm always excited when I find one.  Especially when it's set in the same neck of the woods where I grew up (Portland, Oregon).  The novel concerns a wealthy teenage girl who's left alone in the city during the vicious Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918.  It's a tense, haunting story that kept me riveted.



3.  All The Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry—This spare, but lyrical YA novel centers around a young woman who hasn't spoken since she returned from a mysterious absence.  It tells an intriguing, suspenseful story.  All The Truth That's In Me won a well-deserved Whitney Award for Best General YA novel.



4.  Stung by Bethany Wiggins—Although this YA dystopian wasn't all that original, I still enjoyed the Sleeping Beauty twist on a familiar post-apocalyptic/zombie story.



5.  Cress by Marissa Meyer—The Lunar Chronicles is one of my very favorite YA series.  It's original, it's fun, it's clean, and it gets better with every installation.



6.  In a Handful of Dust by Mindy McGinnis—McGinnis' first book, Not a Drop to Drink, sucked me in so totally that it became one of my favorite books of last year.  While the sequel isn't quite as fresh, it still offers up a taut, harrowing tale of survival told in tight, gripping prose.



7.  A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd—This quirky MG novel is a fun, playful story about the power of words.



8.  Save the Cat by Blake Snyder—I've been hearing about this writer's Bible for years.  I finally read it and, yes, it definitely lives up to the hype.  If you're having trouble plotting your novel, definitely check out this guide for screenwriter's.  It's invaluable.



9.  Mississippi Jack by L.A. Meyer—This is the fifth book in another of my favorite YA series.  Like its predecessors, this novel tells a rollicking adventure tale starring the indomitable "Bloody" Jack Faber.  Jacky's one of my favorite YA characters of all time—it's impossible not to love her.


10.  Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana—An atmospheric MG novel about a young girl living in the Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina.  It's a gritty, but hopeful tale.

How about you?  What are your favorite books so far this year?

*All book images from Barnes & Noble

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Novel Writing: What Does a Cat Have to Do With That? Everything, Believe It or Not.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


If you hang around here a lot (and I really hope you do!), you've probably heard me talk about LDS Storymakers.  The organization, which is made up of writers from the LDS community, hosts an annual writing conference which draws hundreds of attendees from around the country.  It's a fun, informative event that always has great teachers/presenters like Brandon Sanderson, Jessica Day George, Aprilynne Pike, Janette Rallison/C.J. Hill, Dan Wells, Melanie Jacobson, Kimberley Griffiths Little, Sarah Eden, Elana Johnson, Natalie Whipple, Brodi Ashton, Anne Perry, and many, many more.  I attend most years, not just for the writing advice, but for networking opportunities, the chance to see old friends, etc.  While the 2014 conference wasn't my favorite (the keynote speaker soured the experience quite a bit for me, but I won't get into all that drama), it was a good ole time.

My point?  Although the focus of the conference is not religious at all, it's amazing how much time the presenters and attendees spend gushing about the Bible.  I'm not referring to the Holy Bible, oh no.  I'm talking Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, a screenwriter who's hailed (at least at LDS Storymakers) as a kind of writing god.  What, you might ask, does crafting a movie have to do with penning a novel?  Lots, actually.  Especially when it comes to plotting, pacing, and populating your story with all the elements that dazzle moviegoers as well as book readers.

The thing that makes the book so helpful is Snyder's identification of the "beats" that every good movie needs and in which order they should appear to maximize their effectiveness in the telling of the story.  This formula can easily be applied to novels (in fact, I know several authors who use Save the Cat! Scrivener templates every time they draft a book).  Just as Snyder breaks down popular movies into identifiable "beats," you can do the same with any novel, which helps you to understand why they do/do not work.  It's very revealing.  Snyder's beat sheets are especially helpful when plotting a novel, as they help you recognize potential slow, weak spots in your story.  Again, extremely helpful.

So, does the book—and the ideas it contains—deserve the reverence it receives every year at Storymakers?  I think, yes.  I found it to be not just informative, but also entertaining, encouraging, and enlightening.  If you write (or try to write) novels or screenplays and you haven't read Save the Cat!, do it.  Before Snyder passed away in 2009, he wrote two sequels:  Save the Cat Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat Strikes Back.  If you can't get your hands on the books, there's also a fabulous Save the Cat! website as well as frequent Save the Cat! workshops around the country.  Obviously, Mormon writers aren't the only ones extolling the virtues of Snyder and his famous cat :)

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall; also, the other Save the Cat! books)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and references (not graphic) to sex

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

Friday, June 06, 2014

It's a Kate Morton Novel—Of Course I Loved It!

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


Ever since she was a child, Edie Burchill's been fascinated by a dark, vivid fairy tale called The True History of the Mud Man.  Written by a reclusive local author, it's a story that continues to haunt her, even as an adult.  When a lost letter, mailed fifty years ago, finally makes its way to Edie's mother, a surprising connection between the older woman and the author of Edie's favorite book comes to light.  A shocked Edie wonders why her mom never mentioned knowing the famous Blythe family.  Especially considering Edie's fondness for Raymond Blythe's best known book.  In answer to her persistent questions, Edie gets nothing—except a stern admonition to drop the subject.

If only Edie could let it go.  Intrigued by the idea of her dull, predictable mother harboring a deep, dark secret—which she must, considering her odd reaction to the old letter—Edie decides to find out just what happened when her mother stayed with the Blythes during World War II.  When she's asked to write an introduction to a new edition of The True History of the Mud Man, Edie knows it's a perfect opportunity to find the truth.  But, when she visits the Blythe sisters, a trio of elderly women who still live in their family's moldering castle, she leaves with more questions than answers.  She knows the Blythes are hiding something, but what?  And what does Edie's mother have to do with it all?  The deeper Edie digs, the more shocking her discoveries.  As revelations from the past illuminate mysteries of the present, she must decide what to do with her new-found knowledge—knowledge that could have alarming consequences for four women about whom Edie cares deeply.

Like Kate Morton's other novels, The Distant Hours tells a lush, absorbing tale about the secrets family members keep from one another, sometimes for generations.  It feels similar to the author's other books, true, but that's okay, the Morton Formula works for me!  Even though I guessed a few of this novel's plot "surprises," that really didn't detract from my enjoyment of this book.  As I have with the other stories I've read by Morton, I liked this one immensely.        

(Readalikes:  Other books by Kate Morton, including The Forgotten Garden, The Secret Keeper, and The House at Riverton)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Haunting, Hopeful Hurricane Katrina Novel a Vivid, Inspirational Read

(Image from Central Speaks)

A storm is brewing in the Gulf Coast, a squall some say could turn into the biggest, most catastrophic hurricane ever to hit New Orleans.  Armani Curtis could not care less about all the talk, however ominous.  She's got more important things to worry about—like her upcoming birthday party.  She's weathered plenty of storms, but she's never turned 10 before.  She can't wait for the cake, the presents, and all that attention focused just on her.  It's going to be a perfect day.  

Then, the storm starts blowing in earnest.  People begin to panic, not just boarding up their houses, but actually leaving town.  Things don't look good for the party Armani's been looking forward to for ages.  In fact, things don't look good at all.  Especially not for the Curtises, who can't leave their home in the Lower Ninth Ward.  They have nowhere else to go, no choice but to hunker down and pray for preservation. 

As Hurricane Katrina rages on and the floodwater rises, Armani realizes just how desperate her family's situation really is.  Stranded on the rooftop with her sickly grandma, her terrified parents and her four young siblings, Armani yearns for deliverance.  When help fails to come, she knows it's up to her to save her family.  But how?  With fetid water drowning her home and dead bodies floating by in the murderous soup, survival seems like a hopeless dream.  What chance does a brand-new 10-year-old have of triumphing over the vicious storm?  Probably none, but Armani has to try—no matter what the risk.   

A lot of readers avoid books about natural disasters, war, and other cruel events, preferring to spend their leisure hours enjoying lighter fare.  In fact, when I explained the plot of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere—a debut novel by Julie T. Lamana—to my dentist, he exclaimed, "How can you stand to read such depressing books?"  (Yes, I talk books with my dentist.  And my hygienist.  In fact, I think we spend more time exchanging reading recommendations than discussing my teeth.  Which is just fine with me—I'll take a rousing book discussion over an oh-so-scintillating flossing lecture any day.)  It's funny, because although Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere details some pretty harrowing events, I hadn't thought of the book as depressing until my dentist described it as such.  Why is that?  I think it's because the story has such a triumphant feel to it.  Lamana, who lives in Louisiana and worked with children displaced because of Hurricane Katrina, wrote the book to give kids hope in the face of difficult situations.  Through the brave, spunky Armani, she does just that.

While it teaches important lessons, there's more to Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere than just an inspirational message.  With a vivid, atmospheric setting; tight, vibrant prose; complex, colorful characters; and a heart-pounding, action-packed plotline, it's also a riveting story.  Because all these elements are so well fleshed-out, readers get a you-are-there feel for the horror many people experienced for real.  Lamana doesn't shy away from showing scary scenes, but she does infuse them with hope, promising that good can be found even in the face of devastating tragedy.

Maybe the book's subject is depressing, but overall, I found it to be an uplifting novel about the power of family, fortitude and finding the strength you didn't know you had in the instant you needed it the most.      

(Readalikes:  Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and intense/scary images

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere from the generous Julie T. Lamana.  Thank you!
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