Thursday, December 31, 2015

True Account of To Kill A Mockingbird-esque Case Makes for Fascinating, Eye-Opening Reading

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In 1983, when he was a 23-year-old Harvard Law student, Bryan Stevenson took an intensive class which focused on race and poverty litigation.  As part of the course, he began an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta.  Working with the organization, which helps death row inmates, opened his eyes and changed his life.  Embracing the principle Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done (17-18), Stevenson has since dedicated himself to fighting mistreatment in the criminal justice system, especially when it concerns those who are most vulnerable—minorities, the poor, the wrongly accused, women, children, etc.  

In Just Mercy, Stevenson's first book, he recounts a situation he encountered early in his career.  It was during his fourth year with the SPDC that the young lawyer became embroiled in a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird-esque case that would teach him truths so startling and profound he would never forget them.  While visiting a prison in Alabama—a state that had a large incarcerated population and no public defender system, meaning many of its death row inmates had no legal representation at all—Stevenson met Walter McMillian, a middle-aged African-American man from, ironically enough, Monroe County, Alabama.  Like the fictional Tom Robinson, McMillian was accused of harming a young white woman.  In McMillian's case, it was a murder charge—Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old store clerk, had been shot during what appeared to be a robbery at her place of employment.  While Morrison upheld an unblemished reputation, McMillian's was undeniably spotty.  Though married, he was a notorious ladies' man (who had just ended a troublesome relationship with his white, married lover), who was also rumored to be part of the "Dixie mafia" and a drug dealer.  Still, McMillian emphatically maintained his innocence in Morrison's killing.  Although he had an alibi for the night the crime was committed, one verified by a dozen people, police pursued the matter, which eventually landed McMillian on death row.

The many inconsistencies in the case against Walter McMillian became apparent as soon as Stevenson began investigating it.  Stunned by the prejudice and incompetence he uncovered, the attorney vowed to free McMillian from prison.  Doing so would prove to be unimaginably difficult, steeped as the case was in racism, prejudice, conspiracy, lies, etc.  It would also change the way Stevenson viewed mercy and justice—forever.  

I hadn't heard of Bryan Stevenson or Walter McMillian before picking up Just Mercy.  In fact, I knew nothing about the book until my husband randomly plucked the audio version of it from off a library shelf.  After completing a road trip during which both he and his aunt listened, spellbound, to the story, my husband recommended I read it.  I did.  Like my husband and aunt-in-law, I found myself transfixed by Stevenson's account of defending McMillian.  I've never thought the criminal justice system perfect, but reading about such obvious kinks in its workings definitely reminded me of its many flaws.  Using McMillian's case as just one example, Stevenson makes some very convincing arguments about mercy, justice, and prison reform.  While Just Mercy gets undeniably depressing, it's also inspiring.  Eye-opening, jaw-dropping, heart-breaking, thought-provoking—all these adjectives describe the effect it had on me.  You may not agree with Stevenson's findings, but you will no doubt find his book illuminating.  I highly recommend it.  

(Readalikes:  While the books are not similar in tone or style, Just Mercy did remind me of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; also of A Time to Kill by John Grisham)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), and disturbing themes, including rape, drug abuse, violence, child abuse, etc.

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Morton's Newest Another Rich, Succulent Gem

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Midsummer's Eve, 1933—Loeanneth, the Edevane Family's summer home in Cornwall, is the sparkling center of a lavish party.  Hundreds of revelers gather on its grounds, sipping champagne, watching a bonfire burn on the lake, and enjoying the perfect weather.  It's a night of enchantment, anticipation, and excitement.  A night that will turn tragic when the disappearance of 11-month-old Theo Edevane is discovered.  With no body, no ransom note, no clue as to what has happened to the child, the case of the missing baby goes unsolved.  Crushed by grief, the Edevanes close up the lake house, never to return.

Cornwall, 2003—After making a career-ending mistake, London detective Sadie Sparrow is forced to take a leave of absence.  While cooling her heels at her grandfather's seaside cottage in Cornwall, she stumbles across a once grand, now decaying home.  Intrigued by the ruin, Sadie starts asking questions.  When she learns about Loeanneth's mysterious history, she becomes obsessed with the Edevanes.  Determined to find out what happened to young Theo, she seeks out the boy's remaining family members as well as anyone with connections to Loeanneth.

Alice Edevane, now a well-known mystery writer in her late 80s, holds pieces to the puzzle of what really happened on that summer night back in 1933.  But not all.  Although she longs to piece it all together, she doesn't want the exposure.  Can she trust Sadie Sparrow to find answers?  Does Alice really want to know the truths her family has always gone to such pains to hide?

As Sadie comes closer to solving the very cold case, she will make some startling discoveries about the Edevanes, revelations that will lead her to illuminating epiphanies about herself and her own family.  If her manic search for answers about Theo Edevane doesn't kill her first.

It's no secret that I'm a huge Kate Morton fan.  I've read—and loved—all of her novels.  Sure, they're all kind of the same, but I don't care.  I adore them.  The Lake House, Morton's newest, is no exception.  With well-developed characters, intricate plotting, and a compelling mystery, it definitely held my interest.  Some of the story's plot surprises did strike me as annoyingly convenient, but I still very much enjoyed this multi-layered family saga, which kept me guessing nonetheless.  Morton's skillful storytelling never fails to captivate me, even when I see twists coming, which is why she's quickly become one of my favorite authors.  For me, her books are must-read, auto-buy treasures.  If you dig absorbing, suspenseful reads about old houses, family secrets, and past/present mysteries, don't miss The Lake House or anything else by the incomparable Kate Morton.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Kate Morton's other novels, including The Distant Hours; The Forgotten Garden; The House at Riverton; and The Secret Keeper)

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Lake House from the generous folks at Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

TTT: 2016 Must-Read Releases

December's been a little hectic, both in real life and on the blog.  Now that the Christmas craziness is over, I'm working on getting everything ship-shape for the new year.  That includes trying to get all the books I read in 2015 reviewed before January 1st.  With *only* 29 to go, I'm not sure I'm going to make it.  Oh well, I'll do what I can ...

In the meantime, I thought today's Top Ten Tuesday topic sounded fun.  Last time I made a TTT list, back on December 1st, it had to do with 2016 debut books I was excited to read.  This week's prompt is similar: Top Ten Most Anticipated Releases For the First Half of 2016.  I'm still stoked about the debut novels I listed previously, but I'm also excited to see what these ten are all about:


1.  Passenger by Alexandra Bracken (January)—There's been a lot of buzz about this seafaring adventure.  I know I'm not the only one who's waiting anxiously for its release.


2.  Stars Above by Marissa Meyer (February)—The Lunar Chronicles is one of my favorite YA series.  Although I haven't read Fairest or Winter yet (shame on me!), I'm still looking forward to this collection of prequel stories set in the Lunar Chronicles world.


3.  Riders by Veronica Rossi (February)—I loved Rossi's Under the Never Sky series and can't wait to read the author's newest.  This one is about a boy who dies and wakes up with a new destiny and identity as War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.


4.  Reign of Shadows by Sophie Jordan (February)—This Rapunzel retelling sounds like another fun YA read.


5.  Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham (March)—Stepping away from YA fantasy, this adult historical sounds intriguing.  The novel concerns Mary Surratt, a widow who went to the gallows after being suspected of helping with the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.  Fascinating.


6.  Living Color by Jodi Picoult (2016)—I'm a big Picoult fan and always wait eagerly for a new novel from her.  This one, which is supposed to release in 2016, concerns a black nurse who intervenes on behalf of a white baby, even though the infant's Skinhead father has forbidden her to touch him.  When the child dies, the nurse finds herself on trial for murder.


7.  The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (March)—This novel about two sisters-in-law and their fractured relationship sounds intriguing to me.


8.  My Last Continent by Midge Raymond (June)—Set against a harsh Antarctic backdrop, this love and survival story concerns two scientists on two different ships—one of which is sinking.


9.  The Hunt by Megan Shepherd (May)—I read The Cage, the first book in Shepherd's series about human teenagers becoming exhibits in an alien zoo, earlier this year.  The sequel comes out in a few months—I'm interested to see where the story goes next.


10.  Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar (June)—I'm super excited about this supernatural YA novel, which has been described as Twin Peaks meets Stars Hollow.

There you go—ten 2016 releases I can't wait to read.  What do you think?  Do we have any picks in common?  What other great titles should I look for in the new year?  I love getting suggestions from you, so please leave me a comment on this post with a link to your TTT list and I'll happily stop by to look at it.  Happy TTT, everyone!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mormon Mentions: Louise Penny

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.

--

A word of warning:  This Mormon Mention may be a bit spoiler-y, so beware.

In The Cruelest Month, the third installment of Louise Penny's popular Armand Gamache series, the great chief inspector is trying to solve the case of a woman who died seemingly of fright.  While discussing lab reports, he says:

"'Ma Huang.  An old Chinese herb.  Also known as Mormon's tea.  And ephedra" (282).

- I'd never heard of Mormon's Tea (also called Brigham's Tea in reference to Brigham Young) and apparently, there's a lot of conflicting information about it.  As far as I can glean from some quick Internet research, Mormon's Tea is made from a shrub common in the American Southwest that is related to the Chinese herb to which Gamache refers.  Its stems are chopped up, then boiled and steeped into a concoction which is said to help with common ailments like colds, coughs, joint pain, constipation, etc.  It's also supposed to cure sexually-transmitted diseases.  The brew can also be drunk as an alternative to regular tea.  According to this article (from which I got most of my information), however, no mention of Mormon's Tea can be found in pioneer diaries until after the death of Brigham Young in 1877.  So, who knows? 

If you know anything about Mormons, you probably know that we live by a health code called The Word of Wisdom, which was revealed to Church members in 1833.  The edict cautions against the use of "strong drink" as well as "hot drinks."  Early Church leaders interpreted the latter to mean coffee and tea.  Modern leaders continue to urge us to avoid any substance that is addictive in nature, thus active LDS people generally abstain from drinking coffee and caffeinated tea.  We're also told to avoid alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, and anything else that can be harmful to the body.  Anyone whose life has been touched by addiction should be able to see the wisdom in such advice, no?

Because of the damage addiction can have on individuals, families, and society in general, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers a fantastic, free recovery program that has helped many, many people overcome addictions to not only alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, but also pornography, gambling, infidelity, overeating, etc.

Mystery Series Continues to Entertain, Even if Third Book Isn't Quite as Dazzling as Its Predecessors

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for The Cruelest Month, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from previous Armand Gamache mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

As Spring brings the little village of Three Pines back to life, its residents are deciding how to celebrate the upcoming Easter holiday.  When a psychic from Montreal shows up in town, a group of villagers hatch a brilliant idea—wouldn't it be amusing to hold a real, live sĂ©ance in the creepy old Hadley house?  Indeed, it turns out to be a deliciously unnerving event.  Then, bright, spirited Madeleine Favreau drops dead.  Presumably, the 44-year-old died of fright.  The death of a woman as likable as Madeleine can only have been of natural causes, right?

The mysterious death lures Armand Gamache, the SĂ»cretĂ© du Quebec's renowned chief inspector, back to Three Pines.  Along with his team, the gentlemanly Gamache sets out to discover what really happened to Madeleine.  His verdict?  Murder.  But how?  And by whose hand?  

In addition to solving the puzzling case, Gamache is dealing with internal strife from his mismatched team.  Because of an accusation against his superior, the chief inspector believes he may have a mole among his crew.  While trying to flush out the spy, Gamache must do his best to convince his team to work together.  He needs all hands on deck to solve the murder at hand.  Can he do it?  Or will a traitor in his midst ruin everything?  

Although The Cruelest Month—the third installment in Louise Penny's popular Armand Gamache series—isn't my favorite, it still kept me thoroughly entertained.  I'm always drawn in by the author's signature warmth and humor, which brings her setting and characters to such vivid life.  She also creates complex plots that keep me guessing.  While the murderer in The Cruelest Month felt more obvious than usual, I still wasn't quite sure about the killer's identity until the very end of the book.  Penny does give this installment more depth by using intertwining story lines to explore intriguing themes like jealousy, the inability to celebrate someone else's happiness, resentment, etc.  Then, there's our indefatigable hero.  No matter how unique or mundane the situation, I always love Armand Gamache.  He's a complex, well-rounded character who never fails to entertain and intrigue me.  So, while The Cruelest Month didn't dazzle me as much as its predecessors, I still adore this series.  Something interesting is always happening in Three Pines and I, for one, don't want to miss a word of it!

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Armand Gamache series, including Still Life; A Fatal Grace; The Brutal Telling; Bury Your Dead; The Hangman; A Trick of the Light; The Beautiful Mystery; How the Light Gets In; The Long Way Home; and The Nature of the Beast)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Orphan #8 A Fascinating, Based-on-a-True-Story Historical Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When a heated argument between her parents takes a violent turn, 4-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz loses everything she's ever known—her guardians, her older brother, and her home.  Taken from her Lower Eastside tenement, the frightened child is thrust into the Hebrew Infant Home, a New York City orphanage that runs on the donations of wealthy Jews.  There, she becomes a guinea pig for Dr. Mildred Solomon, a radiologist who uses the home's residents for her science experiments.  It's a bleak, terrifying existence for a frightened, lonely girl, the emotional and physical effects of which will haunt her for the rest of her life.

Fast forward 35 years.  It's 1954 and Rachel is a hospice nurse working at the Old Hebrew Home in New York.  She is shocked when she receives a new patient, whose name she recognizes instantly—Dr. Mildred Solomon.  Dying from bone cancer, the woman is as cold and vain as ever.  She doesn't recognize Rachel (once known as Orphan #8), which makes the nurse even more angry with her old nemesis.  Buoyed by thoughts of revenge, Rachel goes through the motions of caring for the elderly woman, all the while entertaining murderous thoughts.  But when it comes to actually ending Dr. Solomon's life, can Rachel do it?  Faced with the ultimate choice—exact revenge or exercise mercy—what will she choose?

Like the heroine of her first novel, Kim van Alkemade has ties to a famous New York City orphanage.  Her grandfather and his two brothers grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York (on which the fictional Hebrew Infant Home and Orphaned Hebrews Home are based).  It was while doing genealogical research on these men that van Alkemade came across the astonishing story of Dr. Elsie Fox, a graduate of Cornell Medical School who performed science experiments on children at the orphanage.  Using this intriguing historical tidbit as a springboard, van Alkemade uses a made-up character to tell the stories of real children (like her grandfather and great uncles) who grew up inside institutions like the Hebrew Orphan Asylum.  The result is an engrossing historical novel that's taut, vivid, and thought-provoking.  As you can imagine, it's also downright depressing.  Even though I empathized with Rachel, I didn't find myself connecting much with her.  So, although the premise of Orphan #8 fascinated me, the story itself disappointed a bit.  All in all, I found the book interesting and memorable, but not knock-my-socks-off amazing.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a finished copy of Orphan #8 with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unflinching But Compassionate Appalachian Murder Mystery Series Just Keeps Getting Better

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Last Ragged Breath, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from previous Bell Elkins mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

February 26, 1972—A coal slurry dam breaks in Logan County, West Virginia, days after passing a government inspection.  Thousands of gallons of black water pour over the area, destroying homes and businesses, leaving thousands homeless, and over 100 people dead.  Known as the Buffalo Creek flood, reverberations from the disaster lingered long after its survivors settled with the Pittston Coal Company for millions of dollars in damages.     

Last Ragged Breath, the fourth and latest installment in Julia Keller's compelling Bell Elkins series, uses this tragic event as an intriguing backdrop.  The novel features Royce Dillard, a man who lost his parents in the Buffalo Creek disaster.  Royce would have been killed as well if it hadn't been for his mother, who tossed him to safety before she disappeared in the inky floodwaters (although Royce is fictional, his backstory is very loosely based on the real experience of "miracle baby" Kerry Albright).  Now a recluse living off the grid with seven stray dogs, Royce is accused of murdering a slick land developer who was set on building a multi-million dollar resort in Royce's backyard. 

For prosecuting attorney Belfa "Bell" Elkins, few things about the case ring true.  But with damning evidence against Royce, there's little she can do to stop the proceedings.  She longs for the good ole days when she could sit down with her colleague and best friend Nick Fogelsong, putting their heads together to solve puzzling crimes.  But there's a new sheriff in town and Nick is busy with his new job as the head of security for a gas station chain.  Bell misses him with a fierceness that manifests itself as anger.  Resigned to prove Royce's innocence on her own, Bell now faces her toughest case yet.  Who really killed Ed Hackel?  Why?  Can she find a way to exonerate Royce in time?  Or will the seemingly gentle recluse rot in jail for a crime he (probably) didn't commit?  

There are so many elements that keep me engaged by the Bell Elkins series.  First, I love Bell, who's as tough and devoted as she is vulnerable.  She's very real, as authentically flawed as the rest of us.  Second, I'm always fascinated by Keller's unflinching, but compassionate depiction of rural poverty.  Her ruminations on the devastating affects of unemployment, drug abuse, and alcoholism are both eye-opening and heartbreaking.  Third, Keller always manages to surprise me.  Like with other Bell Elkins mysteries, I thought I had Last Ragged Breath's murderer pegged long before Bell did.  Nope.  I was totally wrong.  For all of these reasons, I'm always eager to see what Julia Keller will do next.  As evidenced by Last Ragged Breath, her books just keep getting better.  The next comes out in August 2016 and I, for one, cannot wait.  

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Bell Elkins series, including A Killing in the Hills; Bitter River; and Summer of the Dead)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Last Ragged Breath from the generous folks at Minotaur Books (a division of Macmillan).  Thank you!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

YA Steampunk/Alternate History Story a Clean, Charming Romp

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Verity Newton, a 17-year-old from Connecticut, is no stranger to adventure.  She's faced danger and derring-do of every possible kind—between the pages of the pulp novels she loves to read.  Her real life has been less exciting, but her luck in that regard appears to be changing.  Verity's train hasn't even reached New York City before it's robbed by gentleman bandits!  And that's only the first of many intriguing encounters she has in the bustling metropolis.

When Verity accepts a position as governess to a trio of orphaned children living with their uncle, she finds herself the employee of a mysterious British magister.  Using magic to ensure its rule, this noble class has always controlled the American colonies.  Living lives of wealth and privilege, they refuse to mingle with commoners—or concern themselves over the petty squabbles of the lower classes.  Lord Henry Lyndon, however, seems a little too interested in the antics of the Rebel Mechanics, an underground group that uses science and engineering to undermine the magicians' power.  Already acquainted with the cheeky rebels, Verity agrees to be their spy.  She hopes to uncover her employer's clandestine activities while keeping her own secrets well hidden from prying eyes.

As the fight between the rebels and the magisters heats up, Verity finds herself caught in the middle—not just between two warring factions, but between two magnetic men.  With danger all around her, she's finally found the grand adventure for which she's been longing.  But will it prove too much for the intrepid Verity?

From the moment I heard about Rebel Mechanics, Shanna Swendson's debut YA novel, I knew I needed to read it.  The alternate history/steampunk premise just sounded fun.  And, you know what?  It really is.  Although the book turned out to be a lighter read than I expected, I still found Rebel Mechanics engaging, entertaining, and immensely enjoyable.  A clean, campy romp, this is the kind of story in which readers of all ages can delight.  Sure, it's predictable.  Yes, it's got a sorta-annoying love triangle.  No, I didn't care.  I just enjoyed this charming, upbeat read.

(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 violence

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

Saturday, December 05, 2015

When Short Stories Are Written By Neil Gaiman, I Might Actually Read—and Like—Them ... Who Knew?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Nothing makes me happier as a reader than a thick, juicy novel into which I can disappear for days. Getting to know an intriguingly complex cast of characters, wandering through a delightfully colorful setting, or sinking into an absorbingly intricate plotline—it just doesn't get better than that for me. Because of this desire for depth, I shy away from more condensed forms of literature, rarely reaching for poetry, short stories or flash fiction.  Of course, exceptions must sometimes be made.  Especially when they involve a new collection by none other than Neil Gaiman.  The author's unique style never ceases to surprise and entertain me.

Trigger Warning—the title of Gaiman's 2015 anthology—comes from the idea that art, movies, t.v. shows, books, etc. should come with cautions about potentially distressing material contained within. While he understands the need to protect children from adult content, Gaiman had this to say about mature readers:
What we read as adults should be read, I think, with no warnings or alerts beyond, perhaps: enter at your own risk.  We need to find out what fiction is, what it means, to us, an experience that is going to be unlike anyone else's experience of the story ... There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me ... but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could. (Introduction, pages XVI-XVII)     
Given his view on the subject, it's not surprising that Gaiman subtitles his book "Short Fictions and Disturbances."  Certainly, some of the selections are disturbing.  Others are funny, scary, zany, cautionary and downright odd.  There's a nice variety of pieces here, from magical yarns to horror stories to fan fiction to poems (which "perhaps might need their own warning for the people [like me!] who are frightened, disturbed, or terminally puzzled by poetry" [XLI].).  To my surprise, my favorite story in Trigger Warning was a Doctor Who fan fiction piece called "Nothing O'Clock.  I'm no Whovian (all it took was the spooky "Are You My Mummy?" episode to scare me out of watching the show forever), but I found the tale fresh, funny and charming.  "Orange" and "My Last Landlady" were also memorable selections.  Even the stories I didn't really get sparked my imagination as only a Gaiman creation can.  

Besides the variety, one of the things I enjoyed most about Trigger Warning is that Gaiman includes explanations of every selection.  He uses interesting personal stories to discuss why he wrote each piece, who/what inspired it, and how it was received by various audiences.  These peeks into Gaiman's creative process make his stories even more compelling. 

I didn't love every single selection in the eclectic Trigger Warning, but that's okay.  Overall, I enjoyed this strange, macabre journey through the mind of one of the most original authors around.  If you're a die-hard Gaiman fan, you'll probably like it even more than I did.  In fact, you'll probably want to put this one at the top of your Christmas list.  
  
(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Trigger Warning from the generous folks at HarperCollins via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!

Friday, December 04, 2015

Imaginative Setting Makes Compelling Background for Magical, Alternative-History Adventure

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


"You have ink in your blood, boy, and no help for it.  Books will never be just a business to you" (26).

Imagine if the great library at Alexandria had never been destroyed.  If it, in fact, stood supreme, the mother of a host of daughter libraries around the world.  Imagine if the Great Library controlled the written word, using alchemy to copy books and distribute them—temporarily and at its own discretion—to citizens' mobile devices.  Consider a world in which owning an original, printed book is illegal, punishable by imprisonment, even death.  Where books are traded on the black market because, in spite of it all, "books were a precious commodity ... [smugglers] catered to a basic human hunger" (137).  

This is the exact situation of those living in 2025 in the alternative world Rachel Caine introduces in her magical YA novel, Ink and Bone.  The story focuses on Jess Brightwell, a 16-year-old Londoner, who works as a "runner" for his family's black-market books business.  It's a dangerous job, one for which Jess has little love.  He hungers for the books, themselves, for the knowledge that's so freely available inside them.  Because he's sensitive where he needs to be cunning, Jess is tasked with becoming his father's spy at the Great Library.  Only a small number of postulants are accepted for Library service each year and the selection process is ruthless.  Although Jess is accepted into the program, his most demanding assignments are yet to come.  Under the tutelage of a merciless instructor, Jess isn't sure he will survive long enough to become a Scholar, let alone learn all the secrets the Great Library holds within its hallowed walls.

The longer Jess survives at the Great Library, the more dangerous his position becomes.  He's wary of his classmates, all of whom hide their own secrets.  The spilling of his own secret—that he's the son of a wanted criminal—could be the end of everything for Jess.  Things get even more dicey when he discovers a remarkable invention, one that would undermine the Library's power, allowing average citizens the kind of freedom hated and feared by those who control the Library and thus, the world.  With a target on his back, Jess must confront conflicting loyalties to figure out what's worth fighting for in a corrupt time when things have gone oh, so horrifyingly wrong ...

Any book lover will appreciate the conflict central to Ink and Bone's plot.  They will understand Jess' motivation, his desire to protect the written word from those who would abuse it.  This sets up the reader for a tense, action-packed ride, filled with magic, adventure, and suspense.  It's easy to root for smart, sympathetic Jess in his quest to fight oppression, bringing the freedom of knowledge to the masses.  While the rules of Caine's fantasy world get confusing at times, overall, it's a complex, well-built setting that makes an intriguing backdrop for this imaginative and compelling tale.  If you dig exciting, adrenaline-fueled stories with unique elements, definitely give Ink and Bone a go.  You won't be disappointed.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

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

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Mary Higgins Clark: Because Old Habits Are Hard to Break

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Lane Harmon loves her job as the sole assistant to Glady Harper, a notoriously demanding Manhattan interior decorator who caters to the rich and famous.  The only thing that delights the 30-year-old more is her beautiful 4-year-old daughter, Katie.  Although they were married only a year, Lane will never stop missing the child's father, who died in a car accident five years ago.  Still, she must look forward, for surely a bright, successful future lies ahead for both herself and little Katie.

When Glady receives a commission to decorate a New Jersey townhouse, Lane is shocked to learn it belongs to Anne Bennett, the wife of a financier who disappeared two years before after stealing five billion dollars from his clients.  She's even more surprised by how sympathetically she feels toward the sickly woman.  Then, Lane meets Anne's son, 37-year-old Eric Bennett.  Rumored to be in cahoots with his disgraced father, the stock trader is not at all what Lane expected.  Using his own money to repay the funds stolen by his dad, Eric seems to be an honest man, embarrassed and concerned for the victims of the financial scandal.  Is he everything he appears to be?  As Lane falls harder and harder for handsome Eric, she must decide if he can really be trusted.

In the meantime, the Bennetts are being stalked by an angry man who lost everything because of the elder Mr. Bennett's scheming.  Lane's association with Eric is putting her directly in the path of a murderous victim.  Will she survive his wrath?  Can the undercover FBI agent who's watching everything unfold stop a killer before he strikes?  Or will young Katie be orphaned before she has a chance to start kindergarten?

I've talked about my long history with Mary Higgins Clark several times on this blog.  When I was in junior high and high school, her pulse-pounding novels kept me up way, way past my bedtime on many occasions.  Her engrossing mysteries kept me riveted with their seductively short chapters, intense plotting, and dramatic finales.  The Queen of Suspense knew how to keep me mesmerized, that's for sure.  As the years wore on, I noticed Clark's game slipping.  Her newer novels just haven't had the same pizzazz as her oldies-but-goodies.  And yet, I can't seem to stop myself from reading them.  

Naturally, then, I had to pick up The Melody Lingers On when it came out in June of this year.  The novel offered exactly what I've come to expect from Clark these days—a quick, uncomplicated mystery; flat, but likable characters; and an exciting, if predictable plot.  Nothing memorable, nothing special.  Even the ending felt anti-climatic to me. 

Considering how meh I've found Clark's recent novels, the question is: why do I keep reading her?  Habits are hard to break, true.  I also appreciate that I can always count on the 87-year-old author to provide a clean, entertaining tale that shies away from graphic language, sex, or violence.  Are her books going to knock my socks off?  Not anymore.  Are they going to give me a couple hours of relaxing, non-taxing diversion?  Absolutely.  So, yeah, I'll probably remain a fan for life (even if it's a bit reluctantly).  Still, I long for the good ole days when Clark's mysteries kept me glued to my seat, gnawing off my fingernails as I read, too enthralled to look away.  I think I'll always love her for giving me the exhilaration of those stolen, long-ago reading hours when all my teenage anxieties disappeared as I focused on the only thing that mattered right then—whodunit.  That's the beauty of a well-written mystery, the kind Clark used to pen so perfectly ...

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Mary Higgins Clark's other mystery/thrillers, of which there are many)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Second Gamache Mystery As Appealing As the First

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for A Fatal Grace, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from the first Armand Gamache mystery, Still Life.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

A year after Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the SĂ»cretĂ© du QuĂ©bec, first comes to tiny, idyllic Three Pines, he returns to investigate a second murder.  This time, it's domestic goddess wannabe Cecilia "CC" de Poitiers whose life has come to an unfortunate end.  Not that anyone in Three Pines will be mourning her demise.  Cold and cruel, the woman had few fans in the small town.  Still, the case is perplexing, mostly because of the very public way in which CC died.  Electrocuted at a town curling match, she was surrounded by people—none of whom have the faintest idea what happened.  Anyone could have killed her; suspects and motives abound.  But, who actually did the deed?  How?  And why?

Undaunted by the puzzling mystery he's taxed with solving, Gamache is delighted to be back in Three Pines.  The village feels like home, its residents like friends.  The chief inspector's team, which includes Gamache's loyal right-hand man, Jean-Guy Beauvoir; the young, but capable Isabelle Lacoste; proud, prickly Yvette Nichol; and over-eager local agent Robert Lemieux; is not quite as enthusiastic.  Learning to work together despite clashing personalities, hidden agendas, and flagrant prejudices might be the team's biggest challenge.  Still, Gamache is determined to bring them together, using their combined skills to help him catch a killer.

When a homeless woman in Quebec is murdered right before Christmas, Gamache is shocked to find the crime is connected to CC's death.  As his case becomes more and more complicated, the chief inspector must dig deeper and deeper to find out what really happened to CC de Poitiers.  Deception barrages him from all directions—even from within his own team—making the case ever more baffling.  Will the complications be enough to ruin Gamache's almost perfect solve record?  Or will he find CC's murderer before anyone else ends up dead?

Like our hero, I found myself eager to return to Three Pines, a charming place I'd come to love from reading Still Life, the debut novel in Louise Penny's appealing Armand Gamache series.  The second installment, A Fatal Grace, brought the setting back to vivid, gratifying life.  As much as I love the backdrop of these books, though, it's the characters that keep me coming back to Penny's books.  With their individual quirks, her warm-hearted cast is always intriguing, always entertaining.  The chief inspector provides a breath of fresh air with his "old world charm ... a courtesy and manner that spoke of a time past" (54) that makes him stand out from the usual leads in crime fiction.  A Fatal Grace also boasts a twisty plot that kept me unsure of the killer's identity until the very end of the novel.  All these things combined made this second Gamache book as enjoyable as the first.  As Three Pines is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit, you better believe I'll be back for more and more and more ... I just can't get enough of this enthralling series.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Armand Gamache series, including Still Life; The Cruellest Month; The Murder Stone; The Brutal Telling; Bury Your Dead; The Hangman; A Trick of the Light; The Beautiful Mystery; How the Light Gets In; The Long Way Home; and The Nature of the Beast)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

2016 Debut Author Reading Challenge

Because I had such a good time coming up with a list for today's Top Ten Tuesday prompt, I'm going to go ahead and sign up for the 2016 Debut Author Challenge hosted by ThatArtsyReaderGirl.com.  Who cares if I'm totally failing all of my 2015 challenges?  We're talking about a new year here, right?  Right.  So here are the 12 books I'm planning to read:

1.  Blackhearts by Nicole Castroman
2.  This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
3.  The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos
4.  Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
5.  Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor
6.  Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace
7.  The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
8.  The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden
9.  Thief of Lies by Brenda Drake
10.  Please Don't Tell by Laura Tims
11.  Where Futures End by Parker Peevyhouse
12.  The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

I'm excited to read all these fabulous-looking debuts.  Anyone else doing the challenge?  

Top Ten Tuesday: 2016 Bookish Debuts? Yes, Please!

It's been a little while since I did a Top Ten Tuesday post, but this week's topic intrigued me.  I always love to discover great new writers and 2016 appears to be a good year for them.  So many awesome-looking debut books release next year that I had a really hard time limiting myself to a list of just ten.  I did, though, and I'm excited to share them with you.  I'm anxious to see what you came up with as well.  So, please, leave me a comment on this post—I'll happily return the favor on your blog!

If you want to join in the TTT fun, be sure to click on over to The Broke and the Bookish.  Everything you need to know about this fabulous weekly meme is on their wonderful site.

Ready for my Top Ten 2016 Debut Novels I'm Looking Forward To list?  Hold on tight, 'cause here we go ... (can you tell I spent Thanksgiving weekend on rides at Disneyland/California Adventure?)

1.  The Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn N. Eves—I've loved Rosalyn ever since she told me she was "star-struck" by serving on a book awards judging panel with me :)  She writes excellent book reviews on her blog.  I'm sure her debut novel, a magical YA story set in an alternate Victorian England, will be amazing as well.  Coming Fall 2016 from Knopf.


2.  Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban—I love me a well-written middle grade historical novel.  This one, about a Japanese-American girl whose family is relocated to an internment camp during WWII, sounds like a good one.  Coming January 5, 2016, from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.


3.  This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp—Considering how many school shootings have occurred lately, this YA novel examines a frightening and timely trend.  It sounds like an intense, thought-provoking read.  Coming January 5, 2016, from Sourcebooks.

Coincidentally enough, I got an email from Sourcebooks yesterday about a fun pre-order promotion its running to celebrate the book's release.  Check out the Rafflecopter widget below if you're interested:

  a Rafflecopter giveaway


4.  Blackhearts by Nicole CastromanYo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!  This is a much-anticipated YA novel about a young Blackbeard.  Looks like a great read for any Pirates of the Caribbean fan.  Coming February 9, 2016, from Simon Pulse.


5.  The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos—This YA tale centers around the daughter of a forensic scientist who has to use the knowledge she's gleaned from her father to track him down when he goes missing.  Sounds compelling.  Coming January 26, 2016, from Balzer & Bray.


6.  Where Futures End by Parker Peevyhouse—This time-crossing YA adventure novel sounds fascinating to me.  Coming February 9, 2016, from Kathy Dawson Books.


7.  Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace—You've probably heard the buzz about this debut, a YA novel concerning a teenage girl who wakes up in a shallow grave one year after her death.  Somehow, she's alive again, but her world has definitely changed ... Coming January 26, 2016, from Katherine Tegen Books.

8.  In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson—This adult novel about a recent widow who returns to France to rebuild her life and becomes entangled in an ancient mystery sounds like a good one.  Coming February 2, 2016, from Sourcebooks Landmark.


9.  Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly—This WWII novel about three women whose lives intersect at a notorious female-only concentration camp looks fascinating.  Coming April 5, 2016, from Ballantine Books.


10.  The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock—Truth is, I would probably read this one based on the title alone!  Its premise also sounds interesting.  The story concerns three teenagers living in Alaska in 1970 and the ways in which they save each other.  Coming February 23, 2016, from Wendy Lamb Books.

So, there you go, ten debut novels of 2016 that I'm excited about reading.  What do you think of my list?  What's on yours?  Do we have any picks in common?  I can't wait to hop around the book blogosphere and see which titles you're stoked about.  Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

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