Tuesday, June 30, 2015

TTT: Favorite 2015 Reads—So Far

So far, 2015 has been an excellent reading year.  Sure, I've endured some stinkers, but I've enjoyed some great books as well.  Of the 72 (soon to be 73) books I've read this year, I can honestly say I liked the majority of them.  That's not true every year.  Since the Top Ten Tuesday question du jour is about our favorites of the year, I thought this would be a good time to highlight some of them.

My hands-down favorite part of Top Ten Tuesday is getting suggestions from the lists of other book bloggers.  So, join in, will you?  It's super easy.  All you have to do is head on over to The Broke and the Bookish, read the participation instructions and follow them.  Voilà, you're part of the cool crowd!  Simple.

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2015:


1.  The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion—I loved this book about a man with autism/Asperger's who's out to find the perfect wife ... and ends up with the most unsuitable woman in Australia.  It's hilarious.  Literally had me laughing out loud.  In public!


2.  At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen—This novel about a spoiled socialite who follows her thrill-seeking husband and his equally adventurous BFF to Scotland during WWII to look for the Loch Ness monster is a nuanced, atmospheric novel of surprising depth.  Although it's a sad story in many ways, it's a joy to watch how the heroine transforms from the beginning of the novel to the end.


3.  The Crossing Places by Elly GriffithsKay, a blogger I've followed for a long time, always recommends great new mystery series that I've never encountered before.  So far, I've really liked this series about a quirky British archaeologist who gets pulled in to help the local Detective Chief Inspector solve cases.  I've read the first three installments, but The Crossing Places (which comes first) is still my favorite.


4.  The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz—Screwball comedies aren't usually my thing, but I happen to adore this series.  It concerns a family of private eyes who refuse to trust anyone ... especially each other.  I've had fun reading the first two books, which are equally zany and laugh out loud funny.


5.  What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty—It's no secret that I love this Australian author.  I've read about half of her novels and enjoyed them all.  This one is about a 39-year-old mother who, because of a head injury, wakes up thinking it's 10 years earlier than it really is.  As she becomes reacquainted with her real life, she's astounded to realize how much has changed with her family, her friends, and her marriage.  It's a compelling story that's both funny and poignant.


6.  Pines by Blake Crouch—This series (which is now a miniseries on Fox) concerns a Secret Service agent who comes to a small Idaho town in search of two missing agents.  Not surprisingly, things are not at all that they appear to be in quaint, picturesque Wayward Pines.  From the first page of Pines, I was totally sucked into this story.  I ended up downing the whole trilogy almost in one setting.  It's quick, edge-of-your-seat reading that will keep you guessing.


7.  Speaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs—Again, it's no surprise that the newest Tempe Brennan mystery is on this list.  I've loved the smart, dedicated forensic anthropologist ever since she was introduced in Deja Dead (1997).  Since the last book had a bit of a cliffhanger ending, I was especially excited to see what happened in Speaking in Bones.  Tempe works with a crackpot amateur detective to find a missing girl while also dealing with her very complicated personal life (re: Andrew Ryan).


8.  A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord—Lord writes heart-felt books about kids dealing with real-life problems.  Her newest concerns a lonely girl in Maine who unintentionally befriends a Hispanic migrant worker.  As their friendship grows, they face surprising (or not so much?) opposition from the small community where they live.  It's a thought-provoking story that reinforces the importance of tolerance and accepting people for who they are, not where they come from or how they look.


9.  Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe—This book-in-verse about an Arizona teenager's reactions to the Vietnam War is both inventive and moving.  It's a fast read, but a profound one.


10.  A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller—I don't do a lot of browsing at the library these days, but as I was looking for a book by another "K" author, I came across Keller's series about a West Virginian lawyer who returns to the town of her birth in an effort to make a difference in impoverished, violence-riddled Raythune County.  While the books (I've read the first two so far) are exciting mystery/thrillers, they also provide an intimate, unflinching examination of Appalachia and her people.

There you go.  Have you read any of these?  What did you think?  Which titles are on your list?  If you leave me a link to your TTT, I'll be sure and visit.

Happy reading!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Magical Illusions of Fate an Enjoyable Romp

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As a native of tropical Melei, Jessamin Olea longs for the warmth and brightness of her island home.  She can't stand the dark dreariness of Albion, the city where she attends school.  Its inhabitants, obsessed with wealth and status, aren't anymore enamored of Jessamin as she is of them.  As an "island rat," she's considered a second-class citizen, useful only as a servant to her high-brow betters.  Even her father, a professor in Albion, can't be bothered with her.  Despite all this, she's determined to make something of herself using her natural gifts of intelligence, quick-thinking, and spunk.

When she draws the attention of Finn Ackerly, a handsome 19-year-old aristocrat, Jessamin is introduced to the glittering world of Albion high society.  Not only is it filled with bulging pocketbooks, fancy gowns and sparkling jewels, but it's also defined by a potent blood-magic that runs through noble veins.  Because of her growing friendship with Finn, Jessamin also attracts the attention of the sadistic Lord Downpike, who will stop at nothing to recover what she's taken from him.  Caught in a deadly game against a dangerous opponent, Jessamin will have to rely not on magic, but on her own wit and spunk.  Can she save herself and Finn before it's too late for both of them?  Or will she, like so many of her island countrymen, be trampled under the boots of Albion's powerful gentry? 

Filled with adventure and magic, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White is a fun, enjoyable novel.  Although it's clever and imaginative, it's true the story isn't all that original.  Still.  It's clean, it's engaging, it's an easy, entertaining read that can be enjoyed by both teens and adults (my 13-year-old daughter and I both liked it).  Jessamin's the kind of heroine anyone will find compelling —it's as easy to sympathize with her plight as it is to cheer on her brave fight against Albion's evils.  All in all, then, Illusions of Fate tells a satisfying story that's just plain fun to read.  

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:



for violence, intense situations, and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Illusions of Fate from the generous folks at HarperCollins as part of my work as a judge for the Association for Mormon Letters Awards.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ruins An Exciting, Satisfying Finale to Partials Series

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

As the tension between humans and Partials reaches a deadly breaking point, Kira Walker knows it's up to her to bring the two sides together.  Half human, half Partial, the 17-year-old wants nothing more than peace between the two species.  It won't be easy to stop the killing, the hate, the prejudice that is driving the two sides to war.  Especially when both have weapons capable of annihilating the other.  Even with the help of friends from both species, the outcome for Kira—as well at the world at large—looks pretty bleak.  If she gives everything she has, everything she can, will it be enough?  Or is this the end of it all?

Like the first two books in the Partials trilogy by Dan Wells, Ruins offers a high-stakes, adrenaline-fueled apocalyptic survival story.  Laced with humor, romance, and a whole lot of blood, it's engrossing for sure.  In this finale, all the story's loose ends are wrapped up neatly—probably too neatly—making for a satisfying end to an exciting series.  Still, I have the same complaints about Ruins that I did about Partials and Fragments—the characters remain pretty flat and the prose is more tell than show.  Overall, then, I liked Ruins, but didn't love it.  Same with the series as a whole.  It's entertaining, just not my favorite.

(Readalikes:  Partials and Fragments by Dan Wells)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Ruins from the generous folks at HarperCollins as part of my work as a judge for the Association for Mormon Letters Awards.  Thank you!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Holmberg's Magical World Not Developed Enough to Enthrall

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

All through her years at Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony Twill has dreamed of becoming a Smelter.  Manipulating metal is important work.  She longs to learn all the secrets of the intriguing, exciting craft.  Since graduates are allowed to choose the medium (metal, plastic, rubber, or glass) to which they will bond themselves, 19-year-old Ceony has no reason to believe she will not get her wish.  Until she doesn't.  Thanks to an anonymous donor, she will be apprenticed to a paper magician, of all things.  Ceony cannot think of anything more useless and dull than paper magic.  And now she's stuck with it.  For life.

As Ceony gets to know her new teacher—30-year-old Emery Thane—she begins to understand that there is more to paper magic than meets the eye.  She'd still rather be working with metal, but her assigned medium does have its surprises and wonders.  The same is true of the enigmatic Thane.  Before Ceony has time to learn much at all from him, however, his evil ex-wife rips out his heart.  Left with a dying teacher, Ceony must use all her new skills to save him.  Does she have even a fraction of the knowledge and talent she needs to triumph against a powerful practitioner of the dark arts?  Or will her education in paper magic end (tragically) before it's begun?  

YA fantasy is such a saturated genre that it's always refreshing to find a book that stands out from the norm a little.  The Paper Magician, the first novel in Charlie N. Holmberg's new trilogy, certainly does that.  While the magical world she creates is imaginative and different, it's also confusing.  Its rules were never very clear to me.  Likewise, the characters (especially Ceony and Emery) aren't developed enough at the outset to make me really care about what happens to them throughout the rest of the novel.  As far as plot goes, there's some action to liven things up, but much of the story is told through memories and flashbacks, meaning the tale has little momentum to keep it moving forward.  In the end, while I appreciated the fresh aspects of Holmberg's story, I was disappointed by its weak world-building, flat characters and lackadaisical plot.  There just wasn't enough to The Paper Magician to enthrall me.  Too bad, because I really, really, really wanted to love this one.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a teensy bit of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling)

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-copy of The Paper Magician from the generous folks at Amazon Publishing because of my position as a judge for the Association for Mormon Letters Awards.  Thank you!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Crooked House Sometimes Sluggish, Sometimes Surprising

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Crooked House, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Erica Coleman mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

When Megan Kemp calls Erica Coleman with a plea for help, Erica responds immediately.  She can't leave her best friend's daughter in the lurch, no matter how crazy Megan's story sounds.  And it does sound a little loony.  Megan, a sophomore at Delaware State University, is convinced someone is trying to kill her roommate, Liz Johnson.  After the deaths of her parents, Liz inherited a ramshackle old mansion aptly named Crooked House.  The recent victim of several "accidents," the young home owner seems to have become a target for someone with deadly intentions.  But why?  Has Liz's failure to restore her historic home finally pushed her impassioned neighbor over the top?  Is an angry ex-boyfriend out for revenge?  Or is Megan reading too much into a few unlucky mishaps?

As a former police officer and current private eye, Erica is in a unique position to help Megan and her roommates get to the bottom of Liz's recent misfortunes.  Leaving her police officer husband in charge of the kids at their home in Farmington, Utah, Erica moves in with the college girls at Crooked House.  Living with the roommates (while spoiling them with her scrumptious baking and obsessive cleaning rituals) gives Erica a chance to observe their goings-on firsthand.  Something fishy is definitely going on.  As Liz's "accidents" escalate in severity, Erica knows she must find out who's responsible for them—and quickly.  One person has already died.  Any one of the women at Crooked House could be next.  

While I'm not huge on cozy mysteries, I do appreciate a story that's both entertaining and clean.  So, when I read the plot summary for Crooked House, a new mystery by Marlene Bateman (Sullivan), I thought, why not?  Not realizing it's actually the third book in a series, I dove right in.  Maybe it's because I "met" Erica Coleman mid-series, but I didn't feel much of a connection to the obsessive-compulsive private investigator.  She struck me as a pushy, overbearing, annoying know-it-all.  I just didn't like her that much.  Plot-wise, Crooked House moves along fairly quickly, offering a few surprises here and there.  Prose-wise, however, the storytelling feels sluggish because of Bateman's over-reliance on telling rather than showing.  The inclusion of LDS doctrine in the story gives it a unique slant.  Although it's dropped in rather abruptly at times, the religious aspect never gets preachy, keeping the novel accessible to non-LDS readers.  Another fun element is the recipes included in the book; they sound different and delicious.  A winning combination, for sure.  Overall, then, I found Crooked House entertaining, if not wholly satisfying.  While I appreciated its PG-ness, its uncommon setting (not many novels are set in Delaware), and its yummy-sounding recipes, I would have liked tighter plotting, more dynamic writing, and a warmer, more likable heroine.  Crooked House can definitely be read as a stand-alone, but I think I would have enjoyed it more had I started with the first book in the series.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of the Sadie Hoffmiller culinary mysteries by Josi S. Kilpack [Lemon Tart; Pumpkin Roll; English Trifle; etc.])

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and very mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-copy of Crooked House from the generous (and patient!) Marlene Bateman.  Thank you! 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Summer Readin'

Even though I live in a place where it's pretty much summer all year round, I'm not much for warm weather.  I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, on the shores of the Columbia River—my natural habitat involves cloudy skies, blustery winds, and a constant drizzle.  I'm a fish out of water in this hot, dry desert.  Needless to say, I don't look forward to Arizona summers.  The scorching temperatures keep me inside, air conditioning and ceiling fans on full blast.  I'm lucky to have a sparkling swimming pool in my backyard for quick dips, so I guess you don't have to feel too sorry for me :)

Anyway, while summer is not my favorite, it does inspire some fun reading material.  I'm not one of those people who only reads light, fluffy beach novels during these warmest of months, but I do think my summer reading choices tend to be a little frothier.  Maybe?  I'll let you be the judge, as this week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is the ten books on my summer TBR list.  I'd love to see your list as well, so why don't you join in the fun?  All you have to do is click on over to The Broke and the Bookish and follow the instructions.  Easy, peasy.

Alright, here we go with the Top Ten Books on my TBR Pile for Summer 2015:


1.  The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler—I've never read anything by Ockler, but this contemporary retelling of The Little Mermaid looks fun.  I especially love that its heroine is a young woman of color.


2.  Eeny Meeny by M.J. Arlidge—Forget light and fluffy, this thriller about a deadly game orchestrated by a sadistic fiend is described as dark and twisted.  Perfect summer reading?


3.  Remember Mia by Alexandra Burt—I'm in the middle of this thriller about a mother with severe post-partum depression who wakes up one morning to find her baby missing.  Suffering from traumatic memory loss, she has no idea what's happened to the infant; she can't help but wonder if the police are correct in naming her as the prime suspect ...


4.  The Tide Watchers by Lisa Chaplin—I just received an ARC of this historical adventure/espionage novel, which looks excellent.


5.  Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee—I know I'm not the only one looking forward to the July 14th release date of this novel about a grown-up Jean Louise Finch.


6.  The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi—Although Ship Breaker is one of my favorite watery dystopian novels, I've yet to read anything else by Bacigalupi.  His newest, The Water Knife, looks promising.  Set in the American Southwest, it highlights a very real and timely threat to man's survival—severe drought.  


7.  The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler—This quirky family saga about a mysterious book and a drowned circus mermaid looks intriguing.


8.  The Melody Lingers On by Mary Higgins Clark—I've loved Clark since I first read her as a teenager.  Although the quality of her writing has declined, I still enjoy her quick, clean mysteries.


9.  The Leveller by Julia Durango—I love the premise of this YA novel.  The MC is a bounty hunter who is hired by parents to go into the virtual reality gaming world and retrieve their missing children.  Sounds like a fun sci fi thriller.


10.  The Lost Daughter by Lucretia Grindle—This mystery about an American high school student who goes missing in Italy sounds like a good summer read.

So, what do you think?  Have you read any of these?  What great stories will you be digging into this summer?  I'd love to know.  Leave a comment/link to your list and I'll be sure to stop by.

Happy summer reading!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Twisty Bellweather Rhapsody An Odd, Haunting Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Minnie Graves is not thrilled about being a bridesmaid for her sister's wedding.  The 12-year-old is trapped in a huge, creepy hotel in an itchy dress and shoes that pinch her feet.  Torture.  Then, things take a turn for the worse.  Much worse.  In an event that will haunt Minnie for the rest of her life, she witnesses the murder-suicide of a new bride and groom.

Fifteen years later, Minnie returns to the Bellweather Hotel to face her fears head-on.  She's not the only one in residence.  The old hotel is, in fact, teeming with guests.  Hundreds of high school musicians from around New York have converged there for the annual Statewide festival.  Among them are 17-year-old bassoonist Bertram ("Rabbit") Hatmaker and his dramatic, self-absorbed twin sister, Alice.  Running the event is cold, cruel Olivia Fabian.  Among those scarred by Olivia's sharp tongue are her daughter Jill, a flute prodigy; Natalie Wink Wilson, a pianist who is now the music director at the Hatmakers' school; and Fisher Brodie, a flamboyant Scottish symphony conductor.  Add in the Bellweather's ancient concierge, Harold Hastings, and you have a full cast of odd, intriguing characters whose individual stories play out as a snowstorm threatens to strand them all at the crumbling hotel.

When Alice discovers her roommate, Jill Fabian, hanging from the ceiling in the same room where the infamous murder-suicide took place fifteen years ago, it throws everything—and everyone—into a panic.  Especially when Jill's body, along with any evidence of her suicide, mysteriously vanishes.  While the Bellweather is searched for signs of the young flautist, the weather worsens, bringing with it the terrifying prospect of being snowed-in with a killer or, worse, the ghost of a murderous bride.

Bellweather Rhapsody, a sophomore novel by Kate Racculia, is a difficult book to describe.  It defies genre, really, with its mixture of high school drama, classic horror, dark comedy, and twisty mystery.  Some reviewers have said it's like Agatha Christie meets The Shining meets Glee.  Works for me.  All I know is, Bellweather Rhapsody tells a strange, haunting story that's full of didn't-see-that-one-coming twists and turns.  It's wholly compelling, though thoroughly depressing.  And weird.  While I didn't love the novel, it's one that's definitely stuck with me, if just because of its oddness.

(Readalikes:  a little like The Shining by Stephen King)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence/gore, and depictions of underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Delightful Rosie Makes Me LOL (in Public)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Don Tillman, a 39-year-old associate professor of genetics, lives his life according to a rigidly structured schedule designed to ensure his time is spent in the most logical, efficient way possible.  He has little patience for any activity that forces him to deviate from his impeccably-organized itinerary.  Dating, thus, presents a bit of a problem.  Although he desires a wife, and should—statistically speaking—have no trouble finding one, Don cannot seem to attract the perfect partner.  Even a suitable one, it seems, is impossible for the professor to attain.  Wasting time getting to know females who simply will not do as potential mates is making Don crazy.  Since he is not the type of man to let a conundrum go unsolved, he vows to find himself a bride using the parameters he knows best: logic, efficiency, and hard, provable data.

Thus, The Wife Project is born.  Don comes up with a brilliant, 16-page tool for finding the perfect woman:

A questionnaire ... A purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time time wasters, the disorganized, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessive, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the homeopaths, leaving ideally, the perfect partner or realistically, a manageable short list of candidates.  (Page 17)

Rosie Jarman, an unpredictable barmaid ten years his junior, is the exact kind of woman the questionnaire is designed to eliminate from Don's dating pool.  Still, he's intrigued by her passion, especially when it comes to seeking out her biological father.  As Don lends his expertise to The Father Project, he finds himself falling (illogically, irrationally) for the exuberant Rosie.  Does such an unconventional pairing have any hope of lasting?  Can someone as unbending as Don ever be happy with someone as pliable as Rosie?  Only one thing is certain:  Don's rational attempt at finding a wife has turned into a messy affair that proves love is rarely logical, never predictable, and always ready to turn your life upside down. 

The Rosie Project, a debut novel by Australian playwright Graeme Simsion, is one of those books that's embarrassing to read in public.  Not because of risqué cover art or a suggestive title, but because I couldn't stop laughing—out loud—at the antics of its main character.  This hilarious rom com is so delightful that I could hardly restrain myself from smiling, chuckling, and sharing the best bits with the room at large.  It's just a fun all-around read.  I loved the unique premise, the sparkling prose, the intriguing characters, and especially, the growth that Don's character shows throughout the novel.  Hype usually steers me away from a novel—in this case, it drew me to one of the most delightful books I've read all year.  

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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