Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Video Game Bounty Hunter Adventure a Fun, Imaginative Yarn

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For people who crave intense, interactive gaming experiences, the MEEP represents the ultimate playground.  While players lie unconscious at home, they use their minds to enter the massive virtual world, where all kinds of simulated experiences await their eager avatars.  Although teens are only allowed to stay inside the MEEP for up to four hours, illegal hacks let them stretch their time and experience.  The result?  Frustrated, angry parents.  That's where Phoenix "Nixy" Bauer comes in.  Because her parents work for the company responsible for the MEEP, she has even better tricks, which allow her to sneak inside the virtual world and snatch errant avatars at a much lower price than the cost of an official retrieval.  Although working as a bounty hunter (aka, a Leveller) makes Nixy less than popular with her peers, it's a quick, easy way to pad her college fund.

Nixy gets a fair amount of business, but when she's contacted by Diego Salvador, the billionaire who developed the MEEP, she's shocked.  Also nervous, as her little levelling business isn't exactly kosher. Mr. Salvador isn't busting Nixy, but giving her an assignment.  His teenage son, Wyn, has gone missing inside the game.  Worse still, the boy left a suicide note in the real world—clearly, Wyn has no intention of returning to his home in the Florida Keys.  If anyone can bring him back, it's Nixy.  

The job won't be easy, Nixy knows that.  Still, she's confident she'll succeed.  Then, she discovers the truth—Wyn hasn't barricaded himself inside the game, he's being held against his will.  Together, they have to fight their way out of the MEEP, not knowing who or what is after them.  As the stakes rise higher and higher, Nixy realizes this is no game.  This time, she's playing for keeps.  This time, it's her life—and Wyn's—that is at stake.  Can she beat her unseen enemy at its own game?  Or will she be lost forever in a virtual world that grows more dangerous with every passing second?

As you can probably tell, The Leveller by Julia Durango is a fun, fast-paced story.  Its setting—the exciting, imaginative MEEP—will appeal to gamers, reluctant readers, and anyone who enjoys a good action/adventure yarn.  Although the novel will probably make readers consider the perils of spending too much time in virtual reality vs. reality reality, its lessons are subtle.  Really, The Leveller is all about entertainment.  It's exciting, it's funny, it's upbeat, it's engrossing.  Does the whole MEEP thing seem a little far-fetched?  Yes.  Am I still confused by all its rules?  Sure thing.  Was I totally satisfied with the book's ending?  No.  And yet, I enjoyed this one immensely.  It's just fun, you know?  If you—or your favorite teen—is looking for a light, diverting read, give this one a go.  It won't disappoint.      

(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—at least not in English); violence/gore; and mild sexual innuendo

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mystery Series Brings Appalachia Alive in All Its Brutal, Complex Beauty

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Like much of Appalachia, Acker's Gap, West Virginia, is a place marked by paradox.  Nestled between two craggy mountain peaks, the tiny town fairly glows with the kind of lush, natural beauty that steals people's breath away, surprising even the most frequent viewer with its stunning vistas.  No matter how verdant the hills, however, the sweet smell of mountain laurel and black huckleberry can't hide the rancid stink of poverty that pervades the area.  It's a desperate, soul-sucking thing that breeds "a thoughtless, automatic, knee-jerk violence" (28) that's becoming all too familiar to Acker's Gap's salt-of-the-earth citizens.  

As the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, Belfa "Bell" Elkins sees the result of this reckless brutality every day.  Tasked with protecting her vulnerable hometown, the 39-year-old feels the crushing pressure that comes with fighting a losing battle.  And yet, she refuses to give up.  The youth of Acker's Gap deserve a better future, something more than the bleak hopelessness that defined Bell's growing-up years.  With the help of Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, the 52-year-old who took Bell under his wing after the shocking death of her abusive father, her burden feels a little bit lighter.  Some days, their long-time friendship is the only thing that keeps her coming back to the peeling courthouse where they both work, with the fate and faith of Raythune County resting on their shoulders.  

When three elderly men are gunned down while sipping coffee at a local diner, it shocks the whole town.  Carla Elkins, Bell's 17-year-old daughter, is especially tortured by the event, since she witnessed it firsthand.  Determined to find the shooter, not just to bring the killer to justice, but also to calm Carla's fears, Bell resolves to solve the case.  With no leads, that will be a tough job.  The deeper Bell's investigation goes, the more frustrated she becomes.  When Carla realizes she may be the key to closing the case, both women find themselves in harm's way.  Will the murderer be caught in time?  Or will Bell and her daughter become the next victims?  

Back in the Dark Ages, I spent a lot of time browsing library shelves, looking for enticing books to lug home and enjoy.  These days, I rarely roam the stacks.  It's much more convenient to find the titles I want online, place them on hold at my library, whip them off the reserved shelf when they come in, check out, and be on my merry way in 5 minutes flat.  That's my usual M.O.  But one day, not so long ago, I was searching for another mystery in the K section when I came across A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller.  Because of its appealing cover and intriguing premise, I plucked it off the shelf.  Not only did I read it, but I enjoyed it, so much so that I immediately put the next two books in the series on hold at the library.  Why did I find A Killing in the Hills (as well as the subsequent novels) so absorbing?  Let me give you three reasons:
  • Bell Elkins.  Our heroine is a complex woman, haunted by her past and the pervasive ways it still affects her in the present.  Her flaws make her realistically human.  Bell makes mistakes, she gets angry, discouraged, and bitter, but she always presses on, determined to do her best for the town she loves.  It's this doggedness that makes her so compelling.
  • Acker's Gap.  I like stories with rich, vivid settings, especially when authors dig beyond surface beauty to show the reality of a place in all its complicated, conflicting charm.  At this, Keller is truly a master.  
  • The mystery.  Keller creates mysteries as twisty as a West Virginia mountain road.  I never see the surprises coming.  The suspense keeps me riveted to the page.        
Is that enough to convince you?  It should be!  A Killing in the Hills sucked me in and made me care about Bell, Acker's Gap, and, most importantly, the poverty epidemic in so many of America's small mountain towns.  Keller's debut novel stuck with me because of its complexity in plot, characters, and sense of place.  Despite the quaint setting, this is no cozy—it gets gritty (note the R-rating).  Still, the story feels somehow hopeful.  A Killing in the Hills isn't an easy read, but it is an affecting one.  As are its sequels.  It's always exciting to find such treasures in the stacks.  Maybe I should browse more often, eh?

(Readalikes:  Other mysteries in the Bell Elkins series—Bitter River; Summer of the Dead; and Last Ragged Breath)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence/gore, sexual content, and depictions of prescription and illegal drug abuse

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, September 26, 2015

At the Water's Edge An Absorbing, Atmospheric Tale of Transformation

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Maddie Hyde has never gotten along with her disapproving in-laws, even (especially?) after living with them for the past four years.  Col. Hyde is already embarrassed by his son's inability to serve in the war due to color blindness—he's even more outraged when Ellis, Maddie, and their best friend, Hank Boyd, cause an embarrassing ruckus at a high-profile New Year's Eve party.  Tired of the spoiled socialites with their ridiculous, juvenile antics, the colonel throws his son and daughter-in-law out.  Cut off financially, Ellis and Maddie aren't sure what to do next.  Already alarmingly reliant on the anxiety pills Maddie takes occasionally, Ellis becomes even more addicted as his despondency grows.  Then, he hatches out a marvelous plan that brightens him so much Maddie's afraid to voice her concerns about traipsing across the U-boat laden Atlantic in search of a fantastical creature that exists only in her husband's imagination.  Determined to win his father's affection by doing what the colonel could not—proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster—Ellis sets off on his expedition.  Always up for an adventure, Hank tags along willingly; Maddie, only with great reluctance.

Finding herself in an inhospitable Scottish village, lodged at a rough inn whose staff has little patience for the haughty Americans, Maddie's misgivings are only growing.  She should have talked Ellis out of this little misadventure, even if he seems to be having the time of his life.  Stuck at the inn while Ellis and Hank go monster-hunting, Maddie feels adrift.  As the weeks wear on, with her constantly being left behind, she becomes increasingly bored and disillusioned with her often inebriated companions.  It's only when Maddie allows herself to start getting to know the salty Highlanders around her that she feels a sense of peace, even purpose.  Learning hard truths about herself and her oblivious self-indulgence isn't easy for Maddie, especially since it helps illuminate the most distressing revelation of all—her life is a complete fabrication.  As Maddie makes these startling discoveries about herself, tension between Ellis and the villagers reaches a violent boiling point.  When everything erupts, what will Maddie do?  With whom will she stand?  When the true monster rears its ugly head, will she become its ultimate victim?  

I didn't love Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen's popular 2006 novel, so I haven't given any of her other books a try.  When At the Water's Edge, her newest, started getting excited buzz, I hesitated to read it.  Even a chapter or two into it, I vacillated between continuing and putting it down.  Once the story got going, though, I felt nothing but riveted.  Although the novel kind of centers around good ole Nessie, it's really not about the monster hunt at all.  It's about Maddie.  The gradual, convincing way her character transforms makes this story memorable and affecting.  Gruen creates secondary story people who are likewise complex, making their plights just as absorbing as Maddie's.  The intertwining of everyone's problems and personalities work together to build conflict that explodes in a tense, satisfying climax.  While At the Water's Edge gets depressing at times, overall it's a triumphant, hopeful tale about finding oneself in the least likely of places.  Despite my ambivalence at the novel's beginning, I ended up really enjoying this one.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, sexual content, and depictions of alcohol and prescription drug abuse

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of At the Water's Edge from Changing Hands Bookstore with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Friday, September 25, 2015

Heart's Journey Tells A Familiar, But Overall Enjoyable Pioneer Tale

(Image from Amazon)

A wealthy city girl, Rachel Hamilton knows nothing about trekking through the wilderness.  And yet, she's doing just that.  She can't let her older brother declare their father—who left Toronto five years ago to open a gold mine in British Columbia—officially dead until she knows it's true.  It's been three years since Rachel received a letter from him, but she refuses to believe he's no longer living.  She just needs to see him with her own eyes.  

At Fort Garry, Rachel joins a company of rough-and-tumble miners heading west.  Feeling satisfied with her progress, she settles in for the long, arduous journey to Bellefontaine.  They haven't gone far before one of the men scares Rachel.  She runs off, soon finding herself hopelessly lost in the flat, endless prairie.  Without food, water, compass, or any survival skills whatsoever, Rachel realizes for the first time how helpless she is and how foolish she was to embark on such an impossible quest.  If she knew which way to turn, she'd stomp her way right back to Toronto, where she belongs.

When Rachel is rescued by an enigmatic cowboy who promises to escort her to the nearest fort, she's grateful.  Peter doesn't say much, although he makes his annoyance with Rachel well known.  With his educated speech, she knows Peter is more than a crusty cowboy.  As the pair, along with Peter's young charge, make their slow way across the plains, Rachel tries to pry away his secrets without giving away any of hers.  Will the two learn to trust each other as they make their way toward B.C.?  

Rachel wouldn't have chosen Peter as a travel companion, but the more time they spend together, the more afraid she is of having to say goodbye to him.  What will happen to them when they reach their destination?  Will Rachel find both her missing father and the love she never knew she was missing?  Or will the journey leave her empty-handed still?

As with most road trip novels, Heart's Journey by Kristen McKendry, is less about the character's destination and more about what she learns along the way.  Rachel, who's lived a privileged, but confined life, discovers just how big the world really is and how very little she understands it.  Her hike across Canada also shows her the many things she can do without—and the one thing (person) she can't.  Although its setting is not the American West, Heart's Journey tells the typical pioneer story, complete with all the usual trappings—inclement weather, threatening wildlife, Indian trouble, mind-numbing exhaustion, desperate hunger/thirst, and blooming romance (in spite of everything else).  While both Rachel and Peter are likable, neither really stand out as unique.  Their adventures keep the story plodding along, but the novel feels overly long.  Rachel's plight seems too easy, as she gets rescued almost every time she's in trouble, instead of finding her own way out of difficult situations.  Although the story gets dull at times (there was rarely a point when I couldn't put it down), overall, I enjoyed this clean, hopeful tale.  I wouldn't call it memorable, but it's a decent read. 

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of other pioneer-ish tales, like In the Company of Angels by David Farland, These Is My Words by Nancy Turner, Borrowed Light by Carla Kelly, etc.)

Grade:




If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, scenes of peril, mild sexual innuendo, and vague references to prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Heart's Journey from the generous folks at Covenant in exchange for participating in the book's virtual tour.  Thank you!

***

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Haunting and Memorable, New YA Gothic Thriller Explores the Madness Inside Us All

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I think we're all quite mad.  Some of us are just more discreet about it."
-- Dr. Melanithon Thornhollow
Although she's been locked away in a Boston insane asylum, Grace Mae is not crazy.  But she is pregnant.  Her condition must be hidden in order to protect the reputation of her father, a powerful senator.  If his supporters knew of his unnatural and unwanted attention toward his own daughter, his political career would be over.  Overwhelmed by the bleakness of her surroundings, Grace keeps her anger, her fear, her despair locked inside.  Posing as a mute, she swallows all her words and feelings, hardening her heart so it can't be broken any further.

By the time Dr. Thornhollow arrives at the asylum to treat troublesome patients, Grace is ready to volunteer for a lobotomy.  Anything to distance her from the mad world in which she now lives.  Thornhollow hesitates when he recognizes how different Grace is from his other patients—her quick intelligence, he realizes, could be very useful.  An amateur criminal profiler, the doctor makes Grace his assistant.  Continuing her ruse as an insane mute, she accompanies him to crime scenes, gathering clues from sources that see her as less than human.  The scenes are gruesome, but fascinating.  As gory as Thornhollow's hobby may be, helping him gives Grace a new lease on life.  But the more involved she becomes, the more she's exposed to the darkest, bleakest parts of life, the more she feels her own sanity slipping.  Will Grace's new-found freedom be the thing that finally tips her over the edge?  Or will it be the saving grace for which she's been so desperately searching?

Yes, A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis (available October 6, 2015) is as dark as it sounds.  This gothic thriller delivers plenty of chills—not of the supernatural kind, but of the disturbingly real variety.  With its bleak setting and macabre subject matter, this is no warm, fuzzy novel.  It is, however, tautly written and totally compelling.  Disturbing, but memorable.  Grace is a complex, interesting heroine—she's wholly sympathetic, yet not entirely admirable.  She's intriguing, for sure.  Overall, A Madness So Discreet offers an absorbing story that explores the fine line between sanity and insanity as well as the madness that lurks not so deeply inside us all.  These fascinating ruminations give this haunting tale an extra depth.  As repugnant as this story can sometimes get, it remains a riveting, shivery tale perfect for Halloween reading.

Don't believe me?  Check out the book's spine-tingling trailer:



(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Madman's Daughter series [The Madman's Daughter; Her Dark Curiosity; A Cold Legacy] by Megan Shepherd; and a little of Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


for violence, blood/gore, language (no F-bombs), and disturbing scenes/subject matter

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TTT: When Fall Eventually Arrives in Arizona, I'll Totally Be Reading These ...

As much as I love Top Ten Tuesday, it's not always easy to come up with answers to the weekly prompts.  Sometimes I'm so stumped, I can't even think of one book that fits the bill.  When it comes to seasonal TBR lists, though, I always have to force myself not to make Top One Hundred lists!  Fall/Winter-ish reads are my favorite, so I'm definitely looking forward to seeing lots of great picks around the book blogosphere today.

Want to join in the fun?  It's easy.  Click on over to The Broke and the Bookish, read the instructions for participating, make your list, share it, and boom, you're done!  Super simple.

Since Fall here in the Phoenix area really doesn't start until November, I'm going to throw in a few titles that don't come out until "Winter," just to keep things interesting.  In no particular order, here are the Top Ten Books on My Fall(ish) TBR List:


1.  Winter by Marissa Meyer—This much-anticipated finale to The Lunar Chronicles series comes out in November.  I can't wait.  I've loved all these books and can't wait to see what happens next in the story.


2.  Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs—The lovely folks over at Quirk Books are sending me a copy of the third installment in the Miss Peregrine's series to review in November.  Before then, I'm going to be re-reading the first book and enjoying the second for the first time.  Spine-tinglers always make for fun Fall/Winter reading.



3.  Backstage Murder and Foul Play at the Fair by Shelley Freydont—I just finished A Gilded Grave, the first novel in Freydont's Newport Gilded Age Mystery series, and enjoyed it immensely.  It barely came out, so no sequels are available yet (boo hoo).  Thus, I'm going to give the author's other series a go.  I'll pick up both these books, which are first books in two different series, from the library today.  They and their sequels should tide me over until the next installment in the Newport series becomes available.


4.  A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn—This mystery, which sounds like so much fun, is also the first in a new series.  I haven't read anything by Raybourn and I'm excited to give her a try.


5.  Blood and Salt by Kim Liggett—I get shivers just reading the plot summary of this one!  It sounds like a perfect read for a cold, blustery day.


6.  Banished by Kimberley Griffiths Little—Okay, so this one doesn't come out until February, but I can't wait so I put it on this list.  I loved Forbidden and am anxious to see what happens next in this exotic, exciting YA series.


7.  Always Will by Melanie Jacobson—Melanie's fun romances always make me smile.  I'm excited for this one, her newest, which comes out in a couple of weeks.  A light read will be welcome between these darker, heavier reads.


8.  Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson—I've had an ARC of this book about a girl with the magical ability to find gold for a while now, but I've yet to crack it open.  It sounds so intriguing that I must get to it—and soon!


9.  The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich—This haunting tale about a school tragedy sounds like a perfect Halloween read.


10.  The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young—This Southern gothic mystery sounds super intriguing.  I'm on the waiting list for it at the library—we'll see how long it takes for it to become available.  Until then, I'll TRY to be patient ...

So, there you have it, my picks for intriguing Fall-ish reading.  What will you be reading in the upcoming months?  I really am excited to see what everyone has chosen!  Leave me a comment and I'll happily return the favor.

Happy TTT to you!  

*Book images from Barnes & Noble and Amazon
 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Remember Mia: The Thriller That Just ... Wasn't

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Estelle Paradise awakens in a hospital room, the 27-year-old is totally confused.  The doctor says she's been in a car accident, but Estelle has no memory of a crash.  In fact, she can't remember anything.  Nothing except her 7-month-old daughter, Mia.  As she pushes past the amnesia that clouds her head, Estelle learns that Mia has been missing for several days.  According to Estelle's own account, the infant disappeared from her crib—along with her diapers, clothing, toys, and every other trace of her—while Estelle was napping.  The story sounds ridiculous even to Estelle.  But it's the truth.  She just has to convince the police, her angry husband, and, most of all, herself.  Estelle knows she's been a little off since giving birth to Mia, but she's not crazy.  She's not.

The question remains:  Where is Mia?  Was she taken by some desperate, baby-crazy stranger?  Did her father do something to her?  Estelle couldn't have harmed the baby, could she?  Even though Mia drove her half-crazy with her colicky screaming?  Do clues to the child's whereabouts lie buried somewhere in Estelle's fractured memory?  Estelle must find the answers before she's convicted of a crime she didn't commit.  Or did she?

I love mind-twisting psychological thrillers that keep me wondering what's real and what's not.  The not knowing guarantees I'll turn the pages until I find out.  With its very intriguing premise, as well as comparisons to Gone Girl, Remember Mia—a debut novel by Alexandra Burt—seemed to be just this kind of novel.  And it could have been.  It had the potential, for sure.  What kept it from hitting the spot for me?  First off, the writing and plotting seemed rocky and disjointed.  A more subtle, streamlined story would have been nice.  Then, there were the flat, cliché characters.  Despite the battle with post-partum depression/exhaustion which should have made her sympathetic, Estelle continually came off as cold and self-absorbed.  I don't need a warm, fuzzy narrator in order to really feel a story, but I do need to feel some connection with the main character.  Which didn't happen here.  Lastly, I felt like Remember Mia needed a subplot, or something to give it more depth and richness.  As is, the book missed the mark somewhat.  Although there were some pulse-pounding moments, overall, this thriller fails to thrill.  Or stand out.  Too bad, because I'm still haunted by its incredibly promising premise.     

(Readalikes:  Similar to other books where the heroine wakes up with amnesia and has to piece together what has happened to her.  The First Wife by Erica Spindler comes to mind, as does Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find 

Friday, September 18, 2015

New Regency Romance Simply Charming (With a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

A humiliating rejection in London sends Lord Philip Hamilton looking for a far-off place to hide while he mends his broken heart.  Oakely Park, his father's sugarcane plantation in Jamaica, seems to fit the bill perfectly.  Except, of course, for the country's oppressive, interminable heat; the inadequate, untrained household staff; and a cruel, intimidating overseer who sets Philip's teeth on edge.  The 29-year-old may be a spoiled dandy who knows little about island life, but he's determined to make his new situation work.  He'll ensure the plantation continues to turn a profit, while searching for a wealthy wife who can help him increase his holdings.  Philip has had enough of love; a profitable business transaction is all he desires from marriage now.  

Just as Philip is feeling comfortable in his new role as a sugar baron, the body of an unconscious woman washes up on the shore of his property.  Judging by her injuries, she's been floating in the water for some time.  Not knowing what to make of this turn-of-events, Philip carries her to his home and waits for her to recover.  Anna (according to the pendant around her neck) awakens with no memory of her former life or the accident that pitched her into the sea.  Concerned, Philip allows her to stay as she regains her strength.  As the weeks pass, Philip finds himself thoroughly enchanted by Anna, despite his best efforts not to be.  His heart may be opening to the kind, beautiful woman, but a very large question remains:  Who is she?  Will her memory ever return?  And, if it does, will it compel her to leave Oakely Park behind, possibly forever?  Philip's got plenty to worry about already—the success of his crops, managing dozens of slaves, bloodthirsty highwaymen lurking between his plantation and the nearest port, pirates, the flattery of a very rich woman, etc.—but it's Anna who's most on his mind.  Who is the mysterious woman and how has she managed to creep so stealthily into his locked heart?

Although I don't read a lot of Regency romances, it's a genre I can always count on for light, pleasurable reading between darker, heavier fare.  Slipping into a glittering fantasy world of elegant dances, frivolous gossip, and genteel flirtation is just fun, you know?  Jennifer Moore's novels offer all this—and more.  Going beyond the typical banter and ball gowns, she explores meatier issues (like PTSD in Lady Emma's Campaign) which give her romances an atypical depth.  Simply Anna, Moore's newest, is no exception.  While the author makes a real effort to keep the novel light, she addresses a very dark problem: slavery in the West Indies in the 19th Century.  Through Malachi, Betty, Ezekiel, and others, Moore shows the cruelty and prejudice slaves often faced as the "property" of greedy sugar barons.  This element adds poignancy to a tale that's already full of heart, humor, and swashbuckling adventure.  At its center, though, Simply Anna is a story about two people discovering what's most important in life.  A quick, charming yarn, this one's too enjoyable to pass up.

(Readalikes:  Similar in tone to other novels by Jennifer Moore; also, those of Sarah M. Eden and Julianne Donaldson)

Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Simply Anna from the generous folks at Covenant in exchange for taking part in the book's virtual tour.  Thank you!

***

Enter for a chance to win a copy of Simply Anna and a $25 Amazon gift card:
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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Again and Again More Angry Feminist Rant Than Evocative Political Thriller

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Deborah Borenstein heads to Danforth University, eager to shake off her Cleveland roots and change the world.  The 18-year-old hopes to share a dorm room with a chic New Yorker, someone who can help her transform into the smart, successful woman she longs to become.  Liddie Golmboch, a scholarship student from a Wisconsin farming family, cannot be more different than the ideal roommate for whom Deborah has been praying.  And yet, she becomes a fast and faithful friend.  Liddie's naiveté makes her appealing, especially to William Harrison Quincy III, a wealthy frat boy.  When Deborah walks in on him raping her best friend, she's livid.  A traumatized Liddie can barely speak, barely function.  Outraged, Deborah vows to make sure Quincy pays for what he's done.

Thirty years later, Deborah still has nightmares about what happened to Liddie.  So affected has she been by the assault on her college roommate that she's spent decades fighting for women's rights as the director of a highly-respected activist group.  Maybe she couldn't bring Liddie's rapist to justice, but she's helped plenty of other victims.  Still, when she hears Quincy is seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate, she balks.  Deborah has first-hand knowledge of his true character, information that could destroy his political ambitions.  But, exposing him would put a still fragile Liddie in the spotlight and Deborah just can't do that to her friend.  Can she?  As the pressure builds, Deborah must make a terrible choice—reveal a rapist or betray her best friend.  Both choices may come with dire consequences, requiring the sacrifice of everything—and everyone—Deborah holds dear.  How far will she go to get justice?  At what cost?

Again and Again, a debut novel by Ellen Bravo, offers a compelling premise.  Not terribly original, but thought-provoking nonetheless.  Handled well, it could have led to a tense and affecting political thriller.  It didn't.  Bravo, a lifelong activist, is obviously passionate about her subject.  Unfortunately, this zeal makes Again and Again feel less like a novel and more like an angry feminist rant.  Deborah, who starts out as an abrasive, foul-mouthed college student doesn't get much warmer as an adult.  As a character, she never felt real to me, which made it difficult to connect with her.  I did admire the way she changed over thirty years, but other than that, she just seemed cold and flat.  The rest of Bravo's story people feel like flimsy clichés—especially the men who are, almost to a one, despicable.  While I agree with a lot of the views Bravo expresses through this novel, I would have preferred a more subtle approach.  Novels can teach powerful messages through empathetic characters, evocative prose, and impacting dialogue.  Again and Again doesn't have that richness.  If I hadn't committed to reviewing the book, I wouldn't have moved past the first chapter. 

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for very strong language, violence, sexual content, and references to underage drinking, illegal drug use, and sexual assault

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Again and Again from the generous folks at She Writes Press via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Thick, Rich, Family Secrets Novel Long on Detail, Short on Story

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Genevieve Martin discovers her husband is cheating on her, she's understandably upset.  But she's not as devastated as everyone thinks she should be.  Truth is, her marriage has been cooling for some time now and Jason's betrayal offers her the perfect opportunity to walk away.  The timing, in fact, could not be better.  Genevieve's beloved uncle has just passed away in Paris, leaving his apartment vacant, his locksmith shop closed.  With Dave's widow in an Alzheimer's care facility and their only child uninterested in the property, Genevieve's cousin has been urging her to move in.  The idea is a tantalizing one for Genevieve, who spent the happiest summer of her life in Paris learning the locksmith trade by her uncle's side.  She's longed to return ever since.

Genevieve is welcomed into the fold in the quaint Village Saint-Paul, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris.  Her neighbors help her discover both the pitfalls and the pleasures of living in one of the world's most vibrant cities.  As Genevieve gets settled into her new life, she goes to visit her Aunt Pasquale.  While Pasquale's mind is slowly being devoured by her disease, she mutters a cryptic comment that seems almost lucid.  Her words make Genevieve wonder about the brief period her mother, Angela, spent in Paris when Angela was a young wife and mother.  Whatever happened then caused a fall-out between Genevieve's mother and Dave, her older brother.  None of Genevieve's neighbors can fill her in, so she goes on her own hunt for clues.  The shocking truth will change everything she thought she knew about her mother, her family, and herself.

Nothing piques my interest more than a thick, rich, family secrets novel.  I adore sinking into these sagas and discovering all the intricacies that make a family tick.  The Paris Key by Juliet Blackwell sounded like just this kind of story, which made me eager to give it a go.  In doing so, I found that the novel is indeed thick (the ARC is 358 pages long), rich (Blackwell describes every morsel Genevieve eats, every move she makes in minute detail), and chock-full of family secrets (To where does the mysterious grate in Philippe's basement lead?  Why is it secured with one of Uncle Dave's fancy locks?).  While, as I mentioned, I love thick, rich, family secret novels, I need these three elements to work together to keep the book interesting.  When a story spends, say, the first 200 pages describing Paris in all its guts and glory, but only the last 150 or so on the family secrets (which is the most interesting aspect of the tale, at least for me), I tend to get bored.  This is exactly what happened with The Paris Key.  Although Blackwell offers lovely descriptions of the City of Light, giving the reader a very complete and authentic picture of the place, and making the colorful Parisians come to life, the book often feels more like a travelogue than a novel.  I kept reading only because of the promised family secrets.  Before I got to Page 200, I had put the book down numerous times, with little intention of picking it back up; after that point, my interest finally piqued and I finished the novel in a rush just to see what would happen (although, really, the big "secret" is fairly obvious).  If I hadn't promised to review this one, I probably would have quit around Chapter 5 or so.  The story just felt sooo long and drawn out.  A 150-page chop would have made The Paris Key a much tighter, more enjoyable read for me.  In the end, it bugged me more than thrilled me.  Bummer.

(Readalikes:  The premise reminded me of a Kate Morton novel; the execution, not so much.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Paris Key from the generous folks at Berkley & NAL, a division of Penguin Random House.  Thank you!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Thriller With Taut, Mind-Bending Potential Falls Flat

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Still vulnerable after the recent death of her mother, 26-year-old Bailey Browne travels to the Caribbean in an effort to soothe her grieving heart.  While there, she meets Logan Abbott, a gorgeous Tulane graduate ten years her senior.  Their whirlwind island romance feels like a dream, a fairy tale.  A few weeks later, Bailey's still caught up in the surreal wonder of it all.  Except now she's Logan's wife.  She's left her home in Nebraska, along with her working-class background, to live in his luxurious home on a sprawling horse farm in southern Louisiana.  Bailey can hardly believe her Cinderella-like luck.  

Bailey hasn't been in Wholesome—Logan's tiny hometown—long before she starts to hear the whispers.  She's so smitten with her groom that she refuses to believe the vicious gossip, rumors about what really happened to his first wife.  Sure, she's a little unnerved by the similarities between herself and True Abbott, especially their quick marriages to the same enigmatic man, but Logan can't be responsible for True's disappearance three years ago.  Or the more recent missing women.  Can he?  As the doubts creep in, Bailey realizes how foolish she's been, how little she actually knows the man who has swept her off her feet so completely.  Logan insists he, and his family, have been misjudged and falsely accused in the Wholesome court of public opinion.  Bailey wants to believe him, but can she take that risk?  Especially considering what happened to Logan's first wife?  Trapped in a difficult—possibly deadly—situation, she must decide whom to believe, before it's too late ...

Thrillers that mess with my mind, making me wonder what's real and what's not, are my favorite kind.  The First Wife by Erica Spindler had the potential to be one of these taut mind-benders (which is why I picked it up) but in the end, the novel fell flat for me.  The plot, although not super original, did offer enough twists to keep me reading.  Still, I was able to piece together what happened to True way too early, which made the rest of the book both predictable and tedious.  Coupled with the often cheesy dialogue between the two main characters and an overall depressing story line, The First Wife just didn't impress me much.  I finished it, but can't really recommend it.  Ah, well.

(Readalikes:  Nothing's coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (one F-bomb, plus milder invectives), violence and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Authentic Characters, Intriguing Mystery Make For Another Appealing Ruth Galloway Adventure

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for The House at Sea's End, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from previous Ruth Galloway mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway loves a good puzzle.  And there's nothing more baffling than figuring out how to balance a career and a baby.  At four months old, Kate demands most of her mother's time, not to mention the majority of her energy.  Still, 40-year-old Ruth is committed to her job, which lately has required a bit of consulting with the local police department.  Considering the head of the force is DCI Harry Nelson, Kate's married father, these meet-ups can get a tad awkward for Ruth.  Especially since Harry wants to be involved in the baby's life, despite the fact that no one (including his wife) knows he's her father.  The situation is too complicated to mess with, especially when there are cases that require the duo's attention.

When a group of archaeologists finds human skeletons under a cliff on a remote patch of Norfolk beach, both Harry and Ruth are called in to investigate.  The remains appear to belong to six German soldiers, deployed to England during WWII.  With bullet holes in their skulls, it looks as though the men were murdered.  The big question is: why?  And by whom?  As Harry and Ruth look into the very cold case, several deaths occur that cannot be coincidental.  Someone is keeping a dark secret, someone knows how the German soldiers really died, and that someone will kill to protect their secret.  Can Harry and Ruth figure out the truth before it's too late?  Or will someone stop the pair from digging into the past, possibly forever?

The House at Sea's End, the third installment in Elly Griffiths' enjoyable Ruth Galloway series, offers another intriguing mystery.  While the main plot twists and turns, things heat up for Ruth at home, giving readers a little relationship and domestic drama.  Our heroine handles everything with her usual pragmatism, peppered with a dry wit that makes her a particularly appealing narrator.  She's an understated character, a smart, successful nerd who's just as authentic as they come.  Harry, who's both sincere and befuddled, likewise comes off as incredibly real.  I love this duo because they're unique, yet familiar.  Their antics kept me as engaged by The House at Sea's End as I have been by the other books in this series.  It's quickly becoming one of my very favorites.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books in the Ruth Galloway series [The Crossing Places; The Janus Stone; A Room Full of Bones; A Dying Fall; The Outcast Dead; and The Ghost Fields]; also a little of Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan series)

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:  Another library fine find

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Seminary Teacher Offers Practical, Spiritual Advice for RMs in Second 10 Questions Book

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Serving a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints changes people.  How can it not?  When you spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 1 1/2 to 2 years of your existence focused solely on bringing others to Christ, it transforms you.  Because of the intensity of the experience, it may be difficult for young returned missionaries (RMs) to make the transition back to "civilian" life.  Often, they feel lost in the "real" world, unsure what to do with themselves without the strong focus and purpose that guided their missionary service.  My mother-in-law used to joke that RMs need a halfway house to help them make the shift from full-time missionary to regular person without driving everyone around them insane!  (Interestingly enough, the church just came out with My Plan, an online course that helps missionaries make and achieve goals throughout their missions and beyond.  A virtual halfway house?)

Benjamin Hyrum White, a Utah seminary teacher, wrote 10 Questions to Answer After Serving a Mission to help RMs make the most of post-mission life.  "Blueprints for success as a missionary on the mission are not too different than the blueprints for success when you return home (2)," he assures.  White encourages RMs to continue to practice the good habits they established over the last 18 months - 2 years by studying their scriptures, attending church meetings (including Institute classes), engaging in temple work as often as possible, keeping the law of chastity, serving others through callings, etc.  Further, he insists that while it may seem selfish, this is the time for RMs to focus on what comes next in their lives.  By pursuing an education, faithfully serving in their wards, and dating with the intent of marrying in the temple, they are, in fact, preparing themselves for "lifetime service in the kingdom of God" (15).  

Using a quick, easy-to-read format, White proposes ten questions RMs should ask themselves.  These include, "How Will I Adjust From Preach My Gospel to Live My Gospel?"; "How Will I Accomplish My Educational Pursuits?"; and "How Will I Endure to the End through the Grace of Jesus Christ?".  In each section, White explores the different topics using scripture, quotes from General Authorities, and personal experiences.  At the end of each chapter is a list of resources (talks, websites, books, etc.) for further study.  Although 10 Questions to Answer After Serving a Mission remains short and to-the-point, it covers a lot of ground, always focusing on what is most important (hint: it's not video games).  Written with a sensitive, upbeat tone, the book should help RMs feel both inspired and reassured.  It's a thin book, which can be read quickly and easily; however, a slow savoring would be most beneficial.  Frequent typos and other editing errors, which I find often in books from this publisher, distracted from the volume's message.  Still, it's a useful, unintimidating resource that will help returning missionaries remain close to the Gospel while navigating the day-to-day practicalities of moving on with their post-mission goals.  


Grade:

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for discussions of sex (although they are respectful and non-graphic)

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of 10 Questions to Answer After Serving a Mission from the generous Benjamin Hyrum White via the folks at Cedar Fort.  Thank you!
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