Friday, October 30, 2015

Haunting Everest Murder Mystery One of Reichs' Best Tempe Books Yet

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers from Bones on Ice, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from previous Temperance Brennan novels.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Finding dead bodies on Mount Everest is hardly unusual.  Around 250 people have lost their lives while attempting to reach the top of its treacherous peak, some from exposure, some from falls, some due to deadly avalanches, others from heart attacks, mountain sickness, and a host of other causes.  Most of their corpses remain on the mountain, their removal impossible in such an unforgiving terrain and climate.  They serve as a grim reminder of nature's awesome power, its dominance over man with his foolhardy notions and (often) fatal conceit.

When the body of a climber is discovered on Everest after an earthquake jostles it loose, it's assumed to be that of Brighton Hollis, a 24-year-old woman who disappeared on the mountain three years ago.  Her family—wealthy and very well-connected—wants to be sure it's her.  Enter Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist who examines bones discovered in both Charlotte, North Carolina, and Montreal.  Her job is "simple": identify the remains.  But what she finds is much, much more complicated.  According to evidence on the battered corpse, Brighton Hollis didn't die from exposure or frostbite or an accidental fall.  She was murdered.

As Tempe helps the police investigate Brighton's death, she learns that plenty of people had it in for the young climber.  In fact, every member of her climbing team had reason to want her dead.  Did one of them kill her, using Everest's extreme nature to cover up their crime?  Or is someone else responsible for her brutal murder?  Tempe needs to figure out what really happened to Brighton—and fast—or hers could be the next body lying on a gurney at the swanky new Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner facility.

Everyone knows I'm a huge Temperance Brennan fan (book version, not Bones version).  I've read every book in Kathy Reichs' popular series starring the dedicated forensic anthropologist.  While I've raved about many of them, ho-hummed over others, I always learn something from them.  Reichs knows how to explain the complexities of forensic science in a way that is clear and engaging without insulting the reader's intelligence.  Then, there's our heroine.  Tempe, who is smart, funny, devoted, and self-deprecating is the kind of character that always speaks to me.  I adore her, as well as all her quirky colleagues.  Of course, Reichs' novels also offer tons of action, suspense, and mystery to keep the reader engaged.

So, yeah, it's a given that I'm going to enjoy—at least to some degree—every book Reichs writes about Tempe.  Still, I found Bones on Ice (a novella that fits between Bones Never Lie and Speaking in Bones) to be especially intriguing.  Knowing nothing at all about mountain climbing or Mt. Everest, I was riveted by every detail Reichs included, from the descriptions of climbing culture to the heartbreaking idea of a mountain littered with the bodies of dead dreamers.  Learning about the methods use to examine a frozen corpse was likewise fascinating.  Naturally, the novella also has lots of action, intriguing characters, and sparks flying between Tempe and her cohorts.  Reichs blends all of these elements into a tight, engrossing story that kept me thoroughly entertained.  Although Bones On Ice is not a full-length novel, it's still one of the best installments in the series.  My mind and heart are still haunted by the sobering images of Everest Reichs planted in my head ...

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Temperance Brennan series [Deja Dead; Death Du Jour; Deadly Decisions; Fatal Voyage; Grave Secrets; Bare Bones; Monday Mourning; Cross Bones; Break No Bones; Bones to Ashes; Devil Bones; 206 Bones; Spider Bones; Flash and Bones; Bones Are Forever; Bones in Her Pocket; Bones of the Lost; Swamp Bones; Bones Never Lie; and Speaking in Bones])

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives) and violence

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

DiCamillo's Heartwarming Winn-Dixie A Sweet, Simple Tale of Friendship

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Opal Buloni has just moved to Naomi, Florida, with her father, a Baptist preacher.  Her mama took off a long time ago and the Preacher, still bitter from the loss, throws himself wholeheartedly into his work.  Lonely, 10-year-old Opal is looking for a friend.  And she finds one in the most unlikely of places—the local Winn-Dixie grocery store.  Her new pal is a dirty, ugly stray dog.  When the Preacher agrees, albeit reluctantly, to let Opal keep him, no one is more surprised—and delighted—than her.

For an animal no one wanted, Winn-Dixie has a way of wagging his way into a person's heart.  Because of him, Opal discovers her new home is full of kind, interesting folks.  The more she reaches out to them, the more her own heart fills with hope and joy.  Maybe she and her father will always have a mom-shaped hole in their lives, but, as Opal learns, it doesn't have to define her.  Because of Winn-Dixie, she realizes that sometimes, you have to make your own happiness.

I'm probably the last person on Earth to read Kate DiCamillo's heart-warming children's story, Because of Winn-Dixie.  The book has received heaps of praise and accolades, including a Newbery Honor Award.  Is it deserving?  Absolutely.  This is a sweet, simple tale that teaches important lessons about acceptance, love, and the fulfillment that comes from helping others, be they human or canine.  DiCamillo said, "The book is (I hope) a hymn of praise to dogs, friendship, and the South."  I couldn't have said it better myself.  

(Readalaikes:  Reminded me of A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord)

Grade:


If this were a movie (and it is!), it would be rated:


for brief, mild language

To the FTC, with love:  I borrowed a well-loved copy of Because of Winn-Dixie from my daughter's personal library.  Thanks, sweetie!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Far-Fetched Premise Makes YA Thriller Just So-So

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

At 14, Frances Mace took the trip of a lifetime—a cruise aboard a luxury yacht.  There she met bright, wealthy Libby O'Martin; there she kissed a boy named Grey; there she witnessed a gang of assassins slaughter the ship's passengers and crew, leaving Frances an orphan.  Only three people survived the attack and the subsequent sinking of Persephone.  Only three people know what really occurred on board, what really happened to the 327 who died as the result of the vicious assault.  And two of them —Grey and his father—are lying. 

Frances isn't being totally honest either.  After the Persephone disaster, Libby's devastated father took Frances in, promising to protect her from both the media and the killers who might be looking for her.  He did it with one condition—that Frances pretend to be his dead daughter.  After reconstructive facial surgery, no one can tell she's not who she claims to be.  But Frances, now 18, and grieving the death of her adoptive father, is ready to shed her false skin.  She's ready to confront the lying Wells men, ready to avenge her deceased parents.  In order for it to work, however, she must convince Grey she's really Libby O'Martin.  He has to like her, trust her, fall in love with her—only then can she put her plan into action.

Once on Caldwell, an island in South Carolina where both the O'Martin and Wells Families own property, Frances' conviction starts to waver.  Especially as she gets closer and closer to Grey.  Can she see her plan through?  Will she finally be able to avenge her parents' deaths?  Or will the powerful Wells' win yet again?

If the plot to Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan sounds convoluted and improbable, well, that's because it is.  Which doesn't stop the book from being an engrossing page turner (provided you're willing to do some serious belief-suspending, of course).  The action kept me turning pages, even while I rolled my eyes at the irritating love triangle and melodramatic prose.  I cared more about the mystery than about any of the characters, especially the personality-less boys.  If it weren't for the quick pacing that made me want to know what happened next, I would have put this one down after the first few chapters.  I finished Daughter of Deep Silence, but didn't find the ending very satisfying.  Overall, then, it was only a so-so read for me.  While the suspense made the novel compelling, it just didn't do enough to override the story's gaping plot holes, far-fetched premise, and unlikable characters.  Bummer.

(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, scenes of peril, and sexual innuendo/sensuality

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, October 22, 2015

2 Lonely, Homesick Girls + 1 Magical Book = Adventures of a Highly Unusual—and Immensely Enjoyable—Nature (With a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"It had just dawned on her to wonder what the book might want from her" (87).

Kai Grove has never met the great-aunt with whom she'll be living for the summer.  Lavinia Quirk, a shockingly spry 86-year-old who listens to hip hop, resides in a house that's just as wonky as she is.  So, really, 12-year-old Kai shouldn't be surprised when she finds a strange old book among the eclectic offerings on her aunt's shelf.  Titled The Exquisite Corpse, it tells an old-fashioned tale about a boy who discovers magic.  Not all that unique, perhaps, until Kai writes in the book and it writes back.  At first she thinks she's imagining things or that Lavinia's playing a joke on her, but soon, she can't deny that something very real—and extremely strange—is happening to her.  Kai came to Texas wanting an adventure; it seems she's found it.  

Like Kai, Leila Awan has traveled to a faraway place seeking new experiences, preferably romantic, exciting ones like those she reads about in her favorite novels.  Staying with her uncle's family in Lahore, Pakistan, should offer Leila plenty of unique opportunities; so far, though, she's got little to Skype home about.  Then, she finds an intriguing book in her uncle's library, The Exquisite Corpse.  Leila's hoping the tale inside will be "both utterly romantic and moderately gruesome" (21).  What she finds is something rare, something magical, something that freaks her out completely.  When Leila writes in the book, it writes back.  Completely creeped out, she tries to destroy the book.  It resists her attempts, relocating itself and demanding her attention.  Little does Leila know, a girl her age on the other side of the world is having similar struggles with her copy of the same strange book.

As the story inside The Exquisite Corpse continues to unfold, both girls find themselves enraptured by the romance and mystery of a couple named Ralph Flabbergast and Edwina Pickle.  Their real-life struggles in Texas and Pakistan are confusing enough without the addition of this crazy magic.  And yet, it's as if destiny is drawing them to it, to each other.  The question is: Why?  Are they supposed to change Ralph and Edwina's fate?  What about their own?  What will happen to them all when the story finally comes to an end?

In the introduction to A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic by Lisa Papademetriou, the author talks about the invisible threads she believes connect people who are meant to find each other.  Through the adventures of Kai and Leila, she explores this most fascinating of concepts.  The fact that she uses a magic book to do it just makes the premise all the more compelling.  With an imaginative storyline, fun characters, and an intertwining plot that jumps between the present and the past, A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic is an enchanting, multi-layered novel.  Both a rollicking yarn and a poignant tale about finding one's true self, it's a bewitching read that I enjoyed immensely.  If you like upbeat middle grade stories sprinkled in fairy dust, this one's for you.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of novels like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brasheres and When the Butterflies Came by Kimberley Griffiths Little)  

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs)

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic from the generous folks at HarperCollins.  Thank you!

--

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Family Movie Guide a Delight to Peruse

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


Everybody loves movies, but since not everyone digs the same flicks, it can be difficult to find one that appeals to the whole family.  Case in point:  Typically, my 6-year-old princess wants a girly movie; my 10-year-old boy begs for something with lots of action; my teenage daughter prefers rom coms; my 16-year-old son groans at anything too juvenile; my husband always suggests sci fi; and by this time, I just want an aspirin.  The solution?  Usually we settle on Studio C.  A great alternative option, it's true, but if you're really sold on family movie night, here's a suggestion:  pick up 101 Movies to See Before You Grow Up by parenting/entertainment blogger Suzette Valle.  It will give you plenty of family-pleasing ideas (although it should be noted that some of the films she suggests are rated PG-13).

In a fun, easy-to-read format geared toward kids, this informative guide discusses 101 popular movies.  For each, it lists a plot summary, people who worked on the film, its rating, release date, and interesting trivia related to the movie.  It even provides a space to record when you saw the film, with whom you viewed it, and your rating (1-5 stars)/review.  Bright colors throughout as well as whimsical illustrations by Natasha Hellegourach make thumbing through this book a real delight for fans of all ages.  I suggest placing it on the coffee table in your t.v./family room to remind you which movies you've seen and which you still need to experience.    

While 101 Movies to See Before You Grow Up really isn't meant to be read cover-to-cover, that's what I did.  And what an enjoyable experience!  I had a great time learning about all these movies, 84 of which I'd seen (guess I can't grow up quite yet).  Some of the plot summaries were a little too informative for me, but overall, Valle provides lots of useful information for each flick.  I especially appreciated the variety of movies that were highlighted—it's a mix of cinema classics (It's a Wonderful Life; Mary Poppins; To Kill a Mockingbird; etc.), newer action/adventure favorites (Back to the Future; Jurassic Park; Pirates of the Caribbean; etc.), beloved animated films (Toy Story; Despicable Me; Shrek; etc., sports/school picks (Cool Runnings; Remember the Titans; Dead Poet's Society; etc.), and even some documentaries (March of the Penguins; Super Size Me; Spellbound; etc.).  Although I didn't agree with every selection (Jim Carrey's Grinch?  No, thank you.), most got my hearty approval. 

If you're looking for a holiday gift for your family or for a friend/co-worker who adores movies, you can stop searching.  101 Movies to See Before You Grow Up by Suzette Valle will make any film lover happy.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie (ha!), it would be rated:


for mild descriptions of violence

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of 101 Movies to See Before You Grow Up from the generous folks at Quarto Books.  Thank you!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

TTT: My Wish Is Your Command, Book Genie!

If you had an all-powerful genie at your disposal, what would you ask the magical being to do?  What if your genie specialized in granting bookish wishes?  What requests would you be throwing at him/her?  It's always fun to imagine these types of scenarios, isn't it?  Well, that's exactly what the fine ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish are asking us to do this week.  I love fun Top Ten Tuesday topics like this—I can't wait to see what's on everyone's lists today!  If you want to join in the fun, click on over to The Broke and the Bookish for all the details.

Without further ado, I give you:


My Top Ten Bookish Wishes 
(If You Can Dream It, the Book Genie Can Do It!)

1.  I wish for the Book Genie to build me a big, but cozy library to house my overflowing book collection.  I'm not asking for much, really, just something simple like this:


Or this:


Heck, I'd even "settle" for this because, you know, I'm just so very accommodating like that:



2.  I wish for the Book Genie to bring my favorite authors back to life so they can write more books.  This means you, L.A. Meyer, Maeve Binchy, L.M. Montgomery ...

3.  I wish for the Book Genie to write beautiful, scintillating reviews of all the books I've read this year that are still sitting on my desk waiting for me to post about them.  I think I have 30 more to do in order to be caught up.  The Book Genie should be able to handle that, no problem!

4.  I wish for the Book Genie to shake down all those slow-to-publish (slower than I'd like, anyway) authors that I love so much.  Yes, I'm talking to you, Tana French, Maureen Johnson, Veronica Rossi, Joanne Harris, Sherri L. Smith, etc.

5.  I wish for the Book Genie to put a bug in Patrick Ness' ear about the need for another awesome YA series from him.  I'm still mourning the ending of The Chaos Walking books.

6.  Because of all this reading material the Book Genie is going to magic into the world, I'm going to need him to take care of my messy house, piles of laundry, and kid-chauffering duties so that I have more time to read.  So, I wish for that, too.  

7.  Since my big, brand-new library will probably not be completely filled with the books I already own, I wish for a bookstore gift card that never runs out of money.  Ever.

8.  I'm super impatient when it comes to waiting for books to come out, so I think I'll wish for all those I've been waiting for to appear right now.  

9.  While you're at it, Book Genie, I'd love an all-expenses paid trip to New York City for BEA 2016.  I've never been and it looks soooo amazing.  Wish granted, right?

10.  Taking a cue from Disney's Aladdin, Book Genie, I'll show you my thanks for fulfilling my bookish longings by wishing for your freedom.  You're welcome.

11.  On second thought, I wish to have all classic literature downloaded directly into my brain so that I can talk intelligently about, say, Moby Dick, without actually having to slog through it! 

How about you?  What would you wish for?  I'm eager to see what're on your Book Genie list.  Please leave me a comment and I'll gladly return the favor.

Happy TTT to you!  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Tense Historical Mystery/Thriller Gets Everything Right


October 1922—On a warm day in Milan, Italy, the life of 19-year-old Isabella Berotti changes forever.  One moment she is gliding through the busy marketplace on the arm of her handsome husband, their unborn child nestled safely in her womb.  The next, Luigi lies dead in the street, blood streaming from a bullet wound in his chest.  A second shot rings out, felling Isabella, who barely survives the injury.  The bambino inside her is not so lucky.

Ten years later, Isabella is still haunted by the violent death of her husband.  As a Blackshirt—one of Mussolini's elite soldiers—Luigi was in a dangerous line of work.  Still, why him?  Why her?  Their shooter has never been brought to justice and the police claim to know nothing.  Isabella doesn't believe them.  Someone knows something, she's sure of it.  But, questioning authority in Fascist Italy is never a good idea, so Isabella distracts herself with work.  As an architect in the most prestigious firm in Bellina, one of Mussolini's new cities, she has the privilege of designing beautiful new buildings and homes.  Her work is the center of her life, the only thing that keeps her moving forward.

Little does Isabella know that her life is about to change in an instant once again.  When a strange woman approaches Isabella, begging the architect to watch her young daughter, she doesn't have time to react, let alone refuse.  Moments later, she's horrified when the mother throws herself off a clock tower, plummeting to her death.  The woman hinted that she knew something of Luigi's death—now Isabella will never know what it was.  Unless the child knows.  Trying to simultaneously protect 9-year-old Rosa and extract information from her throws Isabella into the middle of a dangerous political battle.  Surrounded by enemies, she doesn't know who to trust.  With her neck and that of the girl who's reawakened her mother's heart on the line, Isabella doesn't know what to do, where to turn.  Mussolini's goons lurk down every possible road and of one thing she's certain—they want her dead.

The Italian Wife by Kate Furnivall is one of those novels that just gets everything right.  In vivid, painstaking prose, the author builds a setting so rich, so authentic, it was as if I had truly stepped into Fascist Italy (and wanted to step right out, thank you very much).  Because their tension, their fear, their desperation, and their anger felt so palpable, I had no trouble at all empathizing with the characters.  I rooted for them without hesitation.  Character-driven though it may be, The Italian Wife doesn't skimp on plot.  There's plenty of pulse-pounding action, nail-biting suspense, and life-or-death twists to keep a reader glued to her seat.  Although the book clocks in at 411 pages, I never got bored with it.  It kept me riveted to the very end.  There's so much to love about this one that I honestly can't come up with any complaints (be amazed, be very amazed).  If you like tense historical thrillers, this is the book for you.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of several WWII novels, including The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah; The Kommandant's Girl by Pam Jenoff, and Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (one F-bomb, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Italian Wife from the generous folks at Penguin Random House.  Thank you!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Complex, Enjoyable Still Life SO Much More Than a Cozy

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

South of Montreal, near the U.S. border, sits a small, idyllic village called Three Pines.  With its lush natural beauty, quaint shops, and warm-hearted residents, it's a lovely, postcard-perfect kind of place.  A place where "the only reason doors were locked was to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini at harvest time" (1%).  From a distance, it looks like a snow globe scene, perpetually safe inside its protective bubble.  No community can be that flawless, of course.  As in every other town, plenty of tension simmers beneath Three Pines' serene surface.  

Still, the discovery of a dead body in the woods comes as a great shock.  Especially since it belongs to Jane Neal, a retired teacher much beloved in the village.  Pierced with an arrow, she appears to have been the victim of a tragic hunting accident.  Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, however, isn't convinced.  Determined to discover what really happened to the elderly teacher, he and his team take up temporary residence in Three Pines.  Intelligent and thoughtful, Gamache knows the better acquainted he is with the townspeople, the more forthcoming they will be.  But as he becomes more and more familiar with the colorful village people, slowly falling in love with them and their town, the less he wants to suspect any of them of killing an old woman.  And yet, it's his duty to find her murderer.  Was it Jane's greedy niece?  Or someone with a less obvious motive?  As pressure to solve the case intensifies, it's up to Gamache to find a killer among his new found friends.  Can he do it in time or will he become the next victim?

Despite its intimate, small-town setting, labeling Still Life by Canadian author Louise Penny a "cozy" mystery would be a mistake.  The novel, the first in her popular Armand Gamache series, is much more than that.  I completely agree with what Penny said about her books in a recent interview with BookPage:

To call them cozies is to completely misread!  I get very annoyed at anyone who calls them cozies, or even traditional.  I think it's facile for people to think that anything set in a village must, per force, be superficial and simplistic.  (BookPage, September 2015 issue, Pages 14-15)

Too true.  Still Life introduces a town that, to an outsider, looks as cozy as a fleece blanket, when in truth, it's more like a patchwork quilt—still warm, but with a variety of pieces, patterns, and stitching styles that create a more layered, complex beauty than is apparent at first glance.  The novel isn't really about the murder of a community member, it's about the community itself.  It's about the people who live there, the relationships they have with each other, and the ways in which they deal with their differences—in personality, in cultural background, in political views, in everything.  Still Life and the books that follow are character-driven mysteries, focusing on the most appealing of Penny's story people: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.  Unlike most of literature's craggy, uncouth police personnel, Gamache is a kind and consummate gentleman.  Although he battles his own demons, he's a positive man, happily married, and upbeat even in the face of his often unpleasant duties.  A breath of fresh air, for sure.  All that being said, you'll be happy to know that Penny doesn't skimp on plot.  There's plenty happening to keep the story moving along.  Although I figured out who the killer was before Gamache did, I wasn't totally sure I was right until the very end.  That's the mark of a good murder mystery, in my book.  In case you can't tell, all of these elements blend to make Still Life a fun, compelling read.  I enjoyed it immensely, as I did the next book in the series and the next and the ... you get the picture.  If you dig murder mysteries that are more than just another police procedural, definitely try this series on for size.  It's a darn good one.     

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Armand Gamache series [A Fatal Grace; The Cruelest Month; A Rule Against Murder; The Brutal Telling; Bury Your Dead; 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 language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder invectives) and violence

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

If It Weren't For the Cop-Out of An Ending ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Although she's eighteen, Madeline Whittier knows little of life beyond the walls of her home.  Born with "baby in the bubble" disease (aka Severe Combined Immunodeficiency or SCID), she's allergic to nearly everything.  Going outside could mean death.  So, she doesn't.  Madeline stays inside, studying with online tutors, socializing only with her nurse and her physician mother, and posting spoiler book reviews on her blog.  It's a lonely existence, but one Madeline bears with reluctant acceptance.

That changes when a new family moves in next door to the Whittiers.  Watching their movements from her window, Madeline becomes fascinated with Olly Bright, the family's teenage son.  Always clad in black, he does Spiderman-like parkour moves, launching himself into secret places to get away from his father's alcohol-fueled rages.  When Madeline and Olly start instant messaging each other, she discovers that her neighbor is not just physically skilled, but he's also funny, smart, and thoughtful.  As much as Madeline looks forward to their chats, she longs to talk to Olly face-to-face.  To feel his hand in hers, his lips on her skin.  Of course, her mother would never allow such a thing.  She'd have a coronary if she knew about the instant messaging.  Madeline has never considered defying her mother-doctor, risking illness or worse to escape her confinement, but now?  Now, it's all she wants.  
Will Madeline break free, throwing caution to the wind in order to be with the boy she's coming to love?  Or will she do the sensible thing and forget Olly ever existed?  With her heart—not to mention her life—at stake, what will Madeline decide?

There's plenty to love about Everything, Everything, a debut novel by Nicola Yoon.  To begin with, there's the kind of diversity that is often lacking in YA novels.  Yoon, a Jamaican-American married to a Japanese-American, gives Madeline a mixed ethnicity (Japanese/African-American), which helps her stand out.  I thought the token gay character who drops in at the end was a little much (Why was he even in the story?), but I like that our heroine is bi-racial and it's just a fact of life for her, no big deal.  I also enjoyed the peeks we get into her bright, engaging personality via lists, book reviews, lists, drawings (by David Yoon, the author's husband), and diary entries.  These snippets perk up the narration, moving the plot along in a fast, fresh manner.  The growing relationship between Madeline and Olly is also sweet and fun.  I found all of these elements appealing.  My only real complaint with the novel is with the ending.  With little foreshadowing, the conflict's resolution comes out of nowhere.  And yet, the big twist didn't surprise me at all, as I've seen it done before.  Yoon's wrap-up, thus, felt like a rushed cop-out.  In fact, it kind of soured the whole book for me.  Despite that, Everything, Everything really is pretty enjoyable.  It's the sweet, swoony kind of read teens will definitely get into (my 13-year-old daughter adored it).  Judging by the rave reviews the novel is getting all over the book blogosphere, I'm the only one who felt a little gipped by this one.  Ah, well.  I can deal.

(Readalikes:  Broken by C.J. Lyons)

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 Everything, Everything from the generous folks at Random House via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Appalachian Murder Mystery Series Goes Deeper, Gets Better As It Goes

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

High summer in Acker's Gap, West Virginia, means more time for its mountain residents to enjoy the rugged beauty around them.  And yet, few seem to be outside, taking advantage of the long, arid days.  With a killer on the loose, the hill people are scared.  Too frightened to linger, too scared to stray far from their homes.  It's up to Belfa "Bell" Elkins, Raythune County's prosecutor, and her old friend, Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, to stop the killing.  If only they had a clue where to look.  For all its breathtaking natural wonders, Acker's Gap is a hard, dead end kind of town, one where desperation leads to violence of every kind.  Who could be harboring homicidal tendencies?  Just about everyone.
Bell's got enough problems to deal with, never mind the recent murders.  Her 45-year-old sister, Shirley, has moved in with her after serving 30 years in prison for killing their abusive father.  Trying to re-form the close relationship they shared as girls isn't easy now that they're independent, headstrong adults.  Especially since Shirley refuses to listen to reason.  Bell's also missing her 17-year-old daughter, who lives with her flashy father in D.C.  The last thing she needs is more problems to solve.  Or, maybe it's the best thing to get her mind off her domestic troubles?

When Bell's investigation leads her to 19-year-old Lindy Crabtree, the prosecutor believes she's finally getting somewhere.  The jumpy teenager is hiding her sad, angry father in the locked basement.  The ex-miner, whose failing mind prefers the lonely darkness, could be the exact person for whom Bell and the sheriff have been searching.  If only the case were that simple ...

Julia Keller's exploration of Odell Crabtree's issues gives Summer of the Dead, the third installment in her Appalachian mystery series, a greater depth than what is found in the two previous books.  Keller always excels at bringing to life the struggles and stresses of her beloved hill people, but Odell's plight feels especially poignant.  As does Bell's constant worry over her older sister.  It's always been the characters and setting more than the plot that draws me to this series—still, there's plenty of action to be had in a Keller novel, no worries about that!  Although I pieced together some of the answers to the mysteries in Summer of the Dead, I didn't see all of them coming.  That suspense, as well as my interest in the daily dramas of Acker's Gap's salt-of-the-Earth residents, kept me turning pages.  Not to mention hankering for more from the indomitable Bell Elkins.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Bell Elkins series [A Killing in the Hills; Bitter River; and Last Ragged Breath])

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, sexual innuendo, and adult subject matter (child abuse, drug abuse, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Alcoholism and Abuse in Amish Country Make For a Surprisingly Ho-Hum Read

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To the Plain people in his Fold, the Deacon stands as an example of the Amish ideal—he works hard, cares for his flock, and listens closely to the God with whom he has always communed.  Only Joshua, the Deacon's 11-year-old son, knows the truth.  Only he sees the hungry slurps his father takes from jars of pungent "communion wine," only he witnesses the rage that ensues, only he receives the Deacon's vicious beatings.  No one else knows—not his mother, not his four sisters, not any of their Plain neighbors.  The family's lives look perfect from the outside.  It's not until a scuffle between Joshua and his father turns deadly that the truth begins to leak out.

Unable to stay in Pennsylvania, Joshua makes a run for it.  He's heard about a distant California city, Monte Rey, where the sun always shines.  Perpetual summer sounds infinitely better than whatever awaits him at home.  The naive boy, who's never lived among the "English" before, stumbles into every kind of danger along his decade-long journey to the West.  Having learned some excruciating lessons about life and love, an adult Joshua yearns for one thing: home.  He longs to return to the Fold, but how can one so tainted go back?  Especially when doing so means confronting the abusive father who never wanted him in the first place.

Miriam's life changes forever on the night of the fire.  Not only is Joshua, her oldest child, missing—presumed dead—but her strong, stalwart husband is burned so badly he can barely move.  So severe are his wounds that Miriam knows the Deacon will never be the same again.  It will be up to her to tend to his injuries, care for the children, run the farm, and keep hope alive despite the unbearable strain.  Despite the years that pass, Miriam refuses to believe Joshua is dead, even when everyone begs her to let go.  Exhausted and worried about her crumbling marriage, that hope is the only thing to which she can cling.  

While tension mounts for both Joshua and Miriam, their reunion grows ever closer.  But will it be the sweet homecoming of which Joshua dreams?  Or will his family Shun him as the sinner he's become?  
When I think of the Amish people, sweet, gentle adjectives come to mind.  Abusive and alcoholic not being two of them.  Since Plain folks are as human as the rest of us, it stands to reason that even the most peaceful of communities has its dark secrets.  E.B. Moore, a sculptor and author with Amish roots, would probably know.  Loosely based on her grandfather's early life, Moore's second novel, Stones in the Road, addresses some of these issues.  Joshua, whose tumultuous relationship with his father makes him instantly sympathetic, is a compelling narrator.  His mother's plight makes her equally so.  Because of this, the reader can't help but root for their reunion.  Still, it's a slow journey, one that gets dull—and downright weird—in some places.  Although Joshua and Miriam's various adventures kept me interested enough, I wasn't racing through the pages to see what happened next.  The story is ultimately hopeful, but it's also almost overwhelmingly depressing.  I did, however, appreciate its important message of making your own peace, even when (especially when?) others cause you unbearable pain.  Still, I found Stones in the Road to be only a so-so read for me.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little of Heart's Journey by Kristen McKendry)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Stones in the Road from the generous folks at Penguin Random House.  Thank you! 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Crichton's Blockbuster Techno Thriller All About the Action

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I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone what goes on in Michael Crichton's 1990 blockbuster novel, Jurassic Park.  Even if you've never read the books, even if you've never watched the movies, you probably know the basic plot.  But, just in case you've been living on a remote, uninhabited island in say, Costa Rica, I'll give you a quick rundown:
John Hammond, the filthy rich owner of a premier biotechnology company called InGen, has a grand dream—to bring dinosaurs back to life for the viewing pleasure of the public.  For a handsome price, tourists will be able to visit a lush island where the animals roam free in all their ancient glory. Thanks to the cloning methods discovered by Hammond's scientists, his impossible goal is coming to life.  Jurassic Park is almost up-and-running.  Before officially opening the park, however, Hammond brings in a team of experts to experience what has—up until now—been a (mostly) secret project.  Hammond's visitors—Alan Grant, a professor of paleontology; Ellie Sattler, a paleontologist; and Ian Malcolm, a mathematician, specializing in chaos theory—are as amazed by the living dinosaurs as Hammond expected them to be.  He didn't anticipate the trio's skepticism, however.  No matter.  Hammond's grandchildren have also arrived.  Having the youngsters on the island will make his point very nicely—Jurassic Park is as safe as any other amusement park.
 If that were true, there wouldn't be much of a story, of course.  So, naturally, things start to go wrong.  An InGen employee tries to smuggle dinosaur embryos off the island, dinosaurs escape their pens, the animals—supposedly incapable of reproducing—do exactly that, etc.  As everything goes haywire, it's up to Hammond's terrified visitors to save themselves and the children.  Can the horrifying chaos be contained on the island?  Will anyone make it out of Costa Rica alive?  What will happen to John Hammond's glorious—and deadly—Jurassic Park?
So, I realized right off the bat that it's not Crichton's writing that made Jurassic Park such a huge, bestselling novel.  Not by a long shot, as his prose is mostly of the tell-not-show variety.  The characters have a little more personality, but, on the whole, they're a greedy, selfish lot.  Crichton doesn't bother spending a lot of time on their character or relationship development.  He's all about the action.  Lots of page time is devoted to the science/technology behind Jurassic Park, often at the expense of moving the plot forward.  The slow, steady build up gets a bit dull since the real action doesn't start until almost halfway through the book.  Still, once it gets going, it really gets going with the run-for-your-life sequences and suspense.  Naturally, blood and gore soon follow.  I rarely read techno thrillers like Jurassic Park, so it's probably not surprising that I wasn't totally blown over by the novel.  The premise, of course, is unique; the science/tech before it's time; and the action engrossing.  That's what I expect from this kind of book (what I call "guy fiction"), but I couldn't help wanting more dynamic prose, better character development, and a tighter plot structure.  Despite these complaints, though, I enjoyed the read.  Like all who step inside Jurassic Park, I got Crichton's message loud and clear: don't mess with nature or it will soon be messing with you!

 (Readalikes:  I haven't read The Lost World by Michael Crichton, but I assume it's similar)  

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cover Reveal: Spark by Holly Schindler

I've loved Holly Schindler ever since I read her debut novel, A Blue So Dark.  It is a haunting, memorable story told in vivid, skilled prose.  It made me want to read everything she wrote.  I'm a little behind on that goal, but I've continued to enjoy the author's books over the years.  Holly's not just a talented writer, but she's also a great champion of book bloggers.  Really, what's not to love about her?

Naturally, I was thrilled to be a part of the cover reveal for Holly's forthcoming YA novel, Spark.  Published by HarperCollins, it comes out on May 17, 2016.  You can pre-order it now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  Isn't it pretty?



  When the right hearts come to the Avery Theater—at the right time—the magic will return. The Avery will come back from the dead.

Or so Quin’s great-grandmother predicted many years ago on Verona, Missouri’s most tragic night, when Nick and Emma, two star-crossed teenage lovers, died on the stage. It was the night that the Avery’s marquee lights went out forever.

It sounds like urban legend, but one that high school senior Quin is now starting to believe, especially when her best friend, Cass, and their classmate Dylan step onto the stage and sparks fly. It seems that magic can still unfold at the old Avery Theater and a happier ending can still be had—one that will align the stars and revive not only the decrepit theater, but also the decaying town. However, it hinges on one thing—that Quin gets the story right this time around.

Holly Schindler brings the magic of the theater to life in this tale of family ties, fate, love, and one girl’s quest to rewrite history.

Sounds incredible, right?  I think so.  May, come quick!

Mormon Mentions: Melissa DeCarlo

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.

--

In The Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo, Mattie Wallace and her friend go to visit a man, looking for information about Mattie's mother.  He invites them in.  Then:


Mr. Hambly clears his throat, "Latter Day Saints?  Jehovah's Witnesses?"

Luke and I both laugh.  I think he's laughing out of surprise, but I'm laughing because Luke, in his white dress shirt and dark tie, really does look like a religious door-knocker, which is probably what gained us entrance into the Hambly home in the first place. 

(Quote taken from Page 258 of an uncorrected proof)

-- The Church's missionary program is legendary all around the world.  Mormon missionaries are easily recognizable by their white shirts and ties (men), conservative skirts and blouses (women), and black name tags (all).  They're also well-known for going door-to-door delivering messages about Jesus Christ.  Or trying to, anyway.  Mattie's assumption that she and Luke are allowed inside because they're religious representatives is pretty optimistic, since I'm pretty sure most people run and hide when they see the LDS missionaries (or Jehovah's Witnesses) coming.  A pity, since everyone can benefit from an uplifting religious discussion.  Unless, of course, your visitors are of the Mattie/Luke variety—people who look like missionaries, but are actually nosy strangers wanting to know all your secrets ...

Wickedly Funny Family Secrets Novel Surprisingly Poignant

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Despite her vow never to be like her bitter, alcoholic mother, Mattie Wallace has pretty much become her mini-me.  Newly homeless, she's got all of her earthly possessions stuffed into a half dozen trash bags in the back of her mom's ancient Chevy Malibu.  With nothing in her wallet, but a definite something growing in her womb, Mattie's reached an all-time low.  At least her mom—who's been dead for five years—isn't around to say, "I told you so."  Although Mattie's aging stepfather is willing to take her in, she can't bear for him to see how badly she's screwed up this time.  It's just as well, then, that he has news—Mattie's grandmother has died, leaving a possible inheritance for her next of kin.  Mattie never knew her mother's mother, but she's not opposed to taking whatever money the woman left behind.  With nothing to keep her in the Florida Panhandle, Mattie high-tails it to little Gandy, Oklahoma, hoping to leave with some cold, hard cash.

The good news: Mattie has inherited her mother's family home.  The bad: she can't take possession of it for several months.  With the Malibu out of commission, she's stuck in Gandy until she can find the money to get it repaired.  A kind paralegal allows her to squat in her grandmother's house, but that only solves one of Mattie's problems.  As she tries to straighten out her many dilemmas, Mattie settles into the rhythm of life in Gandy.  Thanks to the quirky townspeople, her days are filled with plenty of drama and entertainment.  Still, the only story she really wants told is that of her mother.  Why did Genie Wallace, a pretty young woman with a bright future, suddenly up and leave Gandy?  Why did she never return?  How did the popular, well-loved Genie turn into the broken, boozed-up woman who raised Mattie?  

With more questions than answers, Mattie determines to shake the truth about her mother out of the reticent Gandy-ans.  Considering how shaky her relationship with Genie was, Mattie's surprised by how much she wants to know who her mother really was.  But how many people will she have to hurt in order to get the real story?  And what does it matter, after all, when the real problem is what to do about Mattie's own downward spiral?  As Mattie unearths clues about her family's past, she finds shocking revelations—astonishing truths that might be the keys to salvaging her own future.

As you probably know by now, I'm a sucker for a good homecoming/family secrets story.  The Art of Crash Landing, a debut novel by Melissa DeCarlo, certainly fits the bill, although it's a far cry from the Kate Morton-ish fare I usually read.  Feisty Mattie is the kind of irascible character that shouldn't be as likable as she is.  Still, her wicked sense of humor; her bold, reckless personality; and her refusal to back down make her a fun heroine.  Her pain, so authentic and raw, makes her sympathetic.  I couldn't help but love her.  Mattie's madcap adventures made me laugh, while her family mystery made me race through the pages, eager to see how the puzzle pieces all fit together.  Although our heroine (anti-heroine?) is undeniably hilarious, The Art of Crash Landing isn't a light, fun kind of novel.  Not by a long shot.  It's a sad, poignant read, but one that manages to be both real and hopeful.  Despite the excessive profanity and other R-rated bits, I surprised myself by enjoying this novel quite thoroughly. 

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, sexual content, violence, and depictions of underage drinking and illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Art of Crash Landing from the generous folks at HarperCollins via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Earthbound An Enjoyable Supernatural Thrill Ride

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As the only survivor of a plane crash that killed 255 people (including her parents), Tavia Michaels is confused.  Sure, it could be the traumatic brain injury (TBI) talking, but that only explains some of what the 18-year-old is now experiencing.  She sees strange shapes on historic structures, people who seem to flicker, and now, a guy who dresses in Revolutionary War-era clothing appears to be stalking her.  Tavia doesn't know what to make of it all.  Her small circle of confidantes—her guardians, her psychiatrist, and Benson Ryder, the boy who makes her heart beat double-time—doesn't think she's crazy.  Not exactly.  But Tavia's beginning to wonder ...

When Tavia confronts her stalker, Quinn Avery, she's unnerved by the things he says.  Also intrigued.  Desperate for answers, she continues to communicate with him, becoming more and more attracted to the handsome blonde.  After overhearing an alarming phone conversation at her aunt's house, Tavia's convinced Quinn knows exactly what is happening to her.  And that she's in grave danger.  With Benson's help, she flees to Camden, Maine, following the clues the mysterious man has left for her.  As Tavia puts together the pieces of the mind-boggling puzzle that will reveal the answers to all her questions, she finds herself caught not just in a heady, supernatural time warp, but also in a love triangle that is pulling her heart in two different directions.  Can she untangle the mystery of who she really is and what she really wants in time to save the world from imminent disaster?  What about her own life?  What about her heart?

I usually shy away from paranormal YA novels because they all seem to feature the same tired, cookie-cutter plots.  Earthbound by Aprilynne Pike is no exception.  And yet, I didn't hate this first book in the Earthbound series—in fact, I liked it.  With solid prose and a tense, exciting storyline, it kept me engrossed.  Although the tale starts out confusing, it's a good kind of puzzlement, the kind that makes everything more suspenseful.  Earthbound does get melodramatic, insta-lovey, and predictable at times, but overall, I found it to be a compelling page turner.  If you can overlook the been-there-done-that-a-million-times plot summary, Earthbound makes for an enjoyable read.

(Readalikes:  Every other oh-my-gosh-I-can't-believe-I'm-really-a-vampire/mermaid/goddess/witch/angel/devil/dragon/demon slayer, etc. YA book; also the other books in the series, Earthquake and Earthrise)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Earthbound (in 2013!) from the generous folks at Razorbill (a division of Penguin Random House).  Thank you!
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