Monday, November 30, 2015

Slow-Building Mystery Inspired By Real-Life Fugitive An Intriguing Read

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Felix Brewer, an extravagant show-off who makes his dough off several businesses (some legal, some not), is facing prison time when he vanishes into thin air.  His disappearance shocks his wife and two daughters, throwing their comfortable lives of luxury into a wild tailspin.  The three Brewers have no idea what has happened to their husband and father, but what about his 23-year-old mistress, Julie Saxony?  Does she know more about Felix's whereabouts than she's letting on?

Julie's disappearance—exactly a decade later—seems to indicate that she's finally flown off to meet up with her man.  Until her remains are discovered in Leakin Park almost 20 years after she went missing.  Maybe she knew where Felix was, maybe she didn't.  Whatever secrets Julie harbored, they went with her to the grave.

Intrigued by the very cold case, retired Baltimore police detective Sandy Sanchez decides to investigate Julie's murder.  As he digs into her colored past, he discovers an alarming web of lies, many of which center on one person: Felix Brewer.  What really happened to the enigmatic fugitive?  Did Julie Saxony die because of her connection to him?  Or was her death unrelated?  As Sandy untangles the threads of deceit that bind five women to Felix, he will discover some very shocking truths about one of Baltimore's greatest unsolved mysteries.

After I'm Gone, a mystery by Laura Lippman, was inspired by the real, unsolved case of Julius Salsbury, a Baltimore bookie who vanished instead of facing a possible 15-year sentence in federal prison.  As colorful as his true-life counterpart, Felix Brewer makes for an alluring central character.  The mystery of his disappearance is intriguing enough, but After I'm Gone focuses less on Felix's case, more on the characters and their relationships with one another.  All of Lippman's story people are complex, flawed and captivating in their own ways, making their individual tales just as interesting as Felix's.  The story's slow, steady build-up creates plenty of tension, forging a plot that's as exciting as it is compelling.  With enough twists to keep me reading, I found After I'm Gone quite riveting indeed.  Overall, I enjoyed it.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of After I'm Gone from the generous folks at HarperCollins.  Thank you!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Cute He Said/She Said Novel a Delightful Read

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From the moment he met Juli Baker in second grade, Bryce Loski has done his best to ignore her.  Which isn't easy considering she lives across the street from him.  Her obvious, annoying infatuation with him has driven him bonkers for years.  Even now, in eighth grade, her obnoxious enthusiasm—for him, for her chickens, for everything—sets his teeth on edge.  Will the embarrassing little brat ever take the hint and just leave him alone?

Juli flipped the first time she met Bryce.  Just flipped right out.  She's longed for him ever since he moved into her neighborhood, but try as she might, she can't seem to get him to really see her.  These days, she's learned to hide her feelings.  Sort of.  Juli still likes Bryce, but the thing is, she's starting to see him in a new light.  And the things she's seeing, well, they're not great.  Is he really as wonderful as she's always thought?  Or have her feelings finally flipped right back?

Just as Juli's starting to see Bryce differently, the same thing is happening to him.  The irritation he's always felt toward Juli is starting to swing alarmingly toward interest, even attraction.  Why does he suddenly wonder what she's thinking?  Why does he now care if he's hurt her feelings?  Has he gone crazy?  Is he flipping out or is he—finally—growing up a little?  

What will happen as Bryce and Juli see the truth about each other for the first time?  With their feelings flip-flopping all over the place, can they find their way to friendship, maybe something even more?  Or will knowing the truth about themselves and each other end things between them, once and for all?

With its upbeat he said/she said format, Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen is a cute, enjoyable read.  Both its narrators are believable, appealing and root-worthy.  Although the story is definitely on the lighter side, Flipped is not without depth.  In fact, it teaches some excellent lessons about looking beyond surface appearances, showing people you care, and looking for truth, even when it's painful to accept.  A funny, uplifting read, Flipped is definitely worth a read.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face by Paul Acampora)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs)

To the FTC, with love:  I borrowed a copy of Flipped from my daughter's bookshelf.  Thanks, babe!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Ancient Chess Set Mystery A Slow, Slow Slog

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It's 1792 in France, a country boiling over with political turmoil, just one step away from total anarchy.  With the bankrupt State seizing Church property, the nun in charge of Montglane Abbey is in a panic.  Having vowed to protect the priceless treasure hidden in the walls of her cloistered home, the abbess must do everything she can to ensure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.  Few understand how potent is the power contained in the Montglane Service, a chess set—exquisitely crafted and jeweled—that belonged to Charlemagne.  Individually, the pieces are stunning enough, but when possessed as a complete set they are more mighty than God Himself.  In the wrong hands, they could bring death and destruction to every corner of the Earth.  Entrusting portions of the set to eight different nuns, she urges the women to scatter, to protect their cargo with their lives.  

Fifteen-year-old Valentine and her cousin Mirielle flee to Paris with two of the pieces.  In the care of their godfather, the girls find themselves in the heart of enemy territory.  With danger around every bend, they can never let their guard down.  As Paris grows more turbulent by the day, Valentine and Mirielle have to keep their chess pieces safe, even if it means losing everything else that matters to them.  Which it just might.

Fast forward almost 200 years.  Catherine Velis, a 23-year-old computer expert, is spending the last day of 1972 worried about her fate.  Having crossed her boss, the CEO of a prominent New York City auditing firm, she's concerned that she's flushed her young career down the toilet.  When she discovers she's being shipped off to Algiers for a year to consult with an obscure operation called OPEC, she's not thrilled.  Her antique dealer family friend, however, is delighted.  He begs her to hunt down pieces of a dusty chess set that are rumored to be in Algeria.  Not long after Catherine hears about the Montglane Service, very strange things start happening to her.  Before she knows it, she's in North Africa hunting down a mythical chess set, being chased by very real enemies.  What has she gotten herself into?  Smack dab in the middle of an ancient Game she is only beginning to understand, Catherine wants only one thing—to win.  Is doing so even possible?  Is it worth it, especially if it costs her her life?  

Alternating between 1792 and 1973, The Eight by Katherine Neville tells a The Da Vinci Code-like story full of history, adventure and intrigue.  First published in 1988, the popular novel has recently become available as an e-book for the first time ever.  I had never heard of Neville, but the premise behind The Eight sounded fascinating, so I accepted an e-book to review.  Unfortunately, I didn't check the book's page (or screen) count before agreeing to read it—the paper version weighs in at 624 pages!  It's a chunkster, which doesn't usually bother me as long as the story can maintain my interest for that long.  In the case of The Eight, that just didn't happen.  While there's plenty of action woven through the book, I still found myself bored with it.  Part of my frustration had to do with sheer length—the story is epic in scope, yes, but it could have been shortened by at least 300 pages, thus tightening its structure and making it a more compelling read.  Neville's prose doesn't help, as it has a dull, tell-not-show quality to it.  The plot seems far-fetched, contrived and too loosey-goosey.  Then there are the characters, who are mostly flat and unlikable.  It's difficult to empathize with greedy, self-centered story people.  So, yeah.  I had quite a time slogging through this lengthy tome.  It took a week to conquer—unheard of for me.  I'm sorry to say it, but in the end, The Eight just was not worth the time I invested in it.  Bummer, since I still find the idea of the Montglane Service so very compelling.  (Just for the record, it doesn't actually exist, although the idea of it is based on the Charlemagne chess set associated with the Saint Denis Abbey that is now housed in France's Bibliotheque Nationale.)    

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Da Vinci Code and other books by Dan Brown)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, sexual content, and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished e-copy of The Eight from the generous folks at Open Road Media.  Thank you!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Party Style Inspires Even Me, the Party Grinch

 (Image from Barnes & Noble)

For my family, November is party month.  Not only do we celebrate Thanksgiving, but we've also got birthdays galore.  Although none of my children were actually due in November, three of the four decided to show up then anyway.  The nerve!  In my extended family, lots of nieces, nephews, cousins, etc. also have November birthdays (in fact, today is my mother-in-law's).  All of which makes for a very festive month dedicated to honoring many of my favorite people in the whole wide world.  Because three of these are my own children, I've had to do some serious November party planning over the years.  Which turned me into a frantic, waspish, stressed-out ball of nerves and anxiety.  Needless to say, my comfort zone so does not include throwing lavish parties.  Or even casual ones.  Hosting any kind of fiesta turns me into a panicked mess.  

So, yeah, when Gemma Lynn Touchstone—a professional party guru from California—offered to help me get a clue, I accepted.  Her book, Party Style, is the first in a planned series designed to help anyone (even me!) pull off a fun, organized, successful party.  While this debut guide focuses specifically on children's get-togethers, the advice Touchstone doles out really can be used for all kinds of occasions. In four simple words, she advises hosts to: Prepare.  Anticipate.  Be flexible.  The first is especially important.  Touchstone provides numerous helpful organization tips on everything that goes into a child's party—choosing a theme, making invitations, picking a menu, selecting the perfect decorations, etc.  She also includes fun recipes (my up-and-coming birthday girl would go crazy for the Gummy Bear Soda; I thought the Mason jar meals were especially clever), links to templates/printable decorations (for those of us who need a little a lot of help), and a section of glossy party photos to give real-life examples/ideas (even I, the party Grinch, found them inspiring).  Throughout Party Style, Touchstone maintains an upbeat, you-can-do-it tone that made me feel like maybe I actually could!  

While Touchstone's easy-to-read guidebook is a quick, helpful read, it's not without its faults.  The prose isn't the smoothest, and—as is common in books from this publisher—the text contains a number of irritating typos.  I know the latter is not the author's fault, but I still shy away from purchasing and gifting books that have too many errors.  I'm super picky that way.

Regardless of these complaints, I enjoyed Party Style overall.  It's an instructive book in an accessible format that makes party-planning look easy.  If you need some fresh ideas for children's parties, give this one a whirl.  You'll also want to check out the author's website for lots of planning tips.  Also, use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter to win some great prizes in the giveaway she has going on.  Hurry, it ends soon!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

(Readalikes:  Hmm ... apparently, I don't read many books like this.  Suggestions?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Party Style from the generous folks at Cedar Fort in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Library of Souls A Haunting, Harrowing Conclusion to an Immensely Enjoyable Series

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(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers from Library of Souls, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from the first two Miss Peregrine novels.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

When Jacob Portman, a 16-year-old American, discovered a time loop in Wales that sheltered children with unusual abilities, he found some much needed entertainment.  He never dreamed the kids he met would become his dearest friends.  Or that he had his own ability, one so rare and valuable that it's become crucial to the survival of peculiardom.  He never imagined he'd be running through time, hopping in and out of time loops in order to save his beloved Miss Peregrine.  But that's exactly what he's doing.  With Emma Bloom, a stubborn firestarter, and Addison McHenry, a talking dog, by his side, what could possibly go wrong?  How about everything?  

Tired of being chased by the merciless monsters who are kidnapping ymbrynes for their own nefarious purposes, Jacob decides to take the fight right to the wights' doorstep.  Unfortunately, their fortress sits in the middle of Devil's Acre, the most desperate and dangerous slum in all of Victorian England.  Reluctant to trust anyone they meet, Jacob, Emma, and Addison must figure out how to rescue their friends all on their own.  Caul, the megalomaniac set on ruling peculiardom no matter what the cost, will certainly kill Miss Peregrine and his other prisoners (which include all of the Headmistress' charges), as soon as he's done with them.  Can Jacob and Emma rescue their friends in time?  Can they save peculiardom from enslavement by the ruthless Caul?  Will Jacob's disturbing new power be the death of him?  Or will he learn to harness it in time to save himself, his friends, and the whole peculiar world?  If he manages to survive all that, will he return to his own land and time, even if it means losing the girl he loves?  Or will he trade the modern world for a romance that can't exist outside of peculiardom?  

In Library of Souls (available November 10, 2015), the final book in Ransom Riggs' enjoyable Miss Peregrine series, the story races to its exciting, adrenaline-rush of a conclusion.  With the fate of the peculiar world resting on his shoulders, Jacob jumps through time in an adventure that twists and turns in a labyrinth as dizzying as Devil's Acre itself.  Like its predecessors, this novel offers a blend of action, romance, humor, and horror that makes for a memorable thrill ride.  The haunting vintage photographs that have marked this series as unique appear here as well, giving the tale an extra measure of eerieness.  All of these elements make Library of Souls a worthy finale to a quirky, creepy series that has brought me hours of entertainment.  I'm sad to see it end.  At the same time, I can't wait to see what the innovative Ransom Riggs comes up with next. 


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Library of Souls from the generous folks at Quirk Books.  Thank you!

Quirky, Creepy Adventure Continues in Second Miss Peregrine Novel

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(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Hollow City by Ransom Riggs, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

"'Strange,' I thought, 'how you could be living your dreams and your nightmares at the very same time'" (144).

Jacob Portman, a 16-year-old from Florida, never thought of himself as special or peculiar in any way.  That is, until he discovered a latent talent for seeing hollowgast—horrifying monsters from a different world that are visible only to peculiars with Jacob's extremely rare ability.  His skill has made him indispensable to a group of children with unusual talents (invisibility, seeing the future through dreams, making fire with bare hands, etc.) who live in a time loop under the protection of their headmistress, Alma Peregrine.  As an ymbryne, their guardian has special powers, including the ability to change into a bird.  Trouble is, she's stuck in that form—and at the worst possible time.  With their home in ruins, their leader unable to communicate in anything but squawks, and wights hot on their tail, it's up to the children to save their beloved headmistress.  The question is: how?  Without Miss Peregrine to instruct them, they'll have to rely on their own wits to outsmart the monsters and return their protector to human form before the problem becomes irreversible.    

Rumor has it that one ymbryne—Miss Wren—remains free, safely hidden in London, circa 1940.  The war-torn city holds dangers of every kind, but Jacob & Co. have to risk it in order to save Miss Peregrine.  Along the way, they'll encounter friends, foes, and everything in between.  In the midst of all the excitement, Jacob has to confront his growing attachment to Emma Bloom, the irrepressible firestarter who's stolen his heart.  He's also worried about his parents, who are surely frantic with worry over his disappearance in the present.  If Jacob survives this escapade, he'll have to make the toughest decision of all—stay with Emma in a time loop that will forever preserve their youth or return to his own time, where he can be with his family, but not the girl he loves.  It's an impossible choice, one he can't bear to think about, especially when he needs to focus on saving Miss Peregrine, her charges, and the entire peculiar world.

Like Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children before it, Hollow City by Ransom Riggs, offers a compelling, action-packed story peppered with humor, romance, and suspense.  Eerie vintage photographs make the tale especially memorable, even if Riggs sometimes has to stretch a little to make the pictures fit the story.  Still, Hollow City remains every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor.  If you like quirky, creepy adventure tales, you're going to love this series.  I do.

(Readalikes:  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Library of Souls, both by Ransom Riggs)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Hollow City from the generous folks at Quirk Books.  Thank you!

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: I Didn't Hate It. Surprise!

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"She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father.  She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance, the reflex, 'What would Atticus do?' passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him ... [she was] complacent in her snug world" (117-18).

When I first heard the announcement about the release of Harper Lee's "new" novel, Go Set a Watchman, I felt ecstatic.  More from Maycomb?  Yes, please!  Then reviews started trickling in.  Not-so-great reviews.  The flame of my enthusiasm flickered a little.  Was Go Set a Watchman going to tarnish my undying love for To Kill a Mockingbird?  Would it spoil everything I thought I knew about Atticus Finch & Company?  Should I risk reading it or would I be better off just leaving it on the shelf?  Since I'm nothing if not daring (actually, I'm nothing like daring), I decided to take the plunge.  And, guess what?  I didn't hate Go Set a Watchman.  I get why some people did, but I didn't.  In fact, I liked it.

The novel opens with 26-year-old Jean Louise "Scout" Finch coming home to visit her father in Maycomb.  Although little has changed in the decades since she was a child running wild in the streets of the small town, Atticus has somehow become an old man.  At 72, he's crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and being looked after by Alexandra, his impossible, always disapproving sister.  Of course, seeing her father isn't the only reason Jean Louise is visiting—there's also Henry Clinton, Atticus' right-hand man.  And Scout's fianceĆ©, if she would just go ahead and accept his marriage proposal already.  Determined to "pursue the stony path of spinsterhood" (15), at least for now, Jean Louise is happy to flirt with her long-suffering beau, philosophize with her aging father, and use her modern, New York-ified ways to scandalize the town she loves so well.

While happily pursuing these aims, Jean Louise stumbles upon a discovery so shocking it shakes her to her very core.  With this sucker punch to the gut, her safe little world tilts on its axis, throwing everything she thought she knew about her fair-minded father, his equally equitable colleagues, and her beloved Maycomb into doubt.  Is it possible that the people and place she's known all her life have changed so irrevocably in her absence?  Or is it Jean Louise?  As she grapples with the answers to questions she's never thought to ask, she must face the ultimate question:  Where does she truly belong—in prejudiced, provincial Maycomb or in permissive, progressive New York City?  It's becoming increasingly obvious that she can't have both.

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is a coming-of-age story.  Even though Scout is already an adult in body, it's her awareness that evolves throughout this novel.  The eyes through which she viewed her childhood are opened in ways that are startling and life-changing.  Readers who adore To Kill a Mockingbird will likely be just as troubled by the revelations that pummel Scout as she is.  Knowing the hard truth, even about fictional people in made-up places, can be horrifying.  While I still prefer the idealized version of Maycomb and her residents that appears in TKAM, it's fascinating to compare that with the more complex one Lee offers in Go Set a Watchman.  Studied together, the books offer a truly intriguing and enlightening reading experience.  Go Set a Watchman isn't the masterpiece that its predecessor is—in fact, it's clunky, confusing, and downright dull in places (although hilarious in others)—but as a companion novel (not a sequel or prequel), it adds illuminating layers to Scout's story.  Even if you're a diehard ignorance-is-bliss kind of reader, you don't want to miss this novel.  Not only does it bring to life a complicated, contradictory period in history, but it highlights how little things have changed over the years.  For a book written in the 1950s, Go Set a Watchman (especially its last few chapters) addresses ideas/themes that are oddly, eerily pertinent to issues we're dealing with today.  Beyond that, it's a compelling tale about contradiction, balance, and being humble enough to accept other people's beliefs even when (especially when) they conflict with your own.  In my opinion, Go Set a Watchman does exactly what the jacket copy says it does:  "It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context, and new meaning to an American classic."

(Readalikes:  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for mild language (no F-bombs), racial epithets, sexual innuendo, and references (not graphic) to sex, rape, etc.

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

 
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