Monday, February 29, 2016

Mormon Mentions: Rinker Buck

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 Oregon Trail, journalist Rinker Buck recounts the trip he took with his brother in 2011 from St. Joseph's, Missouri, to Farewell Bend, Oregon.  As he describes trekking in the footsteps of pioneers in a restored 19th Century covered wagon pulled by a stubborn team of mules, he discusses  
the terrain, the history of the places he passes, and the similarities/differences between his trip and those of the trail's original travelers.  Mormonism is mentioned often in his account because, as Buck notes:
"Reaching the Oregon Trail in Wyoming and not confronting the Mormon experience would be like reaching Paris and not studying the cathedrals.  You cannot understand one without the other" (262).
Addressing everything Buck writes about Mormons would take forever, so I just want to point out a couple passages.  His account of visiting Martin's Cove, a historical site owned by the LDS Church, is hilarious.  He makes some interesting points while telling a hysterical tale about his foul-mouthed brother trying to "put on his Mormon" for the visit.  Buck has his criticisms about how the Church acquired and runs the site, but the brothers' experience there made me laugh 'til I cried.

While Buck's comments about Martin's Cove were not entirely positive, his experience on Rocky Ridge—the highest point of the Mormon Trail and one made sacred because of the extreme hardship endured there by pioneers, especially during the 1856 crossing of the beleaguered Willie Handcart Company—made a believer out of him.  The fortuitous appearance of two "Mormon angels" just when the Buck brothers needed them in order to cross treacherous Rocky Ridge seemed to convince them that indeed, they trod on holy ground.  Of the experience, Buck wrote, "... I loved ... everything Mormon, that day on Rocky Ridge.  Indeed, standing with them on the high rocks, I was a Mormon. Today, on windy Rocky Ridge beneath a hard blue Wyoming sky, I was Mormon" (309).  It's a very touching account, the most memorable part of The Oregon Trail for me.

I haven't ever visited Martin's Cove or Rocky Ridge, but I still have a great respect and love for the pioneers whose blood and tears flowed freely over both.  These men and women—some my own kin—endured incredible hardships in the name of religious freedom.  In obeying the God they believed in with their whole hearts and souls, they blazed trails for all of us to follow.  Vital to the settling of not just Utah, but also much of the American west, the magnificence of their courage and sacrifice really can't be understated.        

(Book image from Barnes & Noble; handcart painting by Brent Flory)

Entertaining Travel Memoir a Delightful Journey

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I didn't make any reading resolutions this year, but if I had, one of them probably would have been to explore more non-fiction.  My fiction addiction is well documented; my (sort of) aversion to its opposite pretty obvious.  I wouldn't call myself a non-fiction hater—after all, I quite enjoy biographies, memoirs, pop psychology books, and interesting historical accounts.  Still, I have to push myself to read non-fiction.  And yet, when I first heard about The Oregon Trail, a travel memoir by Rinker Buck, I knew I had to read it.  Something about its premise just really appealed to me. Probably has something to do with growing up in the shadows of the famous trail and the fact that I'm a descendant of Mormon pioneers.  Even though the book's a long, sometimes plodding, ordeal, I found myself really enjoying the ride.

Buck, a journalist with a serious case of wanderlust, has always liked being on the move.  For a hypomaniac like him, it's a way to combat depression, to challenge himself, and to learn about new places.  Thus, trekking 2100 miles across the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon pulled by a team of mules appealed to Buck's sense of adventure.  With his foul-mouthed "Mainiac" of a brother beside him, along with Nick's smelly Jack Russell terrier, he spent several months traveling from St. Joseph's, Missouri, to Farewell Bend, Oregon, in a restored 19th Century Peter Schuller wagon. Although some 400,000 people traversed the Oregon Trail (which Buck points out was never a single trail, but a series of them) in the fifteen years before The Civil War, the last documented crossing was in 1909.  In the 102 years between then and 2011, when Buck made his journey, much of the original trail had disappeared, buried beneath modern freeways, farms, etc.  Retracing the pioneers' steps as closely as possible, then, was a daunting task.  Especially for a starry-eyed 60-year-old writer; his grizzled, cantankerous brother; and a pungent, high-maintenance canine. 

Although the Buck brothers occasionally took advantage of conveniences the pioneers never enjoyed (truck stop restrooms, icy fountain drinks, laundromats, etc.) and dealt with trials unknown to early travelers (like the "minivan morons" whose constant gawking caused all manner of problems), they encountered countless hardships early travelers knew all too well—inclement weather, broken wagon parts, bodily injury, spooked animals, boredom, exhaustion, rough trails, hunger, and more.  Through it all, though, Buck glories in the pleasant surprises they experienced on their journey, from the spectacular new vistas; to the strangers who became treasured friends; to the satisfying slumber that comes after a day of hard work; to a miraculous visit from Mormon angels.  Above all, Buck discovers a great truth about himself:
I had told myself that I was out on the trail seeking adventure, knowledge of an epic era of American history, proof that a modern crossing could still be done.  But now, as Kansas slowly passed by, with the clopping of hooves and the ringing of harness acting as a neuroenhancer, I knew that I was also out here seeking my past.  (97)
Some of Buck's ruminations get a little dull (the chapter on mules felt about 100 pages long), but overall, he's a talented yarn-spinner.  Despite its bulk, The Oregon Trail is a compelling book, one which is both entertaining and enlightening.  Funny, thoughtful, expansive, enjoyable, this intriguing travel memoir is all those things.  If you've ever wondered what it would be like to trek in the footsteps of the West's early settlers, you'll definitely want to grab yourself a copy of this funny, thoughtful, enjoyable memoir.  I, for one, found it delightful.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Oregon Trail from Changing Hands Bookstore, my local indie.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Realistic but Heartwarming Christmas Tale Can Be Enjoyed Any Time of the Year

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I know, I know!  We're closer to Easter than we are to Christmas, but since I didn't get around to reviewing this holiday story on December 25, I'm going to do it now, on February 25.  Better late than never, right? 

Home and Away, a short novel by Dean Hughes, takes place in the winter of 1944.  The Hayes Family is trying to make the best of the Christmas season, even while their oldest son fights for his life in Holland and Belgium.  Plagued with worry over her soldier son, money trouble on the home front, and her husband's constant drinking, Norma doesn't know how she'll get through the holiday, let alone make it special for her children.  Although she relies on the God in whom she has unyielding faith, life is difficult for the hardworking woman.  
Sixteen-year-old Dennis hates to see his mother so upset.  By taking extra shifts at the pharmacy where he works, he hopes to buy her a special present, something pretty just for her.  Dennis is unprepared for his father's harsh reaction to the gift, nor can he understand why his dad takes such exception to his youngest son.  

During a Christmas season like no other, the struggles of the Hayes Family put a serious damper on what should be the happiest time of year.  When they get alarming news from the front, they'll have to pull together to mend the cracks in their family's veneer.  Can they fix what's broken?  Or will Christmas 1944 be the ruin of them all?

As you can probably tell from the book's plot summary, Home and Away is not a cheesy, sentimental holiday story.  It's sweet, yes, but it has a lot more depth to it than you would expect.  The Hayes' are not a perfect family and, not surprisingly, they don't get a perfect ending.  Still, the novel is a hopeful one.  Tender and nostalgic, it captures the uncertainties of life, the realities of war, and the blessing of family, however imperfect it may be.  More realistic than many Christmas tales, Home and Away is a heartwarming historical tale that can be enjoyed any time of year (even in February).

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and racial slurs commonly used during the period (Jap, Kraut, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Home and Away from the generous folks at Grassroots Agency and Shadow Mountain.  Thank you!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Hyped-Up 5th Wave Just Okay for Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The Others have invaded Earth in four devastating waves of destruction.  Unlike 97% of Earth's population, 16-year-old Cassie Sullivan has managed to survive all of them.  Her parents were not so lucky.  Alone and terrified, she's making her careful way toward Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where she hopes to find her 5-year-old brother, Sammy.  With only an M16 and her own wits to keep her alive, Cassie must evade the Silencers that roam the destroyed landscape.  These "sleeper agents" look just like humans, but they're not people and they're certainly not friendly.  Therefore, she can't trust anyone.  No matter how benign they might appear.  

Evan Walker looks like your average 17-year-old boy.  He's not.  Even he doesn't understand why he takes the risk of rescuing Cassie Sullivan, but he does.  She doesn't want to trust him.  She shouldn't trust him.  But maybe the two can help each other navigate the dangerous world in which they now live.

In another world, "Zombie" was an average teenager, too.  Now, he's a soldier, training to stop the aliens and whatever horrors their 5th wave might unleash.  His recruits are a pathetic bunch, scared children even younger than Zombie.  Among them is a tiny 5-year-old boy, whom Zombie must teach to kill or be killed.

The fates of these three teenagers intersect in the strange, post-apocalyptic land that has become their new normal.  As they fight to save themselves and their world, they will learn some shocking truths about each other.  Despite their differences, they will have to come together to defeat an enemy bent on annihilating them once and for all.

Even though I've read about a million YA post-apocalyptic novels, many of which are unoriginal copycats, I'm still intrigued by this genre.  When I received an ARC of The 5th Wave, the first book in Rick Yancey's popular alien invasion series, a couple years ago, I naturally wanted to read it.  It took me awhile, but I finally got to it.  What did I think?  Although the book starts slow, it's got plenty of action which kept me turning pages.  The characters and plot offered nothing really new or original and there were few surprises I didn't see coming.  Considering all the hype that has surrounded this book since its publication, I expected it to knock my socks off and ... it really didn't.  It's an engrossing book, yes, but not an exceptional one.  Eventually, I'll get around to reading the sequels and seeing the movie—I'm just not in any big rush.  As you can tell, in the end, The 5th Wave was just an okay read for me.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a lot of the Partials series [Partials; Fragments; Ruins] by Dan Wells)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The 5th Wave from the generous folks at Putnam (a division of Penguin).  Thank you!

Emotional Me Before You Impossible to Get Out Of Your Heart and Mind

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

At 26, Louisa "Lou" Clark is more or less content with her life.  She has a steady job she enjoys, a long-time boyfriend with whom she's comfortable, and a close family that drives her crazy but provides her with a stable, loving home.  Everything is fine until the owner of the café where Lou works unexpectedly decides to close his business and move.  Money is tight at home; Lou can't afford not to work.  Try as she might, however, she can't find gainful employment in her tiny English village.  

At the end of her rope, Lou interviews for a job as a caregiver to a young, quadriplegic man.  Although she has no experience, her bright personality and positive attitude win her the position.  After all, Will Traynor already has a personal trainer to help him with his physical difficulties—what he needs (according to his mother, anyway) is someone to lift his spirits, to improve his emotional well-being.  Lou isn't one to back away from a challenge, but when she meets the acerbic Will, she's tempted to quit on the spot.  At first, it's only the obscene amount of money she's being paid that keeps Lou coming back.  Gradually, however, she comes to understand and care for moody Will.

When Lou makes a shocking discovery, she launches a desperate plan to show Will that life is worth living.  As she blunders along, she makes myriad mistakes, costly errors that only reinforce Will's view of his life as pointless.  Can Lou convince him he's wrong?  Can she prove to him how meaningful his existence can be?  Will her love be enough to save him?  

Despite all the rave reviews I'd seen for Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, it took me a long time to actually get to this novel.  I don't know why, since the story grabbed me right from the beginning and still hasn't quite loosened its hold.  It's a heart-wrenching tale (I bawled through the last 1/4 of the book), but one that is oddly life-affirming.  For a story that deals with very serious subjects, it's also surprisingly funny and tender.  Me Before You is one of those books that makes you think about things in a new way, making it a perfect book club read.  Even though the ending made me mad, I loved this book.  It's an emotional roller coaster ride that I still can't get out of my heart and mind.  I recommend you read it with a box of tissues standing by—trust me, you'll need it.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of One Plus One by Jojo Moyes and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, sexual content, and brief references to the use of illegal drugs

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, February 22, 2016

Wolf By Wolf Engrossing But Putdownable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In the alternate world of Ryan Graudin's newest novel, Wolf By Wolf, Adolf Hitler remains in power. The year is 1956 and the reclusive Führer rules Europe and half of Asia.  Despite nonagression pacts with other nations, he's eyeing the rest of the continents, discontent until the entire globe belongs to him.  For now, though, Hitler is celebrating.  The Axis Tour is an annual motorcycle race across Europe and Asia, an event that pits teens from Hitler Youth and the Great Japan Sincerity Association against each other in a televised spectacular that applauds the joint victories belonging to Hitler and the emperor of Imperial Japan.  The prize?  A meet-and-greet with the Führer himself.

Yael has one goal: kill Adolf Hitler.  The 17-year-old Jew blames the leader for the extermination of not just her family, but also her people.  A victim of death camp science experiments, she has evolved into a skinshifter.  Thanks to Nazi innovation, Yael can change at will almost everything about herself—height, weight, eye color, the timbre of her voice, etc.  With the blessing of the Resistance, she will use this power to impersonate the Tour's only female winner—Adele Wolfe.  She will use her comely disguise to win the race, lure an unguarded Hitler onto the dance floor, and kill the man who stole everything from her.  Failure is not an option.

As Yael begins the 20,780 kilometer race, which will take her from her home in Germania (formerly Berlin, the city is now the capital of the Third Reich) to the glittering metropolis of Tokyo, she begins to understand just how dangerous her mission really is.  Not only must she stay in character as Adele Wolfe at all times, but she must fend off the attention of her competitors (one of whom is Adele's twin brother), and survive the underhanded dealings of the other riders.  If Yael manages to emerge victorious, she still has to find the strength to murder the most powerful man in the world—and get away with the crime.  Does she truly have the cold-blooded conviction to do such a thing?  Will she even get a chance?  It all depends on a Jewish death camp survivor-in-disguise winning a grueling and vicious race ... does Yael have what it takes to fulfill the most daring mission in history?

I loved Ryan Graudin's last novel, The Walled City, for of its vivid setting, heart-pounding plot, and sympathetic characters.  This one, however, wasn't nearly as compelling.  Yael is most certainly sympathetic, but for some reason, I just didn't feel much connection with her.  Most of Wolf By Wolf's cast, in fact, seems underdeveloped to me.  I wanted more complexity from them, more depth.  Plot-wise, the novel is interesting and exciting.  Not thrilling enough for me to read in one sitting (which is how I devoured The Walled City), but still engrossing.  Overall, I liked Wolf By Wolf, didn't love it.  I don't know if I'll bother with the sequel (Blood for Blood comes out November 1, 2016) or not.  We'll see.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Mystery of Hollow Places A Breath of Fresh Air

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Aside from a mystical tale about her parents meeting over a dead body at the morgue, Imogene Scott knows little about her mother.  Only two facts stand out: Sidonie Scott suffered from depression and she left when Immy was just a toddler.  Since then, Immy has relied only on her father, a forensic anthropologist turned bestselling mystery writer.  Although her stepmother, Lindy, tries, she and Immy just don't see eye-to-eye.  So, when her father fails to come home one night, Immy is naturally distraught.  Prone to bi-polar episodes, Joshua Scott could be anywhere doing anything.  Because of a vague clue he left behind, Immy believes her father is searching for Sidonie, his one true love.  If she can track down her long-lost birth mother, she knows she'll find Joshua as well.  

Raised on a steady diet of mystery novels, Immy knows a thing or two about solving difficult puzzles.  Using methods gleaned from her favorite stories—including those written by her dad—she uses the few clues she has to follow the trails of her missing parents.  As she separates the facts from the fiction she's been told, Immy will make some shocking discoveries about her parents and herself.  The more that's revealed, the more she comes to appreciate her perfectly imperfect family, friendships, and future.  But, the answers to her deepest questions remain elusive—What happened to Joshua Scott?  Does Sidonie have anything to do with his disappearance?  Most importantly, why did Immy's mother abandon her?  And will Immy's already broken family ever be whole again?

Traditional-type mysteries are a rarity in the world of YA.  The Mystery of Hollow Places, a debut novel by Rebecca Podos, thus feels like a breath of fresh air, even though it's really not all that original.  Still, there's something to be said for a teen book that focuses more on a mystery than on a romance (or, God forbid, a love triangle) or petty high school dramas.  At its heart, The Mystery of Hollow Places is about Immy trying to find someone—not her parents, but herself.  All of these elements, plus the story's exciting, fast-paced plot, make it an enjoyable read.  I would have liked to encounter more twists in Immy's road to self-discovery (and mystery-solving), but overall, the book kept me both engrossed and entertained.  I'm anxious to see what Podos does next.

(Readalikes:  Elements of this novel reminded me of One By One by Jojo Moyes)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:



for language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder expletives); brief references to illegal drug use and underage drinking; and non-graphic references to sex

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mormon Mention: Kali Wallace

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 Shallow Graves, a debut novel by Kali Wallace, the main character—recently deceased Breezy Lim—is talking to a friend.  The topic under discussion is Mr. Willow, the leader of a cult who claims he can "fix" undead people like Breezy.  This exchange between Rain and Breezy occurs at the 30% mark in the e-ARC of Shallow Graves:  

"Is he as scary as they say?  I'm picturing the mutant offspring of Charles Manson and Ted Bundy."

"He looks like a middle-aged Mormon missionary," I said, and Rain laughed.  "I didn't realize he was famous."

- You'd be surprised at how many times book/movie characters are described as looking like Mormon missionaries.  Why?  Because that's probably the easiest, most visual way of conjuring an image of someone who has a clean-cut appearance.  The connotation of the phrase goes beyond that, though, indicating that the person is also honest, honorable, even innocent.  All of which Mormon missionaries should be.  Not only do they abide by strict dress and grooming standards (read more here), but they also adhere to an exacting code of personal worthiness.  If elders and sisters are doing their best to live by these standards, then they are, in fact, clean, virtuous, and worthy of serving as the Lord's ambassadors.    

(Book image from Barnes & Noble; missionary image from nearingkolob.com)

Shallow Graves An Engrossing Read But Not a Remarkable One

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Breezy Lim knows she's dead.  Waking up in a shallow grave a year after being forced into it will bring a person to that most logical of conclusions.  What the 17-year-old cannot quite remember is how she died.  She's also a little disconcerted by the new superpower she seems to have picked up—she can feel when someone has committed murder.  Even more disturbing is the fact that she wants to take her own revenge on these killers; doing so makes her un-dead heart throb with life.  Still, the last thing Breezy wants is to be some kind of zombie hitman.  All she really wants is normality, to go back to being an average teenage girl in an ordinary world.  

Instead, Breezy's living in some kind of shadowy, in-between place where monsters roam in plain sight.  She should feel powerful, but she knows she's being hunted by Mr. Willow, a cult leader who claims to be able to "fix" people like Breezy.  On the run, she's not sure where to go or whom to trust.  She only knows she wants revenge on her would-be captor.  In the meantime, she must figure out how to make a life out of her waking death.  With help from some unlikely allies, she might be able to do just that.  

Shallow Graves, a haunting debut novel by Kali Wallace, is difficult to describe.  Its premise lacks originality, but the story feels compelling nonetheless.  The plot seems a little direction-less and yet, it kept me reading.  Overall, the novel is quick and exciting, but not particularly memorable.  A weird dichotomy.  Although Shallow Graves does make some good points about choosing your own path, it didn't leave me feeling wowed or even satisfied, really.  In the end, I found it an engrossing read, just not a remarkable one.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of The Body Finder series [The Body Finder; Desires of the Dead; The Last Echo; and Dead Silence] by Kimberly Derting)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, and brief, non-graphic references to sex

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

Quick, Quirky Reading Revolution Novel An Enjoyable Romp

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


For Lucy Jordan and her two BFFs, the summer that stretches between the end of their 8th grade year and the start of high school is a strange, in-between time.  The long, languid hours deserve to be filled with something different, something epic.  Still reeling from the sudden death of Fat Bob, a favorite teacher, the trio decide to honor him by promoting his favorite book, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  They hatch a plan to "relocate" copies of the classic novel at every bookstore and library they can hit.  If there's a Mockingbird scarcity, they reason, it will drum up interest in the book.  Since the friends won't be doing anything illegal—they're encouraging people to read, after all—it seems like a no-fail plan.

Not surprisingly, Lucy, Elena, and Michael discover they've bitten off way more than they can chew.  Between their relocation hijinks and the social media campaign they've launched, they've created a literary rebellion.  Worried about being found out, Lucy also has to deal with her mother's cancer and her budding romance with Michael.  As everything comes to a head, she'll have to come to terms with all the worries that plague her, including the biggie that looms just around the corner—high school.  And then there's the reading revolution she's inadvertently caused ...

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora is a quick, quirky ode to the power of the written word.  It's funny, uplifting, and hopefully, encouraging.  Although they act a little too mature for their age (what modern teenager throws around references to Driving Miss Daisy and Johannes Gutenberg?), the kids at the center of the novel are sympathetic and interesting.  Their plight makes for a compelling story that's refreshingly upbeat.  I loved its focus on books and reading.  Book nerds everywhere will agree: this fun, easy read should be on everyone's TBR list.  You don't need to be a Mockingbird fan (but you should be) to enjoy this entertaining novel.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Warm-Hearted White Novel Familiar Fare—With a Twist

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Two years ago, Merritt Heyward's firefighter husband died while on the job.  His sudden death left her fighting a slew of emotions, among them sadness, regret, guilt, and relief.  When the 33-year-old widow receives shocking news from Cal's family lawyer, she's hit with another one: confusion.  Although they were married for seven years, Cal never spoke of his past.  Not a word.  Merritt's stunned to find out that he hailed from a small Lowcountry town, where his ancestral home—built in 1791—still stands.  Not only that, but upon the recent death of Cal's grandmother, the historic structure now belongs to Merritt.  

Needing a change of scenery, Merritt packs up her life in Maine and heads to tiny Beaufort, South Carolina, with the intention of making her home there.  It matters little to her that her inheritance is a crumbling mansion, barely habitable and stuffed with the possessions of an elderly recluse, who perished on the premises.  Merritt's intrigued by the place, especially knowing that the secrets to her husband's mysterious past cower somewhere in the dusty corners of his childhood home.  Desperate to understand the man she married but hardly knew, Merritt vows to uncover the truths he kept hidden deep within the confines of his broken, embittered heart.  

Although Merritt desires only to be left alone, she soon realizes that's impossible in a tiny Southern town like Beaufort.  First, there's Gibbes.  Handsome and kind, Cal's younger brother is nothing like her deceased husband.  In spite of herself, Merritt finds herself drawn to the sensitive pediatrician.  Then, there's Loralee Connors, who shows up out of nowhere with every intention of staying.  Merritt can't stand to be around her chirpy 36-year-old stepmother for an hour, let alone months on end.  She doesn't care how down-and-out Loralee must be, there's no way Merritt's letting her stay.  If it weren't for Owen, Merritt's pitiful 10-year-old stepbrother, she would have kicked Loralee to the curb weeks ago ... 

Even with these newest complications, Merritt pushes forward with her investigation of the Heyward Family.  What she discovers is as enlightening as it is shocking and devastating.  As she fits together the pieces of her husband's dark history, she finds some surprising truths about herself as well.  With her own heart thawing, Merritt realizes that the hurts of the past don't have to dictate a painful future.  In fact, forgiveness may be the key to the kind of happiness she's only ever dreamed about having ... 

I've enjoyed a number of novels by Karen White.  They usually involve Southern settings, family secrets, and plots that flip flop between the past and the present—my favorite literary devices.  So, when the good folks at Berkley/NAL offered me a copy of White's 2015 release, The Sound of Glass, I enthusiastically accepted.  The story gave me everything I've come to expect from this author—an atmospheric setting; a compelling mystery; and an engaging, warm-hearted reading experience.  I didn't care as much for the characters in this one, however; they felt cliché.  Merritt especially annoyed me with her whiny selfishness.  Still, I enjoyed the book overall.  While similar to White's other unexpected-news-brings-woman-home-to-make-peace-with-her-family/past books, The Sound of Glass has an intriguing subplot that gives it a unique spin.  It's not my favorite of White's novels (that would be The Memory of Water), true, but it definitely kept me engaged.  In the end, it's an uplifting story about healing, surviving, and clinging to what matters most.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other novels by Karen White, including Falling Home; A Long Time Gone; The Beach Trees; The Memory of Water; and The Lost Hours)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Sound of Glass from the generous folks at Berkley/NAL (an imprint of Penguin).  Thank you!

Despite Compelling Set-Up, The Gates of Evangeline Leaves Something to Be Desired

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Still grieving the sudden loss of her young son, journalist Charlotte "Charlie" Cates begins dreaming of children in danger.  Haunted by the vivid images, the 38-year-old realizes they're not caused by the desperate longings of her broken heart—the kids she's seeing are real.  And they need her help.  Of course, it's not that easy to figure out the confusing dreams, nor to convince others she's not completely insane.

When Charlie sees visions of a young boy in a boat on the bayou, she knows he's reaching out to her from the past.  A little research leads her to Evangeline, a Louisiana plantation owned by the illustrious Deveau family.  On the pretense of writing an article about their historic home, Charlie stays on-site, interviewing family members but secretly looking into the case of Gabriel Deveau.  The 2-year-old disappeared from his locked-from-the-outside bedroom almost 30 years ago.  Charlie's dreams indicate that someone in the present knows what happened to the toddler.  The more she gets to know the Deveaus, the more she sees the cracks and fissures that mar their relationships with each other.  She doesn't want any of them to be involved in whatever happened to Gabriel, but one of them knows exactly what happened.  It's just a matter of getting them to talk ...

While she's sifting through the skeletons in Evangeline's closets, Charlie's growing closer to Noah Palmer, a divorced landscaper who's working on the plantation's grounds.  Although she still aches for the child she lost, she realizes that maybe it's finally possible for her to start rebuilding her life.  But the closer she gets to the truth about Gabriel, the more danger stalks her every move.  Will she live long enough to find happiness again?  Or will she, too, disappear behind the gates of Evangeline?

You've probably noticed that I'm a sucker for a premise which involves a Southern town, an old house, and some juicy family secrets.  A set-up like that is always going to draw me in.  The Gates of Evangeline, the first book in a planned trilogy by Hester Young, did just that.  While I found the mystery at its center compelling enough, the characters (who seemed mostly flat and cliché) left something to be desired as did the plot (which felt a bit too obvious).  I guessed some of the story's "twists" (though not all) too early, which left me wanting a storyline with more depth and nuance.  Overall, though, I enjoyed the book.  It didn't blow me away or anything, but I'm definitely up for reading the next installment in the series.  

(Readalikes:  I feel like I've read a million books like this one, but nothing's coming to my sleepy mind.  Suggestions?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (two F-bombs plus milder expletives), violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, February 12, 2016

Redemptive and Real, One By One Is a Gem of a Novel

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A single mom, Jess Thomas struggles every day to make ends meet.  Her husband, from whom she's been separated for two years, fights depression and is unable to hold a job.  The little money Jess makes from working two part-time jobs has to stretch far enough to support herself, her 10-year-old daughter Tanzie, and her moody teenage stepson, Nicky.  So, when an incredible educational opportunity for Tanzie, a maths prodigy, arrives, Jess is heartbroken that she doesn't have the funds to take it.  A competition that could solve the problem provides a bit of a silver lining, except Jess isn't sure how she's going to transport her family all the way to Scotland.  The unfairness of it all is breaking her already battered heart.

Enter Ed Nicholls, an arrogant 33-year-old tech millionaire, who's also one of Jess' cleaning clients.  Under investigation for insider trading, he's watching his posh, successful life go down the drain.  In a move completely inconsistent with his personality, an unselfish act he doesn't quite understand himself, Ed agrees to drive Jess, Tanzie, Nicky, and their stinky dog, Norman, to Scotland.  Disgusted with the motley crew assembled in his luxury vehicle, he's sorely tempted to leave them all by the roadside.  But something about the eternally optimistic Jess and her desperate situation touches his stone cold heart.  As the miles slip by, his own troubles take a back burner, and he finds himself warming to the quartet in his care.  

But, what will happen when the road trip bubble bursts and reality seeps in again?  Will Tanzie win the competition, thus gaining entrance to the elite school she so desires to attend?  Will Jess be able to carry on?  Will Ed go to prison?  The closer the group gets to Scotland, the more the tension builds.  When everything blows up in their faces, as it inevitably does, what will happen to our heroes?  

Warm and authentic, One By One by Jojo Moyes, is a gem of a novel.  It's funny, it's sad, it's real, it's redemptive.  I laughed, I cried, I smiled, I cheered.  Seriously, I loved this book for so many different reasons—its engrossing, compelling plot; its complex, sympathetic characters; its upbeat, affable tone; etc.  Really, everything about it.  I've heard many readers rave about Jojo Moyes.  Now, I'm adding my voice to theirs.  Moyes is brilliant and I can't wait to read more from this talented English writer.  

(Readalikes:  Moyes' writing reminds me of Liane Moriarty's, although the former's has a little bit more of an edge to it.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, sexual content, and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Despite Heavy Themes, Prince Street Is Both Balanced and Bolstering

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Seventeen years ago, two drunk teenage girls were in a car accident.  One died, one survived.  Plagued with guilt for killing her best friend, Lisa Smyth spent the next few years drowning her sorrows in copious amounts of wine and booze.  Grief-stricken by the death of her older sister, Jennifer, good girl Rae McDonald made a string of poor decisions, which ended with her pregnant at 16.  After placing her baby for adoption, Rae sealed off her emotions, vowing never to let her life spin out of control again.  Now 32, she's a family therapist widely known to have a heart of stone.  Rae thinks she has put the past firmly behind her, but when Lisa returns to Alexandria, her arrival stirs up all kinds of buried emotions.  An out-of-the-blue e-mail from her biological son creates its own whirlwind, turning Rae's rigidly ordered life completely upside down.

As if Rae didn't have enough to worry about already, an enthusiastic salvage artist and local history buff has unearthed artifacts relating to the McDonalds' long history in Alexandria.  The woman's research brings up even more secrets from the past, making Rae wonder if her family has been cursed from the moment they stepped foot on American soil.  Lisa's kin have been likewise unlucky.  As the vagabond wet-plate photographer struggles to find her place in Alexandria while caring for her ailing aunt, she'll discover startling truths about herself as well.  Like how fragile is her control over her alcoholism, despite the many sobriety chips hanging from her keychain ...  

Can the two women come together despite the still-raw pain that looms between them?  Can they break the curses of the past to create a healthier, happier future?  Or are they doomed to live lives as solitary and painful as those of their ancestors?  

The View From Prince Street by Mary Ellen Taylor is a warm-hearted novel about fighting fate by taking control of your past, present and future.  A tribute to friendship and forgiveness, it's also about finding and facing hard truths.  Despite its heavy themes, the story feels not oppressive, but balanced.  True, I would have liked the setting to come alive a little more.  I would have also enjoyed better development of the male characters in the book.  Tighter plotting (the novel often seemed overly long) would have been good as well.  Overall, though, The View From Prince Street is a pleasant, uplifting read that both intrigued and entertained me.  

(Readalikes:  This book often refers to characters from Taylor's other novels set in Alexandria.  Although I haven't read any of them, I would assume The View from Prince Street is similar to The Union Street Bakery; At the Corner of King Street; and Sweet Expectations)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The View From Prince Street from the generous folks at Berkley Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House).  Thank you!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Psychological Thriller Suspenseful Despite Lack of Surprises

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An up-and-coming stage director, Alex Morris' life takes a tragic turn after her fiancé is stabbed to death while trying to defend a stranger.  Overcome by grief, the 26-year-old is in desperate need of a change—of scenery, of career, of everything that reminds her of Luke.  A friend offers her a job in Edinburgh teaching drama to students at a last-chance high school.  Alex is as overqualified for the position as she is underqualified; although she has plenty of acting/directing experience, she's never taught school before.  Though petrified, she vows to do her best.  

Alex's most challenging class consists of five prickly teens who refuse to cooperate with anything she says.  It's not until she lets them choose which Greek dramas to study that the kids start to take an interest.  Feeling triumphant, Alex fails to recognize just how seriously her students are taking their learning until a shocking tragedy occurs.  What actually happened?  And who is truly at fault?  

Written from two perspectives—Alex's and that of a student whose identity is revealed only at the end of the story—The Furies by Natalie Haynes is a well-plotted psychological thriller.  Not a particularly surprising one, but it's a solid, suspenseful read nonetheless.  Dark and depressing, the novel tells a sad, somber tale of grief and obsession.  As compelling as the book is, I didn't mourn its end—by the time I finished The Furies, I was more than happy to move on to something lighter.  

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Furies from the generous folks at St. Martin's Griffin.  Thank you!

Monday, February 08, 2016

Vivid Historical Novel About Little Known Maritime Disaster A Harrowing, Haunting Read

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January 1945—World War II is ending in East Prussia, with the merciless Russian Army pushing the bloodthirsty Germans back toward Berlin.  Desperate to evacuate, thousands of refugees flee toward the Polish coast, frantic to board ships that will whisk them away to safety.  Enduring brutal winter weather conditions, the frayed tempers of war-weary soldiers from two different armies, and the deadly effects of disease and starvation, the refugees are in dire straits.  Salvation waits in the form of a re-purposed German pleasure cruiser called the M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff.  But fate will not be kind to the ship, nor to her passengers ...

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys tells the largely unknown story of the unlucky refugees who strove so hard to leave East Prussia only to become victims of one of the greatest maritime disasters in history.  The tale unfolds through the voices of four distinct narrators, all from different backgrounds, all with something to hide.  There's Joana (a cousin to Lina from Between Shades of Gray), a 21-year-old Lithuanian nurse who's evacuating without official orders; Florian Beck, a Prussian on the run with a treasure stolen from the Führer; Emilia Stozek, a pregnant Polish girl with no papers; and Alfred Frick, a German sailor who dreams of proving his greatness.  As the lives of the first three intersect, they'll learn astonishing truths about each other—about who they've become and what they've done in the name of survival.  Although wary of trusting anyone at all, the three will come to need each other more than they could have ever imagined.  Alfred, who is so eager to prove himself, will get the chance.  But will he succeed or fail? 

When the fates of all four narrators intersect aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, the quartet must once again battle for their own survival.  Some will prove themselves heroes, others cowards.  At the end of the day, will any of them be among the meager survivors?  Or will their efforts to reach Gotenhafen be in vain, their bodies committed forever to a watery grave?

If you've read Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys' first novel, you already know the author is a master at creating vivid, affecting prose.  That gift is never more evident than in Salt to the Sea, her third novel (which is a companion to her first).  Not only does she create a cold, terrifying setting that feels like a nightmare come to life, but she also forms intriguing, complex characters that help us see the horrors of war from four different points of view.  Both are extremely effective devices which combine to make Salt to the Sea a rich, deeply moving tale.  So much of the story is brutal and bleak, but it's also surprisingly buoyant and bolstering.  It's been a couple months since I read this book, but I'm still haunted by it.  One of my favorite reads of 2015, Salt to the Sea is a rich, moving novel that simply cannot be missed.  

Note:  Considering the fact that 9,000+ people (more than three times the number who perished on the Titanic and Lusitania combined) died in the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster, it's amazing that I'd never heard of the boat until reading Salt to the Sea.  The story is a fascinating one, tragic and true.  If you'd like to read more about it, try www.wilhelmgustloff.com and wilhelmgustloffmuseum.com.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-galley of Salt to the Sea from the generous folks at Penguin via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Middle Grade Magical Realism Novel Fat With Wisdom

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For Priscilla, Marla, Eleanor and Astrid, dealing with their mother's alcoholism and violent mood swings is just a way of life.  They're used to it.  But when the girls move with their parents into their mother's childhood home in New Hampshire, things grow even more difficult.  The worst thing of all is that Priscilla's older sisters are hiding something from her.  At eleven, they think she's too young to know what's going on around her.  Which is ridiculous.  "Silly" is just her nickname—Priscilla knows her mother is sick, knows her sisters are up to something, and knows she wants to be part of it.

When Silly is finally let in on the big secret, she's dumbfounded.  The closets in the girls' new home are doorways that lead to fantastical worlds, beckoning them far away from the harsh realities of their real lives.  Best of all, Silly is able to manipulate the closet magic in ways her sisters can't.  Finally, she's getting the kind of attention she's always wanted from her older siblings.  Silly could stay in her own magical world forever!  When she discovers a scary truth about the closets, however, she begins to fear for herself and her family.  Will the mind-boggling wizardry that's bringing the sisters together be the very thing that tears them apart?  Can Silly save them all before it's too late?

Rules for Stealing Stars by Corey Ann Haydu is a tender story about a family that's falling apart at the seams.  It's impossible not to sympathize with the girls at its center as they struggle to deal with their unpredictable mother.  While the reader will cheer when the sisters find a happy escape from their unhappy lives, she will also realize the importance of their reemergence.  After all, despite its actual thickness, this is a novel fat with wisdom.  As sad as it is, Rules for Stealing Stars teaches some great lessons about facing problems, finding good in even the most difficult circumstances, and working together to create solutions that work, even if they're not perfect.  Although it's a little depressing, this is a poignant gem that will touch readers old and young.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for scary scenes and serious subjects (alcoholism, death, parental neglect/abuse, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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