Thursday, March 31, 2016

Middle Grade WWII Story Heart-Wrenching, Hard to Forget

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Unlike the children she watches from the window of her London flat, 10-year-old Ada Smith has never gone outside.  Because of the club foot with which Ada was born, Ada's mother calls her a "cripple" and insists she stay inside where no one can see her shameful deformity.  There's nothing Ada wants more than to flee her filthy, roach-infested apartment; escape from her mother's cruel taunting; and run around outside with friends.  Her little brother gets that privilege every day; it's difficult not to envy 6-year-old Jamie his freedom.  

When the fear of German bombs dropping on London starts propelling concerned parents to send their children out of the city, Ada seizes the opportunity to forge a new life for herself and her brother.  But Mam will only agree to send Jamie away.  Refusing to be left behind, Ada sneaks out to join him.  Soon, the siblings find themselves in the Kent countryside under the care of Susan Smith, a lonely spinster who insists she isn't fit to be their guardian.  And yet, Ada and Jamie thrive under her watchful eye.  

As the months fly by and London remains untouched, children are being sent back home.  That's the last thing Ada and Jamie want.  Can they hold on to the stable, peace-filled life they know with Susan or will they be forced to go back to the miserable squalor that used to be all they knew?  

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is the heart-wrenching story of a young girl's triumph over abuse.  As Ada rises above her pitiable circumstances, tackling every obstacle in her path with courage and compassion, she comes to realize that strength of character has nothing to do with physical appearances.  For the first time in her life, she knows that not only is her twisted foot nothing to be ashamed of, but also that it doesn't have to keep her from living a life that is as full and happy as anyone else's.  Chock-full of important lessons, The War that Saved my Life is a poignant tale that preaches acceptance and love as antidotes to overcoming adversity of all kinds.  It's a different kind of WWII story, not my absolute favorite, but one I've found difficult to forget.  

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing's really coming to mind.  Suggestions?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and disturbing subject matter (child abuse/neglect, the horrors of war, discrimination against the disabled, etc.).  Homosexuality is also alluded to, albeit vaguely.

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Timeless LDS Romance Tells an Uplifting, Inspiring Story

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Cal Morgan and Kate Clayton first meet in eighth grade, the sparks immediately began to fly.  At least for Cal.  As the years go by, the shy farm boy continues to pine after the dark beauty even as she climbs up the social ladder to a rung far beyond his reach.  It's only in his 20s, following three years as an LDS missionary, that Cal begins to suspect he might actually have a chance with the vivacious Kate.  Even though her parents' long-ago divorce has made Kate leery of commitment, Cal can think of no one he'd rather have as his wife.  He's prepared to court her for as long as it takes, but there's one big obstacle standing in his way: war.  Can Cal make it out of the conflict alive?  If so, will Kate be waiting for him upon his return?  Can their love survive the horrors of war?  Can Cal?

Inspired by a true story, By the Stars, a debut novel by Lindsay B. Ferguson, tells of a sweet romance that blossoms between two ordinary people living in extraordinary times.  Although the war chapters get a little gruesome, the tale is, on the whole, a gentle one.  It's a clean, inspiring story that promotes faith, fidelity, and focusing on the good even when surrounded by evil.  By the Stars is a timeless tale, the sort you can hand to your teenager or your grandmother without worrying about offending the delicate sensibilities of either one.  All the characters in the book are likable, especially our hero and heroine.  Both are wholesome, kind-hearted souls; it's easy to root for their happiness.    

The thing is, though, it's a little too easy.  Because of the book's Prologue, we know the answers to most of the questions I posed in the first paragraph of this review before Cal even starts telling his story.  This makes the novel feels very predictable, even dull in spots.  I kept waiting for twists and turns, a little suspense to throw the couple's HEA into question, something to make me wonder and worry about their relationship's future.  While the action definitely picks up when Cal ships off to war, the first 200 pages or so of By the Stars really dragged for me.  It doesn't help that Ferguson's prose is much more tell-y than show-y.  Or that the text is liberally peppered with typos, misused words (poignantly and pointedly, for example) and errors.  The author assures me all of these will be fixed in the electronic/Kindle version of the novel as well as future print runs, which is good because they are definitely irritating and distracting in a "finished" book.

Overall, I think By the Stars has good bones.  It really is an endearing tale, especially because it's based on a real love story.  In fact, it reads like a memoir, which may be a better format for it than a novel.  To work well as fiction, I think the story needs much more dynamic prose; a focused, less episodic plot; better pacing; and more depth/nuance.  For me, as is, it's just an okay read.


Note:  Although I always try to write balanced reviews, my style still tends toward the brutal.  I know this, you know this.  Since my opinion isn't the only one that matters (Shocking, I know!), be sure to check out other reviews for By the Stars at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads.  You can also follow along on the book's blog tour:

March 8: My Book a Day | Write Writing Written | New LDS Fiction
March 9: Robyn Echols | Rambling Reviews
March 10: Bookworm Lisa | Totally Obsessed
March 11:
March 12: Novel-ties | Books R Us
March 13: Read Between the Bindings | This Mormon Life
March 14: Marianne Sciucco | Clean Romance Reviews
March 15: LDS & Lovin’ It | Emmy Mom
March 16: I Am a Reader
March 17: Getting Your Read On
March 18: Mel’s Shelves | The Things I Love Most | From Eeka’s Eyes
March 19: Singing Librarian Books | Inklings and Notions
March 20: Ashley Ziegler | Jorie Loves a Story
March 21: Katie’s Clean Book Collection | My Little Sunshines
March 22: Aubrey Zaruba | Making Life a Bliss Complete | The Random Book Blogger
Books Are Sanity | Fire and Ice
March 23: Becky’s Book Reviews | Rockin’ Book Reviews
March 24: My Reading Spot
March 25: September Fawkes
March 26: Wanna Be Balanced Mom
March 27: Compass Book Ratings | Wishful Endings
March 28: Blooming with Books
March 29: Jorie Loves a StoryMarch 30: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and a few respectful references to sex

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of By the Stars from the generous folks at Cedar Fort.  Thank you!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Alternate History Soldier Girls Series Off to an Intriguing Start

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

On September 16, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act into law.  While military conscription had occurred in The United States before, this was the first time it had happened during peacetime.  The law required all men between the ages of 21 and 35 to register for the draft.  As the probability of the U.S. entering World War II became more evident, the law was expanded to include all men between the ages of 18 and 45.  Females were not included.  

But what if they had been?  

What if women were not only required to register for the draft, but also allowed to voluntarily join the military and serve in combat roles?  What if they, like their male counterparts, were given the chance to prove themselves on the front lines during World War II?  How would it have changed things, both during the conflict and afterward?  

These are the questions asked in Front Lines, the first novel in a new alternate history YA series by Michael Grant.  In it, we're introduced to three ordinary women whose lives change irrevocably because of a 1940 ruling which allows them to enlist in the military.  Two years later, 16-year-old Rio Richlin, a farmer's daughter from California, lies about her age in order to sign up.  Not only does she want revenge against the enemies who killed her soldier sister, but she wants to do her part to serve her country.  Frangie Marr, a 17-year-old black girl from Oklahoma, wants to be a doctor.  It's a pipe dream, of course, but one she might be able to realize—to some degree, at least—by getting medic training and experience in the Armed Forces.  Besides, her family desperately needs the money she can earn as a soldier.  Knowing her double minority status will make her a particularly vulnerable target, Frangie signs up anyway.  Rainy Schulterman, an 18-year-old Jewish woman from New York City's Lower East Side, wants her chance to outwit the Nazis who are systematically murdering her people in Europe.  Training to be an intelligence officer is a challenging but fulfilling way to use her smarts against the seemingly unstoppable enemy.  

As Rio, Frangie, and Rainy make their way through enlistment, boot camp, advanced training, and war itself, they'll find challenges and difficulties around every corner.  Not only will they battle flagrant discrimination, but they'll also endure the pain, fatigue, fear, homesickness, and self-doubt that plagues every soldier.  Along the way, however, they'll discover the vast potential that lies within each of them—and the courage to unfurl it in defense of the country they love.

I'm always intrigued by World War II novels, especially those written for teens.  The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys all stand out as excellent stories that bring the conflict, with all its inherent drama, to life.  Even among these titles, though, Front Lines stands out.  Its unique premise makes it different from the rest.  While the story itself may not be all that original, Grant keeps it exciting by throwing plenty of conflict into the characters' paths.  The front lines action doesn't begin until 3/4 of the way through the book, but the first 300 pages still managed to keep my attention.  More or less.  Yes, it feels long in places and no, it isn't as mesmerizing as I wanted it to be, but I still enjoyed Front Lines.  I'm looking forward to the next installment.


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, blood/gore, language (no F-bombs—the word "fug" is used as a substitute), and sensuality/sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Front Lines by Michael Grant from the generous folks at HarperCollins.  Thank you!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Unique Calvin Stands Out in the Contemporary YA Crowd—In A Very Good Way

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Now I was seventeen and a tiger was talking to me and I wasn't scared of the monsters under the bed.  I was scared of the monster in the bed, which was me" (13).  

It's not like it's an overly common name, Calvin.  So, it can't be a coincidence, can it, that Calvin has always felt connected to the old comic, Calvin and Hobbes?  After all, he was born on the day Bill Watterson published the last strip, his favorite toy used to be a stuffed Hobbes (until his mom washed it to death), and his best friend (okay, his only friend) is a girl named Susie.  Creepiest of all is that Hobbes has returned, only now he's a walking, talking, full-blown delusion that Calvin can't shake no matter how hard he tries.  Calvin realizes it's not normal for a 17-year-old boy to have an imaginary friend.  'Course, schizophrenia isn't exactly commonplace among his high school peers, either.  Question is, how is he supposed to deal with a mental illness as terrifying as the one that's taking over his mind?

First things first: Calvin has to ditch the delusive cat.  As far as he can see, there's only one way to do that.  If he can convince Bill Watterson to write one more Calvin and Hobbes story—this one sans Hobbes—the imaginary feline will disappear from existence.  Writing to the comic's creator hasn't worked, so Calvin's taking his plea to Watterson's front door.  It will mean tramping across frozen Lake Erie with a girl who may or may not be real, but Calvin is determined to stop a figment of his imagination from taking over his life.

Can his foolhardy plan really work?  Can he accomplish something so daunting, especially when he's not sure if the trek is happening for real or just inside his muddled brain?  In his desperation to find a cure for his schizophrenia, has Calvin doomed not just himself but his only friend as well?

True originality is not a quality often found in contemporary YA literature.  That's one of the reasons Calvin by Martine Leavitt is such a gem.  With a unique premise, an otherworldly setting, and an intriguing blend of adventure, humor, and psychological thriller, it's definitely different from the norm.  Which is a good thing.  A very, very good thing.  At less than 200 pages, it's a quick read but a surprisingly complex one.  Both tender and touching, Calvin is appealing, absorbing, and absolutely unforgettable.  Destined to be a sleeper hit, this is one contemporary YA novel you don't want to miss.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for scenes of peril and vague references to sex

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Action-Packed Survival Story Perfect for Reluctant Readers

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Davey Tsering isn't really a beach person.  Still, the 13-year-old landlubber is not going to waste his first day on a remote island in the Florida Keys sleeping in!  That might be some people's idea of fun (his parents and little brother, for instance), but Davey's got a better plan.  Packing along his favorite Tolkien fantasy, he sneaks out of the hotel room to find a secluded reading spot.  Figuring he'll be back before his family wakes up, he doesn't bother to leave a note.  Davey finds a perfect stretch of hidden beach and settles in for a quiet, leisurely morning of reading—just him and his buddy, J.R.R.

The faded No Swimming sign on his beach doesn't bother Davey as he has no intention of swimming.  He's just going to wade a bit to cool off.  What he doesn't count on is the tide coming in or the fierce undertow that yanks him off his feet.  Suddenly, he's floundering in deep water, unable to swim back to shore.  Davey prays for rescue, but as the hours drag on, his hope fades.  If no one knows where he is, how will they ever find him?  As he fights to stay afloat, alert, and away from ocean predators, the most deadly of sea creatures start to circle ...

Surrounded by Sharks by Michael Northrop is the kind of book that turns reluctant readers into repeat library customers.  It's a tense, action-packed story that will keep kids riveted.  This fast-paced survival story shows how ordinary people can display extraordinary courage in the face of impossible difficulties.  It also teaches some subtle lessons about responsibility, making smart choices, and respecting nature's awesome, unexpected power.  Mostly, though, Surrounded by Sharks is just an exciting, breath-stealing yarn.  Not only will kids enjoy the tale, but they might learn something from it—for instance, did you know the scent of human urine is just as enticing to a shark as blood?  I had no idea.  Recommend Surrounded by Sharks to the reluctant reader in your life; they'll be mesmerized by it, guaranteed.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of I Survived: The Shark Attacks of 1916 by Lauren Tarshis and a little of the YA novel Sharks & Boys by Kristen Tracy)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, blood/gore, and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Southern Kate Morton-ish Saga Not As Satisfying As I'd Hoped

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Hope Stevens doesn't have a lot of reason to stick around Chicago.  Her marriage is done, her part-time job at a graphic design firm is going nowhere, and she's feeling bruised all over.  It's a perfect opportunity for the 31-year-old painter to get away, to recharge somewhere far from the stress of her everyday life.  In little Wedding Tree, Louisiana, Hope's beloved grandmother needs help after being hospitalized from a bad fall.  The 91-year-old can't be left alone.  Hope volunteers not just to stay by her side, but also to help the elderly woman clean out her cluttered home so she can move in with her son in California.  

Adelaide McCauley welcomes her granddaughter's help and company.  Especially since Adelaide's mother has made it clear (from beyond the grave, no less) that Adelaide will not be "crossing over" until she's spilled the shocking secret she's been guarding for most of her life.  The old woman can't just blurt it out, so she begins at the beginning, telling Hope all about her World War II romance with a man who wasn't her husband.  Adelaide dreads the story's end, terrified that the heartbreaking truth will change the warm friendship that's blossoming between herself and Hope.  

The relationship with her grandmother isn't the only one that's blooming for Hope.  She's become enmeshed in the lives of her neighbors, a handsome attorney and his two young daughters.  Although Hope is sure Matt sees her the way everyone else seems to—as a ditzy, impulsive screw-up—she's falling in love with him in spite of her best intentions not to.  Does Hope dare to pursue a romance that has no chance of lasting?  Can she learn her grandmother's secrets before it's too late?  Will the floundering Hope find herself in Wedding Tree or will she leave town as heartbroken as when she came?

When I read the plot summary for The Wedding Tree by Robin Wells, I thought, "Ooooh, sounds like a contemporary Southern version of a Kate Morton novel."  As you can probably imagine, that idea had me practically salivating.  I adore multi-generational family sagas, especially those set in the South, so I expected to love this one.  Why didn't I?  It just lacked a little something for me.  Weird considering The Wedding Tree is, overall, a happy, upbeat novel about forgiveness and renewal.  Hope and Adelaide are both interesting women, sympathetic but spunky.  Their voices give the story a funny, engaging tone that makes it enjoyable, despite sometimes difficult subject matter.  What is missing from the novel, then?  Well, subtlety.  And conflict.  And suspense.  More of all three would have made the story richer, more substantial.  The tale gets too predictable, wrapping up in a way I found anti-climactic.  As a whole, I enjoyed this light read, just not as much as I wanted to.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of a Kate Morton novel [because of its premise, not its prose] or one of Karen White's Southern family sagas)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs) and some surprisingly graphic sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Wedding Tree from the generous folks at Berkley/NAL (a division of Penguin Random House).  Thank you!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Magical Middle Grade Adventure Story Engaging, Engrossing

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In a land now torn apart by war, the mountain stronghold of Ortana remains neutral.  The home of the archivists—educated men and women who devote their lives to studying and preserving the strange, otherworldly objects that fall through the sky during meteor storms—it's meant to be a place of learning, a place of peace.  The leaders of Ortana are sheltering refugees, but they refuse to choose sides in the fight between other nations.  At least that's what they tell the citizens.  As it turns out, Ortana may not be as uninvolved as it would like to appear ...  

Lina Winterbock, a junior apprentice studying to be an archivist, has never really fit in in Ortana.  Her insatiable curiosity has led to enough mishaps to make her peers, teachers, and guardian wary of her presence.  Still, she has the heart of an archivist—nothing makes her happier than crawling through Ortana's dusty tunnels on exploratory trips into the unknown corners of her world.  Unbeknownst to anyone else, she's discovered an incredible artifact of her own, an airship so magnificent it must be kept hidden from the other archivists.  She can't risk someone stealing her amazing find.

With her mind only on her her airship, Lina doesn't recognize another of Ortana's mysteries until she literally runs into it.  Or him, rather.  She knows Frederick isn't just another refugee, but who is he?  As Lina comes to trust the mysterious boy, she enlists his help with the half-buried airship.  Little does she know, he has his own reasons for wanting to dig out the relic.  Neither realizes what the airship really is, nor what it will mean for their friendship, their future, and tide of the Iron War that is tearing their beloved Solace apart.

The Secrets of Solace by Jaleigh Johnson is a magical novel (not that archivists believe in magic, mind you) set in the same world as the author's last book, The Mark of the Dragonfly.  It doesn't appear to be a sequel exactly; if it is, it stands alone well.  At any rate, the story is a gripping, imaginative one, full of mystery, adventure, and plenty of danger.  Sympathetic characters, plus a well-paced plot, not to mention solid, vivid prose combine to make this an enjoyable read.  It kept me engrossed and eager to learn more about the world of Solace.  Kids who dig magical adventures should find lots to love in Johnson's engaging series.

(Readalikes:  Although I haven't read it yet, The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson is actually the first book in the Solace series.  The book also reminded me a little of Sky Raiders by Brandon Mull.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Secrets of Solace from the generous folks at Random House Children's Books.  Thank you!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

More Than the Tattooed Mormon Beautiful in Its Simplicity, Profound in Its Power

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

What does a Mormon look like?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a worldwide membership of over 15 million people, meaning there's no one answer to this question.  In general, though, LDS people strive to be clean, both on the inside and the outside.  We're taught that our bodies are sacred, God-given temples and should be treated accordingly.  We adhere to a health code called The Word of Wisdom, which cautions against the use of substances that can be harmful to the body (alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, too much meat, etc.).  From infancy, we're advised to keep our minds and souls pure, avoiding pornography, graphic movies, profanity, etc.  Likewise, we're told to maintain a clean-cut, well-groomed outside appearance.  Multiple piercings, extreme hairstyles, revealing clothing, and tattoos are discouraged.  This creates a tidy homogeny that has been widely criticized, but is nonetheless recognizable throughout the world.  What happens, then, when someone who looks different from the norm not only joins the church but also becomes one of its most recognizable spokespeople?  It can create a bit of a stir.  Just ask Al Fox Carraway.

Despite growing up less than an hour's drive from Palmyra, New York, where the LDS Church was formally organized in April 1830, Carraway knew nothing about Mormonism.  It wasn't until she met two very persistent missionaries that her interest in the religion was piqued.  Once ignited, her desire to know more couldn't be extinguished.  Carraway was soon baptized despite strong opposition from family and friends.  Feeling alone, the new convert received powerful spiritual promptings to move closer to the Church's hub in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Terrified of moving so far away and starting over in a foreign place where she knew no one, Carraway made the trip anyway.  Not realizing how much her colorful tattoos would make her stand out in Utah, let alone at church, she was shocked by the reactions she received, especially from other Mormons.  As Carraway struggled, she clung to her faith, which allowed her to see beyond the pettiness of people's judgments to the one thing that truly mattered—her relationships with God and Jesus Christ.

In More Than the Tattooed Mormon, Carraway recounts her conversion to the LDS faith as well as all she's learned because of it.  Told with her trademark humor and bubbly optimism, her story rings with warmth, authenticity, and truth.  Her enthusiasm for the Gospel is infectious, her faith inspiring.  Carraway's struggles taught me some great lessons about following the Spirit, trusting the Lord, withholding judgment, and never taking the Gospel for granted.  I loved this approachable little book, which touched my heart while simultaneously breaking it and warming it.  It's a stay-with-you story, beautiful in its simplicity, but profound in its power.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of More Than the Tattooed Mormon from the generous folks at Cedar Fort.  Thank you!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Small Town Secrets Novel Fails to Satisfy

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Although a newcomer in town, little Wedeskyull, New York, feels like home for Nora Hamilton.  As a restorer of old houses, she's especially happy puttering around hers.  She wishes the home was filled with children, but, for now, she's content with her police officer husband and the possibility of a family in the future.  What Nora could never imagine—not for a second—is Brendan bringing all their dreams to a screaming halt by hanging himself in the attic.  She knew he'd been on edge lately, but that just went with the law enforcement territory, right?  What had driven her stable husband to suicide?  And how could she not have known he was struggling that terribly?

From the first, Brendan's death feels suspicious to his grieving widow.  The more she expresses her doubts, however, the more strongly she's shut down by his friends and colleagues.  They warn her to let it go, but she can't.  Especially when she finds troubling clues that seem to confirm her suspicions.  Then, there's a long ago incident that resulted in the tragic death of Brendan's brother.  Are the two cases related somehow?  Or is Nora's imagination running wild, the result of her all-consuming grief?  As things heat up in a small town with big secrets, she needs answers and fast.  Before her questions are silenced with another "accidental" death—her own.  

I'm always drawn to a good small town secrets novel.  Especially one that is done well.  Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman fits the bill, at least as far as the former goes.  As for the latter, well, the book leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Although the story is engrossing, it's peopled with unlikable characters, far-fetched situations, and a whole lot of unanswered questions.  Nora seems especially naive and weak.  Her character doesn't grow much throughout the novel either.  Like I said, Cover of Snow leaves a whole lot of loose ends hanging, making for a frustrating reading experience.  So, while I found this book compelling enough to finish, in the end it just irritated the heck out of me.  Needless to say, I probably won't pick up another Milchman thriller.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, and blood/gore

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, March 11, 2016

Second Installment in Great North Woods Mystery Series As Compelling As the First

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for The Girls She Left Behind, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Winter at the Door.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Lizzie Snow has only been in tiny Bearkill, Maine, for a few weeks, but she's already making a name for herself as the new sheriff's deputy.  For a dead-end town on the edge of the Great North Woods, the hamlet requires a surprising amount of work from its minuscule police department.  Once a booming lumber town, the place retains a faded charm, but that's not what's keeping Lizzie there.  An anonymous tip hinting that her niece, who's been missing for nine years, might be in the area is what's keeping the former homicide detective from sprinting back to Boston.

In the meantime, Lizzie's got a slew of problems right in her own backyard.  The forest fire raging just outside of town worries her.  As does the disappearance of 14-year-old Tara Wylie.  Although the local teen has a habit of taking off without bothering to inform her single mother, a disturbing text indicates something sinister has happened to the girl.  Tara's mother is frantic, but she's also lying to Lizzie.  Why?  The escape of Henry Gemerle, a man being held in the psych ward of a Connecticut forensic hospital after he was discovered holding girls hostage in his basement, is making everyone edgy.  Has Tara been abducted by the monster?  Or are she and her older boyfriend just off partying somewhere?  Why is Tara's mother misleading Lizzie and her team?  As shocking connections between the two cases come to light, Bearkill's new deputy will have to race against time, a deadly inferno, and a demented foe to protect the people of the tiny village she reluctantly calls home.

The last thing Lizzie needs are complications, but that's all she seems to be getting.  And not just from Peg Wylie.  Dylan Hudson, a Bangor detective who once shattered Lizzie's heart, wants another chance.  Then there's Trey Washburn, a handsome local vet, who's never been shy about his interest in Bearkill's newcomer.  Above all, Lizzie only cares about one thing—her niece.  With so much else going on, is she letting valuable clues to Nicki's whereabouts slip by?  Lizzie's got to keep her head in the game in order to save her niece, her town, and, ultimately, herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed Winter at the Door, the first installment in the Lizzie Snow series by Sarah Graves.  The second, The Girls She Left Behind, is just as riveting.  Although the reader knows many of the mystery's answers from the beginning of the novel, it's still a taut, engrossing read.  Lizzie continues to be an understated heroine who impresses with her tough demeanor and quiet devotion.  Bearkill becomes a character in its own right and not a romanticized one—Snow paints it as a desperate, down-and-out dwelling place, one that's as complex and compelling as each of its residents.  Personally, I'm eager to see what will happen next in the unpredictable wooded hamlet.  Surely, Lizzie has many more exciting adventures to come.  I can't wait.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Winter at the Door by Sarah Graves and of the Bell Elkins series [A Killing in the Hills; Bitter River; Summer of the Dead; and Last Ragged Breath] by Julia Keller)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Cinematic Sci Fi Series Perfect for Reluctant Readers, Especially My Own

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

A common lament around my house is that I take reading recommendations from other people far more seriously than I do those that come from my own family members.  While I always insist this is untrue, maybe I'm wrong.  So, when my 11-year-old begged me to read the first book in his favorite series, I agreed.  Usually I have to force him to sit down with a book, but the whole C.H.A.O.S. trilogy by Arizona author Jon S. Lewis kept him glued to the pages.  Naturally, I was anxious to see what kind of story had that kind of power over my usually reluctant reader.

Invasion, the first book in the series, introduces our hero, 16-year-old Colt McAlister.  The teen, who lives in San Diego, wants nothing more than to spend his summer riding the ocean waves, strumming his guitar, and flirting with a pretty girl.  A car accident changes all that.  With his parents dead, Colt moves to Chandler, Arizona, to live with his 85-year-old grandpa.  Although grieving, the teen finds friends and starts to make an okay new life for himself.

When Colt receives a strange message insinuating that his parents' "accident" wasn't an accident at all, he's incensed.  Especially when a follow-up meeting with its sender ends with him running for his life on a flying motorcycle.  That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strange.  As Colt investigates what really happened to his mom and dad, he's horrified to discover that nothing in his world is quite what it seems.  He's confronted otherworldly creatures before—in comic books and video games—but never have they crawled off the pages to invade his real life.  With murderous life forms straight out of his worst nightmares hot on his tail, Colt has to figure out what the heck is going on.  Who are these aliens infiltrating the planet?  What do they want?  What crazy secrets did Colt's parents die trying to protect?  Most importantly, how can Colt, a teenage surfer, stop an enemy with untold power from taking over the world?

Alien invasion books aren't really my cup of tea, but I can see why an 11-year-old boy would be mesmerized by this story.  With scary monsters, cool sci fi gadgets, and plenty of action, Invasion definitely keeps your attention.  It's a fast-paced, cinematic thrill ride that will especially appeal to pre-teen boys and reluctant readers.  They won't care how far-fetched the plot or how unrealistically inept the bad guys—they will just eat up the adventure.  I enjoyed Invasion enough to keep reading but, despite my son's badgering to read its sequels, I probably won't.  Still, I recommend this one for kids who like sci fi adventure movies and action-packed comic books.  They'll surely inhale the C.H.A.O.S. series, just like my son did.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other sci fi thrillers, although no specific title is coming to mind.  Suggestions?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and brief, mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I borrowed my son's copy of Invasion.  Thanks, bud!

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Atmospheric Small Town Mystery Series Uses My Favorite Formula to Reel Me In

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Only one thing could have enticed homicide detective Lizzie Snow to move from Boston to tiny Bearkill, Maine.  And it's not her new job as a community liaison officer.  Or the fact that the man who broke her heart, but still makes it beat faster than anyone else ever has, lives only a couple counties away.  No, she moved to the edge of the Great North Woods for only one reason—to find her niece, who went missing from Eastport eight years ago.  An anonymous tip hinting that Nicki may be in Arostook County brought her to the wilderness area.  Lizzie won't leave it until she combs every inch of the remote region in search of her only living relative.  

While Lizzie has her own, personal reasons for taking the job in Bearkill, Sheriff Cody Chevrier hopes her homicide experience will help him solve a string of mysterious deaths involving former police officers.  It's the main problem on his mind, but Bearkill has plenty of others.  If he can convince Lizzie to stick around, he's sure she'll prove the perfect person to set his town to rights.

Despite her boss's warnings, Lizzie can't believe anything more sinister than schoolboy pranks really goes down in Bearkill.  She's wrong.  Evil is already stalking the little town—and it's landed right on Lizzie's doorstep.  Can she stay alive long enough to solve Bearkill's mysteries?  Already occupied with town business and worried about the blizzard that's blowing in, will Lizzie be able to achieve her real goal?  With everything else that's going down, can she follow the clues she's been given and find her niece?  Or will a killer stop Lizzie before she ever gets the chance?

Have you ever wondered what I consider the perfect formula for a mystery series?  I'm sure this burning question has been keeping you up at night, so I'll answer it for you.  First, you need a small town setting with dark secrets simmering below its benign surface.  Add in a cast of compelling townspeople hiding skeletons in their closets; a nosy detective/reporter/P.I. with an intriguing back story; and a gripping plot that keeps me guessing.  Bind it all together with solid prose and, voilá, I'm hooked!  Easy cheesy, right?  Not so much.  That's why finding a new series that fits the bill makes me happy, even giddy.  

So, when I heard about the Lizzie Snow series by Sarah Graves, I knew I had to check it out.  I'm so glad I did.  Winter at the Door, the first book, introduces the intrepid Detective Snow.  She's an understated heroine, though a complex and fully developed one.  Which isn't to say we know everything about her right off the bat.  Not at all.  Graves doles out the policewoman's details slowly, strategically, carefully reeling readers in until she's got them hooked.  Bearkill also comes alive in the book, giving the story a strong sense of place.  While the plot of Winter at the Door doesn't offer a lot of surprises, it definitely kept me reading.  That, coupled with a likable heroine and an atmospheric backdrop made this novel enjoyable for me.  I hadn't even reached the middle of the series debut before I was on my library's website reserving the next installment.  If you're looking for a captivating new mystery series, give this one a go.  Personally, I can't wait to see what the tough, but kindhearted Lizzie Snow does next. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Julia Keller's Bell Elkins series [A Killing in the Hills; Bitter River; Summer of the Dead; Last Ragged Breath; and Sorrow Road] just less edgy)   

Grade:  


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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