Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Atmospheric Setting + Likable Heroine + Twisty Mystery = Me Coming Back for More Anna Pigeon

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After her husband dies in a New York City car accident, Anna Pigeon flees urban life for its complete opposite.  As an enforcement ranger at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the west Texas wilderness, the 39-year-old widow now spends more time communing with nature than anything—or anyone—else.  And it suits her just fine.

While hiking in the park one day, Anna comes across the dead body of a park ranger who appears to have been mauled to death by a mountain lion.  Shocked by the brutality of the apparent attack, Anna can't quite believe what she's seeing.  She didn't know Sheila Drury well, but she does know animals and this "attack" looks staged.  Try as she might to convince her superiors to look into the suspicious death, however, Anna gets exactly nowhere.  Refusing to back off, she launches her own investigation.  Between Drury's push to open the park to the public and her clandestine relationship with another employee, it isn't tough to find people who may have had motive to kill the ranger.  Who actually did the deed?  Anna knows Drury's killer isn't a wild cat but a human who is more vicious and dangerous than any mountain lion.  The question is, can Anna find the murderer before he or she finds Anna?  
     
Published in 2003, Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr is an oldie I've been meaning to get to for a while now.  The first book in Barr's popular Anna Pigeon series (the 19th installment of which just came out a few weeks ago), it introduces the ranger in all her complex charm.  In sharp, vivid prose that really makes it come alive, Barr also presents the real star of the show—the west Texas wilderness.  This atmospheric setting provides an intriguing background to a twisty mystery that kept me guessing.  Between the author's rich descriptions of the park and those of her brave, compassionate heroine, I found Track of the Cat to be an enjoyable read.  I'll definitely be heading back to the Guadalupe Mountains soon for more adventures with the unforgettable Anna Pigeon.

(Readalikes:  reminds me of the Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow and of The Wild Inside by Christine Carbo)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Vivid Setting Makes Slow-Building Murder Mystery Intriguing

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On a peaceful autumn night, Ted Systead and his dad are camping in Montana's ruggedly beautiful Glacier National Park.  Encounters with wildlife are a possibility, of course, but one against which the men have taken every precaution.  They're both stunned, then, when a giant grizzly attacks their campsite.  Fourteen-year-old Ted freezes in terror as his father is dragged away and mauled to death.  It's a violent, tragic, and traumatic experience that will haunt him forever.  

Twenty-three years later, Ted is back in Glacier.  As a special agent for the National Park Service, he's been called to Montana to investigate a death with startling similarities to his father's.  Like Jonathan Systead, Victor Lance is dead from a vicious encounter with a bear.  The difference?  Lance, a 27-year-old druggie from Martin City, Montana, had been tied to a tree, presumably exposed to the park's dangers on purpose.  Who could have committed such a cold-hearted act?  However unsavory the man might have been, he didn't deserve to die so horrifically.  Or did he?  

Paired with Monty Harris, an unassuming Park police officer, Ted is tasked with finding Victor's killer.  Not an easy job, considering locals want nothing to do with a nosy outsider.  Ted's perseverance helps him peel back the shocking layers of a case that chills him to the bone.  It doesn't help that old memories are creeping in, throwing him off his game.  As he creeps closer to discovering Lance's killer, he's putting himself in the line of fire.  Will Ted, like his father before him, leave Glacier only in a body bag?  

Although The Wild Inside, a debut novel by Christine Carbo, is billed as a mystery/suspense, it's much more of the former than the latter.  If you're looking for a high-octane thriller, this might not be the book for you.  What it does have is a vivid, intriguing setting.  The surreal beauty of Glacier National Park comes alive under Carbo's hand, as does the unpredictable state of nature in general.  The other characters pale in comparison to the vibrant personality of the Park.  An introspective fella, Ted lives mostly inside his head; Monty does too, which makes them not the most dynamic pair.  Carbo's style is more tell than show, which also makes The Wild Inside feel overly long and a little dull.  Although I enjoyed the read overall, I never came to a point in the story when I couldn't have set the book down and walked away.  I definitely would have liked more suspense from this one, as well as characters who were at least as exciting as their surroundings.  Still, I'm interested to see where this series goes.  Even though the next installment is narrated by Monty, who's not the most lively of guys, I'll definitely be giving it a go.

(Readalikes:  The national park setting reminded me of Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon mystery series)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, blood/gore, and mature subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Contemporary LDS P&P Re-Telling Entertaining & Enjoyable (With a Giveaway!)

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As the daughter of a well-known senator infamous for being both a Mormon and a Democrat, Summer Knight has developed a thick skin.  The 24-year-old couldn't survive life in the spotlight without it.  She knows the world of politics is cutthroat, but what she hasn't quite developed is the capacity to forgive those who've sought to ruin her father's career.  Especially when they're church members who profess to be kind and loving, only to turn on one of their own when he dares to express unpopular opinions.  After an especially humiliating event, Summer decides she's done with the small-mindedness, done with the judgment, done with the LDS church altogether.

Living in Newport Beach, California, Summer spends her Sundays on the water, logging perfect attendance at the Paddleboarding Ward.  Although her conscience (and a tenacious visiting teacher) tells her she should be spending Sunday in church, she just can't make herself take that step.  Then, a tantalizing stranger enters her life.  Tall, dark, and handsome, 28-year-old Benson Hardy is the nephew of Clint Knight's rival, an LDS politician campaigning to be President of The United States.  Benson is also a devout Mormon.  Clearly, this is a man with whom Summer should not be fraternizing.  Ever.  Yet, there's something about the enigmatic political strategist.  Sure, he's stiff, unsmiling, and a master at calling her bluff.  He's also patient, forgiving, and loyal.  Or is he?  When an old friend of Benson's—one much more affable than gruff Mr. Hardy—arrives in town, he's got a whole different story to tell about his childhood pal ...

Not sure what to believe about the enigmatic Benson, Summer tries to keep him at arm's length.  A difficult prospect.  At every turn, he angers her, frustrates her, and provokes her.  So why can't she get him off her mind?      

With tension building to a crescendo around her, Summer must decide who she really is, what she truly believes, and how much she's willing to risk in order to create the future she never knew she wanted. 

 As you can tell, Pride & Politics—a debut novel by Brittany Larsen—takes Jane Austen's beloved classic and gives it a modern, LDS spin.  While no contemporary version can equal the original in pure charm, Larsen gives it an admirable go.  Like Austen, the author examines her own people with a sharp eye, offering up some bold and surprising observations.  In fact, that's what I like most about Pride & Politics—it doesn't shy away from addressing some of Mormonism's toughest, most divisive issues.  Without being hypercritical, it teaches a truth people have a hard time believing: Latter-Day Saints aren't always, well, saints.  Although the story gets heavy at times, mostly it's not.  Summer's voice is bright, funny, and real, keeping the tone of the novel light.  Like Pride & Prejudice, plot is not this book's strong point.  Still, it's entertaining.  While Benson is no Mr. Darcy (too nice, maybe?) and Summer is no Lizzy Bennet (too self-centered?), Pride & Politics is still swoony enough to elicit romantic sighs.  All in all, I enjoyed it.  Quite thoroughly, as a matter of fact.

(Readalikes:  Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for sexual innuendo and (non-graphic) references to mature subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Pride & Politics from the generous folks at Covenant Communications.  Thank you!

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Want more reviews of Pride & Politics?  How about a chance to win your own copy of the book?  Check out the following links:




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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Cozy Home Repair Is Homicide Series Off to a Delightful Start

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Tired of the Manhattan rat race, money trader Jacobia "Jake" Tiptree buys a dilapidated, 200-year-old mansion on a whim.  The crumbling fixer-upper is located in Eastport, Maine—a far cry from Wall Street.  And her arrogant snob of an ex-husband.  Both Jake and her 16-year-old son, Sam, breathe easier in the small town, in spite of (or maybe because of) its colorful residents, laidback atmosphere, and backwater way of life.  Even with her house falling down around her, Jake is happier than she's ever been.

In renovating the old mansion, Jake has learned to expect the unexpected.  Still, she's shocked when she finds a dead body in her storeroom one ordinary April morning.  The corpse is not a victim of some ancient crime, either.  It's Threnody McIlwaine, a local bazillionaire, who's been very recently stabbed to death with an ice pick.  How he ended up in Jake's house is anyone's guess.  His killer, however, confesses immediately.  Jake's best friend, Ellie White, claims she murdered Threnody to avenge her parents, whom he swindled out of a large sum of money.  Ellie's confession doesn't ring true to Jake's ears, however.  Since the DIY diva is already channeling her inner Bob Vila, she decides to Nancy Drew her way to the truth about McIlwaine's murder.  Desperate to clear her friend's name, she starts digging into family and town secrets—secrets someone will kill to keep hidden.  Jake must solve the mystery fast or McIlwaine's won't be the only corpse rotting in her storeroom.

After thoroughly enjoying all the books in the Lizzie Snow series by Sarah Graves, I wanted to give her older mystery novels a go.  I'm not a huge cozy fan, however, so I wasn't sure the Home Repair is Homicide series would be my cup of tea.  Boy, was I wrong!  The Dead Cat Bounce, the first mystery in the series, hooked me with its very first paragraph.  Jake made me laugh right off the bat, so I was more than willing to stick with the empathetic but wryly witty heroine.  With a cast of quirky characters, a plot that kept me guessing, and a Down East setting that bursts right off the page, the novel offers an entertaining, enjoyable read.  I loved it and can't wait to see what Jake Tiptree gets herself up to in the next installment.  

(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, and mild sexual content

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

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Small Steps a Fascinating Medical Memoir About Triumph Of Spirit Over Body

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Before she became a bestselling, award-winning children's author, Peg Schulze Kehret had an experience that would change her life forever.  In 1949, at 12 years old, she contracted polio.  Not just one kind, but all three types: respiratory, spinal, and bulbar.  For three weeks, the disease paralyzed her from the neck down.  Although the paralysis went away, Peg still had trouble swallowing, breathing problems, and constant, all-over pain.  Hospitalized for about six months in a Minneapolis facility 100 miles from her home in Austin, Minnesota, she also experienced frustration, fear, homesickness, and loneliness.  Eventually, Kehret beat the disease, but the memories of her days as a polio patient still loom large in her mind.  "Those months," she wrote, "more than any other time in my life, molded my personality" (10).

In 1996, Kehret published Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio.  The memoir is both heartbreaking and fascinating.  Kehret tells her story in a warm, compelling way that gives children an honest account of what happened to her, while making it clear that she was one of the luckier polio patients.  Unlike some of her roommates at the hospital, Kehret had parents who cared for her and made a point of visiting her often.  While the author describes the excruciating treatments she had to endure, she does so with self-deprecating humor and gratitude (gained in hindsight) for the lessons it taught her.  Even though the effects of polio have come back to haunt Kehret in her later life, she ends her memoir on a positive, hopeful note.  The overall message of Small Steps is one of triumph over difficulty and thankfulness for the things many of us take for granted every day—breathing easily, walking without assistance, moving painlessly, etc.  It's an excellent memoir, one kids should find accessible and interesting.  I certainly did.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little of All Better Now by Emily Wing Smith)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, May 06, 2016

Novel's "Good Bones" Too Hard to Find

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In the moment before Jaleel's father killed himself, he told the 12-year-old to run.  Jaleel should have listened.  Instead, he called 911, hoping it might be possible to save his mother at least.  No such luck.  Now, not only are both his parents dead by his father's hand, but Jaleel is being accused of killing them.  As a black boy in central Texas with no money and no family, he's also got no chance.  Even in the early 1980s, racism is rampant in Peartree County.  Sent to a juvenile holding facility, a shell-shocked Jaleel knows his life is over.
When Jaleel gets the chance to escape, he takes it.  Ending up in North Hollywood, he rebuilds his life.  As long as he keeps to himself, he's able to attend high school, play baseball, and get a real shot at an Ivy League education.  
Then, he meets a wealthy white girl.
Although 15-year-old Alexandra Baten lives not far from Jaleel, her posh Toluca Lake neighborhood might as well be the moon for all the resemblance it bears to Jaleel's part of town.  Still, when Alex meets Jaleel, she's fascinated.  He's a smart guy, bright and funny.  She's never met anyone like him.  Knowing her socialite mother will freak if she finds out Alex is hanging around a black boy from the wrong part of town, Alex tells no one about Jaleel.

Jaleel figures befriending Alex will lead to trouble, but he has no idea just how much when she asks him to do her an innocent favor ...
Once Upon A Lie by Michael French has lots of the elements I usually dig in a book—family drama, racial tension, a star-crossed love story, etc.  At its heart, it's a story about rising above injustice, another theme I'm usually keen on.  I think the novel has good bones; it's just that they're tough to find, hidden as they are by layers of overwritten prose, purposeless detail, and meandering tangents.  At 401 pages, the saga is about 200 pages too long.  The tale starts with a bang (literally), sags, picks up in the middle with a misplaced climax, then limps to a disappointing finish.  Because the characters in Once Upon A Lie are such a whiny, self-absorbed bunch, it's tough to care about any of them for that length of time. Overall, for me, this novel was a long, dull slog.  A pity, because in the hands of a diligent editor it could have been whittled down into a tight, impacting story about triumph over racism and prejudice.  As is, it's too long, too unfocused, too preachy.  And depressing to boot.  I finished it because I had committed to do so; otherwise, I wouldn't have bothered.  

As often is the case, I appear to be in the minority on this one.  Once Upon A Lie gets rave reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads.  You can read even more opinions by visiting these stops on the book's blog tour:

Monday, May 2nd: 5 Minutes for Books
Tuesday, May 3rd: Books a la Mode – guest post
Wednesday, May 4th: Reading Cove Book Club
Friday, May 6th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Monday, May 9th: Hoser’s Blook
Wednesday, May 11th: Lavish Bookshelf
Thursday, May 12th: Thoughts on This ‘n That
Monday, May 16th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Wednesday, May 18th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing really comes to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, sexual content, and brief mention of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Once Upon A Lie from the generous folks at Terra Nova Books via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you! 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Unhurried Psychological Thriller Complex, Compelling

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Maud Horsham knows something's wrong with her memory.  The 82-year-old often can't recall the names of everyday items.  She goes to the store and forgets why she's there.  Even the notes she leaves for herself make little sense anymore.  There is one thing, however, that Maud is sure of: Elizabeth Markham—her neighbor and only real friend—is missing.  Positive that something sinister has happened to Elizabeth, Maud pleads for help from the police, her daughter, even Elizabeth's temperamental son.  All to no avail.  No one takes an old woman with dementia seriously. 

It's not the first time Maud's world has been rocked by the sudden disappearance of someone she loves.  In 1946, her older sister vanished without a trace.  As the two disappearances become entangled in Maud's mind, she grows even more confused.  The answers to both mysteries are inside her head somewhere—if only she can remember.  

Determined to figure out what happened to her friend, Maud mines her fractured memories, discovering in them some very disturbing truths.  Can she hold on to her discoveries long enough to save Elizabeth?  What about her sister?  Will Maud be the one to save the missing women?  Or will the secrets of the past remain hidden inside the recesses of a cloudy memory that is slowly, slowly slipping away ...

Elizabeth Is Missing, a debut novel by English author Emma Healey, is a complex psychological thriller.  A quiet, unhurried one, yes, but also a twisty, riveting mystery.  While the story offers plenty of suspense and intrigue, the most compelling thing about Elizabeth Is Missing is the terrifying issue at its heart—memory loss.  Healey, whose grandmother suffers from dementia, brings the horror of the disease to life in such a vivid, heartbreaking way that it's impossible not to empathize with Maud and all of her real-life counterparts.  Although it tells a sad, scary tale, I enjoyed this compelling, well-crafted debut novel.  If you like a puzzling, mind-bending story, give this one a go.  It's definitely worth the read.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a dozen or so F-bombs plus milder expletives)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Southern Family Drama Enjoyable Despite Predictable Plot

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Still guilt-ridden over her part in the accident that left her sister wheelchair-bound, 30-year-old Eleanor Murray spends her days helping Eve perform the tasks she can no longer do for herself.  Eleanor knows she shouldn't feel jealous of her disabled sister, but she does.  As beautiful as ever, Eve is married to Glen, a good man who works hard to support her.  She's also expecting the couple's first child.  With no real life of her own, Eleanor can't help but be envious.  Especially since she's loved Glen ever since she first met him.  Living in the same house as her sister and brother-in-law makes the situation even more torturous.

When Eleanor is offered the chance to work as a part-time companion for an elderly woman, she jumps at the opportunity.  Not only is the money too good to pass up, but the job will give her the opportunity to return to Edisto Island, the magical place where she spent her childhood.  Dealing with 90-year-old Helena Szarka won't be easy, though.  The cantankerous old woman obviously doesn't want Eleanor around.  Intrigued by the secrets Eleanor knows Helena harbors, she vows to get to the heart of the old woman's bitterness.  But will shocking revelations tear apart the people Eleanor's coming to love?  And what of her own family?  Will she ever find her own happiness?  Or will she forever live in the shadow of a sister who eclipses her even from a wheelchair?  

I've read most of Karen White's novels, but somehow The Time Between (2014) escaped my attention.  Until now.  Like the author's other books, this one offers a multi-layered family saga with a gentle Southern setting, empathetic characters, and an intriguing mystery.  The story doesn't offer a lot in the way of originality.  Or surprises, as I saw the twists coming from a mile away.  Still, The Time Between is a satisfying read that's compelling in spite of its predictability.  If you enjoy Southern family dramas, definitely check out Karen White.  This particular novel isn't my favorite of hers, but I've enjoyed all the ones I've read.

(Readalikes:  The premise reminds me of Kate Morton's novels.  The style is vintage Karen White.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild violence; brief, non-graphic sex; and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find
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