Thursday, October 27, 2016

Colorful, Comic Book-Style Picture Book Urges Kids to Defend Families

(Image from the author's blog)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long championed the family as a sacred institution ordained of God.  It has always urged its members to honor and protect this most precious of God's gifts.  How?  By using the formula reiterated in the Church's 1995 proclamation to the world: "Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities."  Of course, Mormon families vary as much as any others, meaning they don't always fit this LDS "ideal."  And yet, this is what members of the faith try to cultivate, believing that strong families lead to strong individuals, strong communities, and strong nations.  

Benjamin Hyrum White's new book, Defenders of the Family, seeks to bring this message to children.  With bright, comic book-style illustrations (by Jay Fontano) and simple, but direct statements about LDS beliefs, the book provides a solid foundation for learning about subjects that can be both confusing and controversial—gender identification, marriage, gender roles, procreation, etc.  The principles are laid out firmly in black-and-white (so to speak) while still maintaining this overall message:  "We can love and show kindness for everyone while standing up for what we believe."  

While Defenders of the Family makes a point of portraying some non-traditional situations, against-the-LDS-norm families are not necessarily highlighted.  However, any family can benefit from reading this book together—all of the topics presented can lead to open, honest, and enlightening conversations that will promote greater communication and understanding within a family unit.  

If you're looking for an engaging, straightforward picture book about LDS beliefs on marriage and family, you can't go wrong with Defenders of the Family

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't really 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 Defenders of the Family from the generous folks at Cedar Fort.  Thank you!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Alaskan Mystery Series Off to an Intriguing Start

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After her throat is nearly slit in a knife fight with a child molester, Aleut detective Kate Shugak retreats to the Alaskan bush to (figuaratively) lick her wounds.  Haunted by her days as a sex crimes investigator in Anchorage, the 30-year-old desperately needs time away.  There's no better place to be alone than the wilderness, where she leads a solitary existence with just her wolf-dog, Mutt.  

When a very green park ranger from Ohio goes missing in the bush, Kate is called in to investigate.  Mark Miller, the 21-year-old son of a U.S. Congressman, is an enthusiastic and naive supporter of opening federal lands to outsiders.  Did he tick off the wrong local?  Or just get lost in the vast and vicious Alaskan wilderness?  Kate suspects the former.  Determined to figure out what happened to the congressman's kid, she sifts through clues that point in an ever more sinister direction.  Can Kate keep her own demons at bay long enough to find the answers she seeks?  Can she solve a mystery, the investigation of which is becoming more and more dangerous every day?  Or will Kate be the next person to mysteriously disappear in the harsh Alaskan bush?

A Cold Day for Murder, the first novel in Dana Stabenow's popular mystery series starring Kate Shugak, brings Alaska to vivid life, introducing colorful characters, complex politics, and a beautiful, unforgiving landscape. The story also offers a pull-no-punches plot with a very intriguing heroine at its center.  A study in contrasts, Kate is tough but compassionate, cold but warm, angry but accommodating (at least when someone needs her help).  It's difficult not to admire her tenacity.  Although A Cold Day for Murder gets slow in places, overall it tells a compelling story.  It's gritty and gruesome, true, but it's also surprisingly funny at times.  For the most part, I enjoyed it.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Wild Inside by Christine Carbo; the Lizzy Snow series [Winter at the Door; The Girls She Left Behind]  by Sarah Graves; the Anna Pigeon series [Track of the Cat; etc.] by Nevada Barr; and the Bell Elkins series [A Killing in the Hills; Bitter River; Summer of the Dead; Last Ragged Breath; Sorrow Road; and Fast Falls the Night] by Julia Keller)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, blood/gore, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter (child abuse, alcohol abuse, poverty, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Fresh Perspective on Titanic Tragedy Makes for Engrossing Debut Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Everyone knows the story of the ill-fated Titanic, which struck an iceberg in the frigid Atlantic Ocean on the evening of April 14, 1912.  Its subsequent sinking has been recounted in dozens of books, movies, news articles, etc.  What about the S.S. Californian, though?  Although the name may be familiar to some, how many of us know the tale of "The Ship of Shame"?  I didn't know much about it until reading The Midnight Watch, a debut novel by David Dyer.  

Through the eyes of John Steadman, an intrepid reporter for the Boston American (a real newspaper published in Massachusetts between 1906 and 1961), we learn the sordid details.  On April 14, the Californian was positioned only a few miles north of Titanic.  Herbert Stone, the former's second officer, spotted distress rockets from the latter during his midnight watch.  Although he wasn't positive what he was seeing, he awoke Stanley Lord, the Californian's captain, anyway.  Ignoring Stone's concern, Lord returned to his bed.  Although a total of eight rockets were fired throughout the night, they continued to be ignored.  Once the horrifying scale of the Titanic tragedy was discovered, Lord's inaction seemed especially suspect.  Why did the captain, a respected seaman known to be both scrupulous and brave, do nothing to aid the sinking ship?  If he had immediately steamed to Titanic's rescue, could the lives of 1500 people have been saved?  Is Stanley Lord directly responsible for that staggering loss?

This is the question that spurs on the fictional Steadman.  As his tenacious search turns up more and more concerns about Lord's curious failure to act, he knows he must uncover the truth.  Although "the truth" Steadman finds is highly controversial, even today, it makes for mesmerizing reading. 

Impeccably researched by Dyer—a highly-educated Australian maritime lawyer with extensive sea-faring experience—the novel is taut, gripping, and astounding in its implications.  Using a fresh angle, The Midnight Watch brings a unique perspective to the tragedy, serving up intriguing historical facts on a bed of engrossing, well-written fiction.  If you, like me, are endlessly fascinated by the Titanic disaster, you simply can't miss this excellent novel.


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, blood/gore, and mature subject matter (prostitution, alcoholism, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, October 24, 2016

Condie's Middle Grade Debut Tender and Touching

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's been a year since the car accident that killed Cedar Lee's father and younger brother.  Still sick with grief, the rest of the family is trying to pick up the pieces.  For Cedar's mother that means moving on.  Literally.  For the rest of the summer, they'll be living in Iron Creek, their mom's childhood hometown in Southern Utah.  Cedar doesn't mind spending time there, it's just that summers aren't the same anymore.  Life isn't the same.  And it's hard to push forward when all she really wants is to go back—back to normal, back to how it was before the accident, back to the same she loved and misses so keenly.

Still, Cedar's interest is piqued when the 12-year-old sees a boy her age in strange, old-fashioned clothing pedal by on a bicycle.  Following him leads her into the magical world of the town's Shakespearean festival.  Cedar is immediately taken in by its enchanting atmosphere, the colorful theater people, and the enthusiasm of her new friend, Leo Bishop.  Soon, she and Leo are embroiled in a profitable—if clandestine—money-making business as well as solving a local mystery.  Cedar's also mystified by the small gifts being left for her on her window sill.  They're exactly the kinds of things her dead brother collected.  Is Ben reaching out to her from beyond the grave?  Or is the heaviness in her heart making her brain see things that aren't really there?  As Cedar tries to fill the hole in her heart with a new town, a new friend, and new adventures, she must come to terms with what she's lost and what she's found in order to figure out just who she's really meant to be.

Summerlost, Ally Condie's first middle grade novel, tells a gentle, but emotionally-rich story about a young girl's struggle to cope after a great tragedy rips her family in two.  It's a heartfelt, atmospheric tale that is both tender and touching.  The festival setting lends it an otherworldly magic that makes the novel uniquely spellbinding.  With humor, mystery, drama, and a whole lot of heart, Summerlost makes for a compelling read with cross-over appeal.  It enchanted me quite thoroughly, thank you very much.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for intense situations and themes (grief, loss, bullying, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, October 17, 2016

Siddons Saga a Surprising Disappointment

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Stifled by the expectations of her proper Southern mother, there is only one place tomboy Thayer Wentworth really feels free—Camp Sherwood Forest.  Nestled in the lush North Carolina mountains, the place offers her a warm respite from her chilly home life, a chance to ride horses, run wild, and fall in love for the first time.  It also brings the kind of heartache from which she'll never truly recover. 

Now an adult, Thayer is married to Aengus O'Neill, a handsome professor of Irish literature and folklore.  Living in the grand river home she inherited from her grandmother, Thayer is content.  That is, until Aengus starts to sour on his new job at The University of the South.  When he's invited to a nearby summer camp to share folk tales around the campfire, it seems Aengus has found his true calling.  But, the more time he spends at Camp Edgewood, the more unsettled Thayer becomes with the situation.  Especially when it causes her to remember and confront some very dark secrets about her family, her first love, and her increasingly enigmatic husband.  

I always like juicy Southern family sagas and Anne Rivers Siddons usually delivers a good one. Burnt Mountain (2011) starts out like a typical Siddons novel, with its slow-building introduction to its characters and plot.  It's only around the middle that it starts to flounder.  That's where the story gets ... weird.  While I like the idea of an eerie, not-quite-right summer camp, Aengus' strange transformation comes way too out of the blue to be realistic.  It just feels ... odd.  And the novel grows more and more bizarre from there.  I wanted to like this one, but the story's themes and plot lines seem too disparate, creating an unbalanced tale that did not satisfy in the end.  Since I've enjoyed many of Siddons' novels, Burnt Mountain is a surprising disappointment.  I'd advise readers to skip it and stick the the author's earlier books, which are much better.

(Readalikes:  Other books by Anne Rivers Siddons)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I think I picked Burnt Mountain off a clearance shelf at Barnes & Noble or Changing Hands Bookstore.  Not really sure.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Adirondack Murder Mystery Satisfying, But Not Remarkable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for A Cold and Lonely Place, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Learning to Swim.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Troy Chance, a freelance journalist in Lake Placid, New York, is shooting photos of the construction of an ice palace on Lake Saranac when she gets the shock of her life.  Encased in the ice is the body of a man she knows.  A 25-year-old itinerant, Tobin Winslow was an enigma, a man who kept his past hidden from his acquaintances in the small Adirondack town.  Assigned to write an in-depth feature about Winslow, Troy starts digging into the man's life and the mystery of his untimely death.  The more she uncovers, the clearer the message becomes—someone is determined to stop Troy's unofficial investigation.  Can Troy figure out what really happened to Tobin or will her corpse be the next to turn up under the ice? 

A Cold and Lonely Place, Susan J. Henry's second book starring Troy Chance, is a compelling mystery with a few twists I didn't see coming.  Troy is a likable enough heroine, she's just not a very exciting one.  A little romance or family drama would go a long way toward making her a more complex, intriguing character.  The novel's plot is, likewise, a bit too straightforward—I would have enjoyed more suspense, more tension, more nuance.  Overall, then, the novel is satisfying, but not remarkable.  

(Readalikes:  Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and references to the consumption of illegal drugs

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A Cold and Lonely Place from the generous folks at Crown Publishing Group (a division of Penguin Random House).  Thank you!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Paranormal YA Twin Peaks-Meets-Stars-Hollow Adventure Not Quite As Appealing As It Sounds

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you had the ability to steal pieces of a person without them knowing it, what would you take?  Would you pull out their bad memories, their anxiety, their fears?  Would you steal a little of their sobriety, a tiny bit of their fearlessness, a little affection?  How would these thefts affect you?  How would the victims' losses affect them?  

Aspen Quick has never thought much about his ability to snatch people's most intimate possessions.  The 17-year-old just uses it to his advantage when he needs a shot of courage, a bit of help with a girl he likes, or a wave of calm to soothe his nerves.  He knows his family's unique magic is ancient and important—after all, it's what's always kept Three Peaks, New York, safe from the cliff that looms over the quaint little town.  If his family didn't perform their secret rituals to hold back the danger, everyone in the hamlet would be buried under a sea of massive boulders.  Surely, that massive effort balances out the small thefts he performs from time to time.  It's his special right, isn't it?

When Aspen meets Leah Ramsey-Wolfe, he's intrigued with the bookish loner.  He becomes even more fascinated with her when he realizes she's the only person he's ever met who's immune to his reaching.  This epiphany leads Aspen to more startling revelations about his family's magic, its true potency, and the disastrous effects of unbridled greed and unlimited power.  As Aspen's eyes are opened to the truth, he must ask himself what it really means to be a good person.  And if he's brave enough to face answers that will change everything.  

I can't remember where I first heard about Rocks Fall Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar, but its premise has intrigued me ever since.  Its very appealing billing—"Twin Peaks meets Stars Hollow"—drew me in even more.  From these clues, I expected to absolutely adore this quirky paranormal adventure.  That didn't exactly happen, but I did find Rocks Fall Everyone Dies an intriguing read that asks important questions about how we treat other human beings, how we wield our own unique power, and how far we're willing to go to redeem ourselves.  Aspen is a selfish, manipulative character, which makes it somewhat difficult to connect with him.  As his eyes are opened, though, he becomes more sympathetic and it's easier to root for his success.  The magical world in which he is enveloped is fresh and intriguing, definitely different than the usual YA fare.  With plenty of twists, the plot moves along quickly, making the novel a fast, engrossing read.  The teenage cast members seemed a little too world-weary for me, as did their very cavalier attitudes about sex, drinking, etc.  Maybe those outlooks stem from the fact that they never had any adult supervision whatsoever?  The story's abrupt ending also irked me a tad.  I don't know if a sequel is in the works or not, but the tale felt unfinished—at least in some ways—to me.  Bottom line on this bad boy?  I liked Rocks Fall Everyone Dies, just didn't love it like I wanted to.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Don't You Forget About Me by Kate Karyus Quinn and a little of Bruiser by Neal Shusterman)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Rocks Fall Everyone Dies from the generous folks at Kathy Dawson Books (an imprint of Penguin).  Thank you!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Debut Thriller Not Quite Thrilling Enough

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Troy Chance is the only passenger not huddled inside the warmth of the ferry when the unthinkable happens—a small body falls from a passing ship into the frigid waters of Lake Champlain.  No one else seems to have noticed the unfolding tragedy.  Without stopping to think, Troy plunges into the lake, determined to save the child who will surely drown or freeze to death without intervention.  Barely getting them both to shore alive, Troy is dismayed to discover that the young boy she's just rescued refuses to speak.  The few words he does offer are in French.  Even more mysterious is the sweatshirt wrapped around the boy—knotted firmly behind his back, the garment immobilized the child's arms ensuring his fall overboard would be fatal.  Who would do such a monstrous thing?  And why is no one looking for the boy who says his name is Paul?

Reluctant to hand Paul over to the police, Troy takes him to her home in Lake Placid.  As she makes her own inquiries, she finds herself becoming more and more attached to her young charge.  And more and more puzzled.  Why has no one reported the missing child?  When Troy locates Paul's father, she doesn't know what to do.  Can she trust the wealthy and powerful Philippe Dumond?  Or is he responsible for his son's near death?  Troy knows she's more than done her duty, so why is she so hesitant to return Paul to his privileged life?  She can't give up the boy she's come to love as her own until she's absolutely certain he's safe.  But protecting him means Troy is in just as much danger as he is.  Can she save the two of them once again?  Or will a cold-blooded killer finish them both off this time?

Learning to Swim, a debut thriller by Sara J. Henry, begins with a very compelling premise.  Troy's subsequent search for answers keeps the plot moving at a fast enough clip to keep it interesting, despite the fact that our heroine is not the most engaging of characters.  The pool of suspects in the novel is so small that the story's big reveal is not much of a surprise.  Bits of the tale also seem incredibly far-fetched, making the whole thing feel unrealistic.  Despite these flaws, I enjoyed Learning to Swim well enough to keep turning pages.  It's certainly not my favorite thriller of all time, but it's not a bad diversionary read.

(Readalikes:  Its sequel, A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Learning to Swim from the generous folks at Crown Publishing Group (a division of Penguin Random House).  Thank you!

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Kid Lit List Book a Fun, Easy Guide to Some Great Reads

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Like many bibliophiles, I'm also a big lover of lists.  Especially book lists.  Although I never totally agree with Top Whatever lists, I still think it's fun to peruse them.  Not only do they remind me of great books I've read, but they also offer recommendations for books I haven't sampled yet.  What's not to love?  

I enjoyed 101 Movies to Watch by Suzette Valle, so you can imagine my excitement when I was pitched another book in the same format, except about books.  Naturally, I had to snatch it up!  101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up by Bianca Schulze (available October 10, 2016), the Australian-born founder of The Children's Book Review, is a fun, easy guide to some great kid lit that can be enjoyed even if you're already (gasp!) a grown-up.  As you can see from the illustration below, each entry features a plot summary, colorful pictures (by illustrator Shaw Nielsen), readalike suggestions, trivia, and other information.  There's even a book review feature where you can record your thoughts on each selection as you read it.  

No two readers are ever going to agree on a "Best of" type list, but Schulze offers a wide selection of books that covers a lot of territory.  From time-tested classics like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to "new" classics like Harry Potter to stories that teach about history and world cultures, all Schulze's selections share common themes:
Be kind, be brave, and make good choices.  Remember the struggles of those that came before you.  Always dream of the fantastical future ahead of you and those who will come after you.  Be true to yourself, and with every page you turn, live your life like an epic adventure.

The best part of reading this book as a grown-up is that it reminded me of some of the wonderful stories I experienced as a child.  It also inspired me to pick them up again and re-enjoy them as an adult.  As a lifetime book lover, I was surprised by how many of the featured books I hadn't read.  Now, I've got some wonderful recommendations to add to my TBR list mountain mountain chain.  

If you've got a young book lover on your Christmas gift list, this would be an excellent present.  It would also make for a fun parent/children book club project. Basically, anyone who loves books is going to love this book about books.  Seriously, what could be more fun? 


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

Friday, October 07, 2016

So-So Psychological Thriller Compelling, But Lacking (With a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

From the outside, Zoe Whittaker's rags-to-riches life looks absolutely perfect.  The 29-year-old is the brand-new wife of an influential Wall Street tycoon, she's living in a sparkling Tribeca penthouse, her closet is stuffed with chic designer clothes, and the only work she does is volunteering for a prestigious, well-funded charity for orphans and foster kids.  No one knows Zoe's past, that she, herself, was abandoned as an infant.  No one knows about the terrible things she did as a young adult, the things that propelled her to assume a false name and flee California for the anonymous streets of New York City.  There are other things no one knows—that Zoe is bored with her charmed existence, that she's secretly searching for her birth mother, and that she's feeling stifled by her adoring but controlling spouse.

When a series of suspicious events rocks Zoe's carefully-constructed world, she knows the game is up—after five years, her turbulent past has come calling.  Someone is determined to take revenge and they won't stop until she's dead.  How can Zoe protect herself without revealing the dark secrets she's never told anyone?  If the truth comes out, her glamorous life is over.  With a killer tracking her every move, everything Zoe's ever wanted and everyone she's ever loved are in the utmost danger ...

You all know I love me a good psychological thriller.  The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti is a psychological thriller, but is it a good one?  Well, it's tense, fast-paced and compelling.  A page-turner for sure.  The plot's twisty—it's also far-fetched, with some big plot holes.  Zoe's not a warm narrator, nor a particularly sympathetic one.  It's tough to care much about her.  That disconnect made The Vanishing Year less than satisfying.  Overall, though, the novel is compelling, just not anything really spectacular.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris; The First Wife by Erica Spindler; and Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, sexual content, depictions of illegal drug use, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Vanishing Year from the generous folks at Simon & Schuster.  Thank you!

*****

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Book Spotlight: Echoes of Family by Barbara Claypole White

Things have been a little turbulent at my house lately and a heavy, 400+ page family drama just hasn't been something I can handle.  I wanted to at least spotlight Echoes of Family by Barbara Claypole White, though, as it sounds like something I would be interested in reading when life calms down a bit.  Here's the synopsis from the back of the book (mine is an uncorrected proof):

Marianne Stokes fled England at seventeen, spiraling into the manic depression that would become her shadow.  She left behind secrets, memories, and tragedy; one teen dead, and her first love, Gabriel, badly injured.  Three decades later she's finally found peace in the North Carolina recording studio she runs with her husband, Darius, and her almost-daughter, Jade ... until another fatality propels her back across the ocean to confront the long-buried past.

In her picturesque childhood village, the first person she meets is the last person she wants to see again: Gabriel.  Now the village vicar, he takes her in without question, and ripples of what if reverberate through both their hearts.  As Marianne's mind unravels, Jade and Darius track her down.  Tempers clash when everyone tries to help, but only by finding the courage to face her illness can Marianne heal herself and her offbeat family.    

I always find books about mental illness fascinating.  That, combined with the family secrets thing makes the premise of this book intriguing to me.  If you agree, be sure and grab yourself a copy next time you're at the bookstore or library.  If you've read Echoes of Family, what did you think?

(Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the ARC and to Barnes & Noble for the cover image.)
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