Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Places I've Visited So Often In Books That I Might As Well Live There


Since travelling has been so restricted of late, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's itching to jet off to some exotic locale just for a change of scenery!  I've done a little bit of world traversing in real life, but I've experienced a whole lot more through books.  As Emily Dickinson famously wrote, "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away..."  

Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic concerns Places In Books Where I'd Want to Live.  Since I read mostly mystery/thriller type books, this is kind of a tough one!  I've learned through many a murder mystery (especially cozies) that no place in the world is entirely safe and idyllic.  Murder and mayhem can happen anywhere—even in sleepy little towns where nothing ever happens.  So, I'm going to twist today's TTT a little bit and tell you about the Top Ten Places I Visit So Often in Books That I Might As Well Live There.  Since I read mostly realistic fiction, I'm going to concentrate on places that actually exist on the map (no Narnia or Hogwarts this time around, I'm afraid).  

If you want to join in the TTT fun, click on over to That Artsy Reader Girl for all the details.

Top Ten Places I Visit So Often in Books That I Might As Well Live There:


1.  Scotland—I have strong Scottish roots, so it's no surprise that I love to connect with the country through fiction.  If all goes well, I'll be there in person this Fall.  Can't wait to finally see its beauty with my own eyes!  Favorite Scottish Authors/Authors Who Write About Scotland:  Jenny Colgan, Peter May, Anna Lee Huber, etc.


2.  Canada—My American grandmother lived in the Vancouver area while I was growing up, so I've been to the Great White North many times.  I'd love to visit other parts of the country, however, including Prince Edward Island (famously portrayed in the Anne of Green Gables series), Nova Scotia (where my Scottish ancestors landed after leaving their homeland), Quebec (Three Pines is fictional, but still...), Banff, and more.  Favorite Canadian Authors/Authors Who Write About Canada:  L.M. Montgomery, Louise Penny, Kelley Armstrong, etc.


3.  Maine, U.S.A.—Although I have stepped foot in Maine, it was only just over the border.  We spent about an hour there, most of which was in an International House of Pancakes (IHOP) restaurant.  I know there's more to see in The Pine Tree State than waffles!  Books always make it sound like a moody, broody, mysterious place.  Its craggy coastline looks amazingly beautiful in pictures.  Just the other day, my husband and I started planning a trip to visit Maine (where he has ancestral roots) and Nova Scotia (where I do).  Famous Maine Authors/Authors Who Write About Maine:  Stephen King, Cynthia Lord, Rory Power, Sarah Graves, etc.  


4.  Antarctica—Okay, so I've actually only read a few books set in Antarctica and it's not a place I would actually want to visit or live (because I'm a big wimp and also, brrrrrrr), BUT it's a fascinating land to investigate from the safety of my nice, warm home.  Its rugged, dangerous landscape makes a perfect setting for the mysteries, thrillers, and survival novels I love so much.  Favorite Antarctica books:  The Split by Sharon Bolton and My Last Continent by Midge Raymond


5.  Australia—Although a lot of the Australia books I've read are gritty mysteries set against a dry, dusty Down Under backdrop that is perfect for murder, mayhem, and apocalyptic disasters, I know there's a lot more to this wondrous country.  I'd love to see its unique landscape, wildlife, and culture for myself.  Favorite Australian Authors/Authors Who Write About Australia:  Jane Harper, Liane Moriarty, Tea Cooper, Kate Morton, etc.


6.  Ohio, U.S.A.—I do have ancestral roots in Ohio, but it's mere coincidence (or is it??) that I spend a lot of my reading hours in The Buckeye State.  Several of my favorite cozy and historical mystery series are set here.  I've been to northern Ohio, but my ancestors settled more to the south, so there are still places in the state I'd like to visit.  Favorite Ohioan Authors/Authors Who Write About Ohio:  Amanda Flower, Vivien Chien, Jess Montgomery, etc.


7.  North Carolina, U.S.A.—This is a state in which I have no roots and to which I have never gone.  Somehow, though, I end up reading a lot of books set here.  Why is North Carolina such a popular fictional setting?  Not a clue.  Favorite North Carolinan Authors/Authors Who Write About North Carolina:  Diane Chamberlain, Cindy Baldwin, Charles Frazier, etc. 


8.  England—Many Americans have a strong connection to England and I'm no exception (24% of my DNA, says Ancestry).  I've traveled all over the country, from London to Cornwall to the Isle of Man to Liverpool.  At least in books.  In September (fingers crossed), I'll visit the Motherland for real for the first time in my life.  Yippee!  Favorite English Authors/Authors Who Write About England:  Gilly Macmillan, Ruth Ware, Sharon Bolton, Elly Griffiths, etc.


9.  Ireland—With a maiden name like Kennedy, you'd think I'd be more Irish than I am (20%).  Still, I've always loved reading about The Emerald Isle.  Everything—from its craggy landscape to its dreary weather to its rich culture—just speaks to my soul.  It's not on the itinerary for our upcoming U.K. trip, but hopefully I'll get there someday!  Favorite Irish Authors/Authors Who Write About Ireland:  Tana French, Jane Casey, Dervla McTiernan, Maeve Binchy, etc.


10.  New York, U.S.A.—If you take a gander at my right sidebar, you'll see that I keep track of the places where the books I read are set.  Guess which U.S. state I've visited most in fiction?  New York!  Tons of books are set there, which really isn't surprising since it's such a colorful, diverse place.  I've been to NYC (noisy) and upstate (peaceful) and I can't think of any other place in the state that I really want to go.  I did recently discover the Shauna Merchant mystery series by Tessa Wegert, though, and the Thousand Islands region sounds lovely.  Favorite New York Authors/Authors Who Write About New York:  Tessa Wegert, Jacqueline Woodson, Riley Sager, Carol GoodmanA.J. Finn, etc.

There you go with the ten places I visit so often in my reading that I might as well live there!  Which locales do you enjoy reading about?  Which other books/series/authors do you love that fit the categories above?  I'd truly love to know.  Leave me a comment on this post and I will gladly return the favor on your blog.

Happy TTT!       

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Book of Lost Names Leaves Me Wanting More—And Not in a Good Way

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's 1942 and Paris is fast becoming a dangerous place for Jews.  This is brought home one terrifying night when Eva Traube's father is arrested by the Gestapo.  A chance visit to a neighbor is all that saved Eva and her mother from being taken as well.  With their names on the Nazis' round-up list, the women have targets on their backs.  Despite her mother's insistence that she's not leaving Paris without her husband, Eva forces the issue.  She forges new papers for them and the two women are able to sneak out of the city to Aurignon, a small mountain village in the Free Zone of south central France.

When the leader of a local Resistance group sees how well Eva's papers are forged, he urges her to put her skills to use by helping to make false papers for the Jewish children the group is smuggling into Switzerland.  Although reluctant to put herself and her mother at risk, she agrees in exchange for shelter and promises for help in securing her father's release.  As Eva systematically gives the fleeing kids new names, thus erasing their Jewish identities, she grows distressed as she realizes some of them will be too young to remember their true names when the war ends.  Using an old, forgotten religious text, she records every one so the information will never be lost.  With tension heating up in Aurignon, however, Eva's work and the secret record book are both in imminent danger...

Sixty-five years later, Eva is stunned to see a newspaper article about books recovered from Nazi stores after the war.  Among them is one she never thought she would see again.  Does she have the courage to revisit the traumas of her past in order to reveal the secrets she once protected with her life?

I find World War II endlessly fascinating, so I've read tons of books set during that time period.  Because so many of them are so similar, I'm always on the lookout for those that bring something new to the genre.  The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel has been getting so much buzz that I thought it might do just that.  And it does.  Sort of.  I've read few World War II novels about the French experience, so the book's setting was a new one for me.  The forgery angle was also one I hadn't really encountered before.  Both of these elements made the novel interesting.  The rest of it, though?  Meh.  The characters are pretty clichĂ© and there are no surprises in the plot.  It's a very run-of-the-mill story, really, and one that is made even worse by stale, simplistic prose (I felt like I was reading a YA novel or even a middle-grade one, at times) and a predictable plot (I saw the twists coming from miles away and the novel's final scene is obvious from the get-go).  The characters are likable because, for the most part, they're good people doing good things, but none of them are developed enough to feel like real human beings.  Eva drove me a little nuts because she doesn't really do anything.  Yes, she risks her life by creating forged documents, but it's all very benign—she's in no real danger until the very end of the book.  Thus, for a war story, The Book of Lost Names is actually fairly dull, with not a lot of action to keep it exciting.  It's really more of a romance than anything else.  Since I never felt any real sparks between Eva and RĂ©my anyway, I didn't care all that much about the love story.  I wanted more derring-do, more action, more suspense.  

Don't get me wrong, The Book of Lost Names isn't a bad book.  It kept my attention enough that I read to the end.  It's also cleaner than most adult novels, which I appreciate.  My problem is I just wanted more from it—more originality, more character development, more emotion, more excitement, etc.  In the end, unfortunately, this was just an average read for me.     

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other novels about World War II, although no specific titles are coming to mind)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


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

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, March 26, 2021

Moody, Broody Psychological Thriller a Gripping Read

(Image from Amazon)

When cancer steals her mother's life before she has even turned sixty, 38-year-old Kal feels surprisingly adrift.  Over the years, she's gotten used to the fact that her mercurial mother never loved her.  Elena MacKenzie had plenty of affection for her younger daughter, Alice, but none for Kal.  Grief-stricken by the loss of a woman she never understood, Kal is thrown for a shocking loop when she finds a stack of mysterious postcards in her mother's things.  Going back more than 20 years, each was written on the same day of the year and signed the same way by the same Canadian woman:  "Thinking of you."  Kal knows Elena studied marine biology in North America before marrying and moving to England, but she knows little about those early years and she's never heard her mother mention a woman named Susannah Gillespie.  Who was this Canadian artist to Elena?  Why did she send a postcard every year?  What's the significance of the date on the cards?  

Already feeling bruised from suspicions that her husband is cheating on her, Kal makes an impulsive decision to travel to British Columbia and find Susannah.  With her toddler in tow, she sets out for remote Spring Tide Island, hoping to find the answers she so desperately seeks.  Meeting Susannah, a potter who claims to have been Elena's best friend, just creates more questions.  The woman, who seems to have been obsessed with Kal's mother, has also formed a strange attachment to Kal's son, 18-month-old Finn.  Despite frantic calls from her husband and warnings from her father to stay away from Susannah, Kal refuses to leave Canada until she understands who her mother was and what happened between her and her old BFF.  The more Kal learns, the more distressed she grows.  Something horrible happened to Elena, that much is clear and—as Kal finally realizes—the past is about to repeat itself if she can't get herself and Finn off the island.  With a storm threatening to cut off all communication with the mainland, Kal will have to risk her own life to save them both. 

Everyone who hangs out around here knows I can't resist an atmospheric thriller.  The moodier and broodier, the better.  The Missing One, a 2014 debut by journalist Lucy Atkins, certainly qualifies.  Atkins does an excellent job painting Spring Tide Island in thick, foggy grays that make it feel cold, isolated, and eerie.  It's a shivery backdrop, perfect for a gripping psychological thriller, which is exactly what The Missing One is.  The book is not an edge-of-your-seat kind of read (at least not until the end), but it is engrossing and compelling.  Overly long, yes, but not boring.  Predictable to a point, indeed, but not without its plot surprises.  As far as characters go, it's tough to find a truly likable one in this story.  They're a pretty messed up group, with plenty of selfish obsessiveness to go around.  While Kal is the most appealing of the bunch, I still found her irrational, whiny, and slow on the uptake.  Still, I definitely wanted to find out what was going to happen to her.  That need to know kept me reading.  In the end, then, I liked The Missing One well enough, but I can't say I loved it.  I'm up for more from Atkins, though, and that's saying a lot.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of books by Peter May, Carol Goodman, and Ruth Ware)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, blood/gore, scenes of peril, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, March 25, 2021

McMahon's Newest Another Shivery, Shuddery Ghost Story

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Jackie "Jax" Metcalf has always lived in the shadow of her older sister's illness.  She spent her childhood caught up in Lexie's manic episodes and depressive cycles, so focused on keeping her sister's moods balanced that she hardly had a life of her own.  Now a psychologist and a social worker, 28-year-old Jax knows the value of boundaries.  Living in Seattle helps her keep her distance—both physically and emotionally—from Lexie's constant drama.

When Jax finds a string of missed calls from Lexie on her phone, she figures her sister's off her meds again.  The truth is much worse: Lexie is dead.  Although she was an excellent swimmer, Lexie drowned in the spring-fed swimming pool at Sparrow Crest, the remote Vermont estate she inherited from her grandmother.  Shocked and grief-stricken, Jax returns to the place where she and Lexie spent every summer, only to find the house littered with research materials about the Metcalfs and Sparrow Crest.  Tempted to dismiss the project as another one of Lexie's many flights of fancy, Jax instead starts combing through the information, which reveals strange details about Gram's unique swimming pool.  The murky water always held a strange fascination for Lexie; it gives Jax the creeps.  As she's increasingly drawn to its eerie edges, the pool begins to reveal its chilling secrets, secrets it's kept for a very, very long time ...

Jennifer McMahon specializes in shuddery, suspenseful stories sure to send chills tingling down your spine.  Her newest, The Drowning Kind (available April 6, 2021), is no exception.  It offers an atmospheric Gothic setting, complex characters, and a riveting plot.  I read it fast and furious, totally sucked in by McMahon's masterful storytelling.  The ending surprised me and not necessarily in a good way.  I didn't love it.  Even though The Drowning Kind isn't my favorite of this author's novels, it's still an engrossing, entertaining read.  If you like shivery ghost stories, definitely add this one to your TBR list.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books by Jennifer McMahon as well as those by Carol Goodman and Emily Carpenter)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, and depictions of illegal drug use (marijuana)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Drowning Kind from the generous folks at Simon & Schuster via those at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Monday, March 22, 2021

Popular Series Opener More About the Journey Than the Destination

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I started watching Longmire, a crime series on Netflix, without realizing it was based on a set of books.  Since I'm a staunch the-book-is-always-better-than-the-movie person, I immediately stopped watching and got to reading The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson.  In this first installment, we're introduced to Walt Longmire, who's been sheriff of (fictional) Absaroka County, Wyoming, for 25 years.  Although the venerable old cowboy loves his job, retirement is starting to sound mighty good.  With an election on the horizon, he just might get his wish.  In the meantime, it's up to him to deal with the murder of a local bad boy.

No one is too surprised or too saddened by the shooting death of Cody Pritchard.  The young man was no altar boy.  In fact, he was known for making racist cracks about Native Americans and being involved in the vicious gang rape of Melissa Little Bird, a Cheyenne girl with learning disabilities, three years ago.  Cody received only a light sentence for his part in the crime, an outcome that pleased the smug boy and outraged both Walt and his county's Indian community.  An eagle feather found by Cody's corpse seems to indicate that someone with Native blood is seeking justice in their own way.  While Walt isn't about to shed a tear over the likes of Cody Pritchard, it's his job to find out who killed the kid and stop the murderer from executing the rest of Melissa's rapists.  With the help of Victoria "Vic" Moretti, his tough-talking deputy and protĂ©gĂ©, the sheriff sets about to do just that.  As Walt digs deeper into the secrets of his small town friends and neighbors, he finds himself in increasing danger.  He won't stop until he finds the answers he seeks, even if it means stepping into the killer's crosshairs himself. 

I've heard The Cold Dish described as a "literary" mystery.  While I'm not sure it's as high-brow as all that, it's certainly more than your typical, run-of-the-mill police procedural.  For one thing, Johnson imbues the novel with a very strong sense of place.  You can feel his love for the American West—its landscape, its people, its contradictions—in every word he writes.  In addition, the story is much more about community than crime.  Johnson focuses on Walt's relationships with the people around him more than on the job he's doing.  The result is a folksy, long-winded novel that's enjoyable more for the journey than the destination.  While the plot takes a long time to get anywhere, which makes the story sag in places, there's still plenty in the way of humor, quirky characters, and local color to keep the reader entertained.  The killer's identity also surprised me, which doesn't happen all that often for this veteran mystery reader.  However, the most appealing thing about The Cold Dish by far is its hero.  Walt Longmire is an endearing character on many levels.  Not only is he brave, compassionate, and committed, but he's also fallible and self-deprecating.  It's impossible not to like him.  All these things considered, it's easy to see why this book has garnered so many fans since its publication in 2004.  While it's hardly an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it's an entertaining read.  The real question for me is, do I want to continue with the series?  Maybe, maybe not is my answer.  While I enjoy character-driven crime fiction, I prefer the kind that also features a taut, focused plot.  This is not that, so we'll see if I continue on with the series or not...

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett series, Margaret Coel's Wind River Reservation series, and Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, blood/gore, and sexual innuendo

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

Friday, March 19, 2021

Middle-Grade Dystopian/Survival Story Riveting and Thought-Provoking


(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As the sons of an avid survivalist, 13-year-old John Lockwood and his younger brother, Stewart, know how to cope with any doomsday scenario.  Not that they'll really need their father's advice about boiling toilet water and using yucca leaves to wash their clothes.  After all, Dad has stocked their home with enough supplies to last for two apocalypses.  The three of them can ride out any disaster in their isolated desert house, no problem.  

Then the power goes out—and stays out—while Mr. Lockwood is out of town.  No one knows what's going on, but it soon becomes clear to John that he and Stew are on their own.  Although John is concerned, he doesn't start to panic until a group of strangers invades his home, robbing the boys of all their food, water, and emergency supplies.  With no other choice, Johan and Stew are forced to stuff what little they have left into into their backpacks and set off across the desolate Nevada desert.  Help lies 96 miles away at the ranch of some family friends who will surely come to their aid.  It's a long journey, fraught with danger.  If they can survive the blistering heat, gnawing hunger, rabid thirst, feral animals, and desperate people they encounter, maybe just maybe, they can make it there in one piece.  As the grim days wear on, however, their chances of living through their ordeal grow slimmer and slimmer...

Growing up with a Secret Service agent who was obsessed with emergency preparedness, J.L. Esplin was born to write this kind of debut novel.  96 Miles is infused with real survival strategies that will fascinate anyone who's ever wondered what to do in a disaster scenario.  These tips add an intriguing element to the story, which is already taut, tense, and compelling.  John is a sympathetic character who's brave and resolute, even while he struggles under the pressure of making decisions in a brutal situation where the consequences of every choice can be dire.  He's determined to save his brother no matter what the cost, which makes him an appealing, root-worthy hero.  Although 96 Miles is a pretty straightforward dystopian/survival novel, there is a story swerve toward the end that caught me by surprise (although it really shouldn't have, considering...) and upped the ante for the boys considerably.  With an engrossing plot, likable characters, and skilled storytelling, 96 Miles is a riveting, immersive read.  Not only is it entertaining, but it's also thought-provoking, asking intriguing questions like:  How would I handle a crisis situation?  How would I act as things became increasingly desperate?  Would I keep my carefully-stocked supplies to myself or share them with others?  What decisions would I be forced to make and would I be able to live with myself afterward?  These discussion-worthy themes are just one more element that makes 96 Miles an excellent read.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Alone by Megan E. Freeman, Dry by Neal Shusterman, and other middle-grade/YA dystopian/survival novels)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, scary situations, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: My New and Upcoming Spring TBR List, Part Two


There have been some fun Top Ten Tuesday topics over the years, but my favorites are always the seasonal TBR lists.  It's enjoyable to see what everyone's planning to read.  I love seeing which titles my fellow bloggers are excited about, which I need to add to my own list, and which upcoming reads we have in common.  Because I love seasonal TBR lists so much, I actually started mine last week.  If you missed it, here's Part One of Top Ten Upcoming Releases on My Spring TBR.  There are lots of great books coming out in the next few months, so today I'm going to continue the theme with ten more new and upcoming releases that I want to read.

If you want to participate in TTT (and you definitely do), hop on over to That Artsy Reader Girl for all the details.

Top Ten Upcoming Releases on My Spring TBR List (Part Two)  


1.  The Block by Ben Oliver (available May 4, 2021)—I enjoyed the first book in this YA dystopian series about a boy who's been incarcerated in a futuristic prison that's (almost) impossible to escape.  Now that he and his motley crew of buddies have done the impossible, they have to figure out what is going on in the outside world.  Hint:  It's not pretty.


2.  The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton (available May 4, 2021)—Not only does this historical have a gorgeous cover, but the story sounds intriguing.  It features three women—one of whom is a New York City reporter, another of whom is a Cuban revolutionary jailed for stirring up trouble, and the third of whom is a courier secretly working for Cuba's freedom.  This trio comes together as their countries brace for war.


3.  Forget Me Not by Alexandra Oliva (released March 2, 2021)—This thriller revolves around a woman who was born to replace a dead child, then left alone to raise herself in a walled-off rural property.  When she sees something she shouldn't, she escapes, only to find herself in a modern world she's not prepared to inhabit.  Although she tries to lose herself in virtual reality, her traumatic childhood has a fierce hold on her, which forces her to return and confront her past.


4.  Girl in the Walls by A.J. Gnuse (available May 11, 2021)—When a new family moves into the home of a girl who has been orphaned, two brothers start catching disconcerting glimpses of a girl who seems to be living inside its walls.  Is she real?  As they try to cast her out, they bring a whole heap of trouble down on their own doorstep.  


5.  The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley (available May 25, 2021)—This time travel novel featuring a boy with amnesia sounds fun!


6.  A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia (available May 25, 2021)—I've mentioned this YA novel before.  It concerns all the residents of a Louisiana plantation, both those who live in the big house and those who reside in the slave quarters. 


7.  Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian (available May 4, 2021)—The Salem Witch Trials will never not make an intriguing backdrop for a historical novel.  I've enjoyed many titles by Bohjalian, so I'm interested to see what he does with his newest book.


8.  Are We There Yet? by Kathleen West (available today, March 16, 2021)—I enjoyed West's first novel, Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes, about suburban moms behaving badly.  Her newest concerns another smug mother whose perfect life is upended when she discovers her daughter is struggling, her teenage son has a secret life, and her own mother is keeping a shocking secret.  As she tries to deal with these bombshells under the judgmental eyes of moms just like her, she learns some hard truths.


9.  You'll Thank Me For This by Nina Siegal (available March 23, 2021)—The Dutch tradition of blindfolding teens and tweens and dropping them in the middle of the forest to see if they can find their way home is disturbing to Grace, an American married to a Dutch man.  When her daughter engages in the practice and disappears, Grace is terrified.  On her own in the wilderness, 12-year-old Karin fights for survival against something more sinister than just a silly Dutch tradition while her mother launches a desperate search to find her before it's too late.


10.  Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley (available March 16, 2021)—This YA novel has been getting tons of pre-publication buzz.  It concerns 18-year-old Daunis Fontaine, a young woman who has never quite fit in on her Ojibwe reservation.  She's eager to make a new start at college, but she's pulled back to her hometown because of a family emergency.  When she meets a dashing hockey player, she's intrigued, especially since he seems to be hiding an intriguing secret.  Recruited by the FBI to go undercover in order to root out an illegal drug ring, she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous world that could mean the end of everything that's good about hers.

There you go, ten more new and upcoming releases I'm excited to read this Spring.  Have you read any of them?  What's on your Spring TBR list?  I'd truly love to know.  Leave me a comment on this post and I will gladly return the favor on your blog.

Happy TTT!  

Monday, March 15, 2021

Cult-or-Commune Thriller a Pretty Ho-Hum Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After the unexpected death of her husband, Laura Evans is struggling to make sense out of everything.  She doesn't understand how her cautious spouse could have fallen at the construction site where he was working, especially after hours.  She has no idea how she's going to pay the bills while a stalled inquest halts insurance payments.  She can barely cope with Tilly, her hostile teenage daughter, who's full of grief and attitude.  Losing her husband, her home, and her struggling flower shop leaves Laura with no money, no support, and no future.  How will she and Tilly survive?

When she and Tilly are offered a place at a commune-style organics farm in the Welsh countryside called Gorphwysfa (Resting Place), Laura has little choice but to take it.  The community's charismatic leader, 27-year-old Alex Draycott, is welcoming and Laura feels herself relaxing for the first time since her husband's death.  It's not long, though, before strange things start happening to Laura and Tilly, things that make Laura question whether Gorphwysfa is a dream or a nightmare.  Tilly's happy at the commune, but as Laura digs deeper into the place's secrets, she grows more and more alarmed.  What is really going on at Gorphwysfa?  Are its gates protecting Laura and Tilly from the outside world or are they imprisoning them, barring its inmates from rescue?  Will the grief-stricken women ever find healing and peace?

Other than its Welsh setting, there's nothing very original about The Family by Louise Jensen.  It's your typical "Is this really a safe, bucolic commune for damaged people or is it a creepy, megalomaniac-led cult that will steal both your money and your soul?" novel.  Laura and Tilly are sympathetic characters, but they're not super smart ones.  Laura's actions after arriving at Gorphwysfa make little sense.  Tilly's decisions are just as dumb, but at least hers can be explained by the ignorance of youth.  Although Alex is described as charming, I found him repugnant from the get-go.  It makes no sense that all the women are in love with him.  Ick.  As far as plot goes, the story moves along at a steady pace.  While I saw most of the twists coming, a couple took me by surprise.  Enough happened in the book to keep me reading, but by the end, I was plowing through just to get it over with, really.  In the end, then, I found The Family to be a pretty ho-hum read.  I doubt I'll revisit this author.

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

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, sexual content, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

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

Friday, March 12, 2021

Middle Grade #OwnVoices Novel Eye-Opening and Empowering

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Minnie Miranda's single mother—an Argentine-American with no close family—labors tirelessly to support her and her two younger sisters.  Mamá is always working overtime at her menial jobs, leaving Minnie in charge.  When she is in their drafty basement apartment, Mamá is exhausted and cranky.  Despite all her hours at work, the fridge is never full, Minnie's sisters have few toys, and all of them make do with embarrassing castoff clothing.  Although the 12-year-old knows she should be grateful just to have a roof over her head, Minnie's tired of being poor, frustrated with all of her grown-up responsibilities, and especially weary of her mother's constant warnings to never let outsiders into their lives.  Mamá insists they don't need anyone's help with anything.  Minnie's not so sure.

Despite the endless hours she works, Mamá always comes home in the evenings to say goodnight to her girls.  When she fails to appear one night, Minnie hopes Mamá has just been unable to get away.  With no word from her, however, Minnie begins to fear the worst: she's been detained by ICE.  Knowing she can't confide in anyone—not even a surprising new school friend—she carries on as best she knows how, trying to keep her sisters calm, fed, and entertained.  Nothing seems to go her away, although somehow, the girls seem to be getting a bit of help from the Peques, the Argentine fairies Minnie's younger sisters still believe in.

Even the Peques can't help with Minnie's upcoming audition for Peter Pan.  Minnie knows a penniless Latinx girl has no real hope of playing Wendy, but she's desperate to try for the part.  Mamá knows how important the audition is to Minnie and promised to be there.  Is she really going to miss it?  If she could be there, Minnie knows she would be.  What has happened to Mamá?  She can't conceal her family's situation for much longer, but her mother has always insisted strangers can't be trusted.  What is Minnie to do? 


Let's be honest here, the cover of On These Magic Shores by Argentine-American Yamile Saied MĂ©ndez is...not great.  Thank goodness it came to my attention because of The Whitney Awards.  Had I seen the book in a library or bookstore, I never would have picked it up.  And that would have been a shame because there's a lot to like about this #OwnVoices middle grade novel.  It touches on a lot of tough issues—racism, poverty, fear of deportation, children with too much responsibility, etc.—in a way that is eye-opening but also approachable.  As Minnie struggles, she learns the value of friendship, forgiveness, asking for help when you need it, and being grateful for what you have even if it's not a lot.  Some of the lessons are more subtle than others, but they're all there.  Although the plot of On These Magic Shores isn't always logical, the transitions between scenes not always smooth, and the prose a little rough in places, overall the story is engaging and compelling with enough going on to keep me turning pages.  The magical realism isn't my favorite element of this novel, but it worked well enough.  Character-wise, Minnie and her sisters are sympathetic heroines.  Minnie's prickly personality makes her difficult to like, especially when she acts like a victim-y brat.  She does grow and change because of her struggles, but she's still a bit hard to take.  Others act inconsistently (Maverick, for instance), but they're still a likable lot overall.  There are enough issues with On These Magic Shores that I didn't end up loving it.  However, it is an eye-opening, empowering, empathy-inducing story.  I liked it overall.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar and EfrĂ©n Divided by Ernesto Cisneros)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for scary situations (absent parent, racism, fear of deportation/police, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of On These Magic Shores from the generous folks at Lee & Low Books as part of an awards competition I am helping to judge.  Thank you!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

It's Compelling, That's Why!

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ever since the tragic death of her toddler, Ellie has been spiraling.  She's drinking too much, making reckless decisions, and acting out against her billionaire father.  One night, after too many cocktails, she literally stumbles into a handsome, successful real estate developer named Martin Cresswell-Smith.  His interest and gentle kindness are exactly what Ellie needs.  After a whirlwind courtship, the two are married and headed to Martin's native Australia, where they're heading up a multi-million dollar venture to build a luxury resort at Jarrawarra Bay, New South Wales.

Ellie's excited for this much-needed fresh start, but it's not long before her fairy tale life Down Under starts to dissolve.  Not everything about Martin and his building project is what it seems.  When the developer is brutally murdered, suspicion naturally turns to his unstable wife.  Did Ellie kill her new husband?  If so, why?  

Everyone in Jarrawarra Bay thinks Ellie murdered Martin.  Detective Senior Constable Lozza Bianchi isn't so sure.  She saw evidence of Ellie's fear of Martin firsthand.  Didn't she?  Can the widow be believed or is Ellie Cresswell-Smith manipulating everyone around her, including the police?  Lozza's already on thin ice with the department, but she will not stop digging until she knows what really happened to Martin.  The truth is far more sinister than even she imagined...

I'm always down for a compelling psychological thriller and In the Deep by Loreth Anne White sounded like just the ticket.  Was it?  There's no doubt that this is an engrossing novel.  It kept me on an uneven keel throughout, making me wonder who was telling the truth, who was hiding something, and who I could trust.  While I saw some of the plot twists coming, a couple caught me by surprise.  I like a mystery/thriller that keeps me guessing—and this one did.  Ish.  However, In the Deep is dark, violent, and disturbing.  It gave me more than one nightmare.  Not gonna lie, I kept asking myself, "Why am I reading this?"  It's compelling, that's why!  Bad dreams be darned, I wanted to find out what really happened between Ellie and Martin.  Still, the characters are an unlikable bunch who pretty much get exactly what they deserve.  Lozza is the only one I cared about, so I was disappointed that she didn't get more page time.  On the whole, then, I give this book props for being an unputdownable page-turner.  It loses points (at least for me) for being full of unlikable characters and for being too dark and depressing.  If this book is any indication, White's style is just too much for me.  I'll be giving her books a wide berth in future.    

(Readalikes:  I've seen White compared to Robert Dugoni, but I've only read one book by each of them so I'm not sure how apt the comparison is.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, blood/gore, sex, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Who Has Time to Clean When There's Reading to Be Done?

 


Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic is a Spring cleaning freebie, but let's be honest here...I hate cleaning.  I'd much rather put my feet up and read a book on the couch than dust, scrub, vacuum, or sweep.  In keeping with this theme, I'm going to avoid today's prompt and spring forward a week and do next week's Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR instead.  Since there are so many great-sounding books coming out in the next few months, I'm going to focus my list on upcoming releases.  As usual, I'll do it in two parts because, you know how it is when you want to read ALL the things.

If you want to join in the TTT fun (and you do), head on over to That Artsy Reader Girl for all the details. 

Top Ten Upcoming Releases on My Spring TBR List


1.  In a Book Club Far Away by Tif Marcelo (available April 6, 2021)—This contemporary novel features three Army wives who bond through a book club, which is later disbanded because of a shocking betrayal among its members.  When one of the former friends sends out a plea for help, the others come to her rescue.  As they work through old hurts, they'll have to decide whether or not their broken friendship is worth salvaging.


2.  All the Children Are Home by Patry Francis (available April 13, 2021)—Set in the 1950s and 60s, this historical novel revolves around a set of foster parents who reluctantly takes in an indigenous girl who has been horribly abused.  The child, who knows next to nothing about herself or her Native American roots, just might be the family's salvation.


3.  Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia (available March 30, 2021)—This family saga features family history, secrets, and fraught mother/daughter relationships, all with a Cuban flair. 


4.  A Trail of Lies by Kylie Logan (available May 11, 2021)—I enjoy the Jazz Ramsey mystery series, so I'm excited to read this third installment.  An ARC of A Trail of Lies just landed on my doorstep, so it's next on my list.  The story features more dead bodies for Jazz's canine to find and more murders for her to solve.


5.  The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray (available March 30, 2021)—This historical novel has three timelines, all which center around a French castle and the women who defend it.


6.  A Million Reasons Why by Jessica Strawser (available March 23, 2021)—You all know I love a good DNA/family history story and this one sounds compelling.  It's about two sisters who find each other through a mail-in DNA test.  The shocking discovery changes both of their lives. 


7.  The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale (available April 27, 2021)—I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm still a sucker for a haunting story.  This "true" account sounds like fun, even if it seems more appropriate for Fall than Spring.


8.  Last Gate of the Emperor by Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen (available May 4, 2021)—I need an Afrofuturist book for a reading challenge prompt and this middle grade sci-fi/fantasy adventure sounds fun.  


9.  The Vines by Shelley Nolden (available March 23, 2021)—For several decades, North Brother Island, New York, was used for quarantining patients with infectious diseases like tuberculosis and small pox.  Long abandoned, but still covered in crumbling medical buildings, it's off-limits to visitors. When an urban explorer sneaks onto the land and spies a beautiful woman hiding in the ghost town, he becomes obsessed with learning her story.


10.  The Kew Garden Girls by Posy Lovell (available April 20, 2021)—With World War I in full swing, able-bodied male workers are scarce in London.  Determined to do their part on the home front, Ivy and Louisa enlist, becoming laborers at the Royal Botanic Gardens.  Not everyone is pleased to have women doing men's jobs, however, and problems quickly ensue.

There you go, ten upcoming releases I'm looking forward to reading.  Which new titles are you interested in?  What's on your Spring TBR list?  I'd truly love to know.  Leave me a comment on this post and I will gladly return the favor on your blog.

Happy TTT!  

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