Saturday, August 27, 2011


Uncaged by Paul McKellips (NY: Vantage Point, 2011). Review copy provided by author.

Animal rights activists are conspiring to shut down biomedical research in the United States just as terrorists have weaponized the bubonic plague with the help of Russian and Korean interests. Two military officers who are themselves medical researchers, "Camp" Campbell and Leslie Raines, reluctantly join forces to thwart the terrorists and reinstate animal research before a deadly flu virus can kill thousands of Americans. With help from a crack team, Camp and Raines must investigate an intricate web of international alliances to uncover the truth.

No doubt about it, this is an extremely complicated novel, not just because it deals with politics, espionage, and medicine, but because it's spread out all over the world--the U.S., Algeria, Korea, Japan, Russia, and Costa Rica, to name a few locales. Because of all the various threads that have to come together, the story jumps around a lot through the first half, and it's a bit hard to follow. There's a lot of political shenanigans and shady dealings, some of them less than believable. It seems highly unlikely, for instance, that all animal research could be suspended by an executive order of the US President. Many of the characters seem more like types than real characters, including the main characters. However, since the novel focuses more on action than individuals that may be fine for most readers, especially those who like military types, such as Clancy fans. The second half of the novel really picks up the pace and becomes truly compelling. Overall, Uncaged is a highly readable medical thriller.


Tangled by Carolyn Mackler (NY: HarperTeen, 2010).

Jenna, Dakota, Skye, and Owen are four teens who happen to be at a Caribbean resort called Paradise over spring break and whose lives couldn't be more different, yet they become unpredictably tangled. The four-part story moves chronologically through each of their perspectives as they navigate difficulties in their lives. Jenna is insecure, especially about boys, and her brief encounter with Dakota in Paradise doesn't build her confidence, especially when the gorgeous and confident Skye decides to spitefully butt in, just because she can. Still, simply moving out of her comfort zone helps Jenna take another step later on. A skilled actress, Skye is definitely hiding something from everyone in her life. Dakota just wants to forget about the recent death of his girlfriend and overcome the guilt he feels, but he also has to learn to deal with situations in ways that don't hurt others. His brother Owen is more like Jenna and needs to learn to live life rather than just observe others.

I enjoyed the way the narrative moved from one perspective to the next one but remained chronological. It was interesting to see the characters as others saw them, especially once they'd given their own perspectives. Jenna was my favorite character because she's shy and has to force herself to do things she doesn't want to do, even though she might get hurt. She also learns that you can't always trust appearances as Dakota and Skye, who both seem confident and attractive, both have difficult issues they needs to face. Jenna plays an interesting role in helping all the other characters, too. As much as I liked the changing perspectives, they also kept characters from being as developed as I might've liked, especially Owen (whose part is last). Since some parts of the other characters' lives wouldn't (or couldn't) necessarily be included by the current narrator, that made it hard to follow the details of everyone's lives. Overall, though, this is a great read, recommended for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, language, alcohol.

The Duff: Designated Ugly Fat Friend

The Duff: Designated Ugly Fat Friend by Kody Keplinger (NY: Little, Brown, 2011).

Bianca Piper hates Wesley Rush. Yes, he's hot, but he's a total player who's constantly hitting on every girl at school. Plus, he told her she's a DUFF, and now he keeps calling her Duff or Duffy. Bianca knows she's not as pretty as her friends, and she's a bit overweight, but she doesn't need the constant reminders. But when things go south at home, Bianca needs a distraction and Wesley is happy to step in.

Keplinger's novel delves into the brutal world of teen insecurities and body image. Bianca is like many teen-aged girls and has doubts about her appearance, constantly comparing herself to her friends and classmates. Her self-esteem suffers a further hit when her mom and dad divorce and her dad starts drinking. Hooking up with Wesley takes her mind off her troubles, but also adds to them as she feels compelled to hide her actions from her friends, just as she's hiding her family situation. I enjoyed the way the story not only played on Bianca's insecurities but also showed that everyone has the same doubts, including the wealthy and popular crowd. The novel likewise demonstrates the hurtful power of words and labels. Highly recommended for ages 14 and up. Sexual situations, alcohol, language.

Don't Stop Now

Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern (NY: Feiwel and Friends, 2011).

Lillian and Josh are best friends, just friends, though Lillian thinks she wants more. Newly graduated from high school, they are planning a lazy summer before Lillian heads off to college and Josh does...something. Maybe a band, maybe a job. That's Josh's deal--his rich and largely absent dad doesn't really provide much structure and Josh simply drifts. Lillian wishes he'd drift more toward her. Then a sort-of friend, Penny, goes missing and she's left a phone message clue for Lillian that leads Lillian and Josh on a road trip. It's a sign, right? The perfect opportunity for Lillian to get together with Josh in a whole new way, even if the vehicle happens to have no air conditioning.

Lillian is supposed to be smart, but somehow she can't see that Josh is pretty aimless and lame. Thankfully, the road trip helps her figure it out, but it still doesn't explain why it took her four years to see it! The road trip from Chicago to Seattle and back again is by far the best part of this novel as Josh and Lillian make some fun stops along the way. Perhaps Penny's faked abduction and the piecemeal revelation of her sad situation with an abusive boyfriend is supposed to add some interest, but it really doesn't. It's just sad. Overall, not a bad read, but not fabulous either. Recommended for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, alcohol.

Smokin' Seventeen

Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich (NY: Bantam, 2011).

The latest installment of Stephanie Plum's adventures finds Stephanie, Luli, and the rest of the bond agency working out of Mooner's RV parked near the lot where Vinnie's building burned down. Then bodies start turning up where a foundation should be going, and the killer suggests that Stephanie will be next! On top of that, Morelli's grandmother has hexed Stephanie with a wild sex drive that has her hopping between Morelli and Ranger in what Lulu call's a bake-off that should help Stephanie decide which one she'll settle down with. Meanwhile Stephanie's mom and grandmother are trying to set her up with a former high school football star who wants to cook for Stephanie--and more!

If you like this series, you will like Smokin' Seventeen. Yes, some of the jokes are getting old, like Stephanie's perpetually exploding cars and Grandma Mazur's funeral home antics, but Stephanie and Lulu's misadventures in bounty hunting remain entertaining. At times it seems like Evanovich is stretching the limits of the series in a bad way--going for funny situations rather than advancing the plot and solving the mystery--but overall this is a good read, well worth a look. It is an adult novel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Mercy by Rebecca Lim (NY: Hyperion, 2011).

The jacket blurb proclaims that Mercy is "an exile from heaven," but that is not immediately clear when the narrative starts. Mercy has awoken in yet another new body, this time of a teen named Carmen, a gifted, though timid, soprano who is on her way to a two-week choir collaboration in a neighboring town with the ironic name of Paradise. Mercy can remember two or three bodies back in time, but not much more, and is not even sure that her name is "Mercy," just that she thinks it might be. She gleans information about her true self from her dreams, especially those of a special person named Luc, who often gives her cryptic warnings about what she can and can't do--and the dangers that may be lurking. She's not sure what she's supposed to do for Carmen, but as in her previous incarnations, she uses her powers to figure things out. She can feel others' pain and see their pasts with a touch. As Carmen, she's living with a family ravaged by the abduction and presumed death of a daughter, Lauren. Lauren's twin brother Ryan insists that Lauren is still alive, and Mercy comes to believe that her mission is to help find Lauren.

Lim has crafted an engaging tale with a missing person mystery that drives the plot. The romance is underwhelming--both with Mercy's dream man Luc and with Ryan, the boy she's helping in her current incarnation. The mystery of Mercy herself is in some ways more compelling than that of the missing Lauren. Her dreams give some answers, but she also seems to be recovering more memory of her past, especially what has led to her current peripatetic existence. The word "angel" is never used in the novel, but she's clearly a spiritual entity, and the cover art shows her wings. She also exerts some supernatural power to save Lauren in the end. It will be interesting to see where this series goes. Recommended for ages 13 & up.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (NY: Dutton, 2010).

Anna's all set to enjoy her senior year in Atlanta, but then her dad decides she should go to boarding school. In Paris! She doesn't want to leave her best friend, or her job at the multiplex theater, or Toph, the guy she's been crushing on and who seems to have noticed her--finally! But her father insists, and she quickly finds herself alone in her dorm. Luckily her neighbor rescues her from a crying jag and introduces her to friends, including the immediately entrancing Etienne. Yes, he has an older girlfriend, but surely all his attention means something. Plus, Anna has to step outside her comfort zone and learn to explore a foreign city.

This is a great summer read. The romance is well developed with a dishy boy and a smart, funny heroine, and the setting is magnifique, of course! Highly recommended for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, alcohol.

The Beginning of After

The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle (NY: HarperCollins, 2011). Reviewed from e-proof provided by publisher via

Summary from publisher:
Laurel’s world changes instantly when her parents and brother are killed in a terrible car accident. Behind the wheel is the father of her bad-boy neighbor, David Kaufman, whose mother is also killed. Now, Laurel must navigate a new world in which she and her best friend grow apart, boys may or may not be approaching her out of pity, overpowering memories lurk everywhere, and Mr. Kaufman is comatose but still very much alive. Through it all, there is David, who swoops in and out of Laurel’s life and to whom she finds herself attracted against her better judgment. She will forever be connected to him by their mutual loss, a connection that will change them both in unexpected ways.

Castle's novel poignantly and unflinchingly examines how Laurel deals with a cataclysmic loss. One minute she's studying vocabulary for the SAT and the next she's burying her family. After the initial numbness wears off a bit, Laurel tries to go back to school, but she feels like everyone's watching her, pitying her, even judging her. For instance, her best friend Megan wants her to go to prom and even knows someone who will ask Laurel, but Laurel is sure it would be a pity date since Joe has never seemed to notice her before. Also, weird rumors are swirling about Laurel and David, the son of the man who was driving the car in the accident that killed her family. Laurel goes to prom with Joe and is having a good time until David shows up at the after party and confronts her, at which point Laurel has a breakdown. From there, Laurel tries a bunch of different coping tactics, including a grief counselor.

Kudos to Castle for tackling a highly fraught topic and showing grief as a long process rather than a quick romantic adventure. Feelings, especially grief, are mercurial and unpredictable, and the feelings examined include those of all the characters, for as Laurel comes to realize, it's not all about her--her grandmother, her friends, her friends' families, her teachers--everyone in her life is dealing with the loss in their own ways, too, and her relationships will never be the same as they were before her loss, no matter how much she wishes they can be. Recommended for ages 13 & up. Language, sexual situations, intense situations.


Misfit by Jon Skovron (NY: Abrams, 2011). Reviewed from e-galley provided by publisher via

Jael has known she's different since she was eight years old and her dad told her she was half demon. Her mother, a demon, had died when she was three months old, and Jael and her father had led an itinerant existence, moving from one place to another to protect Jael from the demons who felt threatened by her existence. Jael understands her dad's motivations but feels hemmed in by his overprotectiveness. On her sixteenth birthday, Jael's dad gives her a special necklace from her mother, and Jael starts to learn more about her demon heritage--and all the dangers and powers associated with it.

Skovron has a lively writing style, and Jael is a feisty character, so overall Misfit reads well. However, the plot shifted around too much between the past and the present. Also, there was a huge disconnect between Jael's dad's character in the past and what Jael sees in the present. He and Jael's mom had a passionate partnership and battled demons all over the world, yet he seems timid and fearful in the present. Some of this is explained, but not too convincingly. Jael's romance with Rob is not well developed, a surprising contrast to Jael's parents' relationship. Uncle Dagon, a gigantic fish-like creature, is a great character, gross and funny simultaneously. All the shifts in the plot made the story harder to follow than it should've been. The end was somewhat abrupt and the resolution somewhat easy. Perhaps there's a sequel in the works that will explain Jael's special role in vanquishing the demons and continuing the Reclamation that is hinted at but never fully explicated in this novel.

This is a good read for paranormal fans, ages 13 & up. Language, sexual situations, and violence.