Friday, September 23, 2011

Unforeseen Fears

Unforeseen Fears, An Armis Ambros Mystery, by H. William Gruchow. Self-published.  Review copy provided by author.

Armis Ambros and his friend Jake like to make bets, small and large, especially on the outcomes of criminal cases they read about in the newspaper.  They're very interested when a body gets dredged out of Emerald Lake, answering the question of what happened to Retha Demond twelve years ago--at least in terms of her ultimate location.  But the sheriff seems to be sweeping the case under the rug awfully quickly, and then another case, this time two adults shot and a child missing and found dismembered, is equally ignored, so Armis gets a little more involved than he usually does.  Digging into old records and asking questions leads Armis into a dangerous world of political corruption that may just land him in the lake, too.

This novel jumps around a lot at first, making it somewhat difficult to follow before it settles into a more linear pattern. Gruchow more or less reveals whodunit in the first chapters, which I personally did not like. I'd rather be allowed to guess along the way in a mystery than have the reveal up front and then have the story show how things turned out this way.  Yes, there are some elements left unstated, and a few more people get killed, but corrupt investigators are shown right away and that's the solution.  Armis and his friend Jake seem to be two old guys meddling around where they shouldn't be.  Their bets are supposed to be humorous, I think, but did not appeal to me that much.  Jake's character is left fairly undeveloped as he mainly functions as a sounding board for Armis, who is supposed to be the brains of the duo--because he's a college professor, after all. Overall, this mystery wasn't to my taste, but others may enjoy it.

Sign Language

Sign Language by Amy Ackley (NY: Viking, 2011).

Twelve-year-old Abby's dad is sick and getting sicker.  First he has his kidney removed, then he has to start treatments.  Abby thinks he'll get better, but then there are more treatments and he's sicker and tired all the time, and he has to quit his job, but she still thinks he'll get better.  No one really tells her that it's cancer, and that it's spreading. And terminal.  Or maybe her mom did tell her but she didn't believe it.  She wants to think about normal problems, like how her brother ignores her, how she wishes Logan Pierce would notice her, how much fun she and her best friend Spence can have when he's not working. Even when she faces the reality of her dad's imminent death and the death itself, Abby just wants to hide from everyone. If only God or her eight ball could give her the answers she needs.

Abby's denial is difficult to understand at first, but it's certainly realistic.  What kid wouldn't just deny the possibility of a parent's death rather than face it head on?  Abby's desire to keep what's happening at home a secret from everyone at school is likewise realistic. Ackley does a little too much telling and not enough showing at first, but once the story gets going, it starts to flow a lot better.  Abby is an endearing character and her experience is truly heartbreaking.  Her mother and brother, and especially her friend Spence, are well drawn.  This would be an excellent book to recommend to a child who is facing similar issues at home or is trying to understand what a friend is going through.  Recommended for ages 12 & up.

The Darlings in Love

The Darlings in Love by Melissa Kantor (NY: Hyperion, 2012). Reviewed from e-galley provided by the publisher via

In this second installment of The Darlings are Forever series, Natalya, Victoria, and Jane are settling into their new high schools while maintaining their close friendship and trying to survive bumps in their love lives.  Natalya is still crushing on Colin who has refused to speak to her, even though she's apologized, until they see each other at the park and start communicating again.  But things are more complicated than the chess matches they enjoy, and Natalya turns to her friends frequently for advice.  Meanwhile, Victoria is in the throes of new love with her boyfriend Jack until misunderstandings arise and she starts to question their relationship.  Jane thinks she should stick to advising her two friends until she's asked to play in a love scene with the cutest boy she's ever seen.  That angel face could never deceive her, right?

This is a wonderful continuation of the series and actually reads much more smoothly than the first volume.  Maybe it's because the characters are established, but I enjoyed The Darlings in Love more than I did the first one. Kantor does a superb job of showing the girls' sometimes awkward and painful forays into the world of romance and love. Drama, yes, but not over the top, and really well done.  Highly recommended for ages 11 & up. 

My Lunatic Life

My Lunatic Life by Sharon Sala (Memphis, TN: Bell Bridge Books, 2011). Reviewed from e-galley provided by publisher via

Tara Luna and her aging hippie uncle, Pat, have just moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma, in time for the start of Tara's senior year in high school, and naturally she's overjoyed. Not really.  While she's grown accustomed to the constant moving occasioned by her uncle's restless nature, and she deeply appreciates the care he's taken of her since her parents died when she was a baby, she's hoping they'll stay put this time.  Aside from Uncle Pat, the two constants in her life--her best friends really--are ghosts, Millicent and Henry, who have been with her as long as she can remember.  She can see them (Millicent usually takes the shape of a pink vapor, Henry a grayish form) and talk to them. Oh, and she's psychic, too, so she can sense what people are feeling, read their auras, and hear their thoughts.  It may not be normal, but it's her normal.

Now that she's a senior Tara's decided she's not going to try to blend in, the way she has in the past.  Whatever happens, happens.  Unfortunately, she tangles with the cheerleader clique on the first day of school and even attracts the attention of  Flynn O'Mara, the hottest guy she's ever seen.  Plus she feels compelled to help people when she senses they need help--like the teacher whose babysitter is stealing from her, or the guy who nearly dies in the boys' bathroom.  Then there's the dark spirit in her house who seems to need something and the head cheerleader goes missing. 

Tara is a super character to read about; Sala handles the paranormal elements deftly and with great humor. The ghosts pull ghostly stunts, but also have their own distinct characters as well. Millicent's malapropisms add some laughs and her text messages are funny, too. The romance moves along nicely, plus there's the mystery of figuring out what's going on with the dark spirit and trying to locate the missing cheerleader.  All in all, My Lunatic Life is a great start to what looks to be a fun series.  Recommended for teens 13 and up.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reel Life Starring Us

Reel Life Starring Us by Lisa Greenwald (NY: Amulet Books, 2011); reviewed from uncorrected e-proof provided by publisher via

New girl Dina has just moved to Long Island from Massachusetts.  She was cool there, so she'll be cool here, too, right?  Instead she keeps discovering potato chips smashed in her backpack--something called being chipped at this new school, Rockwood Hills Junior High.  She notices the cliques, too, that seem to be based on relative wealth.  With her trusty video camera, Dina starts recording what she sees, and even lands an assignment to make a video for the school's 50th anniversary celebration; even better, her partner is the most popular girl in school, Chelsea.  This can only help Dina's social status, of course. Only it doesn't really, and slowly Dina learns that there's more to everything than appearances, and maybe being in the most exclusive clique isn't worth all that much compared to having real friends who value her for herself.

Ah, the dangerous waters of middle school!  Who can ever forget the scrupulous navigation they require, and how fruitless the entire experience is in the end.  As in My Life in Pink and Green, Greenwald has created engaging characters with real problems that are serious, yet not enough to ruin a funny story.  Dina's relentless optimism and charming insight infuse the novel with a cheerful glow, while Chelsea's struggles with keeping her father's unemployment and family's struggling finances a secret add a shade of gray. This is an excellent read for middle grades, highly recommended for ages 10 & up.  

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (NY: Scholastic, 2004).

Steven is a typical, and talented, eighth grader in NYC.  He cooperates with his teachers--even writing on the assigned topics in his journal, most of the time. He plays the drums for the All City Jazz Band, has an hopeless crush on the cutest girl in his grade, and wishes his little brother Jeffrey could be less annoying.  Funny how one day can change everything.  It starts out so ordinary--making "moatmeal" for Jeffrey--but ends with Jeffrey being diagnosed with leukemia and having to go for more tests, and then treatment, in Philadelphia.  Suddenly Steven's world is shattered.  At first he doesn't tell anyone.  He stops doing his homework and writes about anything he wants to in his journal.  And he practices his drums all the time because that helps him forget, just for a little while, what's happening to his family.  His dad won't even talk to him.  His mom is distraught and focused on Jeffrey's treatments.  As his world unravels, Steven has to learn how to deal with the seemingly incomprehensible situation.

If Steven weren't such a humorous character, this novel probably would have been a total downer.  As it was, I cried. A lot.  But there are plenty of comic interludes, and Steven uses humor as a coping mechanism to great effect for everyone in his family, especially Jeffrey. And Jeffrey is an adorable character--brave and goofy despite his ordeal. Overall, this is an excellent quick read for middle grades.  Highly recommended for ages 9 & up.

The Candymakers

The Candymakers by Wendy Mass (NY: Little, Brown, 2010).

Out of hundreds of entries, four contestants in eight regions will compete to win the Annual Candy Contest sponsored by the Confectionary Association. In Region Three, Logan Sweet would seem to have a special advantage as the son of the owner of the Life Is Sweet Candy Factory--he rarely even leaves the factory and can differentiate among types of chocolate by touch. The other three contestants who will come to the factory have their own stories--Miles is obsessed with the afterlife; Philip wears a suit and is laser-focused on winning, no matter what the cost; and cheerful Daisy has unusual strength. They have two days to learn everything they need to create their own confections, but it turns out there's more to this contest than candy.

Mass has crafted an engaging, lovely tale for middle grades with The Candymakers.  Initially it appeared to be derivative of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or its movie equivalent), but that's because it starts with Logan's perspective and then proceeds to the other contestants' perspectives, which changes the story completely.  All of the contestants have something to hide--and something to learn.  Friendships develop even as the children selectively reveal their motivations for entering the contest. The sweet descriptions will make readers' mouths water, and the mystery makes the pages fly.  Highly recommended for ages 9 & up. 


Legacy by Cayla Kluver (2009; NY: Harlequin, 2011); reviewed from e-galley provided by the publisher via

Princess Alera has one year to make up her mind about who to marry.  She doesn't particularly like the egotistic man her father has selected, and she doesn't really know what to do.  She gets to know a young, handsome prisoner almost on a whim, but since he hails from her country's principal enemy, she knows any relationship would be forbidden.  Even when it turns out that Nerian is from her country, but was abducted and raised by enemy forces, he's still not a suitable choice for her despite what her heart is telling her.

I don't read a lot of fantasy, especially the fake medieval kind, but this one was all right.  The cover doesn't match the content at all (imho!); the hair, the dress, the jewelry are all more nineteenth century than thirteenth or fourteenth or whatever century was being described. The novel seems way too long with far too much superfluous detail, but perhaps that's part of the genre. *shrug*  The love story dragged a bit, too. The court intrigue adds some interest, but really Alera's dad, the King, is a chauvinist who wants to bully his daughter into marrying the man he's selected no matter what so he can retire and avoid the war that's sure to erupt any time now.  The book ends in a cliff hanger, which I won't spoil here, and there are some mysteries about the enemy country that need explanation, so I do want to read the next installment.  Recommended for ages 12 & up.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Beauty Queens (Audio)

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (NY: Scholastic Audiobooks, 2011). Read by Libba Bray.

When their plane crashes on a seemingly deserted tropical island, the surviving Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant contestants consolidate their talents to stay alive, continue their pageant preparations, and bravely wait for what they assume will be a speedy rescue. But no one comes. And maybe they're not alone on the island. That volcano in the distance? It's actually the evil Corporation's clandestine headquarters for plotting nefarious activities, like complete world domination and arms dealing with the brutal dictator MoMo B ChaCha of the Republic of ChaCha (whose advisor is a stuffed lemur named General Goodtimes). Miss Texas channels the pageant's chief sponsor, Ladybird Hope and organizes the girls into teams (Lost Girls and Sparkle Ponies) to gather useful items that wash ashore (curling irons!), build huts, forage for food, and practice their dance routines. Miss New Hampshire, an undercover journalist who wants to expose the seamy underside of the pageant world, attempts to educate the other Teen Dreamers about the evils of objectification. Things get really crazy when the cast members of the pirate reality show Captains Bodacious crash their ship nearby and the girls and guys start interacting.

As many other reviewers have noted, Beauty Queens hybridizes such disparate sources as Lost, Lord of the Flies, Survivor, Heart of Darkness, Gilligan's Island, etc., but it's still highly original and hysterically funny. Libba Bray's narration in the audio version is superb. Her voice for Ladybird Hope sounds a lot like Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin, and she nails all the different accents and inflections of contestants' home states. Commercial breaks and footnotes lampoon America's materialist, consumerist culture. The girls themselves start out as types, but quickly become engaging individuals, and they all have secrets that are gradually revealed. Liberal injections of action--snake attack! flash floods!--keep the plot tripping speedily along. Some of the situations may seem over the top (Ladybird's collaboration with the ridiculous dictator of ChaCha, for instance), but overall the effect is a wildly hilarious satire. Highly recommended (in the audio format!) for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, alcohol, hallucinogenic berries.