Friday, October 5, 2012


Wonder by R.J. Palacio (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

Ten-year-old August Pullman is nervous about starting fifth grade after being homeschooled all his life.  He knows he looks different from other kids, even frightening, because of congenital facial deformities, but deep down he feels like an ordinary kid, and he wants to be treated like one. He visits Beecher Prep before school starts and the middle school director, Mr. Tushman, has arranged for several students to show Auggie around and then help him over the first few days.  While the arranged friendships don't work out as planned, another student befriends him, and eventually a few more, until at last nearly everyone learns to see past the deformity and value Auggie for who he is--a super, nice, funny kid.

First off, hats off to Palacio for her incredible handling of such a sensitive topic. Most places wouldn't consider fifth grade middle school the way this book does, but it is the perfect grade for a book on this topic because kids are a lot more forgiving at ten than at thirteen, when being like everyone else and fitting in become much, much more crucial. Not that all of the characters are able to see past Auggie's appearance.  One boy in particular bullies Auggie and instigates some aggression. Auggie is a wonderful character, funny and heart breaking by turns, and I loved reading his perspective.  His sense of humor makes him engaging for readers and lends credibility to his developing friendships.  What made the book brilliant, though, is the varying perspectives of so many characters, some of whom seem peripheral, but whose viewpoints show how actions beget more actions.  This includes how Auggie's parents' actions have impacted their family life and how his older sister has adapted. Further, all the characters are brutally honest about their initial reactions to Auggie's appearance and then how their feelings change as they get to know him. None of the adults serve as narrators, so the novel is truly kidcentric, even as adults obviously guide some of the events.

This book is virtually guaranteed to win many awards and land on many best and recommended lists. It would make a great readaloud, especially at school where issues like bullying and judging people by their appearance could be usefully discussed.  Overall, it's a wonderful read for ages nine and up.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Calling Invisible Women

Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray (NY: Crown, 2012). 

Fifty-something Clover has been married to  her busy pediatrician husband for thirty-plus years. Their twenty-three-year-old son Nick, currently unemployed, has moved back into the family home, and their daughter Evie is away at college.  At one point Clover worked on the local paper as a reporter, but her job has been scaled back to a weekly gardening column.  Her life hums along just fine until one morning she gets out of the shower and can't see herself in the mirror--she's invisible. That first day she flickers back into visibility, but by the next morning it's permanent.  And no one notices except her best friend. A want ad in the paper takes her to a meeting with other invisible women where she learns that they've deduced that their condition is a side effect of a pharmaceutical trifecta: antidepressant, calcium supplement, and hormone replacement therapy, all products of a single company.  Plus, most of them have had a Botox treatment or two as well. The company knows about the side effect but has refused to take the highly profitable drugs off the market.  While Clover initially settles into an invisible funk, she eventually gets her journalistic mojo back, asserts herself at home, and organizes the invisible women to force the chemical company into action.

Obviously, this novel will resonate with any woman (of a certain age or not) who has ever felt overlooked or taken for granted, though Ray manages to show that no woman should get mired in self-pity.  Rather, she can embrace her talents and empower herself, as Clover does. Thankfully, Clover, despite her unfortunate name that evokes pastures, recognizes her literal invisibility as a trope for all middle-aged women whose families and communities willingly take advantage of their stalwart if unassuming presence. Clover also sees that she has let this happen to herself.  While all of this may sound serious and even melancholy, this novel is anything but a total downer.  Clover's visit to the doctor (who also fails to notice that his patient is invisible) is hilarious, as are some of her invisible exploits, such as freaking out an abusive husband in a grocery store parking lot.  The stories of the other invisible women add variety as well.  Overall, a bracing and introspective read, highly recommended for women of any age. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Night of the Purple Moon

Night of the Purple Moon by Scott Cramer (, 2012). Review copy provided by author.

Abby and her family have just moved to Castine Island, twenty miles off the coast of Maine, from Massachusetts.  For months scientists have been talking about a comet that will pass over the earth leaving a vast trail of space dust and spectacular colors, including a purple moon.  But no one predicts the killer bacteria that attacks human hormones, leaving all adults and older adolescents dead.  Abby, her brother Jordan, and baby sister Toucan and the other kids on the island struggle to adjust to their new life, all the while hoping for a cure before they, too, die.

This novel is like Hunger Games for the younger set--survival in a post-apocalyptic dystopia.  Middle grade readers will love the fast pace and vicarious exploration of life without adult supervision plus the suspense of getting the cure in time. Highly recommended for ages 10 & up.

The Faustian Host

The Faustian Host by Dave Becker (self-published, 2012). Review copy provided by author.

Fourteen-year-old Tony Marino's grandmother, who has taken care of him since his mother died when he was young, has just died; that's upsetting enough, but then a bizarre stranger in the cemetery makes some cryptic comments to Tony and a meteor destroys his grandmother's Florida home.  Tony finds himself whisked away to Massachusetts by his new guardians, the Browns, and testing to get into the elite Kalos Academy, a special day school for extremely gifted students. Strange events follow Tony there, though, and many of his classmates regard him as cursed. Worse, he seems to be associated with a series of unexplained natural events similar to Biblical plagues that befall the area. Tony and his small group of friends set out to discover the source of the events, leading to hair-raising adventures including a cataclysmic showdown of epic proportions in Death Valley.

Middle grade readers will enjoy this wild combination of adventure, fantasy, and supernatural elements.  There's also a bit of awkward romance as Tony crushes on the enchanting Katie, the dean's daughter. The theme of success via cooperation runs through the book, a lesson that Tony in particular needs to learn. Recommended for ages 10 & up.


Transcendence by C. J. Omolulu (New York: Walker & Co., 2012). Reviewed from e-galley provided by the publisher via

When sixteen-year-old cello prodigy Cole (short for Nicole) starts having visions of the past while visiting London, she's afraid she's going crazy. She feels as though she's walked the streets before--though they're slightly different.  And at the Tower of London she practically envisions a beheading--her own! Then she passes out in the arms of the amazingly attractive Griffon and feels an intense attraction to him.  Once she's back home in San Francisco, her visions continue, sometimes triggered by a smell or a touch.  Griffon explains that the visions are from past lives and she's transitioning to becoming an Akhet, like him--someone who has lived before and will continue to do so with memories intact in order to help the world.  But before that can happen, a rogue Akhet from Cole's past threatens her life while trying to right a perceived wrong from the past.  Racing to solve this mystery, Cole puts herself and those she loves in danger.

Transcendence is a wonderful and unique blend--part mystery, part thriller, part romance, part historical--that adds up to a fabulous read.  Omolulu creates a tense situation by having Cole's past come back in bits and pieces involving many people in her current life.  The mystery from the past is particularly intriguing as Cole and her best friend Rayne research old San Francisco to figure out what happened. The scenes at the Tower of London involving Nicole's past are also well done and engrossing and make for some additional surprises.  All in all, highly recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, mild language.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Angels, Chimps, & Tater Mitts

Angels, Chimps, & Tater Mitts by Mike Ball (2012). Review copy provided by author.

Angels, Chimps, & Tater Mitts is Mike Ball's second collection of columns previously published under the title "What I've Learned So Far."  The topics range widely, as the title suggests, and have a midwestern feel, although Ball is decidedly liberal, thank heavens. Ball writes about fishing, Michigan sports teams, his work with Lost Voices (an organization that helps kids in juvenile detention facilities), his travels, and lots of other stuff. He avoids being overly sentimental, though I admit to getting misty a few times when he was talking about some of the kids he helped and what they had to say.  I laughed long and hard over his comments about Sarah Palin.  Of course, I mainly read the book to learn exactly what a Tater Mitt could be, and I recommend that you do the same.  All of the essays are short, so this is a great book to keep in the car when you're waiting for a kid to finish baseball practice or whatever.  It's easy to pick up and put down.  I wouldn't have minded a table of contents so I could go straight to favorite topics...maybe that will be a new feature in Part III?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Deliverers: Sharky and the Jewel

The Deliverers: Sharky and the Jewel by Gregory S. Slomba (New Fairfield, CT, 2012). Review copy provided by author.

The accidental death of his father haunts twelve-year-old Eric Scott, and he thinks he's dreaming again when Stig, a talking owl from another world, shows up late one night. Stig wants Eric to help him on a quest to deliver the small seaside town of Calendria from a greedy pirate named Sharky.  Eric agrees, but doubts his qualifications; could he possibly be a hero? Once there, Eric discovers that delivering the town is but one of the problems he'll have to solve. With Stig and new friends Kate and an outcast dwarf named Hallo Tosis, Eric battles for Calendria--and himself!

Slomba delivers an action-packed adventure that's sure to thrill middle grade and younger readers.  Even little ones (I'm thinking first and second graders) will enjoy this tale as a read-aloud because of its magical characters (a talking owl! a conniving pirate!) and wacky humor (like the name of the dwarf) in a fascinating and well-conceived setting. In addition to the quest to save Calendria, Eric struggles to regain own confidence, making this a lovely story of self-discovery as well. Highly recommended for ages 6 to 12.


Torn (Torn Series #1) by Ashley S. Morgan.  Reviewed from e-copy provided by author.

Isidora Rivers feels everything deeply, which helps her acting, but not her life so much. Recklessly riding her bike down the hill to school, she is nearly hit by a car driven by a hot new guy, Tristan Rhodes.  Worse, she's immediately drawn to this broody newcomer who seems to know too much about her.  Plus, he pulls her in one moment and pushes her away the next. What's a girl to do? 

With character names like Tristan and Isadora (so close to Isolde), this novel is obviously playing on the star-crossed, ill-fated love theme.  Tristan's odd familiarity and then the endless flashbacks make the reading sort of self-fulfilling, although there is a twist at the end. This may be enough to keep some readers going. For me the characters were somewhat flat and Morgan relies on telling rather than showing to demonstrate their traits.  Izzy's best friend Sarah seems to exist mainly to relay information about Izzy.  Overall, not a bad read, but not overwhelmingly good either.  Fine for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, drugs, alcohol, language.

Calico Joe

Calico Joe by John Grisham (NY: Doubleday, 2012). Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.

Joe Castle was going to save the Cubs from the brink of another lackluster season. Like most boys, eleven-year-old Paul Tracey followed Joe's meteoric rise, watched him smash records every game, and thrilled to each success. He was somewhat ashamed that Joe meant a bit more to him than his own father, Warren Tracey, a pitcher for the Mets, and excitedly looked forward to seeing what would happen when his dad pitched against Joe in an upcoming home game. Little did anyone know that the clash would send vibrations throughout the baseball world, and many lives would be changed forever.

No one spins a tale like John Grisham, and his mastery is apparent in this story of baseball, life, and death. The past and present merge seamlessly as readers follow the rise of Joe Castle (aka Calico Joe because he's from the small town of Calico, Arkansas), Paul's immersion in that career and his sad life as the son of an abusive father, and the ultimate showdown that leads to Paul's estrangement from his father are only half the story, however.  The rest revolves around Paul's desire to bring closure to his dad's horrific deed--for himself, his dying father, and Joe. Baseball fans will enjoy the (fake) baseball history and game details, while the rest is good enough to sustain interest, largely because of Grisham's skills. I love baseball--and I'm a Cubs fan to boot--so this was a good pick for me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Annihilation of Foreverland

The Annihilation of Foreverland by Tony Bertauski (Smashwords, 2011). Review copy provided by author.

The island where thirteen-year-old Danny Boy wakes up should be every boy's dream--a tropical paradise, no parents, lots of other boys around his age, and plenty of time to play video games between visits to the ultimate alternate reality world, Foreverland. They're told that the island is a rehab center, and Foreverland is key to healing their minds before they graduate.They all have sockets embedded in their foreheads for the probe needle that transports them from the torture of the Haystack into Foreverland. But Danny can't seem to remember how he got to the island or much else about his life before he arrived at the island, and he doesn't understand why one of the boys, Reed, resists entering the alternate reality of Foreverland to suffer in a cold wet cell in the Haystack. There's also the question of what happens to boys--and their sponsors--when the Chimney smokes. Then Danny meets a girl who knows Reed in Foreverland and together they unravel the reasons why Foreverland must end.

This science fiction novel is most reminiscent of Ender's Game and has the same creepy overtones of adults manipulating children for their own gain. While the plot is a bit convoluted and some aspects of Foreverland remain nebulous, the gaming and alternate reality aspects will undoubtedly appeal to sci fi fans, especially boys, while the mystery broadens the appeal to all readers. Danny is an engaging character, and Reed's dilemma renders him highly sympathetic. Recommended for ages 13 & up.  Intense and violent situations.

Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1) by Robin LaFevers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). Reviewed from e-ARC provided by publisher via

Ismae Rienne bears the mark of St. Morain, the god of death, yet her hateful father arranges a marriage for her that nearly gets her killed. Rescued by the parish priest and village herbwitch, Ismae is spirited away to a convent of nuns dedicated to St. Morain, where she is trained as an assassin. Although her first assignment hits a small snag, Ismae quickly begins her next and greater assignment in the royal court of Brittany where she poses as the cousin of one of the deceased duke's bastard sons, Gavriel Duval, to seek out and kill suspected traitors to Anne, the Duchess of Brittany.

Grave Mercy offers a unique, quasihistorical blend of action, court intrigue, and romance. The world of the convent,where Ismae is trained, remains largely undeveloped, which may disappoint some readers. LaFevers portrays the inevitable romance between Ismae and Gavriel well enough, but the court intrigue drives the story. Kindle readers, like me, might need to consult Wikipedia for a fifteenth-century political map that shows Brittany and its neighbors as this illuminates the reasons for the political plotting; the map that accompanied the e-ARC was not readable on my Kindle. Suitable for readers 13 & up.  Violence, sexual situations.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Leaving Sophie Dean

Leaving Sophie Dean by Alexandra Whitaker (New York: Five Spot, 2012). Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.

Goaded by her best friend, Valerie forces her lover Adam to choose between herself and his wife and kids. Although Adam chooses Valerie, his wife, the eponymous Sophie Dean, takes the unusual route of leaving Adam in the family home with the kids.

I was hoping this would be a kick-ass, female power novel of take it to the man, and it sort of was, but not really. There were some good laughs at Adam and Valerie's expense as they dealt with the unexpected childcare. But mainly Valerie and her best friend are plain old nasty, and Sophie is a bit too nice. Adam just doesn't seem worth any woman's bother. The kids are adorable. The ending was reasonably good, though, and not as pat as I feared it would be.  Overall, not a bad read, but not as good as I had hoped.


Cycles by Lois D. Brown (n.p.: Levanter Publishing, 2011). Review e-copy provided by author.

After an accident, thirteen-year-old Renee Beaumont needs a blood transfusion, which shouldn't be a big deal, but it turns out her blood is unique. Her neighbor Dr. Dawson fortunately has some blood that he claims is hers that the doctors can use to save her life, but Renee can't remember ever giving him her blood.  When she and her best friend Sam investigate, they discover a cache of blood in Dr. Dawson's lab that's all labelled with his dead daughter's name.  What does it mean that Renee's blood matches his daughter's?

This novel seemed uneven and juvenile at the beginning until I realized the characters were only thirteen!  Action, suspense, and mystery propel the story, along with supernatural and mystical elements.  Many readers will enjoy the native American (Ohone indian) spiritual elements as well. The evil villains, especially the woman, make the story seem a tad melodramatic, but overall this novel works well as a middle grade read, not YA, as it is labelled.  Recommended for ages 10 & up.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Casey Barnes Eponymous

Casey Barnes Eponymous by E. A. Rigg (2011). Reviewed from e-book provided by author.

Sophomore Casey Barnes sees it as her mission, maybe even duty, to alleviate the misery that is high school one three-song playlist at a time.  She leaves the lists in library books for her unsuspecting victims--three perfect songs to boost them through the day.  Her killer taste in music makes her confident that her lists can make all the difference...and maybe even get her back the guy she sort of dated over the summer, Alex Deal. They have so much in common, too.  He's in a band, and she wants be a rock star.  She's got the guitar playing and song writing down, but she's not too keen on playing in public, but she will if that will help her get Alex Deal back....

Casey Barnes rocks--in all the right ways. Sharp, sarcastic, passionate, daring, slightly self-enthralled, obsessed and obsessive, yet a bit naive and vulnerable, she makes a great YA protagonist. While the plot focuses mainly on Casey's plan to get Alex Deal back (in spite of his obvious-to-the-reader flaws), Casey propels the story and makes it well worth reading, especially her supreme devotion to music and spreading the love of obscure bands to her fellow students; it's her own music ministry. She has a great cast of supporting characters, too, including her perfect (gay) older brother Yull, her best friend Leigh, the enigmatic new guy Ben (who happens to be a drummer), and the despicable Maxine French.  Highly recommended for ages 13 & up.  Language plus sex(ual situations), drugs (mentioned), and rock & roll.  Available @ Amazon!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Goddess Interrupted

Goddess Interrupted (The Goddess Chronicles #2) by Aimee Carter (NY: Harlequin Teen, 2012). Reviewed from e-ARC provided by the publisher via

Kate returns to the Underworld after her summer on the surface with James ready to be crowned Queen and live with Henry, though she feels sure he still loves Persephone.  The coronation barely begins when Henry is spirited away and an age-old rivalry between the gods and goddesses and the Titans, specifically Cronos, threatens to end everything--even the immortals! Kate is desperate to save Henry even as she doubts his love and must enlist the aid of Persephone to locate him and solve a tricky situation before she loses everything she loves, forever!

Carter spins a fine dramatic tale in this sequel to The Goddess Test. Kate's doubts about Henry, and indeed Henry's enigmatic actions, are a bit overdrawn, but seem realistic enough. The drama among the gods and goddesses, charged with ancient rivalries, spices up the plot, and the situation with Cronos adds a lot of interest and will undoubtedly draw in fans of Greek mythology.  Kate spends a bit too much time waiting around the Underworld and dithering about what she should do, which makes the cliffhanger ending a bit annoying. Her dealings with Persephone, though, add an interesting twist, as Persephone helps her understand Henry and her new goddess powers.  Kate's problems with Henry, largely due to misunderstandings and lack of communication, are somewhat overplayed, but overall, this is a solid sequel, recommended for ages 13 & up.


Spellcaster (Spellbound #2) by Cara Lynn Schultz (New York: Harlequin Teen, 2012). Reviewed from e-ARC provided by publisher via

Spellcaster picks up where Spellbound left off.  Emma and Brandon are blissfully in love and all seems perfect.  They successfully defeated the evil spell that had doomed their love for centuries, and now Emma is coming to terms with her newfound witch powers under the tutelage of her best friend Angelique. But the power of true love attracts others who would use it for nefarious purposes, so Emma and Brandon again find themselves fighting for their love--and their lives!

In this excellent, exciting, and worthy sequel, Schultz nicely depicts the growth of Emma and Brandon's relationship beyond the initial first flush of young (though centuries old) love. The minor misunderstandings that get blown into needless drama seem all to realistic, as does the cautious exploration of passion.  And that's just the romance angle!  Angelique has a bigger role in Spellcaster as she and her sister attempt to help Emma defeat the evil transgressor whose greed for power knows no bounds.  Yes, it's as melodramatic as it sounds, but it's well done and makes for a page-turning speed read.  Highly recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, alcohol.


Starters by Lissa Price (NY: Delacorte Press, 2012).  Reviewed from digital ARC provided by publisher via

Callie Woodland, her little brother Tyler, and their friend and former neighbor Michael are barely managing on their own.  They are Starters--anyone twenty or younger--who survived the Spore War because the government opted to inoculate only the young and the old, leaving a lot of kids with no living relatives when the war ended. Callie desperately needs money to help Tyler get medical attention, so she decides to investigate Prime Destinations, a company that implants chips in the brains of Starters so Enders (the seniors who were also inoculated and survived the war) can rent young bodies. The first two rentals go well, but the third one gets tricky when the renter, Helena, gets the chip altered so she can communicate with Callie and then tries to enlist Callie's help investigating the disappearance of her granddaughter--a  situation that may call for desperate measures, even murder!  Meanwhile Callie finds herself involved romantically with Blake, the grandson of a senator who is at the center of a possible power grab.  But Blake seems to change every time Callie sees him, and the altered chip may be communicating in ways Helena and Callie hadn't foreseen....

Set in a post-war dystopic future, Starters is a riveting read with engaging characters involved in a fascinating plot. The huge divide between kids who having nothing because they had no older relatives who were inoculated and those who have everything because they had wealthy older relatives subtly critiques the current widening gap between the rich and poor, though mainly it serves to illustrate the huge difference between the hardships Callie, Tyler, Michael and other orphans suffer and the opulent lifestyle of those more fortunate, like Blake. The deviousness of Prime Destinations' manipulation of desperate children plus the possible government conspiracy to use Starters strikes a one-two punch at both corporate greed and political power broking. Lots of actions and some excellent twists at the end make Starters the page-turning dystopia no one should miss in 2012!  Highly recommended for ages 12 & up.  Violence, mild sexual situations, alcohol.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters

Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2012).  Reviewed from e-copy provided by publisher.

Kelsey Finkelstein has high expectations for her freshman year of high school, but right from the start, everything seems to go wrong. Even worse, someone seems intent on publicly humiliating her by placing photographs of some of her most embarrassing moments in the school paper!  Still she remains optimistic, despite the challenges of stinky soccer goalie equipment, bad make-out experiences, major wardrobe malfunctions in the school musical, and a prom date who goes missing.

This book was hilarious--I laughed till I cried.  Kelsey is a hoot, and her optimism in the face of all her bad luck makes her extremely likable.  The embarrassing mom and pesty little sister are somewhat stereotypical, but Kelsey and the situations she gets stuck in make up for them.  It's amazing how Kelsey keeps thinking that she can try something else to boost her popularity, and whatever can go wrong, does go wrong.  If you need a good laugh, this is the book for you.  Recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, alcohol, language.

Girl Land

Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan (NY: Little, Brown, 2012). Review copy provided by publisher.

According to Caitlin Flanagan, Girl Land  is that special terrain adolescent females must traverse to become women.  Some of the most important and enduring landmarks are friendships with girls (and boys), menstruation, dating, proms, and sexual initiation.  Girls need to spend a lot of time alone to make the journey successfully, much more so than boys, and unfortunately modern girls have much less of this important solitude available to them than the girls of previous generations, which is changing the types of women who are emerging.

Flanagan's social history focuses almost exclusively on a subset of adolescent girls who happen to be at least middle class if not upper middle class to simply wealthy. While there may be some overlap of experiences with all girls (every girl gets her period; not every girl goes to prom), there are plenty who do not have the luxury of solitude due to family and work obligations, so where does that leave them on this journey? Apparently in some kind of psychological quagmire. Don't get me wrong--this was an interesting book, but I kept thinking that most of the examples and discussion assumed a particular (well-to-do) subset of girls who had time for navel gazing introspection. I enjoyed Flanagan's comparison of girlhood and adolescence in various decades in the twentieth century to the contemporary scene, especially the impact of  social media and the Internet on girls' interior life.  Overall, this extremely readable book dwells nostalgically on the past, sentimentalizing and white washing the negative to a certain extent. However, Flanagan makes the point that girlhood has certainly changed with girls today having much less privacy, and this change may negatively affect girls' development. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Secret DMS Files of Fairday Morrow

The Secret DMS Files of Fairday Morrow by J. Haight and S. Robinson, illustrated by J. Haight, limited edition (2011).  Review copy provided by authors.

Eleven-year-old Fairday Morrow has low expectations when her parents decide to move from Manhattan to Ashpot, Connecticut--all because her mom feels that renovating a nasty old house will boost her design career.  For a budding detective, however, the old Begonia House proves to be a goldmine. Fairday immediately finds herself immersed in the old mysteries of the home.  With her sidekick, best friend, and fellow DMS (Detective Mystery Squad) member, Lizzy, plus new recruit Marcus, Fairday sets out to discover the secrets of the padlocked room on the third floor and what it might have to do with the possible murder of the previous owner and the disappearance of his daughter on her wedding day--twenty years before that! 

Young readers will devour this book, which has all the ingredients insatiable bibliovores seek out:  a creepy old house, mysterious rooms and sinister furniture, ancient secrets, scary portraits with moving eyes, magic, curses, clues, intrepid characters, silly parents, and much more!  The fast pace and action keep the pages flying and there's plenty of thrills along the way.  Highly recommended for those who dare--ages 8 & up.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Rae of Hope

Rae of Hope (The Chronicles of Kerrigan) by W.J. May. Smashwords ed. (Mitchell-Morris Publishing, 2011).  Review copy provided by author.

Rae Kerrigan has no idea why she's been accepted into the elite Guilder Boarding School in the English countryside.  For the past nine years, she's been living with her Uncle Argyle in New York--ever since her parents perished in a mysterious fire that she survived, though with emotional scars from the loss.  She immediately finds that though she knows no one there, everyone has heard of her, and they all seem scared of her, too.  She soon learns that Guilder is a school for students who get special tattoos (called tatus), associated with unique powers, on their sixteenth birthdays. The ink appears mysteriously during the night and only one child in a family gets it. Rae's chatty roommate Molly Skye and the super cute senior Devon Wardell help Rae catch up, but there are some mysteries she must unravel on her own: about her parents, their powers, what they did, and, most importantly, why they died.

Rae of Hope is an excellent, fast-paced read with a bit of romance and some mystery as well.  The boarding school setting works well since it's isolated enough that the students can practice their skills with little outside interference. The special powers associated with the tattoos add a lot of interest; students figure out the extent of their powers and how to control them since no one on the outside is supposed to know about the tattoos.  It's especially interesting to follow Rae's transition from knowing nothing about this mysterious world to getting her own ink and figuring out her powers. It's a bit hard to believe, though, that in New York she was virtually friendless, and suddenly she's beautiful and popular in England, but the notoriety of her family and the confidence boost from learning she's special seem plausible enough explanations.  Overall, Rae of Hope is a unique and enticing paranormal read, recommended for ages 13 & up.  Mild sexual situations, alcohol.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Hallowed (An Unearthly novel) by Cynthia Hand (NY: HarperTeen, 2012).

This novel takes off where Unearthly leaves off--Clara Gardner has seemingly deviated from her purpose as an angel and rescued Tucker from the fire of her vision rather than Christian.  She trusts her love for Tucker, but still feels uneasy about Christian since their destinies seem inextricably intertwined. Now she's having a new vision in which someone has died, and she's learning more about her role in the world of angels and their enemies--the Black Wings.

Hallowed succeeds in the same way its predecessor, Unearthly did--it is so much more than an angel novel.  Clara is a compelling, engaging, and amusing character who agonizes (but not too melodramatically) over her relationships.  She is honestly confused about her feelings for Christian even as she sincerely loves Tucker.  There's also the mystery of her new vision and how that plays out in the same unexpected way as her vision in the first novel.  It's interesting to see how her interpretations change, though they all seem plausible, until reality strikes. Meanwhile, she's also coming to terms with her angel powers and responsibilities--and how those must shape her future.  An excellent read, highly recommended, for teens 13  up.  Sexual situations, alcohol.

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (NY: Dutton, 2012).

Hazel is seventeen and knows she's dying of cancer.  A fancy drug is retarding her inevitable demise, but her reliance on a portable oxygen tank (by day) and a breathing machine (at night) means her future doesn't extend too far.  And she's OK with that--resigned really. She even goes to the Cancer Kid Support Group when her mom decides Hazel is depressed (!).  And there, one day, Augustus Waters shows up and Hazel's life shifts in ways she never expected, which just goes to show that even dying can take an unanticipated course.

It's a book about kids with cancer, so expect to cry, but also expect an amazing amount of humor and insight.  The characters are pitch perfect, including the parents.  Hazel's best friend Kaitlyn seems like a throwaway, but some of the other secondary characters are mind blowing--in different ways.  The description of  Peter, the leader of the support group and a survivor of testicular cancer, is particularly hilarious, while the details of another group member's experience losing his second eye is searingly sad. Hazel and Augustus's relationship is naturally doomed from the start, yet rivetingly detailed and surprisingly hopeful. Green delivers brilliantly in this lovely, sad, romantic story.  Highly recommended for teens, 13 & up. Sexual situations, language, alcohol, experimental (cancer) drugs.

Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (NY: Atheneum, 2011).

Seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter lives in the small, admittedly dull, Arkansas town of Lily and has low expectations for the summer before his senior year in high school, even after his cousin Oslo dies of an overdose. He loves his brother Gabriel and is happy enough hanging out with his best friend Lucas Cader.  He keeps a journal and frequently records potential titles for future books he will write because he knows he will write, but he really doesn't know much else, especially once the town goes crazy about the alleged sighting of an extinct bird--the Lazarus woodpecker.  Then Gabriel disappears and nothing seems right anymore.  Meanwhile,  Benton Sage  has discovered he's not cut out to be a missionary in Africa, but learns a lot about angels instead.  He aborts his college career after one semester and his roommate Cabot Searcy takes on the angel obsession.  Eventually these two narratives intersect and resolve in a stunning yet highly satisfying manner.

Although this novel sounds a bit odd, rest assured it is amazing.  First, Cullen Witter is funny, though not pathetic, and his narrative realistically depicts the ups and downs of his family's struggles, especially after Gabriel disappears.  Cullen's deadpan delivery demonstrates his funky blend of endearing naivete and caustic cynicism.  His wacky dreams and daydreams about zombies, talking birds, and love conquests nicely balance his growing desolation after Gabriel vanishes and his family fractures into a new normal, all while the town reinvents itself over the possibility of a resurrected bird. The second narrative about Benton Sage and his college roommate Cabot seems utterly disconnected from Cullen's life, though family dysfunction steers it as well--and the odd fixation on otherworldly beings. No spoilers here--this is a novel that must be experienced. Whaley superbly captures the precarious nature of existence in this unpretentious coming of age tale.  Most highly recommended!  Sexual situations and language make it more suited to older teens, 14 & up.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Notes to Self

Notes to Self by Avery Sawyer (Smashwords, 2011); review e-copy provided by author.

Robin's memory of the accident that caused her traumatic brain injury (TBI) is hazy, which is normal.  She climbed to the top of the sling shot ride with her best friend Emma.  It was windy. Emma seemed a bit crazed and reckless.  She asks Robin a question: What do you think will happen to us?  Then Robin's in the neurotrauma center of the hospital waking up and in horrible pain, but Em is still asleep.

Granted, the brain injury of self-(re)discovery is quickly becoming a standard trope of YA fiction, but to me, at least, it's genuine and authentic.  Sawyer's take is fabulous--starting with how she conveys Robin's confusion about language as she wakes up and has to figure out what words mean again.  Robin's attempts to remember the accident as she deals with more quotidian tasks such as showering move the plot along.  She writes notes to help herself--beginning with a list of steps for showering retrieved from Google!  The notes quickly become more introspective as she attempts to sort out the relationships in her life, most notably with Reno, a boy who was once her best friend, but who pushed for something more, which Robin rejected.  There's also her estranged father, her ambitious mother, and an aunt who writes her letters. The novel's setting in seedy non-Disney Kissimmee, Florida, suits the story well.  Highly recommended for teens, 13 & up. Mild sexual situations, language, drugs, alcohol.

Angel Evolution

Angel Evolution by David Estes (Smashwords, 2011); review e-copy provided by author.

Eighteen-year-old Taylor is a freshman in college who has a sixth sense about people and believes in signs, so she's sure that the four-leaf clover the glowing boy Gabriel just found for her bodes well for her new start despite her scary nightmares of black-caped figures and a red-eyed snake.  Her best friend Sam urges her to take a chance, and Taylor becomes involved with Gabriel, but can she really trust him?

Angel Evolution relies on many of the tried-and-true components of YA fiction, including instalove, angels, demons, ninja fights, and highly wrought melodrama of good v. evil.  There are a few twists in the traditional associations, but truthfully they seem kind of gimmicky to me.  The prose, particularly in the dream sequence that starts the novel, is so overwritten I nearly quit reading, but fortunately the writing settles down with only a few clunkers ("skeins of rain"--think about it...just doesn't work). Overall, not a bad read, especially if you're a fan of angel fiction, but not top notch.  Fine for ages 14 & up.  Alcohol, sexual situations.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Crossed by Ally Condie (NY: Dutton, 2011).

Summary from Goodreads: "In search of a future that may not exist and faced with the decision of who to share it with, Cassia journeys to the Outer Provinces in pursuit of Ky--taken by the Society to his certain death--only to find that he has escaped, leaving a series of clues in his wake.

Cassia's quest leads her to question much of what she holds dear, even as she finds glimmers of a different life across the border. But as Cassia nears resolve and certainty about her future with Ky, an invitation for rebellion, an unexpected betrayal, and a surprise visit from Xander - who may hold the key to the uprising and, still, to Cassia's heart - change the game once again. Nothing is as expected on the edge of Society, where crosses and double crosses make the path more twisted than ever."

I loved Matched--the forbidden romance, the dystopic Society, the suspense.  Crossed has less of each of these elements, and it got bogged down in the middle.  Ky and Cassia are separated for a good part of the narrative (which switches back and forth from their perspectives) as they traverse the interesting landscape of The Carving--an canyon area that sounds a lot like Bryce National Park.  Since they're on the run from the Society, there's not a lot of new material about the Society, which was somewhat disappointing.  Also, there's some information that casts doubt on Rising--the rebel group to which Cassia wants to escape.  Xander's role was small in this novel, and Ky was still keeping secrets, even at the end.  Overall, an OK read, but seems to be setting up for a better final installment.  Fine for ages 13 & up.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Patriote Peril

Patriote Peril, Darmon Mysteries, Book 3, by Thomas Thorpe (Castroville, TX: Black Rose Writing, 2011).  Review copy provided by author.

By chance, Elizabeth Darmon escapes being kidnapped with the rest of her family and then a fire at the remote home in New Brunswick, Halifax, she's been visiting. Alone and far away from her native England, Elizabeth sets out through the rough and wild frontier country out to find her relatives and discover why they've been victimized this way and learns about the political disputes being waged in this new country.

Packed with historical detail, Patriote Peril will undoubtedly appeal to Canadian frontier history buffs. At times the details about the history and politics overwhelmed the plot, which was quite complex with many abrupt shifts in perspective. I enjoyed Elizabeth's viewpoint the most, and found the rapid changes somewhat confusing. The depiction of Indians as painted savages seemed dubious to me. Also, one of the characters suffers a gunshot wound to the head and supposedly has severe amnesia, yet he ends up a folk hero for his role in foiling an assassination. Overall, not my cup of tea, though it started out fairly well.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Chill Run

Chill Run by Russell Brooks (self-published, 2011). Review copy provided by author.

Eddie Barrow needs a break.  Laid off from his job, dumped by his girlfriend, and misunderstood by his family--who seem more interested in his sister's academic achievements and traditional goals than his attempts at writing and publishing his novel--Eddie is getting desperate.  So he agrees to a cockamamie publicity scheme cooked up by his unemployed, depressed best friend and his waitress girlfriend, who moonlights as a dominatrix:  Eddie will purposely get caught by the media engaged in an illicit sex act with a corporate bigwig. All that collapses when the bigwig confesses to financial shenanigans that include fraud with prominent politicians and proceeds to get killed while Eddie peeks out from an adjacent room. Now Eddie's a witness on the run from the police, who think he's a killer, and from the bad guys, who want to keep him quiet, as he tries to figure out the meaning of the some cryptic comments and unravel the plot before the blame settles on him.

The Montreal, Quebec, and Canadian countryside settings work perfectly in this chill-and-thrill-a-minute novel that never lets go from page one. Eddie is a sympathetic yet quick-witted character, and his friend Corey is a laughable yet worthy sidekick. The plot gels well, and I enjoyed how Eddie not only gets the publishing fame he longs for, but he does so by writing the story that is at the core of this one. All in all, Chill Run is a cool read!  Highly recommended.

13 Gifts

13 Gifts by Wendy Mass (NY: Scholastic, 2011).

Tara Brennan is paying a high price for what amounts to a lapse in judgment--and it's her mom's fault anyway.  Mom wanted Tara to make friends, so how was Tara to know that volunteering to help a popular girl steal a goat from the principal's office would end so disastrously.  Never mind that, though.  Now Tara is being forced to spend the summer in the middle of nowhere with relatives she barely knows instead of in Madagascar helping with her mother's  research expedition investigating the mating habits of lemurs as she expected. Once she arrives in Willow Springs, she finds that her relatives are the least of her concerns in a town where strange is actually normal.  Tara finds herself indebted to the owner of an unusual shop who insists that Tara locate thirteen items before her thirteenth birthday, or else, the woman insinuates, Tara's soul will be in peril, and maybe even the fate of the town!  Luckily, Tara enlists the aid of some new acquaintances who not only help her find the items, but also teach her about friendship she's never imagined she could have.

Mass has once again concocted the perfect blend of magical plot elements and characters plus realistic problems that makes reading her novels so rewarding. Fans of 11 Birthdays will enjoy revisiting some familiar names and places, though 13 Gifts easily stands alone--and is an outstanding read for ages 9 & up.  Highly recommended!

Explosive Eighteen

Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich (NY: Bantam, 2011).

Flying home from a disastrous Hawaiian vacation, Stephanie Plum manages to end up with a photo that way too many people are interested in.  She figures that her seatmate on the flight home probably slipped the photo into her messenger bag by mistake before the layover in LA...but now he's dead!  And the photo's probably at the dump since Stephanie tossed it after a brief glance.  No matter.  The FBI questions her, some guys claiming to be FBI agents are tailing her, a crazed Russian is threatening her with a knife, and a loony hairdresser claims the photo belonged to her now-deceased fiance.  And the mystery photo is just one of the problems facing Stephanie in this installment of the series.  Morelli and Ranger are simmering, Stephanie has sworn off men, and the bond agency's office space is still under construction.  Worst of all, Joyce Barnhardt moves into Stephanie's apartment and refuses to leave unless Stephanie helps her find out what happened to a jeweler who ended up compacted in his car at the junkyard.

I liked this volume much better than Smokin' Seventeen because it focuses on Stephanie's misadventures as a bond agent and reluctant/incompetent investigator.  Evanovich teases out the situation in Hawaii that led to Stephanie flying home alone, but it worked since it kept both Morelli and Ranger in the background during this story. Still, there are more hints that Stephanie's bounty hunting days might be numbered.  There are definitely more of the usual laughs in this novel, and Lulu is in fine form, accidentally ingesting a love potion that has her doting on an king-sized thief.  Recommended for fans of the series.  This is an adult novel.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Life as a Stuntboy

My Life as a Stuntboy by Janet Tashjian, ill. Jake Tashjian (NY: Henry Holt, 2011).

Twelve-year-old Derek Fallon is dreading the start of another school year. The only bright spot is that he and his best friend Matt are slated to have a male teacher. But then that falls through and they end up with their former kindergarten teacher, Ms. McCoddle, aka Ms. McCuddles! A chance encounter with a movie stuntman leads to Derek performing stunts for a new movie, and Derek thinks his life may be turning around.  Then Matt starts acting weird; Frank, his family's foster capuchin monkey, gets sick (and it's his fault); and Derek finds out he's doing stunts for a girl!  At least he gets out of school to do the stunts, and even if he has to have a tutor, that's better than sitting in class for a kid like Derek who has trouble concentrating.  Performing stunts, though, teaches Derek some valuable lessons about planning a course of action and concentrating on a task--skills he applies in ways he never dreamed of--like rescuing Frank!  

My Life as a Stuntboy is an excellent follow-up to My Life as a Book.  Once again, the clever stick figure drawings of vocabulary words are a highlight.  Reluctant readers in particular will relate to Derek's concentration problems, and all readers can learn from Derek's example of planning and executing a task--whether it's a skateboard stunt or a school project. Derek's problems with his best friend and his dealings with his parents, as well as his insights into the life of the star of the film, are well drawn and realistic. Overall, this is an super read, highly recommended for ages 8 and up.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Borrowing Abby Grace

Borrowing Abby Grace by Kelly Green (Santa Monica, CA: Backlit Fiction, 2011). Review copy provided by the publisher.

When Abby wakes up in the back of a van with no memory of how she got there, she reacts without thinking and escapes from her masked captors  She finds herself in a home she's never seen with a father she doesn't know being asked about a brother she can't recall.  As if that's not freaky enough, when she looks in the mirror, she doesn't look like the girl in the pictures who she is supposed to be.  What is going on?  A guy named Will appears who tells her she's a Shadow--summoned to solve an urgent problem for Brooke, the girl whose life she is inhabiting for a brief time.  If she solves the problem, Abby moves on...if not, she's trapped in Brooke's body forever. Will is her guide; he can help her a bit with the problem, but can't tell her much else.  Luckily, Abby finds that she's resourceful and intelligent, and she sets out to find Brooke's brother Paul and figure out how to make their home a happy one.

Borrowing Abby Grace is the first installment in an intriguing new e-series.  It's short (~53 pages) and entertaining with an appealing paranormal  premise and fast-paced mystery plot that's sure to attract readers.  It reminded me somewhat of Mercy by Rebecca Lim, except Abby is (probably) not an angel, but there's still the element of helping desperate people solve urgent problems through supernatural means. It's fascinating watching Abby adapt quickly to her new environment and ad lib someone else's life.  Her relationship with Will, who might be a nineteenth-century ghost, is also entertaining.  Overall, this is a great read for lovers of paranormal adventures and mysteries!  Recommended for ages 13 & up.

The Anti-Social Network

The Anti-Social Network by Sadie Hayes (Santa Monica, CA: Backlit Fiction, 2011). Review copy provided by publisher.

Amelia and Adam have managed to stay in school and are working on launching Amelia's product with the help of investor Tom Fenway.  It feels like their dreams could be coming true. Unfortunately, some voices from their past are threatening their future, plus they're dealing with new threats as well.

The soap opera antics and high stakes games of Silicon Valley continue in the second installment of  this highly readable and dynamic e-series. Secrets seem to be a valuable currency in this world.  Adam and Amelia's former foster family is threatening them with revealing secrets from the twins' past, and Adam is constantly worried about what will happen to their new company, Doreye, if investor Tom Fenway, or anyone else for that matter, finds out.  Meanwhile, Adam has another secret--his relationship with Lisa, but she's got secrets of her own.  Amelia's former roommate Patty is also dealing in secrets--hers and other people's, so it all makes for a potentially toxic mix throughout the narrative. Plus, the story ends on a real cliff hanger that will undoubtedly send all readers scurrying for the next installment of this addictive series! Recommended for ages 15 & up.  Sexual situations, language.

The Start-Up

The Start-Up by Sadie Hayes (Santa Monica, CA: Backlit Fiction, 2011). Review copy provided by publisher.

Twins Amelia and Adam Dory have lead difficult lives, bouncing among foster homes in Indiana, but now they're scholarship students at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.  Amelia is majoring in computer science and loves nothing more than spending all her time coding.  And she's good, really good, coming up with super apps for the iPhone at lightning speed.  Her brother Adam is an equally quick thinker with big ideas for his and Amelia's lives.  A chance glimpse into the world of  venture capital at a ritzy graduation party where he's tending bar pushes Adam to consider capitalizing on Amelia's gift.  Meanwhile, Amelia has her own serendipitous encounter with an investor who seems different from the other vultures. But Adam and Amelia are both naive and the high tech, high stakes world of Silicon Valley may devour them.

The Start-Up is the first episode in a new electronic-only series.  It's very short (~88 pages), but that's the idea--to get readers hooked into the world of the episode so they'll keep coming back for the next one.  It's a snappy business model and will work well if all the stories are as fast-paced and captivating as this one, which is kind of like Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Social Network, all rolled into one. All of the characters use information strategically to get what they want. Amelia and Adam are engaging characters whose hard luck background makes them sympathetic.  This is all the more true when they're forced to dip their toes into the shark-infested waters of Silicon Valley, where the competition is ruthless and the players will use any advantage they can--a policy that applies to both business and personal alliances. Who can they trust?  Can they hide their secrets? And how can scholarship students afford iPhones?  These questions and more will send most readers scrambling to get the next installment of this great new series. Recommended for ages 15 & up.  Sexual situations, language. Available @ Amazon and B&N.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Long Drunk

The Long Drunk by Eric Coyote (self-published).  Review copy provided by author.

James Ulysses S. Grant Murphy, aka Murph, is a homeless alcoholic who lives in Venice, California. At one time in his life he was on the brink of an NFL career after playing football for Notre Dame.  Now he limps amid the filth and decay of the alleys, beaches, and byways of Venice, sometimes alone but for his dog Betty, sometimes with other homeless folks, his gang of druggies, crazies, eccentrics, and fellow drunks. A car accident and subsequent bills mean that Murph must somehow raise some cash to save a friend, so he decides to investigate a six-month-cold homicide case with a $25,000 bounty for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer.

Don't read this book expecting sunshine and rainbows, because it's dark.  To be clear, Webster's defines noir as "crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings."  Some of the characters in The Long Drunk are so hard-boiled they're pulp--barely human refuse--and sleazy doesn't quite cover the squalor on these pages. Not to mention puke, crap, blood, and other assorted bodily fluids. But (you could feel that word coming, right?), unbelievably enough, the humanity of the characters shines through it all, and they are incredibly sympathetic--and at times comic--, even in their worst moments (and there are many).  Although the story nominally revolves around Murph's attempt to solve a murder and get the reward money, it's the characters and their lives, in all their seamy glory, that make this novel so compelling.  The social critique inherent in the contrast between the homeless and the wealthy denizens of Venice propels The Long Drunk into the realm of the extraordinary.  Highly recommended for adults only.

Far from the War

Far from the War by Jeffrey David Payne (Seattle: Roche Harbor Books, 2011). Review copy provided by publisher.

When Esther Casey leaves her island home near Seattle to serve as a page in the United States House of Representatives, she expects a learning experience, but she gets so much more.  First she discovers the mean-spirited partisanism that has become the norm, even among the pages.  Then the war starts. Washington, DC, is the epicenter and Esther has to flee with her friend Gwen. Things start to go wrong almost immediately, and Esther must struggle for survival in a continuously shifting landscape. 

Thankfully, politics do not predominate in this not-so-distant-future dystopia although extremism is certainly to blame for the coup that starts the war.  The details on who's fighting who and why remain vague to me,  but I enjoyed the way Esther starts out on the right and ends up not only befriending a left-wing page but ultimately learning that the sides don't really matter.  In fact, once the war was underway, it seemed as if no one really understood what it was about.  Money seems to be part of it (get this--gas costs $30/gallon!  And it goes up as supply diminishes!), and both sides want to control the Federal Reserve. Esther's dad, a tech millionaire, had moved his family to an island to avoid being caught up in what he foresaw as an inevitable cataclysm, though his reasoning seems a bit far-fetched--searches at the airport were his main clue that bad things were afoot.  There is some romance between Esther and a soldier she meets, but the story largely focuses on Esther's trials as she fights to survive and get home. It's easy--and scary--to imagine the way communications and finance networks would disintegrate in war time.

Overall, this was an entertaining read with plenty of action to keep the story moving along, though it dragged a bit at times when Esther was recovering from injuries. It also seemed a bit dubious that every time Esther left her belongings behind something happened so she lost everything.  Recommended for ages 15 and up. Intense situations, violence, sexual situations, language.