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.