"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Simple Secrets by Nancy Mehl

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Summary: Grace inherits an house from her uncle and discovers a dead body on the property.

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher.

Mystery.
Murder.
And Mennonites?
Oh, yes.

This book was a well-seasoned mix of Christian fiction, romance and mystery.

Grace inherits a house from her estranged uncle and takes two weeks off work to settle affairs and get some family heirlooms before selling the house.

What Grace also inherits is the property that her uncle says hides the body of Jacob Glick, a rival for mother's hand. Her uncle believed that Grace's father, his brother, murdered Jacob Glick. Uncle Ben (yes, I know) had hidden the body all these years to protect his brother. Grace knows her father is not a murderer but resolves to solve the mystery of who murdered Jacob Glick, so she can sell the property free and clear.

The Mennonite town of Harmony, Kansas welcomes Grace and Sam is designated to show Grace around town. Sam and Grace fit well together, but Grace can't ever imagine giving up her job in Wichita to stay in backwards Harmony. Why, some houses don't even have telephones!

But as Grace and Sam try to interview other town people to find more about Jacob Glick, the list of suspects keeps growing. Is it even safe for Grace to uncover the truth? The sabotage doesn't fit with the Mennonite community but somebody has been carrying a deadly secret for 25 years.

Grace's relationship with God is a subtle part of the book, not beating anyone over the head, but supplying Grace with a steady hand and guidance. The tender romance between Sam and Grace is written with just enough tension that you could almost forget about the mystery and the dead body in the north forty.

Quite an enjoyable read. Don't let the Mennonite factor scare you off.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dead Air by Kerri Miller

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Summary: A Minneapolis TV journalist uncovers an international scandal while tracking the disappearance of another journalist.

Author Kerri Miller is a local radio personality here in the Twin Cities. She has an on-air book club and hosts interesting guests. So I was excited to read this book. And it's not terrible, just disappointing.

Dead Air follows the life of Cate McCoy, a TV journalist assigned to cover local politics. Eddie Hamm is a parody of former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Hamm (even the name shows you that he's larger than life) insults women, is a former paratrooper, says outrageous things and then calls the press vultures, yet has an extremely high approval rating. Of course Jesse Ventura would provide material for a book, but I felt like the fictional  governor's antics and personality were an over-spiced side dish next to a bland, boiled main entree of a story.
"All of this protocol bullshit was exhausting, like being back in the military without the fun of jumping out of planes."
Cate, as so many fictional journalists do, gets caught up in solving the mystery under the guise of being a reporter. In this novel, it's the disappearance and possible murder of Millicent Pine, a radical aging journalist, in town to do a profile on the governor. But the antics of the governor are just a red herring, as Millicent was working on a much bigger story, the abuse, rape, murder and kidnapping of young Mexican Mennonite girls.

Cate and her trusty camerawoman Andy fly down to Mexico, sneak into a factory, and uncover a pornography smuggling operation. Cate is saved from a bullet in the back and a shallow dusty grave by the sudden appearance of a DEA agent.
"McCoy, it's been said before but I'll say it again. You are one tough broad-caster." 
Sheesh.  Yet, Cate's a reporter to the end, refusing to share any of her information with the cops and trying to solve the murder by herself. Weak character development and a convoluted plot disappointed me.

If you want nosy crime reporters, consider Stalking Susan by Julie Kramer or any one of the Irene Kelly books by Jan Burke.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Blue So Dark by Holly Schindler

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A teen becomes the sole caretaker of her schizophrenic mother while worrying about her own mental state. 

The picture of someone dealing with a family member with schizophrenia is so compelling, so stressful, so anguished and thoughtful.

Aura’s mother is an artist and incredibly creative. Aura is creative too but limits her artistic talent in the fear that art lets out the schizophrenia or vice versa.

Aura is living with her mother, taking care of her, and struggling with the stupidity of high school rules after their dad abandoned both of them after divorcing his mentally ill wife. Aura’s dad writes both of them out of his life, and infuriated me with his neglect.

For Aura’s birthday, her dad gives her journals to track her mom’s schizophrenia instead of art supplies, money, clothes or something fun.
“Tell it like it is, creep. Just say, “Here you go, Aura. Write everything down so I won’t ever have to get involved, not one more time.” Say it. Say she’s mine. You can’t be fucking bothered.”
Giving a sixteen year-old tools for a task that a nurse should be doing? Insulting and clueless. This is one of the best scenes in a well-written book.
“But I couldn’t care less about a couple of crappy presents, not with what I left at home. The words down there in the pit of my stomach – Mom’s a rope raveling down to nothing – fester like a giant pile of salmonella, making me feel like I’m about to throw up. I want to tell Dad – just blurt it out and have it over with. I want to tell someone, especially since Janny’s no help at all. (And do I blame her? Do I, with everything that’s falling on her right now? Yeah, in all honesty, I guess I really do.)
But I promised Mom, too – no meds, no more, not ever again – and that’s exactly what Dad’s gonna want to do. Tie her arms behind her and shove a funnel in between her lips, if that what it takes to get the pills down. And I swore, too No Dad. If I break my promises, I’m terrified Mom will snatch her love away, like it was never truly mine to begin with, but a library book that I’m now supposed to return.”
No sixteen-year-old should have to deal with this. I was struck by the drama, the pathos, the heart. You can feel Aura’s panic. The ending is a little too neat for me, but I so enjoyed this book.

Monday, August 23, 2010

God Is in the Pancakes by Robin Epstein

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Summary: Teenager Grace is struggling with bigger issues than just a typical teenager in this well-written story.

Grace Manning enjoys her job as a candy striper at Hanover House. It gets her out of the house – which has been no fun at all since her dad left her mom – earns her a little money, and Grace loves her time with Mr. Sands. He teaches her cards, laughs at her jokes and is a really good friend to her.
In fact, they’re so close that one day Mr. Sands asks Grace to help him die.

He gives her an envelope of pills and asks her to make him pancakes with the pills crushed up. They will just put him to sleep and it will end his suffering. And it’s medicine he’s already taking, so nobody will be surprised when he has the medicine in his system.

Grace thinks it’s a joke. Maybe a test from the nursing home staff. Mr. Sands can’t really be serious. Plus, he can walk and talk, which makes the request to die seem an overreaction.

Then one day, Grace is turned away from Mr. Sands’ room. He’s having trouble breathing and Grace is concerned. She talks to the head of Hanover House and finds out that Mr. Sands has ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) – and he will have trouble swallowing and breathing on his own. Eventually, even the machines won’t be able to help.

Grace recognizes that Mr. Sands was serious about wanting Grace to help him die. Mr. Sands only has a painful lingering death ahead of him if Grace doesn’t do it. But how can she?

Grace wants to share all that’s going on with her best friend Eric, but he’s busy with the basketball team. Also, things have been kinda weird between them lately and Grace doesn’t want to force the issue in case she makes Eric leave her like her dad left her mom, but how can she tell Eric she might actually kill a friend?

On another visit to Mr. Sands’ room, she is turned away again while a nurse clears his lungs of fluid. While Grace is furiously ranting in the bathroom over the unfairness of God causing the, she meets Isabelle. Isabella teases her out of her bad mood and then they discover they are going to the same room – Mr. Sands’ room. Isabelle is Frank Sands’ wife, but because she’s much healthier than he is, she lives in a different building at Haven house, one with no nurses.

Isabelle and Grace develop their own friendship but Grace never mentions the pills stuffed in her backpack to Isabelle or to Mr. Sands. What could she do? What can she say?

Then, during a study session for their history midterm, Eric and Grace suddenly kiss. This was one of the most spontaneous, realistic and romantic scenes written, and I read a lot of romance novels.

One friend kissed her, one friend is dying, and Grace keeps sending her father’s calls to voice mail.
“ I want everything to be okay. I want Mr. Sands to be healthy. I want things to be normal with Eric. I don’t want to fail biology. I want to be prettier. I want to be able to speed read. I want world peace. I never want to get a zit again. I want to be able to eat anything I want and not gain weight. I want to be talented at something. I want to know if Isabelle will be okay if I help Mr. Sands. I want to smell nice all the time. I want my dad to apologize for leaving. And then I want him to come back and stay. I want to live happily ever after. And I don’t want to have to think about these things."
I loved this book. The writing seemed authentic, the way an actual modern teen would think and write. The issues were believable and the ending plausible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

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Summary: A modern British woman is haunted by the ghost of her great-aunt, who was the original Twenties girl. 

This book stared out so slowly and clich├ęd that I was a little disappointed and thought maybe that Sophie Kinsella had kinda run her course.

The book opens with mid-twenties Lara Lington lying to parents about how successful her business is (not very), how she’s not text-stalking her ex-boyfriend (because he changed his phone number) and that she doesn’t need any money (totally not true). Another novel about a British woman who’s struggling with who she is and what she wants? Been there, read that.

Lara and her family are attending the funeral of Lara’s great aunt Sadie, who died alone in a nursing home at age 105. Suddenly Lara hears a panicked voice asking, “Where’s my necklace?” It turns out to be the ghost of Sadie, whom only Lara can see. She shouts out that Sadie’s been murdered and lies rather ridiculously to the police and her family about it. They agree to delay burial so they can investigate but everyone thinks Lara’s a little off.

Sadie then haunts Lara’s apartment and work. There are some silly and uninspired moments where Lara is trying to talk to a live person and also argue with Sadie at the same time. You get the idea. Sadie also has the remarkable ability to shout commands in people’s ears and they find themselves compelled to obey without knowing why. So Lara convinces Sadie to get her ex-boyfriend to share why he broke up with her. Lara immediately embarks on a mission to be the type of girlfriend Josh wants. Again, not that original as a chick-lit plot.

But Sadie also forces/encourages/persuades Lara to ask Sadie’s dream man out on a date, so that Sadie can have one last fling. Lara walks into a building, asks new-in-town American Ed out on a date. Ed, with Sadie’s hidden persuasion, agrees to go out with Lara. Sadie also convinces Lara to dress like a real twenties girl for this date – hair, make-up, dress. And Sadie also supplies the dialogue for Lara on this date. It wasn’t until I saw the lengths that Lara went to to please Sadie, giving only minimal thought to how utterly ridiculous she looked that I started enjoying who Lara was. But that’s the way I am; if I don’t like the main character, I don’t really like the book.

Lara’s willingness to throw herself wholeheartedly into helping Sadie live some of her old memories and search for that darned necklace made this book better than your usual chick-lit. You may also have guessed that Lara really wants to be liked, and doesn’t like confrontation. So she originally helps Sadie just so that Sadie will go away.

But of course, in learning about Sadie’s life, Lara finds herself fascinated with a relative she never knew and marveling at her strength and zest for living. Of course you can guess that when Lara/Sadie is on a date with Ed that Lara finds herself happier than she’s ever been with Josh.

The story of the necklace and Sadie’s sad past uncover a shocking modern-day secret that give Lara confidence and rocks her whole family. I won’t give it away, but will tell you NOT to give up on this book. It’s worth reading until the end.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

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Summary: Teenagers about to be unwound – harvested for their organs – go on the run.

The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.
However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child…
on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t “ technically” end.
The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called “unwinding.”
Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.

And with that chilling statement, this novel opens. It's a thriller, as three Unwinds are on the run, but also both subtle and obvious social commentary with menace from all corners.

Connor's parents can no longer control him when he acts out, so his parents decide to have him unwound, so at least some good can come from their son. Orphaned Risa is a victim of shrinking budgets since she is not a talented enough musician to be kept alive. Lev, a tithe, was raised by religious parents for the sole purpose of being unwound. Why would he fight or run from the very action he was created for? His relationship with Pastor Dan comforts him, until an accident changes the path set for these young Unwinds. The bus carrying Connor and Risa, a ward of the state, crashes into Lev's parents' car, and Lev is taken hostage by Connor.  During a police shoot-out, Pastor Dan yells at Lev to run, and it isn't until Lev is alone in the woods does he realize Pastor Dan doesn't want him to be unwound.

The three travel together and join an underground rescue organization, but are separated. Risa and Connor join a hidden group of teens, who are just waiting to grow old enough to be safe from unwinding. Lev partners with a young teen who is driven by an urge to visit the parents of the child who provided parts for him. Cellular memory is fascinating to me, as is the ethics of organ donation.

Please note: Nobody ever says "die" they always say "unwound." The scene of one character's unwinding is horrifying and spell-binding. Solid writing.

There’s a funny line about whether or not you’re allowed to sell your soul on eBay. If the soul does not exits, then it can’t be sold. If it does exist, then it’s a body part and eBay does not allow the selling of body parts.

This is listed as a Young Adult novel, but I think the subject matter is more appropriate for adults. Fascinating, dark, enjoyable.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Never Less Than A Lady (Lost Lords Series) by Mary Jo Putney

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Summary: A widowed midwife, exiled from her family, marries the only man who can bring her back into society with ease.

In one day, Julia is kidnapped in order to be brought somewhere else to be killed (why don’t they just kill her there?), is rescued by a man she met a year ago casually, and becomes engaged to that man.

I miss Mary Jo Putney and hoped that this book would renew my enthusiasm for her. This was a disappointing story, more appropriate for a novella or a romantic short story anthology.

Major Alexander Randall needs to marry, as he is the heir to the Earl of Daventry. It just so happens that his dead cousin is the dead husband of Julia. His dead cousin was a brutal sadist and so Alexander stayed away for years. In fact, he never even knew his cousin’s wife. So when it turns out that his cousin married a woman and abused her, nobody thinks to make the connection from this plain midwife and the terrorized widow. It’s also possible that Julia pushed her abusive husband and may have caused his death. (We’ve seen that plot line once or twice before so I expected better from MJP.)

And Julia’s father-in-law is insane. Really. He never forgives his daughter-in-law, and sends out goons to kidnap her from her isolated cottage, where she was living after she faked her own death. Alexander just happens to be at the manor house when a maid ran for help and he vows to save her.  Complicated enough for you?

Alexander rescues Julia, and they spend an intimate (but not sexual) night together hiding from the kidnappers. By morning, Alexander has met his cousin's widow, found out that he abused her, that she was charged with murder and that she faked her own death after her father rejected her. They are also engaged. Alexander is also happy because if he marries Julia, he can restore Julia to her previous position, has a wife that is completely appropriate socially and seems to be just what he needs.

The abuse Julia suffered does interfere with their sex life, but only for a little bit. They are well-matched, despite being relative strangers and formerly strange relatives.

They confront the Earl of Daventry who finally stops having his daughter in law killed after his own child, a daughter by his third wife, is born.

Confused yet? That’s only because MJP tried to take a simple plot and the marriage of convenience plotline into a full novel. I miss her earlier work. This is only for devoted fans of MJP.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

One Foot in the Grave (Night Huntress, Book 2) by Jeaniene Frost

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Summary: A half-human/half-vampire is employed with Department of Homeland Security.

The premise is promising, exciting even. A half-human/half-vampire named Christine (her alias) who was formerly known as Cat, is employed with Department of Homeland Security, carrying out midnight raids against vampires who break the law.

Just to clarify, since I was curious how one can be a half-human and half vampire – Cat/Christine’s mother was raped by a newly turned vampire and somehow his sperm was both human and vampire at the time of the rape, so Cat’s mom was impregnated. I know, right? But if you’re going to believe in the existence of vampires, and that they work for Homeland Security, little details like infertility in vampires requires only a minor suspension of disbelief.

Cat is tough and brutal, but haunted by her separation from her vampire lover, nicknamed “Bones.” It was Bones’ tutoring that trained her as a fighter and she can still hear his voice in her head, encouraging her during her fights.

I felt like the writing and Cat’s action were deliberately bold and shocking.
“Ruthlessly I kicked the cadaver to send more blood downward, and Juan forced Dave to swallow.”
Ugh.

But the way the plot unfolded was weak. Bones comes back into Cat’s life, because someone has taken a contract out on her life (she’s a vampire hunter, remember?) and together they will uncover the plot against her.

But Cat/Christine seems tough and disconnected to her life. I couldn’t feel her pain or her passion. She just seemed grumpy.

“Felicty took one look at the half-empty pilsner glass of gin I returned with and gasped.
“Christine, can’t you keep a lid on your drinking? This is my cousin’s wedding for heaven’s sake!”
Her prim tone made me squeeze my glass so hard to avoid slamming it over her head that it shattered. Gin spilled on the front of me, and my palm started to bleed.
“Motherfucker!” I shouted.”

I stopped reading when her vampire ex-boyfriend Bones keeps calling her “Kitten.” It sounded so close to “sex kitten” and Cat (Yes, I do get the Cat/Kitten reference) is not the cuddly delicate type.

I think Laurell K. Hamilton is to blame for creating ass-kicking female vampire hunters who have extreme violent sex.

I recommend Blood Oath if you're looking for government vampires. Can this really be a category now? Vampires who work for Homeland Security?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Montana Legacy by R.C. Ryan

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Summary: A trio of cousins inherit their grandfather's ranch with the condition that they keep searching for the gold rumored to be on the land.

Three cousins grew up together on their grandfather's ranch in Montana. The grandfather is named "Coot." Coot McCord. Oh, puh-leeze. The cousins do have actual names, like Jesse, Wyatt and Zane. They might as well be named Cowboy Stoic, Wandering Daredevil, and Hollywood Charmer.  Yet, for a book of cliches, this isn't terrible.

The three cousins are brought together again after the death of their Grandfather, Cot. While it's not necessary for everyone to be present for a reading of the will, it does make for a good plot device, whether you're in Hollywood or in publishing. Coot wills his ranch to the three cousins equally, provided that they continue to search for the fortune in gold buried somewhere on McCord land. Since the cousins naturally are all financially well-off, they decide to collectively look for the gold and maintain the ranch as a tribute to their grandfather.

Author R.C. Ryan does fall into the Fern Michaels category of dialogue, where one character describes an entire past scene and relationship in a fake way.
' "Because you pestered me until I got tired of saying no." The weathered old wrangler shook his head. "You were way too young. Which is why you took that nasty spill that split your jaw. But you were jealous because your cousins were already riding, and you wanted to keep up." '
Why would you tell the story to the people who were there? It makes no sense and you know that author is just trying to provide backstory through dialogue. It comes out as clunky.

The book also mentions Jesse's charm, but he behaved like a surly jackass the whole book. His high school sweetheart Amy must fall in love with the man that Jesse was, because there is no way she could fall in love with him as an adult. We know that Amy wrote Jesse a letter a long time ago explaining why she left suddenly, but Jesse never received a letter and had closed his heart off to Amy long ago. Yet the ones who hurt us the most are the ones we love the most.

He acts like a spoiled brat with his remaining family, reluctantly recognizing that he was not abandoned by his cousins long ago, and that they also loved their shared grandfather. I guess there's something to be said for reticent cowboys but it's not my preferred romance genre.

The villain of the piece is a surprise, but why do they always have to be insane and/or evil? You won't guess the villain, so it's a nice developing love story until the mystery becomes overblown and outrageous.

You are correct in guessing that this is a trilogy about three cousins. I likely will read the next one Montana Destiny.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

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Summary: Dystopian YA novel about the power of being Ugly and the danger of being Pretty. 

Remember that old Twilight Zone episode where the beautiful woman wants to look like everyone else? Remember that TV show The Swan?  In New Pretty Town, everybody looks like themselves, only better, but they also look like everyone else.

Pretty people have it easy. They don’t have to worry about anything.
That’s why it’s mandatory for all citizens of New Pretty Town to have the operation at age 16. Until the operation, all people are ugly. Therefore, their brains and personalities must be ugly too.

In this YA dystopian novel, the Rusties’ civilization was destroyed years ago when someone created a bacteria that infected oil. Since nearly everything ran on petroleum, the Rusties were completely unable to function. A few smart scientists created an operation to make people Pretty at age 16. Once people are Pretty, they lose the urge to fight, to take revenge, to steal, to plunder, to treat the Earth poorly. The Rusties' behavior was Ugly and so were their faces.

Tally is only a few months away from her pretty operation and she’s lonely for her friend Peris who’s already been made Pretty. During a secret visit to Peris in New Pretty Town, Ugly Tally is a little worried that Peris is not as much fun as he used to be. Peris doesn’t worry about the same things they used to when they were both Uglies. That’s because being Pretty is fun. So Peris tells Tally just to behave and wait for her operation so they can be Pretty friends together.

But Tally is still playing tricks, waiting until her operation. Lonely, she meets Shay, who's also waiting for her operation. Shay is not nearly as excited to have her operation, and Tally is bewildered by her friend's behavior. Why would anyone not want to be Pretty?
"Maybe just being Ugly is why Uglies always fight and pick on one another, because they aren't happy with who they are. Well, I want to be happy and looking like a real person is the first step."
On the day of Shay's operation, Shay runs away to join the Smokies, a post-industrial band of Uglies who have no interest in civilization. They even cut down trees for fire. Tally misses Shay, but just prepares for her operation. Then Dr. Cable, the head of Special Circumstances, gives Tally an ultimatum. If Tally ever wants to be Pretty, Tally must find Shay and the Smokies and reveal their hideout to Special Circumstances. Then Special Circumstances will make everybody Pretty.
"As the details of the operation buzzed around in her head, she could imagine why Shay had run away. It did seem like a lot to go through just to look a certain way. If only people were smarter, evolved enough to treat everyone the same even if they looked different. Looked Ugly."
Tally desperately wants to be Pretty and of course believes that the world will be better, and more peaceful, if everyone is Pretty. She embarks on a long journey to find the Smokies. When Tally finally encounters the Smokies, she is astonished to see that Uglies can live together in harmony. What if her teachers weren't right about Uglies being bad? And when Tally finds out about what really happens to your brain during the operation, she begins to question everything she thought she knew.

This YA novel really is for young adults. The focus on people being so beautiful that others can't speak or think deep thoughts around them is funny, but I remember being speechless while working with a gorgeous man. It also seems to subtly hint that you need to see past people's looks to discover their personality and strength. This is a series written with a cliffhanger at every book ending. Uglies, the first book, is the best. The writing is uncomplicated, with a little too much repetitive detail for me, but a nice message and an easy fun read. This would be a great tween dystopian novel too.