Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Playing by Heart

Playing by Heart is a Christian historical fiction romance by Anne Mateer.

After growing up as flighty “Fruity Lu”, Lula Bowman has prided herself in turning her life around – focusing on academics and achieving a prestigious scholarship in mathematics.

When her mother died, Lula’s father looked to her to achieve his dream of her being the first woman with a PhD – and she longs to make him proud, even as he sits now – elderly and heartbreakingly unaware of her accomplishments.

It’s when Lula’s sister Jewel calls her and desperately needs her help after a shocking death shakes the family to their core that Lula’s goals have to be put – reluctantly – on hold.

Moving back home to help her sister, Lula takes a job at the local school as a music instructor and basketball coach – the only options available to her.

Only problem? She has no idea how to play basketball!

Good thing the handsome boy’s coach Chet seems very willing to help her learn.

But her undeniable magnetic pull toward Chet is against Lula’s will – she never wants to return to her “Fruity Lu” past – and has every intention of returning to college once her sister is back on her feet.

Failing her father is not an option…

Playing by Heart
was a nice, good read with strong themes of family, faith and adjustment of ambitions.

I liked the complexity of Lula’s relationship with her family – her single-minded personality has been shaped by her desire to please her father, whether or not it truly pleases her.

Chet also has a strong family backdrop – feeling disdain from a bitter mother that is resentful of her deceased, deserter husband and finds Chet’s decision to not enlist as cowardice.

Both characters have individualistic personalities and a lot to work out through trust in God – a lot of letting go of parental expectations. It was interesting – I appreciated the depth.

This is a good WWI era novel to enjoy.

*I received a copy of Playing by Heart from the Bethany House Book Reviewers program. Their generosity in no way influenced, nor sought to influence, my opinion of the novel.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Moon Sisters

The Moon Sisters is a contemporary novel by Theresa Walsh.

Sisters Olivia and Jazz Moon are handling their mother’s sudden death differently.

Jazz – having had a complicated and strained relationship with her mother – faces the loss with practicality and realism. She gets herself a job and readies herself for the future.

Olivia – unique from birth with the ability see sounds, taste words and smell sights – desperately clings to the belief that her mother’s death was not intentional. She decides she must fulfill her mother’s long held dream to travel to see the ghost lights at the setting of her mother’s unfinished novel.

Resentful that she’s spent her life being Olivia’s keeper, Jazz resists the encouragement to watch over this new foolish journey of Olivia’s. Yet she does follow – grudgingly.

When the sisters meet trouble along the way, Jazz wants to turn back but Olivia’s fanciful, hopeful heart believes it’ll all work out – and stubbornly refuses to go home.

Slowly making their way to their destination, Jazz and Olivia find that they must face their mother’s death and maybe eventually come to understand each other better…

The Moon Sisters
is a sad, effectively depressing and distressing novel. It highlights emotional and mental instability while keeping everyone sympathetic and deserving of empathy in some way.

I was reminded a little of Elinor and Marianne from Sense & Sensibility – one practical, sensible sister and one emotional, rather immature sister.

The Moon Sisters is well done – but emotionally draining, and therefore difficult to read.

For me, the flashbacks and memories were more interesting than the current day journey Jazz and Olivia were on. At times I began to skim the novel, especially during Hobbs’ – a secondary character – scenes. He never really gelled with me.

Though fairly touching, I felt that the conclusion of The Moon Sisters was a bit unsatisfying. Though I didn’t dislike Olivia – she grated on me. Her condition is fascinating, yes, but it also felt – often – self-absorbed.

Overall, it was a raw perspective of family and loss – but not a novel I would run around recommending.

Read it for yourself, though!!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Here and Now

The Here and Now is a YA contemporary novel with a time travel twist from Ann Brashares.

This is the first novel I’ve read from Brashares that is not Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants related.

Seventeen-year-old Prenna knows the rules. Since she and the others in her community immigrated to New York from the future – a time of disease and death – the rules have been repeated endlessly.

Don’t tell anyone where you’re from. Don’t interfere with history. Don’t become intimate with anyone outside of the community.

However, Prenna has always felt that nice, good-looking classmate Ethan Jarves knew something. As much as she tried to follow the rules and be very careful to not reveal anything, his eyes held perceptiveness – almost a shared secrecy.

When Prenna is faced with the truth about her community and what they are – or are not – doing to prevent the future plague, she’s forced to decide where her loyalties lie.

And if she needs to break the rules…

Initially, I didn’t feel as connected to Prenna as all the characters in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books – but I was intrigued by the time travel aspect and wanted to know more.

With a little time, I did become more interested in the characters and felt the danger beginning to peak along with my curiosity as I got almost halfway through The Here and Now.

I still do feel that The Here and Now could have benefitted from more of a build-up – especially on the character development side – but the concepts of the future are thought-provoking and kind of saved the book for me.

Personally, I liked the idea that in the future the value of having a physical item, versus a digital version, would become more cherished and appreciated. Like – ahem – books. Thankyouverymuch.

The Here and Now
really revs up once there’s a goal, a purpose, to the narrative of the story. It began to improve tremendously from that point on – the details of which I am not going to reveal here so you can be swept along blindly and happily.

With some good plot twists, The Here and Now became pretty gripping – despite having, in my opinion, a rather weak romantic element.

By the end I found The Here and Now to be kinda cool and kinda different.The Here

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Diamond Secret

The Diamond Secret is a YA retold fairytale, one of the Once Upon a Time books, by Suzanne Weyn.

When Nadya is told by two handsome mean in the Russian tavern she is working in as a waitress that they believe they know who she is and that they’d like to take her to her grandmother, she cannot help but hope it is all true.

Plagued with memory loss and the fear that she is or was insane – due to being found after a time in an asylum before the Bolsheviks turned them out – her life is not ideal. It’s better than when she was living on the street, but just barely.

Agreeing to accompany the young men, if only because she has little to lose either way, Nadya soon embarks on a journey to Paris – and out of the Revolution torn Russia in 1919.

Yet there is more to the young men’s plans than they initially tell her – and they aren’t bringing her to just any grandmother – but exiled Dowager Empress Marie.

And she is to be Anastasia…

The Diamond Secret
felt very familiar – I’ll be honest. There’s a lot of movies out there – both older black and whites, such as one I remember with Yul Brenner, and the newer animated Disney film – that carry a very similar premise and plot.

Yet, The Diamond Secret is very readable. It’s enjoyable, quick paced and has a good historically atmospheric setting. My biggest issue was that it doesn’t really fit into the series for a couple of reasons. The long held rumor that Anastasia escaped death amidst the execution of the Romanoffs may be unlikely, but I’d hardly call it a fairytale. But if you’re going to retell it as a fairytale, why not add a little magic, a little fantasy?

Suzanne Weyn keeps The Diamond Secret strictly a YA historical novel. Is that bad? No. But it significantly effects expectations.

However, in the end I really did like The Diamond Secret. It was sad, really, that the story could not be true. I appreciated the way the author spun a “What if?” that would fit into true history.

All in all a good read – but not really a fairytale.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a private detective crime novel by Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J. K. Rowling.

That’s right – J. K. ROWLING!!!

You know, author of my favorite series EVER?

Anywho…

The story was in the media for quite some time: Lula Landry, gorgeous young supermodel, plummeted to her death from her balcony. Yet once the fervor calmed down and the police deemed it a suicide, it quietly became less and less of a scoop.

For Cormoran Strike – missing a leg from his time in Afghanistan, freshly and painfully separated from his longtime girlfriend, and barely getting by as a private investigator – the buzz around Lula never registered much. He had enough of his own problems.

But when Lula’s brother steps into Cormoran’s office – desperate to find someone willing to investigate further – it becomes front and center. Lula’s brother is convinced Lula did not commit suicide – and he’s willing to pay Cormoran handsomely to look into it.

Diving into the scintillating world of fashion, fame and wealth, he is introduced to the dark underworld of the desperate, the addicted and the miserable.

They’ve never been confronted with a P. I. like Cormoran Strike…

Well, I already knew I’d have to set aside, somewhat, that this is J. K. Rowling – as obviously this is not an 8th Harry Potter novel.

*Sob*

The Cuckoo’s Calling is very adult – full of coarse language, crime and grit.

Yet, very quickly, “Robert Galbraith” establishes the characters and gives them personality and backgrounds. There’s that identifiable way that environments and people are described – in the perfect amount of detail - that hearkens to the author’s talent.

Cormoran is likable, if a scruffy, disheveled man. Robin – as his temp – is probably my favorite character in The Cuckoo’s Calling. She’s clever, determined and intrigued by the industry she’s been thrust into during her time in temporary employment. She and Cormoran have great scenes together.

The Cuckoo’s Calling has a ton of clue finding, in-depth interviews with realistic dialogue and all kinds of detailed, private detective goodness.

These are great, layered characters combined with a complicated, engrossing mystery that had me guessing and happily surprised by the end.

Is it Harry Potter? No. Do I love it more than Harry Potter? Heck no.

Will I be reading the next Cormoran Stike novel?

Absolutely!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Love's Fortune

Love’s Fortune is the third novel in the historical romance generational trilogy The Ballantyne Legacy by Laura Frantz.

I would strongly recommend reading all the books in order! Feel free to read my review of Love’s Reckoning here and Love’s Awakening here.

In 1850s Pennsylvania there is a hint of war on the horizon – the issue of slavery has continued to boil over through the years – and the Ballantynes are in the middle of it.

Rowena “Wren” Ballantyne has lived apart from her family’s great wealth and opulence in New Hope – having grown up far more humbly with her father Ansel and her now deceased mother in Kentucky.

When Wren’s father receives a letter from her grandfather Silas, they are suddenly immersed in society, as Wren’s father takes them to his hometown – a place that Wren is terribly unfamiliar with – and not at all suited for.

One of the few people she feels comfortable with is James Sackett – an apprentice of her father’s once and now steamship pilot of the Ballantyne shipping line.

But as Wren’s family – most of whom she just met – encourage her to have a Season and embrace the luxuries they can offer her, she finds herself shying away.

Possibly to her peril…

Laura Frantz is excellent at providing a rich, sweeping, historical vibe in her novels – and she does it again in Love’s Fortune.

I was happy to return to a simpler heroine – not that I didn’t like Ellie in Love’s Awakening, I just preferred Eden’s story in Love’s Reckoning.

This is a soaring tale of a fish out of water, really. Wonderful period details, suspense and romance.

It’s enjoyable to me to follow a family through generations – and I wish I didn’t get the impression this was the final book because, as I’ve said before, I’d find it highly interesting to follow this legacy on through contemporary times. Can you imagine? I’d be thrilled!

Full of Christian characters – without being preachy – Love’s Fortune presents an often painful but satisfying and lovely story of love and family.

Laura Frantz continues to be one of my favorite Christian historical fiction novelists – along with Tamera Alexander and Julie Lessman.

*I received a copy of Love's Fortune from the Baker Publishing Group. Their generosity in no way influenced, nor sought to influence, my opinion of the novel.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Martin King and the Space Angels

Martin King and the Space Angels is a YA contemporary sci-fi novel, and the first book in the Martin King trilogy, by James McGovern.

Martin is an ordinary teen in the United Kingdom.

His best friend since forever is Darcy – and he struggles with desperately wanting to tell her that he loves more than a friend.

He has problems at home.

Nothing out of the ordinary here.

Until he gets a superpower.

Of course, that’s after being visited by an alien that says Martin and his friends are the only ones who can save the world.

Yep…

Not so ordinary anymore!

Martin King and the Space Angels is fast-paced but a bit hard to pin down. The characters are likable enough but they never ended up feeling real to me.

To be honest, I felt a little thrown into Martin King and the Space Angels, which is presented as a sort of “epic” story. Since we get very little time getting to know the characters and few details to absorb on the plot itself, I felt little to no investment in the characters or plot.

Sadly, that caused me to start to fall into disinterest.

Please know that Martin King and the Space Angels is not in any way a bad book. It has tons of fans already and almost all the reviews I’ve seen on places like Goodreads is very, very positive. So, as always, read the novel for yourself!

For me, I felt the novel was actually TOO fast. If it had slowed down and given me a chance to really understand and believe what was happening, I think that would have kept me from eventually skimming it. Sadly, my life is full of too many books (no such thing!) and too little time, so I made that difficult decision.

I think some comic book loving sci-fan fans may love Martin King and the Space Angels. It just does not appear to be a book for me.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Miss Mabel's School for Girls

Miss Mabel’s School for Girls is a YA fantasy novel, and the first in The Network Series, by Katie Cross.

Sixteen-year-old Bianca Monroe has been planning for this day her entire life.

First, she has to be allowed into Miss Mabel’s School for Girls – one of the schools within the Network that teaches young witches how to use their magic. Then she has to safely pass through the foggy forest of Letum Wood. Finally, she has to break all tradition and volunteer for a competition that first year’s never touch.

Why?

Because Bianca must be able to confront Miss Mabel – a witch who cast a devastating curse on her family.

And the only way to meet Miss Mabel is to win the competition.

No one believes that a first year would have a single, solitary chance of beating trained third years.

Yet they don’t realize…

Bianca’s been training all sixteen years of her life…

Miss Mabel’s School for Girls was a revelation for me!!!

At the beginning I was a little thrown, because I couldn’t place a setting or time period for the story. Essentially, it is a fantasy in a witchy world – more details are revealed as you read Miss Mabel’s School for Girls. I was able to get past that initial hiccup fairly quickly.

There are some Harry Potter similarities, of course. A lot of times I felt like I was at the Triwizard Tournament. Potions feel familiar, things like that.

Yet, let me be very clear: this is a story completely of its own.

I swiftly was caught up in the suspenseful, atmospheric test of abilities. Bianca is very smart, very strong and very likable. I was truly stunned by how nerve wracking the novel was – it’s surprisingly page-turning!!!

Gripping, mesmerizing and disturbing at times – Miss Mabel’s School for Girls does not as much focus on the magic itself – though the magic is cool – but rather the intrigue, puzzles and tests surrounding it. There’s a whole level of political espionage going on and a truly dark, frightening sense that Bianca could be in over her head.

And Miss Mabel?

Yeah, she’s pretty much psychotically, brilliantly disquieting.

As you can tell, I was impressed and found Miss Mabel’s School for Girls to exceed my expectations!

I really, really want more.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Last Dragonslayer

The Last Dragonslayer is the first book in Jasper Fforde’s YA fantasy series The Chronicles of Kazam.

And it’s awesome.

Soon-to-be-sixteen Jennifer Strange is acting manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management – an employment agency for magicians – since the true owner disappeared, literally.

Keeping a handle on a bunch of childish, bickering wizards may not sound like many folks cup of tea, but Jennifer enjoys it. It’s far better than living at the foundling orphanage – and she’s good at it.

But magic is fading and the modern technologies of life have led people to prefer drain cleaner to spells. Plus, the regulations placed on magic carpets have made using them as taxis impossible.

When a mass-vision predicts the death of the last dragon in the world at the hands of the last dragonslayer, politics, business and greed become the order of the day as people begin streaming toward the boundary of the Dragonlands – eager to stake some new land as soon as the dragon is dead.

The idea of it sickens Jennifer – and she doesn’t even realize yet just how much she will be involved and how it encompasses Big Magic…

The Last Dragonslayer was a ton of fun – and very quickly shaped up to be an awesome fantasy world mixed in with a modern sensibility. These people have televisions and electricity and everything – and magicians are rather “outdated”. Pretty hilarious.

Jasper Fforde has a cleverness that is infectious – and now having read both The Eyre Affair and The Last Dragonslayer I have to say I am happier than ever that I purchased more books from him, both adult and YA.

Here we get a quick, exuberant, bright plot with likable characters and humorous environment. There are some moments of gravity, of saddening sacrifice and a heroine that is principled, strong and full of integrity.

The Last Dragonslayer is a fun, fresh book that is tremendously delightful!

I will DEFINITELY be continuing with this series!!!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave is a YA sci-fi novel by Rick Yancey.

OMG.

The 5th Wave left me feeling pretty drained and exhausted.

For the best reasons.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s have a little synopsis, shall we?

Within a span of less than a year, the world has turned upside down. Sixteen-year-old Cassie saw how people reacted when alien ship first arrived. Some were excited, some panicked – but no one expected the truth.

Just how much smarter they truly were than humans.

First there was the 1st Wave, then a 2nd, then a 3rd and a horrifying 4th.

Each Wave cost humanity more and more until there’s very few left – and of those Cassie knows one thing above all else: trust no one.

A single purpose keeps Cassie moving – all alone, hungry, tired – a promise she made to her baby brother Sam.

That she would find him again. That they’d be together again.

Maybe it’s impossible – but that promise is keeping Cassie alive right now.

But on the horizon… the 5th Wave is coming.

Pretty vague, I know. But you really want to go into The 5th Wave in the dark as much as possible. Seriously, this is a book to go on a ride with.

The 5th Wave is compelling, gripping and intriguing from the start. I was hooked in less than 50 pages.

Cassie is a great character, providing some humor amidst the horrifying twists and turns. She’s strong but believable and altogether a great heroine.

As the story develops, it’s stunning, frightening, creepy and oh-so-suspenseful. Yancey provides addictive, dramatic writing that hypnotized me! It’s emotional and grounded yet very creative sci-fi.

The aliens presented here – in my opinion – are scarier than any I’ve seen in movies or TV before. If anything, I’d say the 70s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Stephanie Meyer’s The Host have some similarities with The 5th Wave – and are two of my favorite alien based stories – but that’s about it.

The 5th Wave was actually difficult for me to read at times. Not because it wasn’t good – not by far – but because it disturbed me. It had moments that were so sad – so disquieting.

With shocking twists, intellectual complexity and even a surprising romantic element, The 5th Wave keeps you on your toes!!!

When I finished it, my thoughts were: WOW.

Just… WOW.

I am going to clamor for the next book – no doubt!!

Side note: In the Acknowledgements, Rick Yancey mentioned her lost his dog while writing The 5th Wave. I want to provide my deepest sympathies to his loss, which I have also felt deeply with my kitties Ritchie and Rusty whom I always miss. What sweet, loving creatures animals are!