Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jenn's Review: Murder on the Mind

Summary:  Jeff Resnick hardly knew his well-heeled half-brother. But after suffering a fractured skull in a vicious mugging, he reluctantly accepts the fact that he has a long and brutal recovery to face—and his closest of kin can provide him with the time and place to do it. 

Now, Jeff is haunted by unexplained visions of a heinous crime—a banker, stalked, killed, and eviscerated like a ten-point buck. When Matt Sumner’s murder is discovered, a still-recovering Jeff realizes this was what he had seen. Jeff must not only convince himself of his new-found psychic ability, but also his skeptical brother Richard Alpert. Since Sumner was Richard’s banker, both brothers have a stake in finding out what happened. With Richard’s reluctant help, Jeff’s investigation leads him to Sumner’s belligerent family and hard-nosed business associates, none of whom want him snooping around. 

When Jeff discovers a second victim, he knows he must relentlessly chase his quarry even if it means risking his brother’s life.

Review:  There aren't a lot of books set in my home town of Buffalo, NY so I was terribly excited when the ladies The Cozy Chicks for bringing brought it to my attention. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I was hoping it wasn't going to portray Buffalo in a bad light. This is a touchy issue for me, as I'm a proud Buffalonian.  We get enough bad press on our own (sports, economy, snow, etc.).

It was actually kind of strange reading about a fictional killer in my own town. There were fictional places juxtaposed on real places, making it kind of jarring for me to read. However, if you aren't overly familiar with the Buffalo area, I'm sure it wouldn't disturb you in the slightest. Both Jeff and Richard have just moved back to the Queen City for different reasons and both of them have bitter memories of their different but equally difficult childhoods in Buffalo. Neither of them is thrilled to be back, but they slowly learn that Buffalo isn't as bad as they remember (I loved Brenda's line, "Richard, you never told me there's a ton of great stuff to do in Buffalo."). While Jeff and Richard are relearning the city, they are also trying to reconnect with each other.  But it's hard to get beyond their childhood grudges when Jeff's insistent that his head injuries have caused him to start having psychic visions ...and those visions are pulling all of them into the middle of a murder investigation.

L. L. Bartlett wastes no time jumping into the mystery of it all. It caught me a little off guard. The mystery is interesting. The reader is not tasked by trying to figure out the culprit but by how Jeff will prove his visions, thus proving to his half-brother he's not crazy and catching a murderer. I'm not sure it was entirely plausible that Jeff wasn't arrested on several occasions for obstruction of justice at least, but it was easily forgiven because the story was intriguing. Little by little we learn what drove the brothers apart. Richard takes a leap of faith, Jeff learns to trust and let go. And the reader learns what motivates a murderer.

In a way, this is sort of the male counterpart to Heather Webber's Lucy Valentine series, which I adore. Although the lack of plot exposition at the beginning was surprising, I enjoyed the way Ms. Barrett wove it into the story instead. Some family secrets are revealed, and I'm sure there are more to come. I found all of Ms. Bartlett's characters fascinating and I want to get to know them a little better.  I'm particularly curious about Sophie, a minor character that floats in and out of Jeff's new found life as an investigating psychic. I can't wait to see where each of the characters decides to go from here, as they all seem to have a grasp on what they want out of life ...for now.

This will be a fun, light mystery series for me, I think, especially once I get used to reading about my home town.  I look forward to starting book two of the Jeff Resnick series, Dead In Red.  In fact I'm moving it closer to the top of my TBR pile right now.

Final Take:  3.75/5

PS.  I love that L. L. Bartlett's website features a photo section of some of the Buffalo-type things she mentions.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Guest Blog: Nancy Volkers

Earlier today Alice reviewed Scotland By Starlight by Nancy Volkers.  We are pleased to have Ms. Volkers join us for a guest post this afternoon.


I just finished an intriguing book. It was the kind of book that sits there taunting you – “Come on, you know you want to read me… forget about all of your other obligations and pick me up!” It was suspenseful, romantic, had colorful characters and made me think. The most surprising thing about it, to me, was the author’s name: Stephen King.

I grew up reading Carrie and Cujo and It and all those other one-word, terrifying tales by Mr. King. The book I just finished – 11/22/1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated – is nothing like those novels. King throws in some scary bits, but this is a drama, not a horror show. It’s a book about time travel, and how one decision can shape the world for decades to come. But it’s also about love and control and kindness and authenticity and tenacity and pride.

Enjoying that book got me thinking about what makes a good novel. Teachers of fiction writing stress that you have to draw the reader in, create conflict and transformation, make the reader care about your characters. The people in your books can’t be “too good to be true,” but neither can they be so flawed that readers don’t like them or identify with them.

How do writers balance all of this while they write? When writing A Scottish Ferry Tale and Scotland by Starlight, I did think quite a bit about making my characters real people, with flaws. Cassie, as I’ve heard from several readers, can be so whiny and indecisive that she irritates people. J Ralph, on the other hand, might have been crafted a bit too smoothly, as I’ve been asked more than once if he exists in real life. (Answer: not as far as I know, though my significant other is Ralph-like in many ways, minus the Scots accent and the large blue dog.)

Conflict and transformation are standards of fiction writing, be it a novel, short story or play. You could argue that some genres of fiction are perfectly predictable. In romance novels, there’s almost always a happy ending; in mystery novels, the mystery is solved. In chick lit, the lead character “grows up” in some way, and changes. So why do we keep reading? Why was I drawn toward 11/22/1963 for over a week, taking nearly every spare moment to sit down and soak up a few pages of a world that didn’t even exist?

My off-the-cuff answer is that we cannot see our own futures, but there’s a part of all of us that aches to know what will happen next. I have no idea what’s going to happen to me today. That unknowableness (yes, I made up that word) is frustrating and magical, all at once. When we get a chance to know the unknowable – through a good novel, film, TV series or play – we can scratch that itch that can never be scratched in real life.

Thank you, Nancy for sharing your thoughts with us.

Connect with Nancy:   Visit Nancy’s website!  Follow Nancy on Twitter!


Alice's Review: Scotland by Starlight

Summary:  Cassie Wrentham is on her way to Scotland again... but this time it's not vacation. She's moving in with Ralph Macnair, the charismatic Scotsman who stole her heart. But Cassie wouldn't be Cassie without doubts. Will she find a job in a tight U.K. economy? Would marrying Ralph now be only for convenience's sake? Will she fit in, make friends, make a life there? Or will it all fall apart? Bursting with a lively cast of characters, all with their own stories and challenges, Scotland By Starlight follows Cassie and Ralph from the new beginnings of their intense relationship to a conclusion like no other. ~amazon.com

Review:  It has been a while since my last visit with Cassie and her knight in acting armor Ralph in A Scottish Ferry Tale. I missed them. This sequel starts with Cassie’s move across the pond to Scotland to begin her life with Ralph.

They are disgustingly in love. And they make sure they tell each other that. Repeatedly. In sickeningly sweet detail. As if we would ever forget how much them mean to each other and want to be together. Forever. And when they aren’t talking about love, they are doing it. Thankfully not in detail.

One thing that bugged me about this novel is the lack of conflict. Things happened, but nothing that propels me to turn the pages. It was an account of the day-to-day life of a couple annoyingly in love with each other. I was going to write this off as the type of novel to read when I need a jolt of heartwarming romance. Well written, yes but simple of plot. A straightforward romance about a girl taking a chance on love when it’s not much of a chance at all because her beau loves her with the same fierce intensity. That is, I was thinking that until I got to the epilogue. Wow, that changed everything for me.

Ms. Volkers gave her readers the mother of all shocks. It’s this I can write pages about. I loved it. LOVED IT. Although I was not moved to tears, it did give me a new enjoyment for the story. I treasured Cassie and Ralph as a couple. I loved their love. I cherished their happy ending.

My final take? If you are looking for romance, I suggest you read this book, but don’t read the epilogue. Ms. Volkers is a romantic wordsmith. I have so many passages written down, things I’m totally going to steal for my own wedding vows (when that day comes, of course). But if you want a bit of heart-wrenching tingly goodness, read it through to the end. I guarantee you will fall for Ralph as well and see why Cassie truly loves him.

Final Take:  3/5


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Children's Corner: I Will Not Read This Book

My daughter is working on sight words right now and sometimes she can't wait to "read" me a memorized story, and other times, she has no interest in working on her word recognition. This book is about precisely those times when it's too much work, when sometimes, it's just nice to be read to. The little boy in the story realizes he doesn't want to struggle with words today and employs a dozen stall tactics. When those run out, he admits his lack of willingness to read and goes through all the scenarios that won't be able to force him to do it. Graciously, mom agrees to read with him.

This is a nice bit of comic relief for anyone who is going through this situation or anyone who has gone through it. It's a wonderful tribute to the imaginative child's ability to create mountains with molehills. If nothing else, it will make both you and your young reader smile.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Jenn's Review: It Takes A Witch

Summary:  Darcy Merriweather has just discovered she hails from a long line of Wishcrafters-witches with the power to cast spells by making a wish. She's come to Enchanted Village to learn her trade but finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation...  ~product description

Review: Having adored Heather Webber's Lucy Valentine series, I knew It Takes a Witch under her new pen name Heather Blake would have a lot to live up to. (I'm actually am so enamored with the Lucy Valentine books that I don't want to read book three which, as it stands now, is the last book in the series.)  I am pleased to report that It Takes a Witch held its own.

Whereas the Lucy Valentine books dabble in the paranormal, It Takes a Witch is fully paranormal because it centers around a community of Crafters (AKA witches) living among mortals in a little New England town.  The town capitalizes on their witchy reputation by commercializing it, and making it a magical destination, completely unawares that there are real witches in residence.  However, Enchanted Village has had a recent crime wave that starts with some pick pocketing and ends with a murder which is not only bad for publicity, it's downright un-neighborly.  I love the setting of this book because I live not too far from a quaint mystical community that may or may not be home to real witches and It Takes a Witch provided a wonderful scope for the imagination.

The mystery is good.  I didn't find myself pushing to figure out the whodunit of it all because there were so many small mysteries to enjoy unravelling.   Some of the things I solved before Darcy and some I didn't... and a few little things Heather Blake left unresolved for the next book.  There's also a good dose of her trademark humor and witty dialogue.

My only complaint is that I felt that I didn't get to know the characters quite as well as I would have liked, but there were an abundance of them, which is perhaps why Blake didn't explore them as deeply as she could have.  I loved that so few of the characters are who they seem to be on the surface.  I also liked the fact that Darcy wasn't investigating the town crime wave because she was nosy or curious, but because she got pulled into it in an attempt to protect her family.

This story was a snapshot into Darcy's and Harper's life.   I want to know about Darcy's past. I want to know Nick's story.  I want to know more about Darcy's family heritage as Crafters.  I want to know more about the community of Crafters.  I want to know more about the different Crafters.  I want to know about the Elder.  And I definitely want to know more about the crazy twist at the end.  I want... to read the next book!

The crazy thing is, I wouldn't mind if Heather Blake switched protagonists with each story in the series.  That's not to say that I didn't love Darcy, it's just that there isn't an uninteresting character and they certainly provide a wealth of untapped stories for the continuation of the series.  

If you are looking for a nice light mystery with lots of great characters,  a little magic, and a little romance, you've got to check out It Takes a Witch.  Also check out her other books, published under Heather Webber.  I have quite a few of them in my TBR pile.

Final Take:  3.75/5

Want to sample It Takes a Witch?  Here's an excerpt.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Author Interview: Sarah Jio

Recently, Julie read and reviewed Sarah Jio's two fabulous books, The Violets of March and The Bungalow. Today, we are excited to have her  answering some questions. 

GJR: Other than it being utterly gorgeous I’m sure, what inspired you to set your novel The Bungalow on Bora~Bora?

Sarah Jio (SJ): At the time when I began working on The Bungalow, I was pregnant with my third son and had two other very young little boys. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be traveling anytime soon, so I decided to “revisit” the Tahitian islands where my husband and I traveled for our honeymoon 10 years earlier in my imagination! By writing this story, I had a chance to experience the warm, white-sand beaches and the lush island setting again.

GJR: Is Westry based on anyone or purely your imagination? 

SJ: He’s just a product of my imagination, but I like to think he’s pretty dreamy! His name, however, was inspired by a real person. I heard the name of an editor I worked with at a magazine years ago, and I liked it so much I filed it away in my mind to use in a novel someday!

GJR:  The Bungalow is told from Anne’s point of view, reflecting on her life and relaying the story to her granddaughter. How do you think this influenced the reader about Anne? Do you think the story would have been different if told from Westry’s point of view? 

SJ: I wanted the reader to take a journey with Anne and experience her great love, her heartbreak and regrets. If it had been told through Westry’s point of view, we might have seen similar emotion, but the story would have been very different. When I began to plot out this novel, Anne Calloway came to me very vividly and I knew she had to be my main character and that I had to tell her story. 

GJR: Both of your novels, The Violets of March and The Bungalow have a love story and a mystery in them but for me The Bungalow was much more of a love story than a mystery and flip flopped for The Violets of March. Was this intentional or just how the stories flowed?

SJ: It’s funny, I didn’t set out with any real certainty about the type of story I would write; I sort of let the characters guide me. The books are similar in some ways and different in others. As a writer, I’m interested in a blend of mystery and history, with a sprinkling of romance. For me, the test of a story that is going to work is whether it captivates MY attention as I’m writing it, and The Bungalow absolutely haunted me. I still think about Anne and Westry as if they are real people (as crazy as that must sound!).

GJR: You have said that your grandmother influenced your interest and love of the 1940s, but what is it in particular that draws you to that time period?  

SJ: I adore the music, films and fashion of the 1940s. I feel absolutely nostalgic about this decade. When I was young, I watched more black-and-white movies than anything else. I thought that was normal. But, while my friends were falling in love with Tom Cruise, I thought Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant were pretty great!

You have a third novel due out in 2013. Can you tell us the name and a brief summary?

SJ: Blackberry Winter is my third novel—set to be published in September of 2012 by Penguin. It is the story of a little boy who was lost in a late-season snowstorm in May of 1933. When a similar late-season snowstorm hits the city (Seattle) on the same day some 80 years later, Claire, a 35-year-old reporter for the Seattle Herald, stumbles upon the story of the missing child and is determined to find out what became of him and his mother. In the process, she discovers haunting connections to her own life.

GJR: Are you currently working on a 4th novel? If yes, what writing stage are you in?

SJ: Yes, my fourth novel, The Last Camellia, is in progress. It was recently sold to my editor at Penguin, and I’m very excited about this story.

GJR: You have a young family, how do you find time to write and maintain focus there with little ones around? Do you write when they are in bed?

SJ: With three little boys 5 and under, it is very (VERY) crazy in my house. But, I’ve learned to embrace the craziness and just keep plugging along. I adore being a mother, and I love my career, so I just feel blessed to be able to have this life. It’s not always easy, though. I’m really sleep-deprived a lot of the time, but I try to write a little every night. While I do my magazine work during the day, I find that I can focus best on fiction when the kids are sound asleep. So, after putting them down for bed each night, I race down to my office to write for a few hours on my novels. It’s work, but I also really love it.

GJR: Do you feel that being a journalist prepared you for being a novelist? If so, how? If not, why? (Maybe some of both)

SJ: Yes, it’s really helped me, I think. I am the health and fitness blogger for Glamour—a job I’ve had for the last four years. It’s amazing how that daily deadline really does help keep me disciplined and flex those creative muscles.

GJR: How do you feel social media has helped publishing and/or reading in general? What about for yourself?

SJ: I think it’s definitely a good thing—for readers and for authors. I love connecting with readers on Facebook and Twitter—hearing about what they’re reading, learning how much they enjoyed one of my books, etc. Recently, I saw on Twitter that a woman was reading The Violets of March in the bathtub. She tweeted something like “Sitting in the bathtub with a glass of wine and Sarah Jio’s The Violets of March.” I tweeted her back a hello, and she got a kick out of the author saying hi to her in the bathtub.

Thanks to Sarah, who is currently on her book tour for The Bungalow, for taking time out of her hectic schedule to answer our questions! You can follow her on Twitter on join her Facebook page.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Author Interview: Meg Gardiner

If you read our blog with any regularity, you know that Jenn and Julie are huge Meg Gardiner fans. We even got Alice to read her first Evan Delaney book China Lake. Needless to say, when Ms. Gardiner agreed to do a Q&A with us we went a little "fan girl". We can't thank her enough for taking time out of her schedule to answer our questions. Enjoy!

GJR:  We both found you through the Stephen King article in Entertainment Weekly a few years back. Were you aware that Stephen King was going to write about your work or was it a surprise? Have you ever spoken to him?

Meg Gardiner (MG): Entertainment Weekly had contacted me to fact check the article, so I knew it was in the works. But I was still blown away. Stephen King is my favorite author, so it was incredible to learn that he likes my books so much. Even more wonderful has been his support and encouragement. And yes, I’ve met him. He’s great—thoroughly engaging and genuine.

GJR: So many authors, even some or our favorite mystery thriller writers, fall into a formulaic trap. How do you keep your plots so fresh and unpredictable?

MG: I try to write the kind of books I want to read: books that enthrall and surprise me. That means I have to look past the first ideas that occur to me—because ideas that occur off the top of our heads tend to be familiar and clichéd—and dig deeper into the story’s possibilities. I keep a piece of writing advice in mind: Give readers what they want, but not the way they expect it.

GJR: It always takes us by surprise that you can (and do) kill off your characters so easily. We have to ask, does it hurt you as much as it hurts us?

MG: It’s not easy at all. It’s terrible. But I write thrillers. This means the characters will find themselves in danger, facing life and death situations. And if they always survive, where’s the suspense? When I first started writing, I protected my characters, because I liked them. Though I put them in danger, I knew in the back of my mind that they’d be okay. I never truly put them at risk, and that meant that I never truly took a story as far as it could go. I stunted its possibilities from the beginning. Besides, if a writer knows the characters are safe, at some level so does the reader. And that inevitably drains a story of tension. A book becomes a theme park ride instead of a gripping adventure. So I got out of the protection racket. I made the characters live without a safety net. And it’s only when the characters face uncertainty—when their choices have permanent and potentially fatal consequences—that they’re called to heroism. And when good guys die because of a courageous decision, or to protect others, it means something. Though sad, it resonates.

GJR: Julie and Jenn were both anguished over where we left Evan at the end of Kill Chain. (WHY?!? *sob*) What made you decided to leave things so open ended?

MG: Kill Chain is a culmination of many threads in the series. It’s about currents in Evan’s life coming together turbulently. A cozy ending was never in the cards. But I don’t intend to leave the series hanging. The big question is: what happens next?

GJR: Please tell us there is more to Evan’s story... and that you’re going to continue the Evan Delaney series! (We know she makes a cameo in Jo Beckett’s Nightmare Thief -Jenn has held off on reading it until she caught up with the Evan Delaney series so as not to be spoiled)

MG: Evan’s story is not over by a long shot. In fact, I’ve written an Evan short story, a prequel, which will be published later this year. Details soon.

GJR: How do you decide whose book, Delaney or Beckett, you are going to write next? Does the fact that the Delaney series was first published in the UK and the Beckett series in the US affect this?

MG: Once I started the Jo Beckett series I knew I would write several books, so the series could develop and readers could get to know Jo. US versus UK publication hasn’t affected this. The thing is, I have a lot of stories I want to tell. Some fit Evan, some fit Jo, and some fit other characters with their own lives. In fact, my next novel is a stand alone thriller.

GJR: Evan is a strong character that has become broken and Jo is a broken character who has become strong. Was that planned, or was that how they came to you?

MG: A bit of both. Evan and Jo are both resilient women who have a core of inner strength. Life has thrown a lot at them and their loved ones. The two series have joined them at different points in their lives. In particular, the Jo Beckett series starts not long after her husband has been killed in the crash of a medevac helicopter. It was always going to be about how she faces the world in the wake of such a loss.

GJR: When you write, do you have to have background noise or total silence?

MG: Half the time I want silence. The other half I crank up the Foo Fighters or the Inception soundtrack. The loud half usually comes when it’s time to write an action scene.

GJR: What is the strangest, coolest and scariest thing you’ve researched for a book?

MG: Strangest: apocalyptic survivalist cults. They live in a parallel mental universe and some of these folks are truly salivating for violent confrontation in the name of God. Just browsing their web sites is enough to give me the heebie-jeebies.

Scariest: nanotech. I researched it for The Memory Collector. My brother-in-law is a physicist, and when I asked him how to craft a story where experimental carbon nanotubes contaminate people and cause disastrous memory loss, he spent an hour getting more and more wound up about the possibility that such a disaster could actually happen, until he blurted, “These things could get loose in your head and really f*** you up!” Just what I wanted to hear. Except not.

Coolest: Search and rescue with the pararescuemen of the 129th Rescue Wing of the California Air National Guard. They took me on a tour of their facilities at Moffett Field (in a corner of one of the enormous hangars sometimes seen on Mythbusters) and generously talked to me at length about their work. These are guys who willingly throw themselves into the worst disasters on land, sea and air, who get paid very little to do extremely dangerous work for almost no public recognition—and they do it to save the lives of people like you and me. I can’t tell you how much I admire them.

GJR: You’re having an author get-together, dinner party. Who’s on the guest list, which recipe would you grab, and why?

I’d invite authors I love and whom I know would make me laugh all evening long: Stephen King, Laurie R. King, Jeff Abbott, Sharon Kendrick, Kathryn Fox, Zoë Sharp, Brett Battles, and Harlan Coben. I’d make a plate of nachos the size of my kitchen table and let everybody dig in.

So, now that Jenn and Julie will be anxiously waiting for the Evan Delaney short story and the new stand-alone novel, we will be digging back into the Jo Beckett series (Jenn is further in than Julie).

So, if you haven't read Meg Gardiner, what the heck are you waiting for?!!


Monday, January 23, 2012

Julie's Reviews: Still Missing

Summary: On the day she was abducted, Annie O’Sullivan, a 32-year-old realtor, had three goals—sell a house, forget about a recent argument with her mother, and be on time for dinner with her ever-patient boyfriend. The open house is slow, but when her last visitor pulls up in a van as she's about to leave, Annie thinks it just might be her lucky day after all. Interwoven with the story of the year Annie spent as the captive of a psychopath in a remote mountain cabin, which unfolds through sessions with her psychiatrist, is a second narrative recounting events following her escape—her struggle to piece her shattered life back together and the ongoing police investigation into the identity of her captor. Still Missing is that rare debut find--a shocking, visceral, brutal and beautifully crafted debut novel. ~amazon.com

Review: I read Chevy Stevens' novels out of order, reading Never Knowing first, so I was familiar with the therapy session layout. As in Never Knowing, it works well for Still Missing. The difference is in Still Missing, Annie is recounting her story to her therapist. Her story is not an easy one to read and to relive through Annie. You feel Annie's terror as she relives her year long nightmare. What struck me about the story was that we never know Annie before the kidnapping, we learn about who she was through her eyes. Who she is now and how is she different than she used to be? Can she ever return to who she was? Any one with a limited knowledge of psychology pretty much knows that she will never be the same. She can only move forward, never backwards.  

Annie is a strong and brave woman. What she lived through and continues to live through takes a strength that not many people would be able to muster. Annie does this pretty much on her own, either by design or because she doesn't have a strong support system. Sure there's the ex-boyfriend and the high school best friend, but how can you possibly explain what you lived through for a year? How do you explain the terror, the pain, the physical and mental abuse to people who have never experienced it?

There is so much more to this book that I really can't talk about because it's the essence of the story. I wouldn't want to ruin it for you because it's that good.   

Ms. Stevens is an excellent storyteller. She reels you in immediately and keeps you engaged throughout the novel. There are enough twists and turns here to make you a bit queasy. The twists are never done in a manner where you think that's exactly what they are and they are necessary to keep the story moving along. 

Still Missing reminds me of another novel I read a couple of years ago, Standing Still by Kelly Simmons. They are similar yet very different novels.

If you have not discovered Chevy Stevens, then I definitely recommend either Still Missing or Never Knowing. Both novels will have you on the edge of your seat.

Final Take: 4/5

Thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book. 


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Children's Corner: Lightning

Review: My 6 year old doesn't mind storms except for lightning. It freaks her out. Even if she's sound asleep, she'll wake up from it. So imagine my surprise when the other week she brought home a book about this subject. Lightning (Weather) is a great beginning book for kids who have an interest in or are afraid of certain weather systems.

For my 6 year old, the science was definitely a bit over her head but it did make her feel better to read how it is made. It even educated me a bit on lightning. The photography in the book added to the education. The colors were bright and showed how magnificent and beautiful lightning could be. It also definitely highlighted how dangerous it could be as well.

After reading it, I asked her if she felt better about lightning during storms and she said she did, but she still didn't really like it. She did mention that she'd like to read the other books in the series. I'll have to remind her of that before her next library visit.

If you are looking for a solid book about lightning for your child, then I definitely recommend this one.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Julie's Review: Think of a Number

Summary: Arriving in the mail one day is a taunting letter that ends with a simple declaration "See how well I know your secrets-just think of a number." Eerily,the letter writer has predicted their random choice exactly. For Dave Gurney, just retired as the NYPD's top homicide investigator and forging a new life with his wife, Madeleine, in upstate New York, the letters are oddities that begin as a diverting puzzle but quickly ignite a massive serial-murder investigation. Brought in as an investigative "consultant," Gurney soon accomplishes deductive breakthroughs that have local police in awe. Yet, with each taunting move by his seemingly clairvoyant opponent, Gurney feels his tragedy-marred past rising up to haunt him, his marriage approaching a dangerous precipice, and, finally, a dark, cold fear building that he's met an adversary who can't be stopped. ~product description

Review: Think of a Number is a taut, well-written thriller that has you enthralled from the beginning pages of the novel. Dave Gurney is an interesting and multi-layered character, who has a way of putting complex crime puzzles together and solving them. He's retired now but he's brought back into this mystery by an old college acquaintance who has been getting strange letters that seem to know what he's thinking. Along with this are poems that are not blatantly threatening but have an underlying menacing tone to them.

Like Dave and Mark Mellery, I was sucked in by the poems, the seemingly randomness of the poems that don't quite say anything but say enough to have the intended victim freaking out wondering what they've done wrong and how this person knows. The perpetrator is playing mind games with their intended victim. Very quickly the mind games become a crime of murder. At the crime scene there are strange clues/evidence that does not make any sense. These are the pieces that confound Gurney. Quickly, things start moving right along and more people are targeted.

The book moves at a quick pace but for this thriller you really do need to read every single word. This is a complex, multi-layered mystery that has you trying to figure it out along with Gurney and the police departments he comes to work with.

By the end of the book, I felt that Gurney should have figured out the perpetrator a lot sooner. Looking back on the novel, I can see the clues that were laid out by Mr. Verdon. I think when I finished the book, I hit my hand to my head and said "DOH"!

I really enjoyed the way Mr. Verdon wrote the book and created Dave Gurney. What amazes me is the amount of knowledge he has about police work and crime scenes, since he's not a retired cop himself.

I will definitely be finding time at some point to read the second Dave Gurney novel, Shut Your Eyes Tight .

Final Take: 4/5

 Here is Jenn's review


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

And the Winner Is...

Congratulations to Brenda J, you have won our copy of Elizabeth Cunningham's Red-Robed Priestess.

An email should be waiting for you, please respond with your mailing address so we can get you the book ASAP!!

Thanks to everyone for entering.

As usual GJR used Random.org to generate the winner.

Our thanks to the publicist for providing the giveaway!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jenn's Review: The Magicians

Summary:  Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn't real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn't bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin's yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they'd imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world-where good and evil aren't black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.

Review:   I requested to review The Magicians because I'd heard such great things about it. I love YA fantasy but I don't read a lot of adult fantasy. Needless to say, The Magicians was a bit of an adjustment for me. Not only was it full of magic, but sex, violence, and power drunkenness.

Lev Grossman's writing is incredibly dense. I love his prose (anyone who uses the word insouciant!) but I'm not sure that I am in love with his narrative style. It felt like Mr. Grossman was trying to condense an epic compendium. The story covers all of Quentin's years in magic college and then some. I wanted the story to be about magic college, or about life after college, but instead Mr. Grossman gives us highlights of everything in order to maintain the pace of his story. At times I appreciated that he was only giving us the important scenes, particularly when his writing became especially thick, and other times I felt cheated. I thirsted to know more about Brakebills, the magical community, and the Magician's Council, but alas the reader's only interaction is through Quentin, so we only know and see as much as he does.

I started off invested in all of the characters, and by the mid-point of the book I was becoming disenchanted with them; by three-quarters of the way through I didn't like any of them, save for maybe Alice, and only then by default. I need my flawed characters to have redeeming qualities, and I was scrounging to find any.

I realize this is a series so there needs to be some open-endedness, but more often than not, it felt more like loopholes than loose ends. In the end, I'm not sure why any of it happened the way it did, whether it was all just plot devices, or whether there was purpose. For example, I found the violence in the book was sudden and disjunct. I understand that there was supposed to be a level of shock value there, but by the end it seemed to be violence for the sake of violence, although perhaps that was part of the narrative plan too.

What I started out immensely enjoying, I completed feeling disillusioned. It's an imaginative, original masterpiece to be sure, but for me, it felt like it derailed. It left me feeling discouraged and disheartened which, again, was probably the point. While I understand the praise The Magicians has received, I am fully aware that this series is not for me.

Final Take:  2.5/5

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Children's Corner: Little Owl's Night

I love this book! It is an ingenious way of demystifying the dark. Little Owl's world consists of darkness and as we follow his night, we learn what goes on in the dark. There are animals at work and at play. There is so much beauty to the night-world through Little Owl's eyes. The daytime is just as mysterious to him as the nighttime is for children and before bed he asks his mother to tell him again what day time is like.

This is a fantastic book for kids who are afraid of the dark, or just plain curious about it. I love that it puts a fresh perspective on things and gives children and adults a new way of looking at a common fear. It open's ones mind to possibilities and isn't that what reading is all about?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Julie's Review: The Underside of Joy

Summary: Set against the backdrop of Redwood forests and shimmering vineyards, Seré Prince Halverson's compelling debut tells the story of two women, bound by an unspeakable loss, who each claims to be the mother of the same two children. To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. Yet one summer day Joe breaks his own rule-never turn your back on the ocean-and a sleeper wave strikes him down, drowning not only the man but his many secrets. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known and has believed that their biological mother, Paige, abandoned them. But when Paige shows up at the funeral, intent on reclaiming the children, Ella soon realizes there may be more to Paige and Joe's story. "Ella's the best thing that's happened to this family," say her close-knit Italian-American in-laws, for generations the proprietors of a local market. But their devotion quickly falters when the custody fight between mother and stepmother urgently and powerfully collides with Ella's quest for truth. The Underside of Joy is not a fairy-tale version of stepmotherhood pitting good Ella against evil Paige, but an exploration of the complex relationship of two mothers. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars-both physical and emotional-to the families' deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during World War II and postpartum psychosis. Weaving a rich fictional tapestry abundantly alive with the glorious natural beauty of the novel's setting, Halverson is a captivating guide through the flora and fauna of human emotion-grief and anger, shame and forgiveness, happiness and its shadow complement . . . the underside of joy. ~amazon.com

Review: I read about The Underside of Joy months ago and knew I had to have it, so I was thrilled when it showed up at my door (see note below). This book is not an easy read when it comes to emotions but the way that Ms. Halverson writes the novel is compelling and rich with beauty, both of nature and of the strength of women. To say that Ella is likable is an understatement. From the first words of the novel, I felt a kinship with her that would tether me to her throughout the novel. She quickly stepped into the role of mommy when she met Joe 3 years prior and while asking some questions about his first wife; she never really pressed for details. Ella knew she was gone and had left the children and Joe never looking back. After Joe dies suddenly, Paige shows up demanding to be a part of Annie and Zach's lives. A right some would say, she gave up when she walked out the door and signed over all parental rights to Joe. For me, I went back and forth on Paige's involvement with the kids. It's not cut and dry here as it never is in real life.

Not only is Ella dealing with the resurgence of Paige into her and the children's lives but she also discovers that the family store was in financial ruins. It's amazing that Ella remains as strong as she does during this time. Did she have weak moments? Absolutely. I thought she should have had more. There is one scene where she yells at the kids and remarks later that she's never yelled at them before?! What?! Really?!

There are two pivotal moments in the novel for me and I won't go into specifics but with one I had to restrain myself from screaming "NO!!!" and the other one I held my breath for the outcome. In the end Ella puts her children and their needs first instead of hers. Like Ella, I wonder how things would be different if Joe had lived. Then again, that's not the story that was to be told.

I never grew to really like Paige but I did understand her better in the end. Maybe that's all we as the reader and perhaps Ella are supposed to do.

What Ms. Halverson does in this book is bring you on an emotional roller coaster. She examines what it means to be a mother, a wife, a family member and an individual. We are all shaped by our personal history, family history and the expectations of family. What we do with all of that makes us who we are. Sometimes one is sacrificed for the good of the others.

Ms. Halverson has a great love for the Redwoods in Northern California because it permeates throughout the novel. Frankly, I want to pack up everything and move to Elbow, CA. Ok, maybe visit. This area is just as much a character as the people in the novel. It makes them who they are and it seeps from their pores and souls.

There are so many layers to this novel that it is truly hard to cover in a review without giving too much of the novel away. It is also hard to write a review when you truly loved the book and when you are emotionally attached to it, as I became.

Know this, if you are looking for a book about family, love, loss, despair, redemption and joy, then you don't need to look any further than The Underside of Joy.

Final Take: 5/5

Note: This is the 2nd book I've won from Dutton Books "Monday Giveaways" on Twitter and this is the 2nd time it's been an outstanding novel. The other book was The Keeper of Lost Causes.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Jenn's Review: Richard Castle's Deadly Storm

Summary:  For the first time anywhere, CASTLE's titular hero Derrick Storm comes to life in the pages of this all-new graphic novel. This "adaptation" of Derrick Storm's first novel adventure takes our hero from the gritty world of the private eye all the way to the globe-hopping intrigue of the CIA. Eisner Award-winning Marvel Architect Brian Bendis and red hot Osborn writer Kelly Sue DeConnick worked closely with CASTLE creator Andrew Marlowe to create the one thing millions of CASTLE fans have been asking for: Their first real Derrick Storm adventure. A wall-to-wall, gritty, witty, globe-hopping detective thrill ride for fans of the hit TV show starring Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic, as well as fans of damn good comic books. ~product description

Review:  Okay this is my first comic book (ahem) graphic novel ever so I can only talk about my experience reading it and how it relates to the franchise.

I am a bit of a speed reader so it took some adjustment for me to not just skim the text and move on, but to actually take in and enjoy the art -which, by the way, is amazing.  I'm still flipping through it and re-examining all of it.  The collaboration between Marlowe and Mavel is fantastic.  This has to be Castle's voice, but Castle before he met Beckett and I think they completely succeeded in that.  Oddly enough when I was reading Deadly Storm I started the story in Nathan Fillion's voice but ended up reading it in Zachary Levi's.  I think this is because Derrick Storm is more of a combination of "Chuck" and "Richard Castle", whereas in the Nikki Heat novels, Jameson Rook is so completely Richard Castle.  

I won't be rating this read as my basis of comparison for a graphic novel is non-existent, but I will say I enjoyed it.  If they continue to put out this Derek Storm series, I will continue to read it.  It's a great transmedia edition to the Castle empire.  I think any fans of the series would like it.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Giveaway: Red Robed Priestess

Here it is! The first Girls Just Reading giveaway of the new year:  Red-Robed Priestess (The Maeve Chronicles) is the fourth and final volume of the Maeve series from Elizabeth Cunningham which was just released in November of 2011.  
About the book:  After a life of passion and adventure that has brought her through slavery to the Resurrection garden, through the controversies of the Early Church to a hermit cave in southern gaul, Maeve, the Celtic Mary Magdalen, returns to the Holy Isles accompanied by Sarah, her daughter with Jesus. Their mission: to find Maeve's first-born child, stolen from her by the druids more than forty years ago.

Since then, Maeve's homeland has suffered it's own trials--Roman invasion and occupation. The Celtic tribes to the east and south are under direct rule, and the Romans are determined to rout the resistance of the western tribes, resistance fueled by the druids of Mona. 

Just before she crosses the channel from Gaul to Britain, Maeve encounters a man she mistakes for Jesus's ghost. This familiar stranger is equally haunted, and the two are drawn into a moonstruck liason that will entwine their lives in "an impossible Celtic knot." For unbeknownst to Maeve at the time, he is none other than General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the newly-appointed Roman Governor of Britain.

Maeve keeps this troubling tryst a secret even after she finds her long-lost daughter Boudica, the fierce and charismatic queen of the Iceni tribe. Druid-trained in her youth, Boudica married the Iceni king, hoping to rally him to a rebellion for which he has no stomach. Now estranged from her husband, Boudica keeps the old ways, sustained by her pride in her descent form her father (and Maeve's!) the late great druid Lovernios.

Seeking to circumvent disaster, Maeve travels back and forth from Iceni country to Mona, from the heart of native resistance to a Roman fort on the Western front, steadfast in her conviction: "Love is as strong as death."

How to enter the giveaway:

Please fill out the form below to be entered by midnight EST January 16, 2012.  You must be over 18 to enter and a resident of US or Canada.  

Girls Just Reading uses Random.org to select our winners.