"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened
and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you
and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse,
and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."
Ernest Hemingway

Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day Bonus: My Life with the Walter Boys

Sourcebooks Fire
My Life with the Walter Boys
Ali Novak
2015

The Summary
"Jackie Howard does not like surprises.  Chaos is the enemy!  The best way to get her successful, busy parents to notice her is to be perfect.  The perfect look, the perfect grades--the perfect daughter.  And then...

"Surprise #1:  Jackie's family dies in a freak car accident.

"Surprise #2:  Jackie has to move cross-country to live with the Walters--her new guardians.

"Surprise #3:  The Walters have twelve sons.  (Well, eleven, but Parker acts like a boy anyway.)

"Jackie is now surrounded by the enemy.  Loud, dirty, annoying boys--who have no concept of personal space.  Okay, several of the oldest guys are flat-out gorgeous.  But still annoying.  She's not stuck-up or boring--no matter what they say.  But proving it is another matter.  How can she fit in and move on when she needs to keep her parents' memory alive by living up to the promise of perfect?"

The Good
It took me a little while to get into Ali Novak's novel, but I did read it quickly quickly after I finally managed to dived in.  I was curious to see how Jackie would acclimate, how she would learn to, if not exactly recover from, then come to terms with the loss of her family, and how she would accept--and be accepted--by the Walters'.

It's a sweet, little teenage romance with some decent characters and an enjoyable tone.  Jackie works pretty well as a narrator, communicating her feelings precisely and accurately, revealing all the different facets of her story as her life goes in one direction and then another.  She's very careful about revealing all the details of her experience, making a candid and intelligent narrator.  I stayed hooked long enough to finally finish the book.

The Bad
Although I liked Jackie for her candor and thoughtfulness, I didn't find her to be an incredibly endearing narrator.  I think she conveyed herself very well, expressing her thoughts and feelings, but I had a hard time connecting to her on an emotional level.  She's too driven, too focused, too unnaturally mature for a girl of sixteen.  She doesn't quite feel genuine.

Don't get me wrong, I like her.  She seems like a decent person, a fairly well-formed character; however, I just couldn't seem to connect with her.  Perhaps, it was simply the fact that I am no longer sixteen-years-old, or perhaps, it was the life she lived previously, having lived a penthouse in Manhattan and received all the privileges that come with wealth (not that I'm criticizing her for it), but I simply didn't feel that familiar string of empathy tying us together.

Plus, I really, really hated Cole Walter.

I mean, sure, he could probably be a nice guy and Jackie obviously feels some kind of attraction for him--and he actually has his moments where he reveals how much he truly loves and cares about his family--but, for most of the book (read:  almost all of the book), he's a grade-A womanizing jerk who thinks nothing of the consequences of his actions and plays with Jackie's emotions, alternating between romantic and vindictively cruel.

On more than one occasion, he purposefully attempts to hurt Jackie--not physically, but emotionally and socially and, even, academically, despite knowing how out of place she feels in Colorado and how much she cares about her good standing in school--because she refused to succumb to his whims and play the part of a swooning female.  When she refuses to simply become another girlfriend, another broken heart, he tries to punish her for it.

Really, Cole?  Really?

I just consistently found myself annoyed and furious with Cole.  Granted, the other teenage boys are obnoxious--and Lee is just plain cruel on several occasions--but Cole, who Jackie finds herself unintentionally liking, seems to go out of his way to be unkind.  He's friendly, amicable, and sweet one minute, and then five minutes later he's attempting to sabotage her or intentionally breaking her heart.

I don't like Cole, not the slightest bit.  And I spent the entire novel alternately rooting for Jackie's other romantic prospects and hoping Cole would break his neck (or something equally damaging).

The Ugly
Why do teenage love stories always have to be so complicated?

Not to sound unkind, but adolescent relationships aren't that big of a deal.  After high school, you might not even remember the person you dated for two months during sophomore year.  I know heartbreak hurts at the time, but it's not catastrophic, especially when you're sixteen and you still have your whole life ahead of you.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Bonus: Sweet Spot

HQN Books
Sweet Spot
Susan Mallery
2008

The Summary
"If only her life was more sinful than sweet...

"'Responsibility' should be Nicole Keyes's middle name.  After all, not many people would sacrifice their lives to run the family bakery and raise a younger sibling.  But with Nicole's twin sister now blissfully married and her younger sis turning out more femme fatale than girl-next-door, super reliable Nicole is getting sick of putting everyone else's needs first!

"Enter Hawk.  The deliciously sexy former NFL player offers Nicole a taste of the freedom she craves.  Hawk may know the way, blindfolded, to her sweet spot, but Nicole's not about to let him get close enough to break her heart.  Of course, she might not have a choice in the matter if Hawk's past keeps getting in the way of their present..."

The Good
I actually liked Sweet Spot better than Susan Mallery's first novel, Sweet Talk.  As the second novel in the Bakery Sisters trilogy, Sweet Talk further develops the Keyes's sisters complicated relationship and, more importantly, looks at focused, feisty Nicole.

While Nicole can be a little hard-nosed--nay, even vindictive--when it comes to those who break her heart, she's really a very nice person.  You might go so far as to call her a bit of a marshmallow.  However, I liked Nicole for her attitude, for her uncompromising expectations and her unwavering loyalty and her self-sufficiency.

I may not always like her unforgiving stance when it comes to Jesse, or her blatant cruelty to Claire when they first reconnected, but she's a decent person and she's completely self-reliant.  She manages to run her own business and keep her bakery afloat even when circumstances conspire against her, and she shows an inner strength that's incredibly appealing in her character.

She's also insightful.  When she becomes embroiled in a fake romance with Hawk, she manages to recognize that she's slowly falling in love and, more to the point, she recognizes what needs to change in order for them to pursue a real relationship.  Mallery does an excellent job of depicting how Nicole and Hawk mature as individuals and lovers, which makes her characters all the more appealing.

Overall, I liked Sweet Spot.  Truthfully, it's probably my favorite of the trilogy; however, I can't really pinpoint why.  I don't know if I simply liked the characters better since I was already introduced to them, since I had more time to know them and become attached, or if I simply found myself more attracted to the plot.  I can't really say one way or another.

Regardless, I still think it's my favorite of the Bakery Sisters' series.

The Bad
Just the usual complaints, I suppose, such as predictable romantic entanglements and occasional mushiness.  But that's to be expected with romance novels.  It's meant to melt your heart, and I think it succeeds pretty nicely.

And if there were some parts I disliked, if the writing did get a little stale in a couple areas, at least it passed quickly.  I finished it in little more than a day, so it's easy to read and quick to finish, which I found an appealing combination.

The Ugly
I really didn't like Hawk's teenage daughter.  Spoiled, conniving, obnoxious and infuriatingly naive, I couldn't stand her.  For much of the novel, I detested her--and I couldn't help hoping that someone would smack some sense into her before she wound up ruining her life one way or another.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Candlewick Press
Flora & Ulysses:  The Illuminated Adventures
Kate DiCamillo
K.G. Campbell
2013

The Summary
Flora Belle Buckman is a cynic.  Ulysses is an unassuming squirrel.  That is, until he's suddenly turned into a superhero after an incident with a monstrous vacuum cleaner.

Now, gifted with incredible superpowers, Ulysses, under the tutelage of Flora, must learn how to use his new found abilities to protect the innocent and save the world.

After he finds something to eat, of course.

The Good
As I have a fondness for squirrels - and I was unexpectedly enchanted by the cover - I decided to read Flora & Ulysses:  The Illuminated Adventures, and I'm very glad I did.  It's an enjoyable little novel (albeit a little strange) with unusually quirky characters and a heart-warming story riddled with adventure and intrigue and danger.

Some part of me adores cynical, comic book-reading Flora Belle Buckman.  I loved her sense of humor and her desire to hope, her love of comics, and her fondness for sweet, heroic Ulysses.  She's such a sweet character, even when she's trying not to be, and she has such hope for little Ulysses.  And I loved that she was constantly changing, constantly learning, building and repairing relationships.

Although the other characters involved in Flora and Ulysses' adventures are unusual, I enjoyed them just as much.  William Spiver, Dr. Meescham, Mr. Buckman and Mrs. Buckman, and others, were all so strange (I might even say downright weird), but they were genuinely nice people who adapted to new circumstances and learned lessons from their mistakes - and, in the end, showed how much they cared for young Flora.

I really did enjoy Flora & Ulysses.  While it may be a children's book, it has a complexity to it that I think speaks to readers (of all ages) who have endured a parents' divorce and, more importantly, dared to hope when it seemed hopeless.

The Bad
It's a children's book, so I doubt it will appeal to all readers.  However fans of Because of Winn-Dixie, lovers of squirrels and superheroes, and younger readers may find something to enjoy in DiCamillo's novel.

The Ugly
Life can be messy.

And life, especially the life of a squirrel, can be rather brutal.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bonus: Almost Perfect

HQN Books
Almost Perfect
Susan Mallery
2010

The Summary
"Back in high school, Liz Sutton was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks.  Then she'd stolen the heart of the most popular boy in town, and their secret romance helped her through the worst of times.  Until Ethan Hendrix betrayed her and everything they'd ever meant to each other.  Devastated and pregnant, Liz left Fool's Gold, California--forever, she thought...

"Now Liz must return to town and face the man who doesn't know of their son's existence.  And this time she won't have the option of making a quick getaway.  Ethan and Liz can't deny their passionate attraction, even after all these years.  But will their desire be enough to spark a second chance at love?"

The Good
I actually read Almost Perfect several years ago, but I decided to read it again after I started back into the Fool's Gold Romance series.  As the second in a long list of romance novels, Almost Perfect is still an enjoyable little novel.  Short and sweet, it packs an emotional wallop that I didn't remember--and, confidentially, didn't expect.

Maybe it's because I read it a second time, meaning I had the opportunity to really sink into the story and appreciate the tiny details I missed the last time around, but I really enjoyed reading Susan Mallery's novel.  Oddly enough, I liked it more than either Chasing Perfect or Finding Perfect.

Of the first trilogy, I find Almost Perfect more appealing.  Charity's romance is fairly straightforward, she has a complicated past but she manages to find herself a home and a fulfilling relationship; likewise for Pia, who manages to overcome her past tragedies and create a wonderful life with a man she loves.  Liz, on the other hand, has created a life in spite of her past and returns to confront her former hometown.

Liz's story feels much more complex, because it factors in her past, her complicated relationship with Ethan (both past and present), her son, and her newly discovered nieces.  I like that it's much more complicated, and I like that she has a history with Ethan Hendrix--that she has to contend with her attraction to him.  She has to think about self-preservation, she has to think about her son, and she has to balance all these things, which makes her story feel more real.

Because real life is never simple.

The Bad
Although I enjoyed reading Almost Perfect more than I expected (and although I appreciated the plot complexity, especially after having read it a second time), I still found the usual amount of predictability.

The Ugly
Almost Perfect is a sweet, sentimental novel; however, I should point out that plenty of terrible things happen--and Liz Sutton endures more than her fair share.  She was frequently abused by her alcoholic mother and routinely bullied by others at her school, she had her heart broken by the only man she'd ever loved, and she endured the rejection of the entire town.

Her history with Fool's Gold--and Ethan--leaves a dark blemish on an otherwise sweetly simple and romantic novel.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Fairy Godmother

Luna
The Fairy Godmother
Mercedes Lackey
2004

The Summary
"In the land of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, if you can't carry out your legendary role, life is no fairy tale...

"Elena Klovis was supposed to be her kingdom's Cinderalla--until an accident of fate left her with a completely inappropriate prince!  Determined not to remain with her stepfamily, Elena set out to get a new job--and ended up becoming the Fairy Godmother for the land.

"But 'Breaking with Tradition' was no easy matter.  True, she didn't have to sleep in the chimney, but she had to deal with arrogant, stuffed-shirt princes who kept trying to rise above their place in the tale.  In fact, one of them was so ornery that Elena could do nothing but change him into a donkey.

"Still, her practical nature couldn't let him roam the country, so she brought the donkey--er, the prince!--home to her cottage to teach him some lessons.  All the while keeping in mind that breaking with tradition can land everyone into a kettle of fish--sometimes literally!

"And so begins a whole new tale..."

The Good
Although I've heard of Mercedes Lackey on several separate occasions, I've been hesitant to read any of her novels as most are set within a series--and, sometimes, I just hate the idea of getting wrapped into another lengthy series--or I've found I'm not immediately hooked by the story.  Sometimes, you just can't find the right book at the right time.

This time, however, I did.  I stumbled across The Fairy Godmother at a time when I was looking for a good fantasy novel and, more importantly, I picked up the first in the 500 Kingdoms series, which serves as a stand-alone novel.  So, lucky for me, I found exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.

Overall, I was impressed by Lackey's novel.  I liked Elena Klovis as a character:  she's sweet, she's brave, and she's hopeful even when circumstances conspire against her.  She has a heart of gold, but she isn't naive and she isn't helpless.  I like that Lackey takes the time and effort to show how Elena grows from a nervous, dedraggled cooking girl to a courageous, competent Fairy Godmother.

Additionally, I liked the twists the story seemed to take.  Godmothers aren't your traditional magicians, rather they're keepers of the Tradition, an undeniable magical force that bends all things to its will to recreate specific "stories" over and over again.  Godmothers--and other sundry wizards, sorcerers, and magicians--are the only thing standing between people and tragic, unhappy endings.

It's fascinating to see how these familiar fairy tales unfold.  Lackey manages to take some of my favorite stories, adapt them, and then throw them together in a creative and, I must say, refreshing way.

Plus, I really liked seeing Cinderella get her chance to shine in the sun as the hero of her own story.

The Bad
Lackey's novel felt like it was missing something.  It was original, it had intriguing characters and creatures and stories, and it even managed to keep me wrapped up in the story.  But there's just something missing from it, like the pacing wasn't quite right or the tone of the story set me off-kilter--something, some undefined quality made The Fairy Godmother less than perfect.

I still enjoyed it, don't get me wrong, but it's not as memorable in my mind as, say, Eragon or Seraphina or World War Z (or any number of wonderful books you find here in my list of favorites).

The Ugly
Fairy tales were not originally meant for small children--and Lackey embraces this tradition wholeheartedly, pulling from some of the darkest aspects of the Grimm Brothers' works.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bonus: Sweet Talk

HQN Books
Sweet Talk
Susan Mallery
2008

The Summary
"Is there anything sweeter than first love?

"Don't ask Claire Keyes.  The twenty-eight-year-old piano prodigy has never had a regular boyfriend, much less a real romance.  Her music career has left little room for friends or family--which is part of the reason she hasn't seen the family bakery or her two sisters in years.

"But now Nicole is sick, and Jesse is AWOL.  Despite the fact that Claire can't boil water, she's determined to play caretaker.  Connecting with her sisters tops her to-do list...along with falling in love, or at least lust, for the first time.

"Ruggedly sexy Wyatt just might fit the bill.  Although he keeps saying that he and Claire come from entirely different worlds, he lights up hotter than a bakery oven whenever Claire  is near.  If this keeps up, she might just sweet-talk him into her bed...and her life."

The Good
I really liked Sweet Talk.  As the first book in the Bakery Sisters series, it sets the tone and creates a sweet, romantic little story about a young woman who hasn't had the opportunity to find love in her own live, a young woman who's struggling to win back the trust and affection of her sisters.  It combines fiery romance with family drama, making it appealing in two very different ways.

I appreciate how Mallery sets up the book, but, more importantly, I appreciate how she takes time to set up the entire series.  She's careful to give plenty of background information, to build the characters and their stories and give them some added depth, and she's not bad at depicting character quirks and development.

As Claire and Wyatt's relationship matures and takes on brand new dynamics, I liked the fact that they faced real problems as a couple.  For instance, I like that Wyatt is intimidated by Claire's success and fortune, that he must come to terms with her wealth; I like that Claire has to grow as an individual, that she has to readjust her expectations and confront her fears in order to pursue a healthy relationship.

It doesn't hurt that she's practically fearless when it comes to her sisters and Wyatt.  She seems so quiet and demure, almost timid, but she's a courage figure with a heart of gold, and she's willing to jump into danger without any hesitation whatsoever if it means protecting the ones she loves.  She seemed a tad unrealistic, but I really learned to like her.

The Bad
Sweet Talk is another one of those predictable romances.  Don't get me wrong, I liked it for the fact that it didn't stay secluded to complicated romantic relationships but incorporated equally complicated sibling relationships--and I liked that it didn't quite keep to the usual outline for romances.

But it was still pretty obvious where Mallery was going with her story.

The Ugly
The horrible things that sisters sometimes say to one another when they're angry.  It's a bit heart-breaking.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Street Cat Named Bob

A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life
Thomas Dunne Books
A Street Cat Named Bob
James Bowen
2012

The Summary
"A Street Cat Named Bob is an international sensation, landing on the bestseller list in England for fifty-two consecutive weeks and selling in twenty-six country around the world.  Now, James and Bob are ready to share their true story with readers in the United States.  This is a tale unlike any you've ever read, and Bob is a cat who possesses some kind of magic.

"When street musician James Bowen found an injured cat curled up in the hallway of his apartment building, he had no idea how much his life was about to change.  James was living hand to mouth on the streets of London, barely making enough money to feed himself, and the last thing he needed was a pet.  Yet James couldn't resist helping the strikingly intelligent but very sick animal, whom he named Bob.  He slowly nursed Bob back to health and then sent the cat on his way, imagining that he would never see him again.  But Bob had other ideas."

The Good
I was pleasantly surprised by A Street Cat Named Bob.  When I picked it up at the recommendation of a coworker, I was a little hesitant; however, I'm glad I took the opportunity to read it, because it is a great book.

Granted, I was originally attracted to Bowen's memoir since it featured a cat (and I love cats and dogs, if you can't tell from some of my other reviews) and I liked reading about his growing relationship with Bob, his ginger tomcat, but I think I also appreciated the way his story developed.  James Bowen is an excellent narrator and, with the help of Garry Jenkins, his character, his tone of voice--the qualities that make him unique as an individual--shine through the entire work.

I found the book was easy to read, full of remarkable little stories and memories that make it singularly satisfying.  It's a simple affair, straight-forward in its retelling of life with a stray cat, but it's so honest and earnest.  Bowen is a candid narrator, recounting all the hope and peril of day-to-day addiction recovery.

It's easy to get sucked into the story, like how pedestrians gravitate toward Bob when Bowen is "busking."  It's undeniable.  (And don't worry if you don't know what "busking" means right now.  Bowen is sure to fill you in.)  It's heart-warming and sweet--and I was so glad I had the chance to pick up A Street Cat Named Bob.

The Bad
I don't really have any complaints.  A Street Cat Named Bob is a solid story with an excellent set of authors.  Bowen and Jenkins work well together, creating a memoir that's surprisingly poignant and hopeful.  It's book that I highly recommend reading if you're an animal lover, especially if you're of the variety who have picked up Marley & Me.

The Ugly
Drug addiction, plain and simple.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Bonus: Chasing Perfect

HQN Books
Chasing Perfect
Susan Mallery
2010

The Summary
"Welcome to Fool's Gold, California, a charming community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  There's lost to do and plenty of people to meet, especially women.  Because there's just one tiny problem in Fool's Gold:  the men don't seem to stick around.  Maybe its the lure of big-city life, or maybe it's plain old bad luck, but regardless of the reason, the problem has to be fixed, fast.  and Charity Jones may be just the city planner to do it.

"Charity's nomadic childhood has left her itching to settle down, and she immediately falls in love with all the storybook town has to offer - everything, that is, except its sexiest and most famous resident, former world-class cyclist Josh Golden.  With her long list of romantic disasters, she's not about to take a chance on another bad boy, even if everyone else thinks he's perfect just the way he is.  But maybe that's just what he needs - someone who knows the value of his flaws.  Someone who knows that he's just chasing perfect."

The Good
It's a sweet little romance where two people meet and fall in love, where two people find the support and stability--and love--they've always craved.  Chasing Fool's Gold is sure to give a few good tugs at your heart as Charity and Josh build their relationship and gradually surmount their distrust of commitment, as well as each other.

Although Charity's discovery of an unexpected family connection in Fool's Gold was a little too convenient for my taste, I did enjoy the plot and the characters.  It's a decent romance with fair character development, an enjoyable pace, and a delightful romance that builds nicely from the very beginning.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Mallery's first book in the Fool's Gold series.  It was interesting enough to keep me reading, and it was quick enough that I was able to finish it within a day.  It was a nice little break from zombies and tragedy and werewolves and sundry other things.

The Bad
Same as most romances:  predictability.

It's part of the charm, I suppose.  You always know what's going to happen and, no matter what troubles arise for the lovers, you always know they'll live happily ever after.  It's cheesy, yes, but it's rather reassuring.

The Ugly
Heartbreak.

(Like it's really that unexpected.)

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group

Harcourt
The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group
Catherine Jinks
2011

The Summary
"When Tobias Richard Vandevelde wakes up in a hospital with no memory of the night before, his horrified mother tells him that he was found unconscious.  At Featherdale Wildlife Park.  In a dingo pen.

"He assumes that his two rambunctious best friends are somehow responsible, until he discovers that they're just as freaked out as he is.  Then the mysterious Reuben turns up, claiming that Toby has a rare and dangerous 'condition.'  Next thing he knows, Toby finds himself involved with a strange bunch of sickly insomniacs who seem convinced that he needs their help.

"It's not until he's kidnapped and imprisoned that he starts to believe them--and understands what being a paranormal monster really means."

The Good
Catherine Jinks has an interesting story in her novel.  She pulls from original werewolf myths from around the globe--you know, the ones influenced by the lunar calendar, who are the "seventh son of a seventh son" (or something like that.  I didn't entirely understand.)--but she puts it all smack dab in the middle of Australia.

It's unique and Toby isn't a bad narrator.  He's interesting, he's funny and he's very observant for his age.  He's a teenage boy facing terrifying circumstances, and he acts like a teenage boy facing terrifying circumstances.  He's a believable narrator, and I found his story interesting enough to keep me committed to the very end.

The Bad
The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group isn't a great book.  At first, I liked the plot development, liked as it slowly built and, piece by piece, revealed the truth; however, I have to say I was disappointed with the last several chapters.  It's like Toby's story reached a certain point, developing at a steady pace until, suddenly, it just all comes tumbling out in a rush.  It's just too much, too quickly with one thing after another after another coming at you for the last one hundred or more pages.

It just never stops.  Which is annoying, rather than fun and exciting.

Plus, it's not the best young adult werewolf story I've ever read.  It's not terrible, but I wouldn't say it's great either.  I was bugged by the fact that even though you meet several werewolves, you never actually seem them as werewolves.  It's a bit anticlimactic if you think about it.  I mean, I understand why Toby can't say much about it--he doesn't remember it!--but it's a bit disappointing.

Oh, and one last thing:  Fergus was super annoying.  I really didn't like him.

The Ugly
Werewolf fighting.  Makes me cringe a little bit to think about it.