Posts tagged ‘300-349 pages’

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Barking Up the Wrong Tree.jpgTitle: Barking Up the Wrong Tree
Series: Bluff Point Romance #2
Author: Jenn McKinlay
ISBN: 9780399584749
Pages: 315 pages
Publisher/Date: Berkley Sensation, published by Berkley, , an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.

“Are you flirting with me?” he asked. His voice was a low rumble that resonated somewhere in Carly’s tailbone, making her entire body hum like a tuning fork.
“You started it,” she said.
“I thought you were set on doing the ‘friends’ thing, buddy,” he said.
“I am,” she shrugged. “It’s just kind of a new thing for me. I usually don’t see a man after I’ve slept with him, but I do enjoy flirting with my guy friends and it’s hard to shut off. You’re kind of a new category for me.”
“I like that,” he said.
He was too close. […] She had to get a handle on this thing between them before it spiraled out of control–again. (142)

Carly has moved back into her parents’ house after she lost her job to downsizing. Although they’ll be out of town for the immediate future, her pain of a younger sister will still be living there. Add into the mix the dog and the foul-mouthed talking parrot she inherited from a neighbor, and Carly is less then thrilled. Looking for a distraction at the local bar, she meets James Sinclair, and sparks fly. While James is anxious to continue this relationship, Carly’s policy is one and done, and she is not keen on changing that for anyone, no matter how good the kisses (and other physical acts) make her feel.

I think my favorite part of the book is when Carly and James are placed in a position where they have to explain to James’ family how they met. They alternate coming up with one outlandish scenario after another, from jail to a charity bachelor auction to a strip club. This sort of humor runs throughout the novel, especially when Carly’s new pets interact with the people and James’ disabled dog Hot Wheels. Past relationships with family members complicate things for both James and Carly, but they work it out. James is a sweetheart, a fact that Carly recognizes repeatedly. Carly has more hesitancy in seeing where this heads than James, although her attempts to keep him at arms length are half-hearted at best as they share simmering gazes, flirty banter, seductive physical contact (arms around waists and necks) and sultry kisses through most of the book. There’s never any question that these two will end up together, and it’s only amusement at the lengths Carly will go to prevent it and the persistence James showcases in making it happen that encourage readers to continue to the end. Reoccurring characters from About a Dog, the first book in the series, will show up. The friendly banter is a little frank for my taste at times, but the friends truly care for one another and look out for each other, even if it’s not what the person thinks they want. It’s unnecessary to read them in order, and this one continues the trend of being a light, funny, fast read for fans of flings that turn into love at first sight.

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Rise

Rise.jpgTitle: Rise: How a House Built a Family
Author: Cara Brookins
ISBN: 9781250095664
Pages: 310 pages
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Press, c2017

Pouring the house’s footing had been a wake-up call. Not only was the project a million times more difficult than I had imagined, but it was a mere metaphor for what I really needed to do. I had fooled myself into believing that building a physical house was the same as rebuilding our family. While we might still use the physical build to accomplish the personal one, they were two distinctly different creatures and required individual diets. I felt enormously out of my league in both cases, like I’d adopted a Saint Bernard and an elephant. (92-93)

Cara Brookins and her four children suffered from her marriages, first to a man suffering from delusions and schizophrenia and then to an abuser. Both were scary in their own right, leaving everyone in the family, including the dog, jumping at shadows, looking behind their shoulders, and checking the locks on their doors. Intent on making new memories and helping her kids and herself, Cara pursues a piece of land, a construction loan, and a nine month timeline to build a new house, and hopefully a new home for her family. With no experience, knowledge, or free-time due to school, work, and chores, even they realize the impossible task they have created for themselves.

Even though I laughed over the image of the kids and me as a construction team, I liked the idea a lot. Sure, it was a little nuts, but it was the first workable plan I’d come up with that fit our limited finances. We could do it. I knew we could. Building a house would prove we were strong. It would prove that despite my stupidity in staying with idiots for so long, I was still intelligent. It would prove so many things–most of all that we were alive. (22)

Several of the reviews mention that Cara embarked on this effort due to financial necessity, but if that was mentioned I didn’t catch it. Instead, she stresses repeatedly the need for a safe harbor, a place where ghosts wouldn’t plague their fragile state of mind. In alternating chapters, she jumps from flashbacks focusing on two of her unsuccessful marriages (briefly touching upon her first marriage to an unnamed high school sweetheart) to an accounting of the nine months it took to raise the house from nothing. The flashbacks are graphically detailed, and the fear the whole family felt is palpable when they are chased in a car by the schizophrenic ex-husband and their dog is abused when left alone at the house. It’s psychological warfare, whereas the third husband is physically abusive towards Cara.

The actual build is composed of delays, setbacks, and uncertainties. Things get slightly repetitive, and the addition of pictures and diagrams might have aided in the explanation of how the walls were raise, the pipes were laid, or the electric wires were strung. That was when I felt most invested in that part of the story, like when she discusses how she rationalized the choice of piping, or what they had to do to make the waterlogged wood work. The enterprise began in 2009, when YouTube was in its infancy and there were no smart phones, which makes it all the more impressive.

It’s impossible to not be awed by her tenacity, but I do wonder about the children, who Cara frankly admits do not get to experience a true childhood during that time frame as they slog through mud, slinging studs and sand around. There are benefits in their pursuit, as they all gain valuable skills and confidence and come together as a family. For those who might be inspired to follow her pursuit, she might have included a timeline or list of resources. I’m a huge fan of triumphant underdog stories, and while it does leave me wondering what I could accomplish if I committed to a goal like Cara and her family, I certainly don’t have the confidence (or is it naivety?) to attempt it by myself.

Under Her Skin

Under Her Skin.jpgTitle: Under Her Skin
Series: Blank Canvas #1
Author: Adriana Anders
ISBN: 9781492633846
Pages: 344 pages
Publisher/Date: Sourcebooks, Inc. c2017

“Old hag in need of live-in helper to abuse. Nothing kinky.”
Uma read the ad again.
Jesus. Was she really going to do this?
Yes. Yes, she was. She’d come all the way back to Virginia for the hope its free clinic offered, and if this was the only job she could get while she was in town, she should consider herself lucky to have found it. Especially, she thought with a wry smile, since it’s one for which I’m so qualified. (1)

Uma had fled a relationship with a possessive prosecuting attorney, one that has led scars scattered across her body in the form of a multitude of tattoos. Hearing of a clinic that provides free laser surgery to abuse victims, Uma bravely returns to that state of suffering, securing a job as an elderly woman’s live-in aid. Next door lives ex-con Ivan, who takes in strays and strives to avoid his own past with metal work and martial arts. Uma is just as set at not getting involved as Ivan is to learn more about his secretive and reclusive new neighbor. But Uma is right to worry that their paths might collide and cause trouble for both of them.

Long time readers of this blog know that I rarely read adult titles. This year is my attempt to change that and expand my exposure to other genres. So a new romance title it is, even though I rarely if ever read romance. I personally find them predictable, but people could say that about most genres. Murders get solved, bad guys get captured, worlds get saved, and good triumphs over evil. But sometimes you can appreciate a little predictability, and I know that’s one reason I return and reread favorites over and over, so I can find my favorite parts and live through them again. Maybe that’s the draw of romance, is that you see people find love, and who can fault someone for doing that?

Ivan’s character might be a tough ex-con, but he’s learned methods to control his anger, for the most part. His overprotective demeanor towards Uma and the animals makes sense when you learn of his past. Uma’s self-sufficient spirit and continuing dismay over the position she’s found her in is also understandable: she doesn’t want help, doesn’t want pity, and wants to resume her life with as little fanfare and notice as possible. But she suffers, just like any abuse victim would, and her thoughts and struggles to deal with the nightmares, the physical scars, the skittishness around men, her dire financial situation, and more makes for a very sympathetic character.

The loves scenes were steamy. Ivan takes it slow, and you HAVE to give him props, because Uma’s situation is everything but predictable. They are inventive in the beginning, and it was refreshing to see they are both willing and able to adapt to the needs of their partner. Uma is a strong woman underneath all the hesitancy and uncertainty, and Ivan is able to recognize that, coax it out of her, and allows her to receive and take the lead as needed. Towards the end, someone comments to Uma “Now don’t go running over there all pissed off that he’s taking your ability to choose away and all that crap, ’cause he’s not. He’s giving you a choice. Another option.” (336) I think what I liked about this book is that there was no “will they or won’t they.” The attraction is evident from the very first meeting, they are both drawn to each other, and the pull for readers is the journey, and seeing how they get together, not whether or not they do. Obviously with any romance the main couple ends up together, but this one doesn’t have misunderstandings and blow up arguments engineered to keep them apart. The final hurdle between them allows not only the loose ends to be tied up, but for Uma and Ivan to stay in character. Uma wants to ensure that her wishes are heard, respected, and adhered to, something she never got in her previous relationship, while Ivan needs to reassure Uma that he can do that and reassure himself that he’s not going to regress back to the man he used to be. Overall, I think everyone involved, including readers, walk away satisfied.

The Fog Diver

Fog DiverTitle: The Fog Diver
Author: Joel Ross
ISBN: 9780062352934
Pages: 328 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

My name is Chess, and I was born inside a cage.
Imagine a wooden platform jutting from a mountain cliff. Now picture a chain falling from that platform and vanishing into the Fog, a deadly white mist that covers the entire Earth.
That’s where I was born: locked in a cage, at the end of a chain, inside the Fog.
And I would’ve died there, too, if Mrs. E hadn’t saved me.
When she saw my face for the first time, wisps of Fog swirled inside my right eye, shimmering white shapes that marked me as a freak. That’s why I’ve spent thirteen years keeping my head down, staying quiet and afraid–but now Mrs. E needs help, now <em>she</em> needs saving.
It’s time to stop hiding. Everything is going to change. (1-2)

Scientists built nanites to clean up the polluted Earth, only they made them too smart. The nanites turned on their creators, scrubbing the Earth clean not just of pollution, but of the creators of the pollution. Now mankind has retreated to the mountain tops, and fog divers like Chess literally dive into the fog from flying barges to scavenge for resources. He and his rag-tag team of orphans were brought together by Mrs. E. Dreams of ascending to the safer parts of the mountain have always been a dream, but now they need money and resources to get Mrs. E the help she needs as fog sickness starts taking over. Fog sickness isn’t the only risk though, as the past Mrs. E rescued Chess from comes back to haunt him and hunt for him. Will they be able to escape all the dangers, or will Chess take his last dive?

For fans of the television series Firefly (which I’m watching right now for the first time), this street urchin crew may seem familiar. Maybe author Joel Ross, making his middle-grade debut, is a fan himself? Chess takes the place of River, being hidden in plain sight and with skills no one fully understands. But he is also part Zoe, serving as a second-in-command position to Hazel. Hazel is the captain of the crew, and much like Mal she has her unexpected soft side. Chess says she “wore long, flowing skirts, dreamed of fancy dances, loved pretty sunsets . . . and could bark out orders faster than the toughest junkyard boss.” (28-29) Pilot Swedish has the skills of Wash but the attitude of Jayne. Bea is Kaylee, the spunky, overly enthusiastic and optimistic mechanic, down to talking to the electronics and naming them.

The crew members are unique and highly developed, with characteristics and flaws that will allow readers to relate with at least someone, whether it’s the snarky asides of sarcasm, quick-witted thinking, or the more vulnerable moments of emotion. They form a tight-knit family who cares about and trusts one another, even when they are surprised by another’s actions or a never-before revealed secret. It reads like a swashbuckling pirate adventure, with rigging and scavengers, hidden treasures and double crosses. Highly recommended to those readers looking for something unique, or maybe those too young for the airships of Westerfeld’s Leviathan series.

The allusions to the world before are the basis for most of the laughs in this post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. There is little in the way of modern day conveniences, but that goes unremarked upon as they wrap their heads around what little they do know, and make up their own explanations for what they don’t understand. The characters routinely improvise, interchange, and just plain invent references. Primarily, these confusions come from Chess, who has a scrapbook made by his father of various cultural references from before the fog.

  • Chess decides against repeating the “old tale of ‘Skywalker Trek,’ about a space war between the Klingons and the Jedi, set in a future when people lived on distant planets and fought Tribbles, Ewoks, and Borgs.” (17-18).
  • He describes Valentine’s Day as “an old holiday […] when they used to wear green and say ‘be mine’ and kiss under a shamrock. […] They gave flowers to their sweethearts.” (82)
  • “I’m not sure the shell actually snaps.”
    “Of course it does! A snapping turtle is a turtle that snaps, like a bobcat is a cat that bobs. It says so in the name.”
    “Sure,” I said. “And grizzly bears loooove to grizz.” (178)
  • There’s also a reference to weird animals of the past like spelling bees and Hello Kitties which of course I can’t locate currently.

There are a lot of tight escapes, narrow misses, and nail-biting excitement, which is completely inline with the life they lead. While their actions are slightly more legal than the ones seen in Firefly, they are still the underdog in a rigged system. They don’t even own the ship outright, renting it from corrupt folks, making every effort to get out from under the debt and find that big score that will put them on the top. The technology is slightly steampunk in nature, although I would have liked more details on how they were able to adapt to this world above the clouds that today we would deem uninhabitable. While Chess’s rumored existence is initially stereotypical and his ability to go unnoticed for 13 years remarkable, the sudden interest in his skills and presence is explained adequately. The climatic end is just that, and it’s only at the last heart-stopping page that you receive a sudden but satisfactory resolution to the story, worthy of Ocean’s Eleven. While enjoyable as a stand-alone, there is definitely a sequel in the making, with The Lost Compass arriving in May 2016 which will hopefully bring more answers.

The Doldrums

Doldrums.jpgTitle: The Doldrums
Author/Illustrator: Nicholas Gannon
ISBN: 9780062320940
Pages: 340 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“We have to go to Antarctica,” said Archer.
Oliver laughed, but Archer wasn’t joking.
“You’re serious?” said Oliver.
“Yes,” said Archer.
“But that’s impossible.”
“It will be difficult.” Archer corrected him. “But not impossible.”
Oliver shook his head. “There are at least—at least three big problems with that. And the first is that even if you were successful—even if you somehow made it to Antarctica, you’d still probably die down there.”
Archer leaned back on the roof and asked, “What else?”
Oliver blinked a few times. “That’s not a big enough problem for you?” he said, then sighed and continued. “The second is that if you’re not successful, if you get caught, you’ll be slapped off to Raven Wood, which might be worse. The third is that you have no experience with anything of the sort. Antarctica is not an impulse destination.” (101-102)

While Archer’s only friend Oliver is right in that Antarctica is not an impulse destination, Archer has been obsessed with finding his grandparents ever since they disappeared on an iceberg in Antarctica two years ago. Ever since, Archer’s mother has confined him to the house, which is filled with oddities left over from his grandparent’s adventures. When new girl Adelaide moves from France into the house behind Archer’s and rumors spread that she lost her leg when it was eaten by a crocodile on a failed safari trip, Archer thinks he’s at least found a solution to problem number three. Adelaide is willing to assist, and Oliver gets dragged into a scheme to stow away on a boat heading for Antarctica. Archer thinks it is a great plan, Adelaide is excited to go on an adventure wherever it leads, and Oliver doesn’t think it will work, but no one expects the plan to play out like it does.

Archer’s plan is a Hail Mary effort on his part to go somewhere and do something, anything. He’s so envious of his grandparents’ ability to travel the world that his mother’s efforts to confine him and keep him safe make him all the more anxious to get out, get away, and get going. Archer’s father is slightly more realistic than his wife, at one point dryly commenting that there had been no word of iceberg sightings in the area when Archer is denied his request of visiting the nearby park. But unfortunately for Archer, it’s his mother who has the final say in all matters. And also unfortunately for Archer, the plan is laughably simplistic, realistically portrayed for someone who has no experience in exploring, much less mounting a rescue mission.

Like Archer, Adelaide is also looking for an adventures. She dislikes her new school, her teacher, and her new life, especially after the accident that took her leg. Mrs. Murkley, a teacher at the children’s school, reminds me of Matilda’s teacher, and Adelaide assumes the role of Matilda in her first introduction to the teacher. Adelaide sees the unbelievable animosity that Mrs. Murkley has towards everyone she meets and wants to stop it at all costs. Her quick comebacks against Mrs. Murkley’s tirades are a fine bit of barbed dialogue and just one way that her disability doesn’t slow her down.

Oliver is the most pragmatic of the trio, adding a sense of levity against the other two’s optimistic expectations. He reminded me a little of Ron from the last Harry Potter, where they are both questioning the improvised plan, in this case climbing onto a boat with the bare minimum of supplies and figuring it out when they get there. He at one point even tells his friends that he doesn’t want to go and that “I was in this only for the friendship. […] I’ve only had far-death experiences and I’d prefer to keep it that way.” (227) But by the end, it’s Oliver who has the biggest role in the outcome of the plan, and I like the turn of events even if you don’t get all the answers you want because not everything works out the way the children hoped. The pictures are nice but unnecessary for the story. This would satisfy armchair adventurers like Oliver, but readers like Archer and Adelaide who are expecting more Antarctica adventure may be disappointed, as it’s mostly talk and the action that does take place is nowhere near Antarctica.

Cosmoe’s Wiener Getaway

Cosmoe's Wiener GetawayTitle: Galactic Hot Dogs: Cosmoe’s Wiener Getaway
Author: Max Brallier
Illustrator: Rachel Maguire and Nichole Kelley
ISBN: 9781481424943
Pages: 300 pages
Publisher/Date: Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

It’s Evil Princess Dagger.
And she’s aboard our ship!
“What the butt?! What are you doing here?!”
“Stealing your ship, silly. I’m an evil princess. Y’know?”
I start stuttering, “NO-NO. NO-NO. NO. You can’t be here! Your evil mom is gonna think we kidnapped you. She’ll KILL us!”
Princess Dagger is about to respond, when—BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP “Brace for impact,” our pet robot, F.R.E.D., says.
“SMUDGE!” I exclaim. “They’re trying to shoot us out of space!”
The princess has a sly smile on her face. “Duh! They think you kidnapped me.” (18-19)

Cosmoe is in TROUBLE! All he did was enter a giant hot dog into the Intragalactic Food Truck Cook-Off, which then got stolen by the Evil Princess Dagger, who then stows away on their ship. The ship is being chased by the Evil Queen Dagger and all her minions, initially just to reclaim her run-away daughter. But when the whole galaxy is informed that Cosmoe found a stranded zombie pirate ship yielding a piece of a Map-O-Sphere that reveals the location of an extreme evil when fully assembled, Cosmoe, his buddy Humphree, and the princess have more than the Evil Queen to worry about.

Yes, the book is just as wildly frenetic as that summary. Zombie pirates, references to movies like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones (even though Cosmoe is the only Earthling in the cast and therefore the only one who understands them) and ongoing laser blasts battles are found within the pages. If Cosmoe is comparable to Han Solo, and Humphree is the equivalent to Chewie, then I guess that means the Evil Princess assumes the role of Leia and the Evil Queen a version of Darth Vader, but that would be doing an injustice to both the original and this not quite parody. Made up slang makes it very younger kid friendly, including “What the Butt!” and “Smudge!” and silly stupidity fills the pages alongside the graphic novel style illustrations. Longer then Captain Underpants or Geronimo Stilton, it’s still accessible to that audience while appealing to older readers. There is very little character development, with no explanation as to why Princess Dagger feels this compulsion to be evil only in the presence of her mother, why Humphree retired from piracy (supposedly it’s “long and complicated” and involves Cosmoe), or even why Cosmoe is riding around on a flying food truck. But in all honesty, it doesn’t matter, because just like a themed roller coaster, it is the ride you are there to enjoy, and readers will enjoy this fast paced, space odyssey which I predict will continue in future installments.

Space Dumplins

This week, in honor of World Space Week, we’ve got reviews featuring space, in all it’s many forms. Today, I’m presenting an action packed space adventure by an award-winning graphic novelist.

GRX050 Silver Six COV TEMPLATETitle: Space Dumplins
Author/Illustrator: Craig Thompson
ISBN: 9780545565431
Pages: 316 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., c2015.

Violet Marlocke’s father is a lumberjack in a futuristic space-age time and her mother works as a fashion designer for a pretentious boss who only cares about next season’s trends. Lumberjacks in this alternate reality don’t cut down trees, but harvest and transports whale poop produced by giant flying space whales, which is then processed into energy. One whale has recently eaten Violet’s school, and areas in the path of destruction are being evacuated. When Violet’s father goes missing after a whale diarrhea environmental disaster, she heads off in a slightly restored space junker, along with a young chicken and a lumpkin, who’s contrariness is seen not just in his attitude but his uncharacteristically short and round body, resembling a walking talking kidney bean. Enlisting the helps of her father’s lumberjack buddies, Violet quickly realizes that there is more happening than she realized, her father’s life is on the line, and her actions might affect more than one family.

Rather than stick to a monochromatic scheme like some graphic novelists, Craig Thompson’s latest creation is literally BURSTING with color, starting with the raised lettering on the cover for the title. The roids, or asteroid belt, where Violet and her family work is the darker shades, lending to its recognizable position as lower class. By comparison, the space station reminds me of the Capital from The Hunger Games series, with overly prejudiced and super stylized citizens in neon and bright shades. Whale poop is portrayed as clingy green goo, reminiscent of the slime made in science class or seen on Nickelodeon, and the whales are bold purple. Even the aliens and fashions and ships are unique, with some of the aliens having claws, suction-shaped fingers, or appendages protruding from their heads. The details are also incredible, down to the tattoos on Violet’s father, which are distinct, identifiable, and most certainly contain significance, even if we don’t figure it out.

The plot is smart and sophisticated as well. Elliot the chicken has a dream journal and cites Biblical references. There’s commentary about socioeconomic classes, prejudices, environmental disasters, unions, and government conspiracies. At one point when talking with Elliot, Violet comments “You must go crazy cooped up here all the time.” and Elliot responds “COOP? Please no speciesist slurs.” Two panels later (on the same page), Violet deadpans “So, you’re no FREE-RANGE CHICKEN, huh?” (41) and we’re not quite sure if she meant it as a “slur” or seriously. The ending reminds me of Men in Black, and I even liked the epilogue, even if it does get slightly hokey/preachy towards the end. With plenty of action and subplots, this is meant for invested and engaged readers. For fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or any slapstick, unimaginable science fiction space odyssey that somehow meshes into a coherent, believable, and satisfying read, this one will surely entertain both kids and adults. This is poop humor done right.

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