Book Review: Frosted Kisses by Heather Hepler

Frosted Kisses
Cupcake Queen Series #2

Heather Hepler
Point, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-79055-0
Hardcover

Penny and her mom moved from Manhattan to a small town following her parents’ divorce. Hog’s Hollow is quite different than the big city, but some things don’t change. School bullies and cliques are everywhere, teens have secrets everywhere, and crushes happen everywhere.

Fortunately, Penny made friends with Tally who is a big time animal lover. She talked her new friend into helping raise money to restore/repair the animal shelter where she volunteers. On the opposite side of school society is Charity, daughter of the town banker and as mean as they come. For reasons unfathomable to Penny, Charity has it in for her at every opportunity. It’s gotten so bad Penny cringes in fearful anticipation every time Charity is in her vicinity.

When Esmeralda comes to stay with Charity, Tally’s immediately put off by her, but Penny’s conflicted. Remembering her own experience coming to a new school makes her want to give the extremely attractive Parisian girl the benefit of doubt, but when Esmeralda starts tutoring Marcus, who Penny likes big time, trusting either of them gets pretty difficult.

The plot gets much thicker, both literally and figuratively after aging surfer Dutch moves back to town, agitating Penny’s grandmother. Tally and Penny start to realize Gram’s upset has something to do with what happened between them years ago, just about the time they come up with a dazzling way to raise lots of money for the animal shelter during the winter festival. Add in the challenge of Penny trying to figure out whether Marcus reciprocates her feelings, helping Gram put up the county-wide famous Christmas light display at their house, having to accept that her father isn’t able to be reliable, Tally’s own secret anguish over her family mess, who really is the evil girl at school and how that person is outed in a very public way, and you have a very entertaining story.

I’ve read the author’s other books and enjoyed them a lot. This is both entertaining and meaty in terms of how the two best friends deal with bullying, trust and family dysfunction.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, January 2018.

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Book Review: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Cherise Wolas
Flatiron Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-08143-8
Hardcover

In her first novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Cherise Wolas stretches the boundaries of the “story within a story” form. The book begins with an article about Joan Ashby, an author who, at age twenty-one, landed a collection of short stories on the New York Times bestseller list and won a National Book Award. Her book, Other Small Spaces, was translated into thirty-five languages. Four years later Ashby again lands another collection of short stories on the bestseller list. Fictional Family Life is shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. The article includes a brief biography of Ashby and excerpts of an interview with her, before including two of her short stories.

Joan Ashby is on the top of the New York literary scene when she meets Martin Manning, who looks like a poet but is in reality an eye surgeon. She vowed at an early age never to fall in love or let anyone interfere with her writing, but Dr. Manning’s charm is hard to resist. Her only resistance to his proposal is the thought that he might want a family, but he assures her he doesn’t want any children.

So it comes as a shock to her, when in their first year of marriage, she discovers she is pregnant. When she shares the news with Martin, fully intending to terminate the pregnancy, he becomes misty eyed and declares “I’ve never been so happy” and runs out for champagne to celebrate. She debates whether to walk away from Martin, but eventually becomes resigned to the idea of parenthood, knowing that there will likely be a second child after the first.

During her courtship with Martin, and up until the birth of her first child, Joan was writing her first novel, The Sympathetic Executioners, which she trashed on the day before she went into labor. It is twenty-eight years before she publishes anything else. Her next book sees the light of day as the result of a betrayal, and a fracture within her family.

A story of the dissatisfaction of an upper middle class suburban woman, it is complicated by the inclusion of the various short stories and excerpts from the main character’s writing, which tend to be on the dark side. The book jacket blurbs mentions echoes of Joan Didion and Carson McCullers—I was reminded of Elizabeth Berg and Jane Smiley. I’d also like to read the rest of the included novel, The Sympathetic Executioners.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, November 2017.

Book Review: Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Lucky in Love
Kasie West
Scholastic Press, July 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-05801-7
Hardcover

No matter how hard Maddie works, no matter how much she worries about her family and academic situations, things don’t get any better. Her dad’s been out of work for several years, her mom works double shifts, her older brother dropped out of college and hides in his room. There are times when she feels like a hamster on a giant warped wheel and no matter how fast she runs or how much she studies, it’s as though the river of life is pulling her backward.

When a convenience store clerk convinces her to buy a Powerball ticket on her 18th birthday, she has zero expectation of winning, but she does. Thirty million is her lump sum payout. After giving her parents and brother a million each and paying off the mortgage on the family home, she thinks things will be okay. Hardly. There’s an increase of parental fighting, her brother’s dishonesty overwhelms her and she’s confused about who’s really a friend as opposed to who just wants her to throw cash at them,

The more Maddie tries to figure out who she can trust, the greater her paranoia becomes and her behavior and ability to think rationally get more messed up. The line between friendship and opportunistic greediness in those around her becomes completely blurred. Maddie loses her ability to recognize what’s real, leading her to lash out at Seth Nguyen, the one person not affected by her new wealth and her co-worker at the nearby zoo. It takes a very upsetting incident involving a newspaper article and a near meltdown confrontation with friends and family before the ship called Maddie can start sailing properly again. In the process, Maddie learns some valuable lessons, mainly that family might be messy, but is very important and that some people are worth risking yourself for. Watching how all this unfolds and what she learns is an interesting journey.

I’ve read all of Kasie West‘s books and this was as satisfying as the rest of them.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, December 2017.

Book Reviews: Girl in a Bad Place by Kaitlin Ward and Code Red by Janie Chodosh

Girl in a Bad Place
Kaitlin Ward
Point, November 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-10105-8
Hardcover

Commune. A calm word, calling forth images of folks immersed in wilderness; frolicking with forest creatures, blissfully coexisting with Mother Nature. Idyllic, sure; but Mailee certainly didn’t anticipate the sad-looking metal shacks she saw upon arriving at the Haven. No matter how odd and uncharacteristic the visit to this remote area may be; she is determined to be positive; after all, this peculiarity is the only thing Cara has shown interest in all summer.

Mailee never expected a super-celebratory Senior year. The ache of Cara’s loss lingers and her home is still shrouded by a palpable dark cloud of sorrow and anger, sucking up all hope of happiness. Moreover, Mailee has noticed changes in Cara that cause concern. So, even though “…nature is gross. And filled with spiders,” Mailee is willing to make the pilgrimage as pleasant as possible.

The founder, a man dubiously dubbed Firehorse, seems more like a shifty, misogynistic pig than a peace-loving-Earth-boy and everyone else emanates a surreal, suspicious, semi-aggressive vibe. Initially surprised that Cara is smitten; Mailee is soon stunned by her best friend’s frenzied fascination of the creepy cooperative.

Maybe Mailee was willing to—temporarily—omit meat and dairy from her diet as a show of support; but as Cara raves, Mailee researches. The line between commune and cult begins to blur. Against her better judgment, Mailee agrees to attend a celebration at the commune with Cara. Guessing that she will need to provide more than moral support; Mailee has no idea how dangerous and dire the circumstances will be.

A bad place can be literal, figurative, or even both at once. Sometimes, as in Cara’s case, a metaphorical bad place leads to an actual bad place. In the same way that a phrase can mean more than one thing, this keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, compelling conundrum is not just a suspense-filled mystery, but also a survival story. One about learning to live in spite of loss, loyalty, and the immeasurable value of friendship.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2017.

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Code Red
A Faith Flores Science Mystery, Book Two
Janie Chodosh
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-929345-28-1
Trade Paperback

Faith Flores is a bit of an atypical protagonist insofar as she’s somewhat rough around the edges. Of course, considering her circumstances, she’s a remarkably well-adjusted adolescent. Knowing the bare minimum about her father, really raising herself—while doing her best to take care of her addled, addicted mother—Faith’s occasional avoidance of silly social graces seems just about right. Above-average intelligence and a freaky-fast mind also, understandably, contribute to her curtness.

Having recently figured out ‘who-done-it’ when her mother was murdered (Janie Chodosh’s Death Spiral, A Faith Flores Science Mystery), Faith needs a change of scene as much as something to wholly occupy her inquisitive intellect. And so begins her internship in Santa Fe where she will be assisting in studies of genetically modified chiles. The fact that her always-absent-father supposedly inhabits this town certainly won’t distract her (she wishes) but the headline “A New Drug for Northern New Mexico” just might.

Smoothing the story with more than soul-soothing songs, we have violin virtuoso, Clem. Quite frankly, there is no going wrong with a dude named after Vassar Clements <bows deeply to Ms. Chodosh> and this young man is no exception. Aside from his evident awesomeness, for the first time ever, Faith feels a possible connection…perhaps he can identify with her “…own mixed race too-brown-to-be-white-too-white-to-be-brown ethnicity…”.

Santa Fe has several surprises in store for Faith and suddenly, her luxurious length of time here seems lacking. To focus on the inexplicably angry threats against her lab and GMO crops, grab a few minutes here and there with Clem, and attempt to take advantage of opportunities with new-found family; Faith definitively does not have time to delve into the intrigue of Liquid Gold, the latest in dangerous dope. Unless there’s a link that would render her choice irrelevant.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2017.

*Not to go full-out-nerd on you but when I began writing this review I realized that I still felt relatively ignorant about the term “GMO” & the arguments against it. This Mental Floss article saved the day: What is a GMO?

 

 

Book Reviews: Seeds of Revenge by Wendy Tyson and Eight Days on Planet Earth by Cat Jordan

Seeds of Revenge
A Greenhouse Mystery #3
Wendy Tyson
Henery Press, November 2017
ISBN 978-1-63511-275-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

It’s time to cuddle up with a holiday whodunit. Smell the crisp pines and baking cranberries as you sip your hot apple cider. It may be the season, but the mood in Winsome is anything but jolly.

Megan Sawyer is determined to farm year-round. So much so that she braves a December snowstorm to pitch her fresh greenhouse greens to Philadelphia chefs.

And then she sees a stranger stranded on the side of the road.

But this woman is no stranger to Winsome. It’s Becca Fox. A love chemist (you read that right). She’s headed to her aunt’s house to sell her love potions at holiday events.

Or so Becca thinks.

Her sneaky aunt only invited Becca home to reunite her with her estranged father. It sounds noble and kind-hearted, until the man ends up dead.

Megan soon finds herself in the middle. She realizes Becca’s not the only one getting iced over. Megan’s own aunt, the famous mystery author, is dragged into the drama. Her novels implicate her and she’s in trouble.

Now it’s personal. Our Megan must follow a cryptic trail of literary clues, all while sifting through the victim’s sordid past. She gets closer to the truth as the murderer gets closer to her.

How’s that for a ho ho ho? Don’t let your fresh apple crisp burn in the oven because you’re lost in this holiday homicide.

Once upon a time, Megan Sawyer was a high-powered attorney in Chicago, recently widowed, but she put all that behind and moved to the small town of Winsome, Pennsylvania, to help her grandmother run her organic farm and cafe. It doesn’t seem like a natural career change but Megan has settled in well and had just been meeting with Philadelphia chefs to set up vendor accounts for her greenhouse wares when she encounters Becca who used to live in Winsome. Becca’s aunt Merry invited her to set up a holiday shop for her love potions but Merry actually had an ulterior motive, to reunite Becca and her estranged father. Megan doesn’t know any of this but she certainly notices Becca’s angry reaction when she sees her father.

When Paul is murdered, suspects and motives begin to come out of the woodwork, as it were, and Megan gets into the thick of it first to help Becca but later to help her own aunt Sarah, a mystery author, who’s one of those suspects. That suspicion is not necessarily arbitrary—she had an odd connection to the dead man—but, before long, the victims begin to pile up and Megan herself might be in serious jeopardy.

Although this series is labeled as “cozy”, I think it’s actually more in line with the “traditional” subgenre for several reasons. There’s a bit of an edge to this story and Megan’s background as a lawyer gives her a believability as a sleuth that many cozy protagonists don’t really have. It’s also a nice touch that Police Chief Bobby King is not averse to her investigating and Megan gets some assistance from staff, friends and family rather than trying to go it alone. There are no TSTL episodes, thank heavens. All in all, this was a well-crafted mystery and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Fair warning, that end is a bit of a humdinger 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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Eight Days on Planet Earth
Cat Jordan
HarperTeen, November 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-257173-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

How long does it take to travel twenty light years to Earth?

How long does it take to fall in love?

To the universe, eight days is a mere blip, but to Matty Jones, it may be just enough time to change his life.

On the hot summer day Matty’s dad leaves for good, a strange girl suddenly appears in the empty field next to the Jones farm—the very field in rural Pennsylvania where a spaceship supposedly landed fifty years ago. She is uniquely beautiful, sweet, and smart, and she tells Matty she’s waiting for her spaceship to pick her up and return her to her home planet. Of course she is.

Matty has heard a million impossible UFO stories for each of his seventeen years: the conspiracy theories, the wild rumors, the crazy belief in life beyond the stars. When he was a kid, he and his dad searched the skies and studied the constellations. But all of that is behind him. Dad’s gone—but now there’s Priya. She must be crazy…right?

As Matty unravels the mystery of the girl in the field, he realizes there is far more to her than he first imagined. And if he can learn to believe in what he can’t see: the universe, aliens…love…then maybe the impossible is possible, after all.

In many ways, Eight Days on Planet Earth is a look at how a teenaged boy copes with the downturns in his life, including his father’s abandonment of the family, and finds hope in the most unlikely of places. When his dad runs off with his own brother’s wife, Matty reacts with a bit of a stiff upper lip and some disdain for his mom’s apparent inability to accept the situation. As far as Matty can tell, his dad has been less than a great family man for a long time but he’s not about to show his deep hurt. On top of that, he has pretty much zero chance of developing anything with his secret crush and he and his mom are having a rough road financially. What should be that wonderful last summer before senior year is turning out to be anything but.

Then he finds an almost otherworldly girl in the field next to the farm, the field where a UFO landed years before, and Priya is a puzzle on many levels beginning with why she’s in the field in the first place. When Priya tells him she’s waiting for the spaceship to come back for her, he certainly doesn’t know what to think but he’s drawn to her. Priya appears to need looking after and she’s the perfect distraction from his woes but she becomes much more to him. Matty does feel a need to protect this strange and wonderful girl but, to his surprise, a deep emotional connection begins to develop.

Those eight days are slowmoving but they also pass in a flash and the ending tore my heart out while, at the same time, it gave me a glimpse of the fine young man Matty is destined to become. This is a story of hurt and hope and love of all kinds and I’m very glad to have made Matty’s acquaintance.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

Book Reviews: Gin and Panic by Maia Chance and The Burning by J.P. Seewald

Gin and Panic
Discreet Retrieval Agency Mysteries #3
Maia Chance
Minotaur Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-10905-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Former socialite Lola Woodby is now struggling to make ends meet as a not-so-discreet private eye in Prohibtion-era New York City, along with her stern Swedish sidekick, Berta. When they’re offered a piece-of-cake job―retrieving a rhinoceros trophy from the Connecticut mansion of big game hunter Rudy Montgomery―it seems like a no-brainer. After all, their client, Lord Sudley, promises them a handsome paycheck, and the gin and tonics will be plentiful and free. But no sooner do they arrive at Montgomery Hall than Rudy is shot dead.

When the police arrive to examine the scene, they conclude that Rudy had actually committed suicide. But Lord Sudley can’t believe his friend would have done that, and there’s a houseful of suspicious characters standing by. So Lord Sudley ups the ante for Lola and Berta, and suddenly, their easy retrieval job has turned into a murder investigation. Armed with handbags stuffed with emergency chocolate, gin flasks, and a Colt .25, Lola and Berta are swiftly embroiled in a madcap puzzle of stolen diamonds, family secrets, a clutch of gangsters, and plenty of suspects who know their way around a safari rifle.

When I think back on this book, the first word that comes to mind is “charming” followed very shortly by “fun”. This is a pair of sleuths I loved spending time with and the plot and setting did a lot to hold my attention; overall, I was reminded of those lighthearted mysteries that take us back to the more innocent-seeming time of 1923.

Lola isn’t really the brains of the duo but she’s learning to adapt to her altered circumstances and her previous position in society opens doors to them while Berta has a knack for figuring things out while keeping the Lola ship steered in the right direction, so to speak. They have an unlikely friendship for their time but it really works for them and lays the groundwork for a successful detecting business. Lola’s constant companion, the furry Cedric, adds to the ambience.

The whole idea of someone asking them to “retrieve” a rhinoceros head trophy seems a bit outrageous in today’s world but it had me chuckling early on, imagining these two women having to smuggle such an item out of its current place of honor just to settle a grievance. Still, Lola and Berta are game, pun intended ;-), having no idea they’re about to land smackdab in the middle of a locked room mystery complete with dead body. A cache of diamonds and the bumbling efforts of our sleuths lead to enough adventure and madcappery to while away a very pleasant afternoon.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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The Burning
J.P. Seewald
Annorlunda Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-944354-26-8
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

George Ferris has worked hard to make a good life for himself and his family without going into the coal mines that shortened his father’s life. Now, a slow-moving catastrophe is threatening to take it all away. How far will he go to protect everything he has worked for? And will he realize what really matters before it is too late?

The first time I heard about coal fires burning under a town, years ago, I was horrified and I still am. It seems almost like science fiction and the idea that people would either have to live with such a never-ending threat or leave the homes and neighbors they had known for so long is little short of overwhelming.

George is a man who’s easy to understand because his whole way of life is undergoing a major transformation, beginning with the huge divide between him and his brother, Larry, a man who chose to leave his blue collar background behind. George takes pride in his life and it’s painful watching him have to make choices that he never wanted or expected to have to make. He’s watching his very existence, everything that makes him who he is, turn to ashes and not only because of the fire burning under his gas station. The frustrations that come with dealing with the bureaucracy that is more obstructive than helpful make George and the people around him begin to think they’ve been abandoned; as one catastrophe piles on another and another, it’s easy to see the despair George feels and his desperation to find solutions. Unfortunately, fear and a lingering denial, even self-pity, lead to some very wrong choices.

In the midst of devastation, the unbreakable but shaky bonds between George and Larry come to the fore and just may be the saving grace that the brothers need. The Burning is a short but intense story and, once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down; knowing it’s based on true events makes this a truly compelling read.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

Book Review: My New Crush Gave to Me by Shani Petroff

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