Book Review: The Life Below by Alexandra Monir @TimelessAlex @harperteen @The_FFBC

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Title: The Life Below
Author: Alexandra Monir
Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication date: February 18, 2020
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

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The Life Below
Alexandra Monir
HarperTeen, February 2020
ISBN 978-0-06-265897-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

As Naomi lifts off into space and away from a rapidly deteriorating Earth, she watches the world fade away, and along with it Leo, a Final Six contestant she grew close to during training. Leaving Earth behind is hard, but what’s ahead, on Europa, could be worse. The International Space Training Camp continues to hide the truth about what happened to the last group of astronauts who attempted a similar colonization but failed mysteriously. With one shot—at this mission and to Europa—Naomi is determined to find out if there is alien life on Europa before she and her crew get there.

Leo, back on Earth, has been working with renegade scientist Dr. Greta Wagner, who promises to fly him to space where he can essentially latch on to Naomi’s ship. And if Wagner’s hypothesis is right, it isn’t a possibility of coming in contact with extraterrestrial life on Europa—it’s a definite. With Naomi unaware of what awaits, it’s up to Leo to find and warn her and the others.

With all the pieces of their journey finally clicking into place, everything else starts to fall apart. A storm threatens to interfere with Leo’s takeoff, a deadly entity makes itself known to the Final Six, and the questions the ISTC has been avoiding about the previous failed mission get answered in the worst way possible. If the dream was to establish a habitable domain on Europa… the Final Six are about to enter a nightmare.

After our mindbending landing on the moon back in 1969, we’ve faltered in our quest to explore space. Mars seems like a barely attainable dream and no one apparently wants to go back to the moon. Imagine, then, the massive effort to go to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, to build a new home for humanity after we failed miserably on Earth to address climate change.

A tiny crew of six highly trained teens, accompanied by two AI’s, has a monumental task ahead of them when they lift off but it’s most alarming that they don’t really know what they’ll find on icy Europa. Why did the earlier mission fail and what is the International Space Training Camp hiding? There are so many things that can go wrong, not least of which is the possibility of finding alien life on Europa. Leo has learned something that could truly jeopardize the success of the mission and the safety of the crew but now he has to try to reach them before they get to Europa, before he loses Naomi forever.

Much of the action—and it’s pretty breakneck—focuses on the journey itself, as it should considering all the inherent dangers. I appreciated that because so many space exploration stories slide past the trials and tribulations of getting to the ultimate destination. The very real possibilities of space exploration are endlessly fascinating and Ms. Monir has crafted a story that’s worthy of those possibilities.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2020.

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Read an excerpt from The Life Below here.

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About the Author

Alexandra Monir, Iranian-American author and recording artist, has published five novels for young adults, including her popular debut, Timeless. A Barnes & Noble best-seller and one of Amazon’s “Best Books of the Month,” Timeless and its sequel, Timekeeper, have been featured in numerous media outlets and been published in different countries around the world. She followed the duology with Suspicion and The Girl in the Picture, both standalone YA thrillers. Her science fiction novel, The Final Six (March 6, 2018) was acquired by HarperCollins and Sony Pictures during the same week, in two major pre-emptive deals.

Alexandra is also a singer/songwriter who often integrates music into her books’ pages. She wrote and recorded three original songs to accompany Timeless and Timekeeper, which were released as the album “The Timeless EP” and distributed by Jimmy Buffett’s record label, Mailboat Records. She also recorded a song that was released with the publication of Suspicion, and is composing a stage musical geared toward Broadway. Her musical roots are deep, as she is the granddaughter of the late Monir Vakili, the foremost Iranian opera singer.

Alexandra Monir is a frequent speaker at middle schools and high schools across the country, and at major events including fan conventions, women’s leadership conferences, and book festivals. She is a member of the Iranian American Women Foundation, an organization near to her heart. Alexandra currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and newborn son. To learn more about Alexandra, visit her online at www.alexandramonir.com.

Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads // Instagram

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Book Review: Immunity by Erin Bowman

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Title: Immunity
Series: Contagion #2
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication Date: July 2, 2019
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

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Immunity
Contagion #2
Erin Bowman
HarperTeen, July 2019
ISBN 978-0-06-257417-6
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Survivors of a deadly planetary outbreak take on a new, sinister adversary in the white-knuckle sequel to Contagion, which New York Times bestselling author Amie Kaufman called “gripping, thrilling and terrifying in equal measures.”

They thought their nightmare was over, but Thea, Coen, and Nova’s rescue was only the beginning. After being imprisoned on a ship they thought was their ticket to safety, it’s clear that the threat they left behind isn’t as distant as they’d hoped—and this time the entire galaxy is at risk.

Now that threat is about to be unleashed as an act of political warfare. To prevent an interstellar catastrophe, the survivors must harness the evil they faced on the planet Achlys and learn to wield the only weapon they have left: themselves.

Following the events of Contagion, our favorite survivors would be right to expect things will get better but, alas, they’ve fallen into the hands of the bad guys who want to perform experiments on them and, ultimately, make use of their acquired abilities. Worse yet, interplanetary war is clearly on the near horizon and four teens may be the only ones who can prevent it. That’s a very heavy burden to bear.

Almost anything else I could say would border on spoilers so I’ll leave it at this: Immunity has all the elements of an exciting speculative tale—appealing and well-drawn characters, terrific worldbuilding, a setting that engages the reader’s imagination and pacing that’s so rapid it takes your breath away. I can’t say which drew me in the most but, taken as a whole, this is a story that grabs you by the throat from the opening lines and I had to squirrel myself away till I finished it, then wanted more.

I’ve been enthused about Erin Bowman’s work for quite some time and she certainly didn’t let me down this time. The only caution I would offer is that the first book of the duology really should be read first to get the full effect. Do that and you’ll have a rip-roarin’ good time 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2019.

About the Author

Erin Bowman is the Edgar Award-nominated author of numerous books for teens, including the Taken Trilogy, Vengeance Road, Retribution Rails, and the Contagion duology. A web designer turned author, Erin has always been invested in telling stories—both visually and with words. When not writing, she can often be found hiking, commenting on good typography, and obsessing over all things Harry Potter. Erin lives in New Hampshire with her husband and children. You can visit her online at embowman.com, on twitter @erin_bowman, or on instagram @heyerin.

Erin is represented by Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

Author Links: Website // Twitter // Goodreads
Instagram // Tumblr // YouTube // Pinterest

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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 Review: Dark Energy by Robison Wells

Dark EnergyDark Energy
Robison Wells
HarperTeen, March 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-227505-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

We are not alone. They are here. And there’s no going back.

Five days ago, a massive UFO crashed in the Midwest. Since then, nothing—or no one—has come out.

If it were up to Alice, she’d be watching the fallout on the news. But her dad is director of special projects at NASA, so she’s been forced to enroll in a boarding school not far from the crash site. Alice is right in the middle of the action, but even she isn’t sure what to expect when the aliens finally emerge. Only one thing is clear: everything has changed.

I don’t make a habit of guessing at authors’ motivations in writing particular books but I have to do it this time. I could be—probably am—dead wrong but I think Robison Wells had tongue planted firmly in cheek when he wrote Dark Energy. How else to explain the truly creative idea behind the story and the inclusion of more diversity than I’ve seen in a while with actions and behaviors that not only would never happen but no thinking individual would believe they could? Just as an example, after the aliens have been here only a few days, two are brought to a boarding school to live. Yeah, right. If you believe they wouldn’t end up in a lab somewhere, I have this bridge I’d like to sell…

Here’s the thing, though—I DON’T CARE how unrealistic and illogical it all is. I quite simply love this book and I applaud Robison Wells for coming up with a twist I absolutely never saw coming and, yet, it made perfect sense if you believe in life out there (and I do). There’s a lot of humor here (never slapstick, just normal) as well as shades of fear and a terrific roadtrip. The ending is actually a bit too rushed and I wish it hadn’t seemed quite so easy but I’ll still be including this in my favorite books read in 2016.

I also fell in booklove with all the major characters and I have to say that, for an adult male, Mr. Wells does a darned good job of writing teen dialogue, especially the girls. Leaving the whole alien thing aside, I really did connect with Aly, Rachel and Brynne and the latter two’s immediate acceptance of Aly is credible because of her connection to the crash site. An exciting time like this is exactly when teens would forego their natural snottiness towards a newcomer. They’re also very cool girls 😉

Kurt is no schlock, either, and I appreciated the lack of insta-love. The attraction is certainly there but the author lets nature take its course, thank heavens. And then there’s Aly. My goodness, I like this girl. She’s smart, brave, snarky and rebellious but she and her dad have a relationship we could all wish for and their mutual trust is, well, awesome.

So, put aside your need for credibility and just enjoy Dark Energy for what it is. If you’re like me, the only thing that will really nag at you is the title—I have precisely zero idea what it’s supposed to mean but, then, who cares?  😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2016.

Book Review: Until the Beginning by Amy Plum

Until the BeginningUntil The Beginning
Sequel to After The End
Amy Plum
Harper Teen, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-2225634
Hardcover

Juneau and a now convinced Miles are trying to find the imprisoned clan members being held somewhere in New Mexico. When Miles is shot and they have to hide from his father as well as the group that Whit, former shaman of the clan, is working with, Juneau is tested. Not only must she cloak them, the vehicle and the cabin with invisibility, she has to save Miles’ life. That results in her making a frightening choice and giving him Amrit. If she doesn’t he’s certainly going to die. He survives and begins to develop his own powers as they return to the road.

The closer they get to where the clan is held captive, the more challenging things become. Juneau has to become more comfortable with modern technology, while Miles has to wrap his head around the fact that not only was Juneau telling the truth about her powers, but he has them as well and must learn to use them quickly because he has no choice.

They have to break into a private hunting preserve that’s guarded by mercenaries as well as a sophisticated electric fence. Once inside, they not only have to deal with someone desperate to get the Amrit, but must free the clan as well as rescue separately held hostages. Things are further complicated by the arrival of the other party interested in the formula just when it looks like Juneau and Miles are ready to make their escape.

The first part of this book is slower paced than book one, but that’s because Juneau and Miles are getting to know each other while she’s wrestling with how reality contradicts almost everything she was led to believe as she grew up in the Alaskan wilderness. However, once they start the rescue effort, the action is fast and furious, leading to a very satisfying ending. If you’ve read book one, you will certainly enjoy this one. If you haven’t, you’re in for a double treat.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS., January 2016.

Book Review: After the End by Amy Plum

After the EndAfter The End
After the End #1
Amy Plum
HarperTeen, May 2015
ISBN: 978-0-06-222561-0
Trade Paperback

Juneau is the heir to the role of shaman in her clan. Whit, the current one, has trained her in the ways of connecting to what they call the Yara, a universal force that permeates all things. The adults fled to a remote region beyond Denali in Alaska after what they have told the children was World War III in the early 1980s.

She’s out hunting for caribou when she hears the frightening whump of a helicopter. While she’s been told that civilization has been destroyed, save for a few of what the elders call brigands, she’s heard this scary sound a couple times before and recognizes the threat it poses, so she abandons her kill and drives her sled dogs back to her village as fast as she can.

When she arrives, all clan members are gone and the dogs have been killed. Whit was supposed to be away on a retreat to a cave, but when she arrives there she realizes no one has been there for months. Her ‘reading’, a way she sees distant events and connects with other clan members, tells her that both Whit and the rest of her clan have been abducted, but Whit’s near the sea while her father and the others are much further away in what appears to be a desert location. This realization is the beginning of her odyssey, one where she intends to find and free her clan. When she reaches the sea, she’s stunned by the city and people she finds, forcing her to not only question everything she believes, but adapt quickly while evading pursuers.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Miles has been kicked out of his private school for a third major infraction and is working in the mailroom at his father’s pharmaceutical firm. He was headed to Yale before getting expelled. When he overhears his father talking about a valuable girl who is on her way to Seattle, he decides to go and find her as a way of redeeming himself. That girl is Juneau.

When their paths cross, it’s the start of an uneasy alliance that finds them equally frustrated and disbelieving, but the longer they’re together, the more Miles realizes Juneau’s telling the truth and the stronger their attraction becomes. There’s a lot of action, a need for readers to suspend a bit of belief, a neat budding romance and a cliffhanger ending. It was good enough for me to order the sequel immediately.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, January 2016.

Book Review: Beware the Wild by Natalie C. Parker

Beware the WildBeware the Wild
Natalie C. Parker
HarperTeen, October 2014
ISBN 978-0-06-224152-8
Hardcover

Swamps make stellar settings for the spookiest of stories. “The meanest swamp in Louisiana” however, disdainfully dismisses “spooky”. This arrogant, angry bog is far more frightening than the orneriest of angry alligators. A petulant presence, tinged with wicked lurks within.

Following an epic sibling squabble, Sass’s revered brother, Phin, belligerently explodes from the sanctity of their backyard into the eagerly awaiting quagmire. She dreads the worst. Not “the worst” as it relates to the average, hazardous marsh. It isn’t images of the one person she loves unconditionally, who loves her right back: sinking into quicksand, being bitten by a venomous snake, hopelessly lost, slowly succumbing to the elements that plague her.

Whispered legends. Volumes of collected Swamp Stories. Knowing looks exchanged over children’s heads. The unimaginable horror that is never actually addressed, always alluded to. These fears fill her mind and freak her out. As if insulted by her tame, unimaginative worries, the glade grabs Sass by her chin, jerks her head up and shoves the unspeakable, tortuous cruelty into her stunned face.

Ms. Parker explodes into the Young Adult literary world, boldly and courageously with an authority that won’t be denied. I’m a little bit in love with her and I’m pretty sure she had me in mind with the shout out to my beloved Phish and the perfect use of a term that needs to come back: spaz attack.

Amid a tale that unapologetically reaches out and with a quick tug, pulls the reader into the sticky, steamy swamp; enters dark-skinned Abigail, the “girl who prefers girls” in a very small town. This diversity is not gratuitous nor is it the point of the story. Rather, Ms. Parker’s natural inclination to include characters of differing ethnicities and sexual orientation seems simply indicative of her norm; yet feels utterly refreshing.

Superbly depicted southern stereotypes lend a feel of authenticity while the dynamics among the characters enrich this brilliantly written, compelling, creepy and captivating story. Absolutely, all-the-way awesome, Beware the Wild is a book that I look forward to re-reading and sharing with my bookish pals both Young and Not-So-Young Adults.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2015.