Book Reviews: Hearts & Other Body Parts by Ira Bloom and P. S. I Like You by Kasie West

Hearts & Other Body Parts
Ira Bloom
Scholastic Press, April 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-03073-0
Hardcover

Fast-paced and fabulously fun, Hearts & Other Body Parts is a freaky fusion of folklore that completely rocks my socks.  Fantasy, science-fiction and a bit of magic combine to capture, then carry you along the remarkable ride.  With the emphasis on “science”, some of this fiction feels frighteningly plausible.

The three sisters that center the story are quintessential siblings in the best ways possible.  Unique enough for interesting exchanges, their common ground allows them to create a formidable front when needed.  Norman, the new kid (whose full name is spectacularly perfect) is a gentle giant—in the most literal sense—but, his size is the least shocking attribute of his appearance.

Generally, students in small town schools divide into two groups when a new kid arrives: instant fans seeking something different or rowdy ruffians refusing change.  Not so when Norman enters the picture.  All eyes focus on him, the same expression on every face.  Mouths hang open in wonder, revulsion and fear.  When Esme joins Norman at the lunch table on his first day, he knew things would be different here; but even his peculiar past could not have prepared him for what was coming.

Zack erases Norman’s new-kid status and creates a fandom in the student body.  Girls surround Zack like fog, floating on his every word. Intelligent as well as wise, Norman is not captivated by Zack’s charms; instead he is suspicious.  Reports of missing girls convince Norman that Esme and her sisters, who have absolutely abandoned him to hover around Zack, are in imminent danger.  Norman can’t face Zack alone, but the bullies that once taunted him may not be much back-up…..even with the reluctant aid of a demon cat.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

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P.S. I Like You
Kasie West
Point, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-85097-1
Hardcover

This is such a sweet story—not so your teeth hurt–it’s perfectly sweet.  First and foremost:  I love the Abbott family.  I want to dive into their home and be submersed in the fresh, awesome, oddness.  Each quirky, yet quintessential, sibling provides poignant texture, interacting individually and collectively with Lily.  Her competition-loving, compassionate parents are perfectly embarrassing and absolutely adorable.  Also, there is a rescued “pet” rabbit.

I adore Lily.  She’s who I wanted to be as a teenager.  Her most awkward teen-aged moment is exponentially cooler than any of mine.  It is effortless to relate to, empathize with and understand her.  She is “learning lessons” that I learned, but sometimes forget.  The reminders are welcome and appreciated.

There is also the something-different-that-I-totally-dig-aspect:  putting a pencil to your desktop, jotting a note or song lyric to maintain sanity and/or a state of semi-awareness during class, only to be stunned when another student responds in kind.  I remember trading notes via the top of my desk with an anonymous person in my 8th grade Literature class (sorry, Mr. Leach).  So, no surprise, I’m stupidly delighted and charmed to find a book basing a pretty groovy relationship on such a simple start.  Particularly impressive, Ms. West presents a spot-on, classic-yet-credible, way of communicating without feeling the need to mute or explain away today’s textmania.

This was a one-sitting-read that I really enjoyed.  The mini-mystery to determine who Lily’s pen pal is warranted a close look and careful consideration of the characters.  Although cute and quick, this isn’t the cotton candy of reading—there is a Mean Girl and her role is not gratuitous and the importance of being a good friend cannot be overstated.  My copy is going to my 13-year-old niece and I’m sure I’ll donate another copy to my Middle Grader’s classroom library.  I really like this book for the Middle-Grade reader looking for a love story.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2016.

Book Review: Celine by Peter Heller

Celine
Peter Heller
Alfred A. Knopf, March 2017
ISBN 978-0-451-49389-7
Hardcover

Celine is one of the most fascinating and hard to describe books I have read recently. In many ways, it is really two books in one. In the prologue, readers watch a happy family outing turn tragic and meet the little girl who will eventually be Celine’s client. If you are a reader who generally skips prologues, DON’T skip this one. It is important.

Moving on to the first chapter readers are introduced to Celine, one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve met. In her sixties, she works as a PI specializing in reuniting families but is also an artist using mostly found items that can be best described as macabre. For instance, in the opening scene she is creating a sculpture of  the skeleton of a mink looking down on it’s own skin drying on a rock with a crow’s skull nearby. Celine suffers from emphysema from her many years of smoking. There is a sadness about her that readers should realize right away explains much of what she does. She has suffered many losses in her life from her father’s absence from his family to the death of her sisters. But even as her story unfolds, we sense that Celine has lost even more.

Fast forward to the call from a much younger woman who has read about Celine’s work in a college alumni magazine. The woman, Gabriela, has also suffered losses in her life. The first painful loss was her small cat who disappeared when she was seven. But that loss is quickly overshadowed by a much bigger loss, that of her mother. As terrible as that was it was at least clear cut. Her mother drowned. Sadly that brought about the loss of her father at least emotionally. But it was  the actual death of her father many years later that  haunted her and brought her to Celine. Her father, a world renowned photographer, supposedly was killed, and possibly eaten, by a bear just outside of Yellowstone. No body was ever recovered. Gabriela has long questioned the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Too many things in the investigation just didn’t quite add up. Celine takes the case and proceeds to Wyoming to investigate.

From that point on, the book shifts from Celine’s investigation and flashbacks to her own story.  In the end, readers find out what became of Gabriela’s father, but sadly, the mystery of Celine’s deep sadness is not fully revealed. I am hoping that there will be another case for Celine. Readers (and Celine) want closure.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St.Clair, March 2017.

Book Review: Haunting Investigation by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Haunting Investigation
A Chesterton Holte Mystery #5
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Smoke & Shadow Books, December 2015
ISBN: 978-1-943052-01-1
Hardcover

First of all, detective Chesterton Holte is a ghost, and only newspaper reporter Poppy Thornton can see or hear him⏤aside from her Aunt Jo’s old dog and the cat. And the only reason he’s haunting her is because he directly led to her father being executed as a spy during World War I and this is his way of making it up to her.

The year is 1924 and the country is still reeling not only from the war, but from the millions of lives lost to the Spanish Flu. Women are taking jobs usually considered the male prerogative and Poppea Thornton is one of them. She is a budding newspaper reporter, up to now assigned to the society pages as she is one of Philadelphia’s upper crust. But when one of society’s own is murdered, Poppy, to her satisfaction, receives the job of reporting the news. In her duties, she meets a handsome police detective, which serves her well when she becomes the murderer’s target, but it is the ghost, Chesterton Holte, who helps Poppy root out the clues.

Against a whole lot of opposition, Poppy works hard and diligently to make her way in a man’s world.

I liked the characters. I formed good pictures of Aunt Jo, cousin Stacy, the widow, and all the others. The setting is well done. I enjoyed the descriptions of the cars, the attire of the day, and especially, the food and drink⏤lots of drink. And during prohibition, too, wink, wink. However, the murder methods seemed odd to me. Also, there didn’t seem to be any real resolution to the story, ending more with a whimper than a bang. Even so, I enjoyed the journey with Poppy and Holte and Detective Loring. One assumes it is to be continued.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, October 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: Presumed Puzzled by Parnell Hall

Presumed Puzzled
A Puzzle Lady Mystery #17
Parnell Hall
Minotaur Books, January 2016
ISBN: 978-1-2500-6123-2
Hardcover

The Puzzle Lady novels are meant to be cute, and this one has some light moments, but since the lady in question ends up tried for murder it turns out to be anything but.  Actually, there are two courtroom scenes. First, the wife of the murder victim is initially charged with the crime, but halfway through the trial those charges are dismissed when a witness for the prosecution provides an alibi for her and another implicates Cora Felton, the Puzzle Lady.

It seems Cora was having an affair with the murdered man, and the irony is that she is employed by the wife’s attorney to find him after the wife reports him missing when he doesn’t come home from work.  And, to add insult to injury, Cora accompanies the Police Chief to his home only to discover him lying on the floor, having bled to death, and his wife covered with blood holding a butcher knife.

A series of clues appear to indicate Cora is guilty, and the courtroom drama plays out until she unravels the mystery by testifying for the prosecution in her own trial in typical Puzzle Lady fashion. While events throughout both trials are dramatic and push the story forward, it is unlikely that such occurrences could possibly take place in a real trial.  Of course, there is always a last minute fact or witness that occasionally pop up in real life, but hardly to the extent that this plot requires.  Other than this objection, the Puzzle Lady mysteries are always cute and fun, and so is this novel.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2017.

Book Review: Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

Frozen Charlotte
Alex Bell
Scholastic Press, November 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-94108-2
Hardcover

Everything began innocently enough. Sophie and her best friend Jay sitting in a cafe. He’d downloaded an ouija board app on his smartphone and was insistent they try it. Despite a sense of dread, she goes along reluctantly, but something seems to hijack the app, sending them really scary messages. Then the lights go out and all hell breaks loose. Someone in the cafe kitchen is badly burned and Sophie swears she saw a tall, ghostly figure atop one of the tables. Spooked by the experience, she pleads with Jay to take the towpath home when riding his rickety bike instead of going by way of the heavily traveled streets. The next day, she learns to her horror that he lost the brakes on his bike, slid into a canal and drowned.

Thus begins a series of scary and inexplicable events for Sophie. Her parents have a long anticipated anniversary trip to San Francisco, but are willing to cancel it because of what happened to Jay. Knowing that they’ll lose a bunch of money if this happens, stiffens her resolve to go stay with her strange relatives in an old girl’s school on the Isle of Skye they converted into a super menacing mansion.

Once there, things alternate between creepy and creepier. (Imagine highlights from “The Shining” if the cast were ripped from “The Munsters” minus any comedy and you’d be off to a good beginning.) Her uncle is an artist and essentially clueless about what’s happening, one of her cousins, Rebecca, died years ago under mysterious circumstances, but her ghost keeps reappearing (is she coming back to warn Sophie, or scare the heck out of her?) Then there’s her slightly older cousin Cameron, a brilliant pianist who suffered a terrible injury to one hand, severely hampering his dreams of becoming a world famous musician. Sophie can’t decide if he hates her or everyone in general. Next comes Piper, who is insanely beautiful and the same age as Sophie. At first, she seems like a breath of fresh air, but the longer Sophie’s around her, the more confused she is about who the real Piper is. Then there’s Lilias, the youngest girl who once tried to remove her own collarbone with a butcher knife. She’s hostile toward Sophie in the beginning, but the longer they’re around each other, the more they need to trust and rely on each other.

Add in that her aunt is locked up in a mental hospital, that there is an army of super creepy dolls remaining from when the school was in operation, coupled with a trash-talking parrot and generally gloomy weather and you have a grand recipe for a top notch YA horror story. Even if you start figuring out who was responsible for what nastiness before the end, it won’t matter because reading this makes for a grand and scary ride. Let’s hope the power doesn’t go out while you’re doing so.

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

Book Review: A Fatal Twist by Tracy Weber—and a Giveaway!

A Fatal Twist
A Downward Dog Mystery #4
Tracy Weber
Midnight Ink, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-4878-9
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Yoga instructor Kate Davidson’s life takes a chaotic turn once she agrees to not only be the doula for her pregnant best friend, but also play foster mother to two puppies. The chaos only gets worse when Kate finds the dead body of a philandering fertility doctor and Rachel, one of her yoga students, fleeing the scene.

Kate is convinced her student is innocent, and she sets out to find the real killer before her testimony condemns Rachel to a life behind bars. But her hands are full with caring for three dogs, teaching yoga classes, and gaining an unexpected crime-solving partner. If she’s not careful, Kate’s next yoga pose may be a fatal one.

Babies! They’re springing up everywhere, both humans and puppies, and Kate has her hands full learning to be a doula for her best friend, Rene, as she and her husband Sam await twins. In the meantime, Kate’s boyfriend, Michael, has brought home a pair of six-week-old abandoned labradoodles, Mutt and Jeff, and Kate agrees to foster them for a short while as long as Bella, her anxious German Shepherd with special needs, doesn’t get a chance to kill them.

First to get killed, though, is a doctor Kate knows superficially, a man who appears to have been as low as a man can be. His wife is a student of Kate’s and the killing happened in a birthing center where Rene plans to go so Kate has reasons to snoop among a plethora of girlfriends (current and ex), nurses and other doctors, not to mention prospective parents who might have had reasons to hate the fertility doc. She really needs to step in because all clues seem to nail the wife, Rachel, and the police don’t want to look further.

With each murder Kate encounters, she becomes more adept at investigating and at least one of the homicide detectives doesn’t really object so much because Kate frequently has something useful to offer. Humor abounds as does a cracking good sleuthfest, not to mention reminders of the perils of puppiedom and the joys and heartbreaks of animal rescue. Tracy Weber never lets me down.

This time, Rene would have been justified—and I would have approved—if she killed Sam who’s incredibly obnoxious and obsessed with what Rene eats. On the positive side, Bella and the puppies are delightful and I’m more enchanted with her than I was before, especially since she reminds me of my beloved granddog who also suffers from social anxiety around people and other dogs. All the characters I’ve come to enjoy are back, even the somewhat annoying ones, and I felt right at home with old friends.

On a personal note, I’ve been taking warm water Yogilates classes and have become more interested in the ins and outs of yoga. I actually paid more attention this time to Ms. Weber‘s pointers and got more out of it; I won’t say I’m ready for land yoga but I love the water kind and can’t help thinking how my instructors compare to Kate (other than running around looking for killers). I just need to figure out how to listen to these books on my iPod when I’m in the pool 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2017.

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To enter the drawing for a gently
used advance
reading copy of
A Fatal Twist
by Tracy Weber,
leave a comment
below. The
winning name will
be drawn
Thursday evening,
April 13th.
This drawing is open
to residents
of the US and Canada.

Book Reviews: The Candidate by Lis Wiehl with Sebastian Stuart and The Cuban Connection by M.L. Malcolm

The Candidate
A Newsmakers Novel #2
Lis Wiehl with Sebastian Stuart
Thomas Nelson, October 2016
ISBN:978-0-7180-3768-0
Hardcover

This is a finely crafted, taut modern thriller. It takes readers inside the current explosion of news and comment electronic channel, of blogging, punditry, false panic, alternative facts and similar fact and fiction. The multiple levels of conspiracy are interesting and reflect the background of the author. In a general sense, the pace is relentless and largely compelling, if a little predictable at times.

Protagonist Erica Sparks, under almost constant pressure to improve her standing, in spite of the fact she’s at the top of the ratings list, seeks interviews with presidential candidates. The assignment takes her all over the country, where she encounters bombs, murder and suicide by gun, and a cabal of nasty characters aimed at the ultimate power grab. To explain more would reveal too much.

The author has devised a cast of intriguing characters, some beset with the kind of domestic problems many readers will recognize. The story is well-grounded in modern realities for the professional working mother. Still, therein lies the principal difficulty of the narrative. Every so often, Erica Sparks succumbs to the stupid bug. For a top reporter and anchor she misses several obvious clues that would have revealed the identity of her adversaries or at least warned her of impending danger.

Even with these lapses, the book, well-described, carefully plotted, should raise the alarms in any reader who is aware of today’s society’s conflicting pressures, and the inimical forces of evil arrayed against us, regardless of constant protestations to the contrary.

The novel is intense, relentless and compelling. In spite of our awareness of the very contemporary setting and potential realities, it is, in the end, a novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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The Cuban Connection
M.L. Malcolm
A Good Read Publishing, February 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9815726-3-5
Trade Paperback

An intriguing well-written examination of the realities that have existed in the mysterious island nation of Cuba since the revolution. The novel—and it is an exceptionally carefully researched novel—is set in the early years of the 1960s. The story is narrated by an intrepid reporter named Katherine O’Connor. She’s an experienced reporter working on general assignments for the Reuters news agency out of London.

Her first intimation of major change coming to her life is when she is recalled to the New York office of the agency. She’s still not a bylined reporter. That’s the next career step up and she’s getting desperate to make the grade. Unfortunately, her fortunes at Reuters seem to be on a downward track until she wangles a freelance assignment to Cuba.

Cuba is a dangerous place for honest reporters as the Castro regime tightens censorship and moves to total control of the country. With help from clandestine intelligence resources, O’Connor goes to Cuba and headlong into a series of adventures while falling for a man who may be a Soviet spy.

Anyone who wants a good spy story and to join some devilishly clever characters on a series of nicely conceived adventures strongly rooted in the realities of the time, will enjoy this novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2016.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.