Book Reviews: Whenever I’m With You by Lydia Sharp and Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed

Whenever I’m With You
Lydia Sharp
Scholastic Press, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-04749-3
Hardcover

Gabi’s natural grace is fascinating.  Poise, pragmatic manner and confidence rarely coexist in mere human beings; but this 17-year-old possesses all three.  Of course, she doesn’t realize that.  Her Alaskan acquaintances see only the novelty of a “rich Latina from L.A.”  and they don’t even have as much information ‘about’ her as the tabloids do.

Kai is not like that, but he isn’t living the typical teen-age life either.  When Gabi and her father moved in next door, Kai’s father had been gone for almost a year.  His departure turned Kai and his twin brother, Hunter, from full-time high-school students to home-schooled home-makers.  The boys cared for their younger siblings, their mother worked double shifts.

When Kai slips away to search for his father, he doesn’t tell anyone.  He’s been alone in the Alaskan wilderness, following his father’s footsteps for a couple of days when Gabi and Hunter figure out where he’s gone.  The two immediately realize the dire need to reach him ahead of an upcoming storm.  Even an experienced, outdoors-loving-Alaskan could not be prepared for this.

The dangerous expedition is but part of the plot.  Each twin has a secret and when secrets are shared it is as if someone pulled the missing piece of the almost-completed-jigsaw puzzle from a pocket and asks, “Were you looking for this?”  Fiercely frustrating; a remarkable relief.  Each person that participates in this quest has a solid strength inside.  The individual discovery and use is a pretty great thing to witness.

Aside: I have a particular fondness for the West-Virginian transplant.  Vicki easily embodied traits I recognize in the people from my home state; she amused and delighted me.   Special thanks to Ms. Sharp for that.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2017.

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Keep Me In Mind
Jaime Reed
Point, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-88381-8
Hardcover

The adage ‘opposites attract’ brings no comfort to Ellia as she tries to picture herself in a relationship with the “tearstained boy hovering over (her) bed…declaring his undying love and devotion”.  She’s come out of a coma with no recollection whatsoever of the accident that caused it or the preceding two years.  Her parents, along with some friends are familiar, if not fully known; but the oddly earnest Liam is a stranger.

Liam is a runner. An addict, actually; his entire personality changes if ever he is deprived of his daily run.  An excellent student, he works diligently for his grades and he writes ridiculously well.  Ellia firmly believes that humans should run in emergency situations only and nothing about school holds her attention, aside from the opportunity to people-watch in order to ponder and provide fashion critiques, solicited or not.

Logically, these two people do not belong together, but emotionally Liam is so confident and persuasive that Ellia is compelled to seriously consider the plausibility.  Understandably the most important thing in Liam’s world, this is really just a piece of the wicked jig-saw puzzle that is now Ellia’s life.  Her first priority is to figure out who she is and why; based on what she’s heard so far, she’s not particularly proud of the person she was.

I absolutely adore the way this author captures and conveys the sheer magnitude of emotions that teens experience.  More accurately, I admire the authenticity of her characters.  The surprisingly witty banter exchanges are straight from the hallways of any high-school and exist alongside the lyrical and somewhat haunting soliloquies throughout. I was immediately intrigued, then immersed and invested.  There were enough questions to be answered that the story-line slid smoothly along, keeping me engaged from the first page to the very last word.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2016.

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Book Reviews: Never Look Down by Warren C. Easley and What Waits in the Woods by Kieran Scott

Never Look DownNever Look Down
A Cal Claxton Mystery #3
Warren C. Easley
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0464-7
Hardcover

Cal Claxton is a liberal-minded lawyer practicing in a small town outside of Portland, Oregon. His practice and his interests bifurcate his activities and he spends a good deal of time bouncing back and forth between the two locations. He’s also a dog owner. Caxton, who propels this series of legal mysteries, is a former Los Angeles prosecutor who has moved over to the defense realm, although he doesn’t spend much time in court.

This story penetrates one of the highlights of cities like Portland, which attracts a vibrant subculture, in this case, the often homeless artful youth who find their kicks as taggers, writers, graffiti artists and other scribblers. Like all cultures, there are subcultures, one of which is usually called climbers. They are the daredevils who place their often elaborate art high on buildings in places which seem impossible to reach. One such who calls herself K209 is gaining notice for the quality and her risky locations.

One dark night from four stories up, she observes the murder of a woman. K209 escapes and the hunt is on. The killers and the cops seek to capture the elusive youngster and we reads many chapters in her anguished clever head.

As Cal Claxton is drawn into the case, the author uses his ongoing character to consider some aspects of the gun culture in our society. The characters and the novel are nuanced, balanced and worth every bit of their space. Portland is nicely evoked, the writing is strong and the plot develops higher and higher tension as it progresses.

If the story line is flawed at all, it is due to the frequency of Claxton’s travel between the town of Dundee where he is trying to expand his small practice and his office in Portland where similar efforts command his attention.

It is a minor flaw. I recommend this novel as an enjoyable and thoughtful experience, whatever your personal attitudes are toward gun control.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2015.
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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What Waits in the WoodsWhat Waits in the Woods
Kieran Scott
Point, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-69111-6
Hardcover

On the very first page of this YA suspense novel, the terror begins. This first unseen threat is scared away, but it’s only the beginning of many frightening episodes Callie must suffer during her camping trip into the woods of upstate New York. She doesn’t want to be there. Camping and hiking are not her things. She’s more interested in reading great books and writing stories. But Callie is new to her small community and goes along to bond with her two new BFF’s. Besides, her boyfriend will be part of the group, and it will only last for four nights.

From the start, though, strange events make the outing more than just the endurance of a few days spent with bugs, brambles, and sleeping three girls to a tent. The alpha female taunts the others, they lose their way, unexplained figures appear and disappear, a beheaded doll is found fireside, and a charismatic young man shows up and volunteers to help. Will that flirty, macho individual help them survive, or is he going to kill them all with the woodsman’s weapons he carries? Tensions common to teenagers complicate the dynamics further, and everyone in the group becomes a suspect.

I would rate this PG-13 for the violence and five stars for the page-turning thrill and the emotional and rational growth of the teenaged protagonist.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, October 2015.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Reviews: The Shadow Broker by Trace Conger and Destroyer Angel by Nevada Barr

The Shadow BrokerThe Shadow Broker
A Mr. Finn Novel
Trace Conger
CreateSpace, August 2014
ISBN: 978-1-500-96697-3
Trade Paperback

This novel serves to introduce Finn Harding, who lost his PI license and is reduced to scrounging for a living, dealing with less than savory persons to make ends meet.  He lives on a houseboat on the Ohio River in Cincinnati, has an ex-wife and six-year-old daughter.  Obviously, this book is the beginning of a series.  Finn supposedly specializes in finding people who don’t want to be found, since doing so doesn’t require a license from the state.

One such assignment comes from a man named Bishop who operates an internet site that offers purloined data illegally obtained by his criminal partners.  It involves identifying a blackmailer, who is demanding $50,000 per month of Bishop to not disclose how he hacked into the site and is able to give the FBI all the background needed to prosecute.  Finn is able to name the blackmailer, but as a result finds himself in a more complicated situation, facing possible death at the hands of his clients.

Finn is an interesting protagonist, resourceful, energetic and calculating, although less than an upright citizen as events turn out.  He knows the difference between right and wrong, but circumstances make it hard to be ethical when you have to cut corners to survive.  It will be interesting to see what develops in the next novel in the series, Scar Tissue.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2015.

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Destroyer AngelDestroyer Angel
An Anna Pigeon Novel #18
Nevada Barr
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, February 2015
ISBN: 978-0-2500-5847-8
Mass Market Paperback

Novels in the Anna Pigeon series usually take place in national parks featuring the wilderness as she grapples with the likes of forest fires and the like.  This time, as she braves a Minnesota forest, it is four gunmen who have kidnapped two friends and their daughters while she was out canoeing, thus missing out on the party at the beginning:  The five women originally planned to enjoy a long weekend camping at a park ranger site.

Thus begins a long trek of undue hardship as the captives are forced to travel toward a landing strip miles away where the kidnappers hoped to be picked up by a plane to wait for the eventual payoff.  Instead, as they slowly head to their destination, trailed by Anna whose purpose obviously is somehow to rescue her friends, the reader is treated to a gruesome blow-by-blow account of the rough treatment the women receive and lessons in how to survive in the wilderness, courtesy of Anna the park ranger, as well as how to stalk prey.

The descriptions are graphic and powerful, brutal and mesmerizing.  Unfortunately, from time to time, the author interjects opinions on a variety of side issues which detract from the forward thrust of the plot. Otherwise, this is a forceful tale, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2015.

Book Review: Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick

ShadowsShadows
Ashes Trilogy #2

Ilsa J. Bick
Egmont USA, September 2012
ISBN 978-1-60684-176-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The Apocalypse does not end. The Changed will grow in numbers. The Spared may not survive.

Even before the EMPs brought down the world, Alex was on the run from the demons of her past and the monster living in her head. After the world was gone, she believed Rule could be a sanctuary for her and those she’d come to love. But she was wrong.

Now Alex is in the fight of her life against the adults, who would use her, the survivors, who don’t trust her, and the Changed, who would eat her alive.

Welcome to Shadows, the second book in the haunting apocalyptic Ashes Trilogy: where no one is safe and humans may be the worst of the monsters.

This has been such a difficult review to write. How do you express misgivings about a favorite author’s new book but still give it some much-deserved  love?

Following the intense pace of things happening to Alex and Tom is nearly exhausting, certainly unnerving in some parts. The Changed are not really zombies, but have many of their characteristics, so watching them becoming mentally aware and yet still inhuman is downright scary. Add to that the real menace presented by the religious cult as well as the brutal cold and snow and you have to wonder if you, the reader, would have any chance of survival, especially with the torture and other terrible, stomach-churning things going on. It’s a good thing a few of the characters still warrant our love—and love is what it is. Feeling what they go through is as bad as what we might suffer on behalf of our own family and friends in like circumstances, heaven forbid.

The first book, Ashes, was just marvelous and landed in my list of favorite books of 2011, but this one can’t be included in my 2012 list. Ms. Bick is well aware of the issues—she addresses them on her website in a lengthy synopsis/reminder of what happened in the first book and who the characters are. I understand the rationale behind just picking up where Ashes left off but, for me, it doesn’t work. It might have if (1) I had seen her post before reading Shadows and (2) the story had continued to focus on Alex and Tom, at least in the early chapters, but the author chose to throw in a LOT of new or lesser-known characters and geographic settings, plus the story is told from multiple points of view. The end result, for me, was a constant struggle to try to remember who certain people were and where the action was taking place (that’s important because of the efforts of people to get where they need to go). Even something as simple as a cast of characters would have made reading Shadows a lot easier and would have prevented much of the confusion.

Will this stop me from reading the next book, Monsters? Absolutely not because, in spite of everything that bothered me in Ashes, I still love the concept, the worldbuilding, the characters (yes, even the Changed, at least some of them) and Ms. Bick‘s impressive ability to put words together, not to mention craft images that linger a long, long time. What I’ll do next year is re-read the first two books before tackling the third—re-reads will be no chore, believe me—and hope that Monsters will be less confusing. So, yes, I do recommend this but read Ashes before you read Shadows, or read the author’s post on her website.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2012.

Book Review: Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

AshesAshes
Ilsa J. Bick
Egmont, September 2011
ISBN 978-1-60684-175-4
Hardcover (e-ARC)

Three young people, strangers to each other, band together along with a dog named Mina for survival in the Waucamaw Wilderness after an electromagnetic pulse has destroyed all electronic devices. Unknown to them, billions of people have died but teenaged Alex, eight-year-old Ellie and Tom, just back from Afghanistan, are faced with other horrors—wild dogs and crazed humans—as they hike in search of help.  Not everything is horrific, though, as Alex has regained her sense of smell, which she had lost to a brain tumor, and that sense has an unusual quality, one that has saved them multiple times. As days and then weeks pass, it becomes more evident that their world has changed permanently and not for the better.

Then they hear about a place where “normal” people have found refuge. Heading to the town called Rule appears to be the best solution, particularly after a violent encounter with a roving band of thieves. Rule, though, may not be the sanctuary it seems to be and Alex will have to find her own way back to sanity.

Post-apocalyptic fiction can be disturbing, fascinating, frightening, heroic and enlightening, regardless of the cause of the disaster, but Ms. Bick has brought a fresh element to this EMP-caused event. Readers are accustomed to the destruction of all things electronic but here we have direct effects on the humans who survive. The idea that there are essentially three classes of people—those with special senses, those who have turned extremely violent and all those who fall between—is very interesting and the author has done a nice job of creating and maintaining a high level of tension.  She also upends the reader’s grasp of the storyline by having a major event take place midway through the book and some readers will be discomfited by the sudden change while others will find it increases the stress and drama and makes the tale even more provoking. The book is longer than many young adult novels but the length is necessary for the story and my reading through the night is because of my own need to know what would happen next, always a sign of a good tale.

Ashes is the first book of a trilogy, to be followed by Shadows and Monsters, and this reviewer hates having to wait till next August or September for Shadows.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2011.