Brace Yourself! (a review)

December 7th, 2022

There came a point in reading Keely Parrack’s YA thriller Don’t Let in the Cold (Sourcebooks) that I found myself huddled under a blanket. Yes, I was dressed for winter. Yes, the heater in the house functioned just fine. It was…

Wait. I should give you a little plot here.

Seventeen-year-old Lottie is being deposited at a remote house in Tahoe to hang out with her new and yet-unmet stepsister while her mother and Jade’s father go off on a one-night honeymoon. Lottie does not want to be here but, truly, what could go that wrong? What does go wrong starts with the intrusion of Alex, a cute but suspicious boy; a massive, regional power outage; and the appearance of two guys in a red pickup. Everything feels totally off to Lottie, who should have trusted her inner alarm. For good reason. When an unexpected blizzard hits, she, Jade, and Alex are totally cut off from the world, a fire destroys the house, and not only do they find themselves in a battle of survival against the elements, but also against the two guys in the red pickup who are hunting them down. And not for polite conversation.

In hindsight, these characters make an ill-advised choice to leave the area of the house, but given the circumstances (more than what I’ve already mentioned), we all might do the same. The really great thing here, as readers, we are in good hands with Keely Parrack’s grasp on white-out conditions and what it takes to survive. Or die.

As the characters traipse blindly through the blizzard to find refuge, nothing I can write will allow you to feel the true, bone-depth freezing dangers they face. So, let me suggest that you brew up a vat of a hot beverage of choice, grab a blanket, and read what might have been a buddy road trip story if it weren’t so chilling…in all the ways.

Full disclosure: Don’t Let in the Cold, along with a wonderful selection of thrillers, was sent to me by my publisher. (This was the first I’ve read.) And while it happens that one of my editors worked on the book, this isn’t a case of me sucking up. To balance that, I will say, Don’t Let in the Cold had me a little lost at moments (which, truly, could have been me reading faster and faster to warm up), but understand that I do not review books unless I truly believe they’re worth your time. So…
Bottom line: blanket, hot beverage, read.

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@Barrie Summy

Murder, Anyone?

September 7th, 2022
Fun at Gare du Nord in Paris. I did not murder anyone.

While I prefer to talk about books that might not make it to your radar, this time I’m going against that grain. It’s been a very busy travel summer—long plane rides, solid downtime, an unexpected 7.5-hour delay in a Paris train station. So, knowing the unpredictability of transportation, I chose to travel with a couple of sure things to keep me occupied and distracted. THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB did both perfectly.

Now, be warned:
Our main characters live in a retirement village.
The four of them are some of the most charming, interesting, quirky, real characters you may come up against. Their interactions are priceless and read more like a suspenseful sitcom than anything else.

Not surprising.
The author, Richard Osman, is a TV vet—producer of Deal or No Deal for British network Channel 4, creator and host of quiz and comedy shows for the BBC—and is an all-around personality. That personality shines in what’s currently a three-book series about near-octogenarians who originally came together to play at solving cold police cases. Now, however, someone in their community has been murdered, and they have the best vantage point and insider knowledge to try and solve a real crime before things get even more dire.

Simple premise, yes. But I read the second book (THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE) and plan to read the third (THE BULLET THAT MISSED) just to hang out with the characters and delight in some of the most fun dialogue. I encourage you to meet:
Elizabeth, the group leader who, clearly, has hard-boiled investigative experience.
Ron, the former union activist with an untrusting, toughness except when it comes to the other three.
Ibriham, the retired psychiatrist who may be quiet and reticent, but has a thirst for knowledge that can speak loudly.
Joyce who, in her own journal-type chapters, shows us her penchant for shopping and baking and pop culture (and has an hysterical Instagram bit in book #2). This former nurse may seem ditzy, but her different way of thinking has its merits.

THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB series may be the perfect summer read—light and breezy and thoroughly engaging—but it’s also perfect if you’re not ready to move into fall. Or, if you want something to cozy up to in winter. Or, if spring…

In other words, take this post not so much as a book review but more of a recommendation for those times when you’re ready to hang out with this fun and quirky foursome.

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@Barrie Summy

A Cup of Murder, Anyone?

April 6th, 2022

Sometimes, you need to settle in with a cozy book and maybe a cup of tea. Or a fast read to make your flight (I took a flight!) speed by. Enter Pride and Premeditation (Harper Teen, 2021) by Tirzah Price, a fun spin on – you guessed it – Pride and Prejudice. And that’s exactly the book you’d start with if you were beginning a Jane Austen Murder Mystery series.

This version of P&P has 17-year-old Elizabeth Bennet wanting, more than anything, to join her father’s law office and present a case in court. Ah, but that’s not what young women were expected to do in the day. Even so, her father agrees: convince him of her capabilities, and he might be swayed to hire her.

And so she sets out to do just that with the case of a Mr. Bingley, who has been accused of murdering his brother-in-law. Elizabeth is determined to prove his innocence but to stay on the case, she must contend with Bingley’s good friend and family attorney, Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a fun whodunit, filled with danger and desire and with all the characters you love and hate from Jane Austen’s classic.

Ah, the characters! Tirzah Price has done a wonderful job capturing the spirit and voice of each and, at the same time, manages to make this an ultra-approachable read even for those who shy away from older literature. And while this book may be more fun if you are familiar with Pride and Prejudice, in no way is that a prerequisite for enjoying it.

Do understand that you may need to suspend your knowledge of Regency-era facts. The author admittedly took liberties with the time period to allow the plot to play out. Her note at the end of the book explains it all.

If you turn out to be a fan of this book, #2 in the series, Sense and Second-Degree Murder came out yesterday (4/5/2022).
I will be picking this up in time for my next flight.

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8 1 12 6 . 1 . 2 15 15 11 . 18 5 22 9 5 23

February 2nd, 2022

If you like solving things – yet, even if you don’t – it may soon dawn on you that you can read the title of the entry when you use your most basic substitution code. Yes, 1=A, 2=B, 3=C…

Feel free to stop and “read” it or skip right below the picturs for an instant translation. Either way works.

So why is this “Half A Book Review”? Let’s start with the book above, CODE GIRLS: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy. (Note: it’s adult non-fiction.) I read this in 2019 when long summer vacations with airline flights and multiple cities in fun locations were still a thing. This enthralling account, just as the title indicates, relates how the U.S. government found, recruited, and used the skills of brilliant women to help shorten the war and save lives. Think of it as another true “Hidden Figures” story, one of those books where you want to turn to the person next to you and say, “Listen to this!” The story is that amazing.

Some time after I read CODE GIRLS, I caught a PBS episode in their American Experience series: THE CODEBREAKER: Wife. Mother. Secret American Hero. I wanted dto hear more about one particular woman who was especially important to the effort. So, I’m watching, and suddenly the scene cuts to an historian giving a piece of information. “Amy?” Yes, it was Amy Butler Greenfield, someone I’ve “known” through online groups and social media for years.

That’s when her new YA came onto my radar: THE WOMAN ALL SPIES FEAR: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life. This book instantly went onto my TBR list, but it’s had to take a back seat to looming deadlines and other life stuff. Just because I’ve needed to delay my reading, doesn’t mean you need to. Or will want to. This is the type of true story that’ll read like fiction. And in Amy’s capable hands…well, I can’t wait to start poring through the pages. I just know it’ll have me turning to the person next to me and saying, “Listen to this!”

NOTE: Instead of a real review, I’ll leave you with this official description.
In the summer of 1916, a young English major set out to solve a mystery about Shakespeare. It involved a rare book, a strange millionaire, and the secret world of codes and ciphers. Within a year, she transformed herself into one of America’s top code breakers — and that was only the beginning of her brilliant career.

During World War I, Elizebeth Smith Friedman cracked thousands of messages and trained Army officers in cryptology. In the 1920s, she foiled the plans of mobsters and confronted them in court. By the late 1930s, she was one of the most famous code breakers in the world. In World War II, she hunted Nazi spies.

A woman of many secrets, she was later pushed into the shadows. To discover her full story, you must delve deep, the way a code breaker would, searching for the truth that lies just out of sight.

In this biography, acclaimed historian Amy Butler Greenfield tells the riveting tale of this overlooked American heroine — a real-life adventure, mystery, and love story.

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I Might Never Have Picked It Up If…

November 3rd, 2021

…if it hadn’t been next in my to-be-read pile. Here’s how this book got there:
When this whole quarantine business started, I asked a local bookseller to gather a group of middle grade titles together for curbside pick-up, books that might have flown under my radar. I got that stack home, however, and I discovered that my COVID escape was not in reading, but in writing… and writing… and writing some more. To each our own, right?

Once again, I’m happy to report that I’m finding great pleasure in reading. And gradually, I’m going through my stack. That’s where THE UNSUNG HERO OF BIRDSONG, USA by Brenda Woods comes in.

It’s Gabriel’s 12th birthday, and along with it comes “a brand-spanking-new Schwinn Autocycle Deluxe with a built-in electric light”. He heads to his friend’s house to show it off but is so distracted by thoughts of how amazing he must look, he runs a red light. In horror, he can only watch as an oncoming car will inevitably hit him. The next thing he knows, though, he’s been pushed to safety by someone named Meriwether. Thus starts a friendship between a white boy and a Black man in 1946 South Carolina. And this starts a powerful story of how the two of them, working in Gabriel’s dad’s auto shop, form a deepening relationship which, at its height, reveals to Gabriel the ugliness of prejudice and, therefore, why it’s so dangerous for Meriwether to talk about his acts of heroism during World War II.

As a New York Times review put it, “[Brenda] Woods casts a much-needed spotlight on the history of African-American troops in World War II, including the all-black 761st Tank Battalion.” But it’s not just the story that will have you mesmerized. Brenda Woods’ voice and sincerity in this Coretta Scott King Honor Book will grab you by the shoulders and lay claim to your heart through to the very end and beyond.

Thanks again to The Novel Neighbor for introducing me to this must-read. Otherwise, I might never have picked it up.

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Luckily… (a review)

September 8th, 2021

Here it is. A book that was SO written for me!
There’s mystery, intrigue, tons of WHAT THE #@*$ for the main character. Oh, and puzzles! It’s a book I would have read and reread as a kid, and I would reread it now, but my To Be Read pile is stacked way too high. Luckily …

Wait. First, let me tell you about THE INHERITANCE GAMES by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

High school junior Avery Grambs, whose mother has died and whose father is out of the picture, lives with her older half sister … or she occasionally lives in her ancient Pontiac when her sister’s abusive boyfriend come to stay. Avery’s strategy – in between shifts at the diner to make ends meet – is to get good enough grades to secure a college scholarship, study actuarial sciences (the closest she can come to major in both poker and math), and carve a better life for herself.

But everything changes when a stranger in Texas – far from Connecticut – dies, and leaves her $46.2 billion… IF she can live for a full year in his enormous, multi-winged mansion with shrouded secrets, hidden passageways, enigmatic messages. And especially with the Hawthorne family, who both expected to be the rightful heirs to the fortune and who suspect that Avery has pulled some sort of con job. It’s Avery’s new focus to find out why her, what it will take to stay there, and what it will take to stay alive.

I love THE INHERITANCE GAMES for its twisty characters, puzzling challenges, and impending sense of mortal danger. (Did I mention Avery has a bodyguard?) And for so many page-turning details and discoveries that launch you from one chapter to the next. I shouldn’t be surprised. Jennifer Lynn Barnes is becoming a favorite of mine for that very reason.

Now, typically, I wouldn’t review a book that’s already been a New York Times Bestseller, but I’m doing it today because of that word I left dangling – LUCKILY. Luckily, there’s a sequel to this book. THE HAWTHORNE LEGACY hit the shelves just yesterday. My copy is waiting for me at The Novel Neighbor. But I’m not allowing myself to pick it up until I meet my editor’s revision deadline. Once I do, clear the decks and leave me alone. I’ll be reading about Avery, her sister, the four Hawthorne grandsons, the games, and all those billions.

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First Up in My Genre of Choice

February 3rd, 2021

Growing up, I couldn’t get enough Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown…
Then, because YA wasn’t yet a big thing, I launched directly into Agatha Christie and continued to gobble up a huge variety of mysteries and thrillers.

So, I’ve been asked, if I’ve always gravitated toward those genres, why don’t I write in them? Honestly, I didn’t dare. I couldn’t possibly have the chops to pull off such stories.
But that was then.

Now, it’s another story. I’ve summoned enough courage to try my hand at writing one. Due diligence, however, starts with reading. And my recent mystery/thriller reading started with THE NATURALS (Little Brown) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

In this, book #1 of the series, 17-year-old Cassie Hobbes is recruited by the FBI to be part of a classified, cold-case-solving program comprised of kids with natural crime-solving skills. Chosen for her ability to make spot-on conclusions from seemingly inconsequential details, Cassie is, in essence, a natural-born profiler. Moving into the house with other kids whose talents are as unique as her own, Cassie is driven by the hope of solving a personal cold case, her mother’s disappearance and probable murder. As she goes through her training, veering off-task for her own benefit, circumstances turn dangerous, and she finds that everyone in the program has secrets, some much more lethal than others.

While officially billed as The Mentalist meets Pretty, Little Liars, The Naturals first grabbed me with its evolution/process story, leading me through the FBI’s first contact with Cassie to her being part of the group. In that regard, it reminded me of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, which I read long, long before I even considered the possibility of writing a thriller of my own. There are twists, there are turns, there is everything you expect in a thriller. And if you fully guess the ending, you’re a smarter person that I am.

The Naturals is a very fast read with unique characters that will have you wanting to follow them into book #2. Beyond that, through books 3-5? Time will tell. But if I were betting, we’re headed all the way to the end. Oh, and I just heard about Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ latest and supposedly greatest, The Inheritance Games. Excuse me while I beg my bookseller to get it to me fast.

One more thing. Click the link below for other February reviews.

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@Barrie Summy

ICYMI…You’ll Want to Find It Now

December 9th, 2020

The particulars of what you’re reading happened because of this Facebook post. Above the picture, it says, “My current TBR pile. What should I start first?”

I’d been leaning toward FINDING LANGSTON by Lesa Cline-Ransome because at 104 pages, I could inhale it in one day. That fit my current mood. And a recommendation in the Facebook comments sealed the deal.

Even before I opened to the first page, I had no intention of reviewing Finding Langston. Books with two stickers* on their covers have already received much greater attention than I can give. When I finished reading, I thanked the person who recommended it, agreed it was a beautiful book, and that would have been that if not for a subsequent comment. Another friend — one without kids and without ties to the kidlit world — bought it and read it and loved it on the basis of that brief exchange. Then it dawned on me. Why wouldn’t I share such a beautiful book with those who might never have heard of it before? So, I’m sharing.

Langston, our main character, dreams about being back home in rural Alabama. That’s where his family is. His friends. The food he loves. That’s where life was seemingly easy. But following the death of his mother, his father joined the post-WWII Northern Migration and moved the two of them deep inside urban Chicago, where everything is hard, from making unburnt toast to his grouchy neighbor to the bullies at school. In escaping the nasty trio one day, he runs out the back of the schoolyard and finds himself in front of a library. The only library he’d ever seen back home was for whites only. When Langston steps inside and finds he’s welcome there, he also finds he’s one step closer to a whole new set of dreams.

This is a beautiful book, both in its writing and in its story. When I turned the last page, I wanted to spend more time with Langston, but I also knew this was just the right ending. Then…I discovered some great news. The companion book LEAVING LYMON came out last January and the third in the trilogy BEING CLEM is scheduled to release next summer. And you know, I’ll be revisiting that world soon.

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*Scott O’Dell Award and Coretta Scott King Honor Book

Speaking for Coo

November 11th, 2020

Dear Teachers, Librarians, Parents;
Dear Aunts, Uncles, Friends;
Dear Anyone In a Position to Influence the Children of this World,

It’s a book. It’s a main character.
It’s also pigeon-speak.
In sum, they tell a wonderful, beautiful, engrossing story that’s also extraordinarily suited to help people of all ages — ALL ages — understand the concept of empathy even more deeply than they suspect they already do.

COO by Kaela Noel (HarperCollins/Greenwillow 2020)

Imagine coming to a civilization where language and habits and habitats – everything you take for granted in daily life – are very foreign from yours. That’s what Coo must do.

Where has she come from?
Before I answer, I urge you to suspend your disbelief.

As an infant, Coo’s mother left her on a factory doorstep. The pigeons that lived on the rooftop above were so concerned for the human child that they lifted her up to their home and continued to care for her. They would scavenge for “clothes” and food and every necessity to help her survive. One day, however, Coo’s closest pigeon ally was injured. For the first time, 10-year-old Coo must go into the human world to seek out the one person who might be able to save him. And so begins – for sometimes worse, but mostly better – Coo’s life with beings like her.

I’ve said this before, but books with animals, well, they’re not my thing. Before bookstores were open for browsing again, however, I trusted the wonderful Melissa Posten at The Novel Neighbor to choose a variety of middle grade books for me. And there it sat in its stack. Finally, reminding myself of Melissa’s excellent taste, I opened COO. Then, I barely put it down, as much for the story as for my fascination of Kaela Noel’s artistry, giving us a master class in empathy, one that’s subtle in many regards, but powerful at every turn.

I don’t know if Kaela Noel intended for this to be an immigrant story, but at its heart, that’s exactly what it is as it highlights so many different facets of that experience. Regardless, this is a must-read of the year, a story you’ll want to pass on to any children in your life.

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No Matter the Title: A Review

October 7th, 2020
Don’t let the title scare you 🙂

I was at a writing conference years ago when Lisa Yee and I met. It promised to be one of those fleeting moments. It was just me in line to have her sign my book. She paused to let me know about about a thing we had in common. Since then, our paths have crossed at numerous conferences, and starting with her Millicent Min series, I’ve forever been a fan. Except (and sorry, Lisa, if you’re reading this) I long ignored one book. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around its title. I won’t go into the reasons – that’s not the point of this post – but I wouldn’t have the book cover on my site unless I really loved The Kidney Hypothetical Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days  (Scholastic/Levine).

Higgs Boson Bing leads a perfect existence. He’s poised to be his class’s valedictorian, has the ideal girlfriend, an acceptance letter to Harvard, and a sure-thing career as a dentist in his father’s successful practice. There’s just one thing he doesn’t have: the “right” answer to a hypothetical question. If I needed a kidney, his girlfriend asks during a senior class day-cruise, would you give me one of yours? That’s when Higgs rocks the boat and refuses to say what she wants to hear. Now, his girlfriend won’t talk to him, his best buddy has been banned from being his friend, his nemesis on the debate team has ambushed him, and that’s just the start. Suddenly, Higgs needs to question every little thing in his life, especially whether his future, once set for smooth sailing, is what he really wants.

I loved this book on two levels. As a reader, quite simply, this is a funny, quirky, utterly honest YA that explores the meaning of living an authentic life.

As a writer, I came away inspired to be braver in dealing harshly with my main characters. For the record, I read much of this story squinting through my fingers, not wanting more horrors to befall our hero. But they came and they came and they came and they came. And while I, personally, have a hugely hard time putting my characters into ugly and unwise predicaments, The Kidney Hypothetical, like no other book, convinced me to be meaner to them. It made the ending that much more rewarding.

So thank you, Lisa, for a fun, perfectly uncomfortable, honest, squirm-inducing, completely satisfying read. Sorry it took so long. I’ll be first in line to buy your next book, no matter the title.

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(As always, thanks to Barrie Summy for organizing her awesome book review club.)