Category Archives: Book Reviews

2014 Whitney Awards: Middle Grade Finalists

I feel fortunate to be the one writing about the Middle Grade Whitney finalists, because there’s not a bad book in the bunch– all five were delightful and interesting in their own (quite varied) ways. Here’s the recap:

Marion Jensen’s Almost Super is the kind of book that epitomizes a middle grade novel for me. The story centers on Rafter and Benny Bailey, of the famous Bailey superhero family, who will get their superpowers at 4pm on the first February 29th after their twelfth birthdays. They’ve spent their entire lives dreaming of this moment, and they’re totally underwhelmed when those superpowers do arrive (the ability to light polyester on fire doesn’t often come in handy in hand to hand combat). The boys worry that their family is going to go down against the cross-town rivals, the Johnsons, especially since it appears that Juanita, their nemesis, has all the powers. But the three kids come together to heal rifts and ferret out the real bad guys behind the scenes. This book is witty and entertaining and has a great message, and although it’s a perfect stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Rafter, Benny and Juanita.

I usually don’t have many good things to say about the second book in a dystopian action trilogy, but Peggy Eddleman’s Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats is an exception to my (highly prejudiced) rule. In this book, the bomb’s breath that threatens White Rock is descending, and Hope, Brock, and Aaren leave their home in Kansas to travel to the Rocky Mountains in an effort to find an antidote to the poison that will soon overtake them. The book has plenty of action and adventure, but my favorite part of the story was Hope’s relationship with her birth family, whom she discovered along the way. I think it’s common for authors to develop characters in their first novels, but I loved seeing Hope’s character change in important ways in The Forbidden Flats.

The first book in Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy, The False Prince, was one of those books that was so good I think I bored all of my friends by talking about and demanding that they read it too. The character development was lovely, the descriptions of the setting were right on target, and the plot twist at the end of the story had me thinking Nielsen was a genius. I think that in some way that set my expectations too high for the other books in the trilogy. While The Shadow Throne brings the trilogy to an ultimately satisfying conclusion, I found myself unable to recapture the thrill I felt while reading the first book in the series.

This year the Whitney finalists included two books by Kimberley Griffiths Little, The Time of the Fireflies and Forbidden (in the YA category), and both books are gems. The Time of the Fireflies is the story of Larissa Renaud, who lives above her family’s antique shop on a Louisiana bayou. Larissa isn’t scared by much in the shop, except for the doll whose eyes seem to follow her. Then the phones in a wall of disconnected phones start ringing, delivering messages for Larissa, who realizes that she must travel to the past to secure her family’s future. The book is beautifully written with scenes spanning several centuries, and the themes of family love and bullying resonate with her intended audience. The story is also delightfully creepy, and may keep readers’ lights on for a few nights after they finish the book.

 My top pick of the category is undoubtedly Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. The seven students at Saint Etheldreda’s School for Girls are enjoying their Sunday dinner when suddenly their headmistress and her brother drop dead at the dinner table. The girls see this fortuitous event as their ticket to freedom, and decide to bury the bodies in the vegetable garden rather than inform the authorities, who will surely return them to their parents. However, keeping their headmistress’s demise a secret and fending off a murderer becomes more work than they had bargained for. While the book takes place in the Victorian Era, these girls (Pocked Louisa, Stout Alice, Dull Martha, Smooth Kitty, Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane and Dour Elinor) have spirit to spare. They recognize that the death of Mrs. Plackett might lead to the most freedom they would have in their lives. This is a darkly tongue-in-cheek book that gets all of the details right, and also has a lot more heart than I expected it would when I started reading. I enjoyed it more and more as the story wore on, and was happy to see a satisfying conclusion, with lots of girl power.

2014 Whitney Awards: Romance Finalists

When I first started reading books for the Whitney Awards about half a decade ago, I was enthusiastic about the general fiction books and the young adult books (that’s back in the old days when there was a single YA category). I had a healthy respect for speculative fiction, and a degree of scorn for the romances. Yeah, I was one of those people who thought she was too serious a reader to enjoy romance novels. However, over the last few years, my attitude has changed. Once I understood the form of the genre and was willing to go with it rather than buck its conventions, I started to enjoy the category more and more. In fact, “reading the romance” (also the title of a fascinating book by Janice Radway) has become one of the things I look forward to most with each Whitney cycle. This year was no different, and here’s why.

This year there are three “historical romances” among the finalists, and two contemporary romances. For the last three years, historical romances have taken the prize, and they seem to be enjoying a heyday at the moment. This might be because Mormon authors and Mormon readers generally want to read “clean” books, and historical romances, which often feature aristocratic or highborn characters, tend to follow old-fashioned courting rituals, and there’s no expectation that sex and swearing will be part of the book, even if the characters aren’t Mormon (by the way, only one of the five finalists features overtly Mormon characters this year).  Continue reading

2014 Whitney Awards: Mystery/Thriller Finalists

Blood on the Water: A William Monk Novel by Anne Perry (Ballantine, Sept. 2014)

The setting for Blood on the Water, is, like the other books in the William Monk series, Victorian London. When a pleasure boat full of partyers explodes on the Thames, taking nearly 200 people to their deaths, William Monk assumes that, as commander of the River Police, he will have to investigate this disaster. To his surprise and disappointment, the case is handed instead to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who quickly labels the event a crime and captures, tries and sentences the ne’r-do-well Egyptian Habib Beshara to death. When Monk proves that Beshara was elsewhere at the time of the blast, the case – now in shambles – is handed to Monk.

With the assistance of his brilliant wife Hester and long-time friend Rathbone, Monk endeavors to sort out the complexities of the disaster. Was it in some way connected to the construction of the Suez Canal, certain to be a boon to wealthy British shipping companies? Was the explosion intended to senselessly kill innocent people or were they collateral damage in an effort to murder one specific person? How and when was the bomb planted and by whom? Was there a motive or was this the work of a madman?

International intrigue seems afoot. Monk’s investigations are stonewalled by the rich and powerful. In the confusion and complexities of his inquiries Monk senses he may be the next victim. Continue reading

2014 Whitney Awards: Young Adult Finalists

I’m pretty open about the fact that I love young adult fiction, both as a reader and as a writer.  I know the same is true for a lot of my friends, largely because books written for teens are less likely to include gratuitous sex scenes and excessive violence (though this is changing, particularly in edgier books geared at older teens). But I think there are other compelling reasons to read young adult literature.

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As Sarah Burnes (a literary agent at the Gernert Co.) wrote for the Parisian Review:

When I read YA and children’s fiction, I feel knit together with the person I was and who I am, still, becoming. It feels, in Gilligan’s words about girls’ relationships, like a “continuing connection” with my past internal selves—especially my reading selves, my favorite selves.

I like too, what Neil Gaiman says about reading for pleasure (which is where most YA books fall for me):

And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

I think this year’s Whitney finalists for young adult literature (non-speculative) do just that: they provide a window on the world, they allow readers to experience (or re-experience) the pleasures and pains peculiar to being a teenager, and (mostly) they offer hope.

Continue reading

2014 Whitneys: General Fiction Finalists

This is a short review/synopsis of the 2014 Whitney General finalists. This year four of the five books seemed more inspirational, and that’s not my favorite genre, so I will tell you up front I’m not the best reader for these books. I have even wondered if the Whitneys should have a separate category devoted entirely to inspirational fiction, so that the General category can be about stories that have no message attached. So if you love inspirational books (or if you wrote them), take my thoughts with a grain of salt (or don’t read them at all). I’m not in your intended audience, but I’ll say my piece anyway.

On to the books, which I’ve sorted alphabetically by author:
plentiful rainA Plentiful Rain, by Elizabeth Bentley. This is the story of Ellis, a Mormon intellectual who has avoided marriage and commitment for many years, but decides to brave the waters of the older singles scene again when his sister and father both get engaged. Initially attracted to the gorgeous Cassandra, he finds that her younger, recovering alcoholic sister has more depth and kindness to her. Continue reading