Book Review: Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates – plus, a global giveaway!

blackchalkTitle: Black Chalk
Author: Christopher J. Yates
Genre: Psychological thriller
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from the publisher for tour with TLC Book Tours
Number of pages: 343
First line: He phones early.

Goodreads blurb: One game. Six students. Five survivors.

It was only ever meant to be a game.

A game of consequences, of silly forfeits, childish dares. A game to be played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal, more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results.

Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round.

Wow. This book is quite the wild ride. I love psychological thrillers, love books set in the world of academia (especially in England), and I adore unreliable narrators when they are written well. Black Chalk has all of these elements in spades, and I simply couldn’t read fast enough. There are twists and turns that, for the most part, I didn’t see coming, and I was kept guessing right until the end.

While there are six friends involved in The Game, there are really two main characters: Jolyon and Chad. Because I don’t want to give away any of the delicious twisty-ness, I will just say that they are both fascinating, and the reader is never quite sure, until the very end, which one is the best player, the more powerful. Both of them have mysterious motives for playing the game, and their friendship is disturbing and dysfunctional in a way that makes for terrific fiction.

I do have one slight issue, though, that kept me from giving this book an unequivocal five-star rating, and that is the female characters. Compared to Jolyon and Chad, the two female participants in The Game are not as fleshed out and real, making them weaker players as well as characters. In fact, I am realizing that they didn’t stick with me at all, as I can’t remember their names without paging through my copy of the book.

That really is a minor quibble, though, about a book that makes for a completely engrossing and disconcerting-in-a-good-way read. I can’t wait to see what Yates comes up with next.

Read the first two chapters of Black Chalk

I am so excited about to have a copy of Black Chalk to give away to one of my readers – and this one is open to all readers, worldwide! Here are the details:

~ To enter, please leave me a comment and tell me about the best thriller or mystery you’ve read lately.

~ One entry per person, please.

~ All entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. PST, Friday April 11, 2014.

Good luck!

Posted in psychological thrillers, thrillers | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Reminder: The “I’ve Always Meant to Read That Book” Challenge – April read-along

In April, I am reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I hope you can join me!

Posted in read-alongs, reading challenges | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The “I’ve Always Meant to Read That Book!” Challenge: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

stateofwonderTitle: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Publisher: Harper
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from the public library
Number of pages: 353
First line: The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.

Goodreads blurb: As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness.

Books like State of Wonder are the reason I decided to continue this challenge in 2014. Because although I didn’t love every challenge read-along in 2013, there were a few that were breath-takingly good. And State of Wonder absolutely took my breath away.

Confession: I usually avoid books that are billed as “literary fiction.” Whenever I see that term, what I hear in my head is “a book more obsessed with pretty writing than with any plot development or movement.” I know that is not always the case, but it has been for many books that I’ve read in that genre, and so I developed a bad attitude. Well, this book slapped me right upside my bad attitude and proved to me that a book that is considered “literary fiction” can be beautifully written, and still be character-driven and have a page-turning plot.

There is so much to this book that I’m at a bit of a loss as to where to start. I think I’ll throw out some questions and hope that we get some good discussion started in the comments. Spoilers will be involved.

~ What did you think of Marina’s relationship with Mr. Fox?

I could NOT understand this aspect of Marina’s character. I almost wonder if it was a case of a person being at work so much that their only dating pool is coworkers and so they ended up together. I didn’t feel like he really loved her at all, especially with the way he treated her over sending her to Brazil and then demanding she stay. I guess an argument for love could be made because he came to Brazil after he stopped hearing from her, but I think he was more concerned with the work that Dr. Swenson was doing than he was with Marina’s well-being.

~ What did you think of Dr. Swenson?

I always end up wondering if people who are that brilliant, and that work-focused to the detriment of their relationships with others, are a little bit Asperger’s. And maybe that’s why they are so brilliant and so able to accomplish such great things. I found myself really disliking her as a person, but then thinking that I’m glad there are people like that in the world, because that’s who will eventually cure diseases. And, of course, we saw a bit of her softer side show up at the end, when Easter is gone….but then she recovers so quickly, simply assuming that he will find a way to come back to her. Did you notice that Marina didn’t even say goodbye to her?

~ Did you ever wonder if Marina would end up staying in the jungle?

I did. For a while, before Mr. Fox showed up, I was convinced she would probably end up staying. Yet it seemed that once she had gotten what she needed – and I mean the healing from the trauma in her past, not the info about the drug – she was ready to move on.

~ Were you as heart-broken over Easter as I was?

That scene completely gutted me. To know that he was feeling completely betrayed and confused, and that there was no way to explain to him what was going on….I start crying again just thinking about it. I truly hope that Dr. Swenson was right, and that he’ll find his way back to her and the other scientists. (See how much this book made me think of the characters are real people?)

~ The ending leaves things a bit up in the air. Any theories as to what happened to Marina?

Did you catch the part at the end where it said she had no craving to eat the bark anymore? She had been told by the other scientists that as soon as a woman became pregnant, she lost her craving for it, so I’m assuming that means she is now pregnant by Anders. Obviously, he is not going to leave Karen and his boys, so I think she’ll be raising the baby on her own. I also think she’ll leave pharmacology and go back to obstetrics. But that’s just my “I love a happy ending” opinion.

If you read State of Wonder this month, or at any time in the past, please leave your answers or other comments below. Or, if you choose to write your own review or post, leave the link below.

Posted in contemporary fiction, literary fiction, read-alongs, reading challenges | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Sunday Salon – March 30, 2014

sundaysalon2Time: 8:13 p.m., Saturday evening. Watching Dirty Harry with Dad.

Thankful for: Nineteen years of marriage! Tomorrow, Kevin and I celebrate our 19th anniversary. As anyone who has been married for long knows, a good marriage is a blessed thing, and is equal parts blissful, infuriating, instructive, comforting, and refining. I truly believe that God has used marriage to refine and change me more than any other thing in my life, with parenting coming in a close second. I am eternally grateful for every single year, the fantastic and the difficult, because they all add up to a pretty beautiful picture.

Secondly, I am thankful for generosity. We had two fund-raisers for RFKC today, and while we don’t have the total raised at our little one here in Chewelah, the bigger one up in Colville brought in over $5000. The speaker did a fantastic job telling stories from camp, stories of how one week can make a difference in the life of a child in the foster care system. Last year, there were over 200 camps, 190 of which occurred across the United States. Not only did the camps provide a safe place for the kids to spend a week of fun, but out of those camps, nearly 60 foster children were adopted into permanent homes. This is a cause I am continually grateful to be involved with. I hope you don’t get tired of hearing me gush about it, because I imagine I’m going to be pretty excited about it from now until later this summer. :)

Reading: Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and Circle of Flight by John Marsden

Recently finished reading: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, and The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Listening to: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater and A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

Watching: Last Sunday, we watched The Wolverine – Jonathan’s pick – for Family Movie Night. I enjoyed it, but thought the ending dragged on a bit too long. It made me very excited to see X-Men: Days of Future Past this summer. We’ve also been enjoying a new series called Growing Up Fisher – nice to find a comedy that we can watch as a family. Tonight is Josiah’s pick: Gravity. I took him to see it in the theater, and he can’t wait to share it with his brothers and dad.

Blogging recently:
~ Mini-reviews: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan and The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
~ Book Review: Going Over by Beth Kephart

Have you watched any good movies lately? Read any good books? Are you making any fun plans for the summer?

Posted in sunday salon | Tagged | 21 Comments

Mini-reviews: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan; One Hundred Names by Cecilia Ahern; and The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

dashandlilyTitle: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares
Author: Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Genre: YA contemporary fiction
Publisher: Ember
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
Number of pages: 260
First line: Imagine this: You’re in your favorite bookstore, scanning the shelves.

Goodreads blurb: Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on a favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept its dares. But is Dash that right guy? Or are Dash and Lily only destined to trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations across New York? Could their in-person selves possibly connect as well as their notebook versions? Or will they be a comic mismatch of disastrous proportions?

I loved this book! I haven’t read any of the other books that Cohn and Levithan wrote together (though I plan to soon!), but I am so glad that I decided to pick this one up. Dash and Lily are such wonderful characters, and the whole premise of an epistolary scavenger hunt through New York City was so much fun. Plus, who doesn’t love a book that features a famous bookstore as a major setting? This is an original story about those hard years when teens are still trying to figure out who they are to themselves, and who they are in relation to others. And yet, it isn’t completely angst-ridden; it is so funny that I had to stop reading it at night in bed, because my laughter was keeping Kevin awake.

onehundrednames2Title: One Hundred Names
Author: Cecilia Ahern
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: William Morrow
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from Library Thing
Number of pages: 496
First line: She was nicknamed The Graveyard.

Goodreads blurb: Journalist Kitty Logan’s career is being destroyed by scandal – and now she faces losing the woman who guided and taught her everything she knew. At her terminally ill friend’s bedside, Kitty asks – what is the one story she always wanted to write? The answer lies in a file buried in Constance’s office: a list of one hundred names. There is no synopsis, nothing to explain what the story is or who these people are. The list is simply a mystery. But before Kitty can talk to her friend, it is too late. With everything to prove, Kitty is assigned the most important task of her life: to write the story her mentor never had the opportunity to. Kitty not only has to track down and meet the people on the list, but find out what connects them. And, in the process of hearing ordinary people’s stories, she starts to understand her own.

Thanks for the Memories was a fantastic audiobook experience for me, both for the narration, and for Ahern’s writing. Because of that, I was really excited to read One Thousand Names, especially after learning the idea behind the list of names. Unfortunately, this book took a really long time to come together for me. Part of my problem was the character of Kitty; I found her completely unlikable for at least half of the book. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t comprehend the damage she had caused by writing a false article about someone. Some of her romantic choices had me simply shaking my head, as well as the way she handled certain obstacles in her life.

Then you have the list of names. Because she is trying to find one hundred people and discover their stories, the plot was quite scattered. It took a long time for it all to come together, and I found myself losing patience, wondering when things were finally going to fall into place. The last quarter of the book did keep me from completely disliking it, but wasn’t enough to make me give it a high recommendation.

weightofbloodTitle: The Weight of Blood
Author: Laura McHugh
Genre: Thriller
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher
Number of pages: 320
First line: That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body.

Goodreads blurb: The Dane family’s roots tangle deep in the Ozark Mountain town of Henbane, but that doesn’t keep sixteen-year-old Lucy Dane from being treated like an outsider. Folks still whisper about her mother, a bewitching young stranger who inspired local myths when she vanished years ago. When one of Lucy’s few friends, slow-minded Cheri, is found murdered, Lucy feels haunted by the two lost girls-the mother she never knew and the friend she couldn’t protect. Everything changes when Lucy stumbles across Cheri’s necklace in an abandoned trailer and finds herself drawn into a search for answers. What Lucy discovers makes it impossible to ignore the suspicion cast on her own kin. More alarming, she suspects Cheri’s death could be linked to her mother’s disappearance, and the connection between the two puts Lucy at risk of losing everything. In a place where the bonds of blood weigh heavy, Lucy must decide where her allegiances lie.

Oh, this book gave me the shudders. The Weight of Blood is a skillfully written, taut thriller that made me so tense as I read. It is one of those books in which the reader knows more than the main character, and there were so many times when I was reading that I wished I could warn Lucy! Even though the reader knows more than Lucy, this book has no shortage of suspense. The setting is a huge part of this book – I am always fascinated by the rural settings in the South and Midwest of the US. There is such an insular quality to the communities, and this makes for an almost stifling atmosphere in this particular story. Books like this are hard to review, because I never want to give too much away. You definitely want to read this one with as much of the plot unspoiled as possible. If you liked Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter or Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, then this should be your next read.

Posted in contemporary fiction, thrillers, YA fiction | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Book Review: Going Over by Beth Kephart

goingoverTitle: Going Over
Author: Beth Kephart
Genre: YA historical fiction
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher
Number of pages: 264
First line: We live with ghosts.

Goodreads blurb: In the early 1980s Ada and Stefan are young, would-be lovers living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall–Ada lives with her mother and grandmother and paints graffiti on the Wall, and Stefan lives with his grandmother in the East and dreams of escaping to the West.

I grew up in a movie-loving house. In fact, my dad is the biggest movie buff I’ve ever met, and his DVD collection is in the hundreds – at least. I’ve never actually counted. Though I could easily find out, as my tech-hating dad bought an iPod specifically because he could download an app to catalog his DVD collection. (He has since found out that it is also a wonderful way to listen to audiobooks, but that is another story.) When I was growing up, we were the first family I knew to own a VCR, and we would head to our local VHS rental store and rent the same videos over and over again, because the selection was so small. One of the videos we watched several times growing up, and which I particularly loved, was the movie Night Crossing, about two families who attempt to escape East Germany in a hot air balloon. I’ve been fascinated with stories of people escaping over the wall ever since.

That fascination was enough to get me very excited about reading a book about wall-separated teenage sweethearts. Combine the premise with author Beth Kephart’s beautiful word artistry, and you have a book that is pure gold. I am not exaggerating, as I gobbled it up, and my mother is now reading it as voraciously as I did.

Beth’s writing is poetic – I’m sure you’ve heard that before – but it is also completely unique to her. The style is so different from most other things I read that I am immediately drawn into the world of her books. The wordcraft makes the reading experience much more immediate, as if I could see and taste and touch and hear the things that the characters experience. When I read, I felt I was living in Berlin with Ada and Stefan.

One thing I truly appreciated as I read is that Beth avoided the stereotype that everything in the East is horrible and everything in West Berlin is wonderful. Ada, who lives on the western side of the wall, has a hard life. She lives in a squatters’ apartment with a mother who is continually looking for love from the wrong men, and a grandmother who is stuck in her memories of the war. Stefan, and the hope that one day he will escape over the wall and they will be together, is what keeps her going.

Stefan is also living with his grandmother, and with his guilt. When he was a child, his grandfather disappeared during an escape attempt, and Stefan’s much younger mind was convinced it was his fault. This guilt, and the fear brought on by the knowledge of past escapees’ fates, are what makes the decision so gut-wrenching. To cross over, and maybe be killed in the attempt? To leave his aging grandmother alone in her grief? To be with Ada? Or to stay, knowing that the quarterly visits from Ada will soon no longer be enough for either of them?

Stefan and Ada’s stories are propelled by their love for each other, but this book is so much more than a teenage romance. Each of them has reason to test their courage, to test their resolve, to test their determination to go on living and fighting and hoping when things are looking their most desperate. I absolutely loved this book. I wish I could press a copy into each of your hands, that is how much I believe you will love it, too.

Posted in historical fiction, YA fiction | Tagged , | 19 Comments

The Sunday Salon – March 23, 2014

sundaysalon2Time: 7:18 p.m., Saturday evening. Sitting in the living room, where Dad is watching the Agatha Christie movie Ten Little Indians, and Mom is working on a jigsaw puzzle.

Thankful for: Old/new friends! My time meeting Carol was a pure delight. Anyone observing us talking and laughing and talking and talking and laughing some more would have thought that we’ve been friends for years. And I guess we have! Any doubt as to whether or not you can truly get to know someone online is gone; Carol was just as I knew she would be: open and friendly and interesting and real. Her husband was also a delight to talk to, and I only wished I had thought to bring Kevin, because I know he would have enjoyed getting to visit with Curt. I am so glad that they have friends who have moved to this area – friends who I am excited to get to know! Curt and Carol assured me they will be up to visit more often, and I know we will have many more get-togethers in our future.

Looking forward to: Spring Break! It has been a busy couple of weeks, and I still have two to go, but I am definitely ready for things to slow down some. I have a feeling that most things aren’t going to slow down until camp is done in June, but even just taking school off my plate for one week will be nice.

Reading: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan and The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Recently finished reading: Going Over by Beth Kephart (review to go up sometime this week), and The Frangipani Hotel: Stories by Violet Kupersmith (tour date April 3rd)

Listening to: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater and A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

Watching: Ender’s Game was a huge hit last week; every member of the family enjoyed it. I was particularly impressed with how faithfully they adapted the book. (Unlike The Giver – has anyone else seen that travesty of a trailer?!) Mom and Dad and I have also been dipping into the new series Resurrection, which is intriguing, and has some good potential. And Dad and I and the boys are trying to get caught up with The Walking Dead – we’re about twelve episodes behind!

Blogging recently:
~ “Today” by Billy Collins
~ The Kindle (and other e-book formats) edition of 3500: An Autistic Boy’s Ten-Year Romance With Snow White by Ron Miles is on sale for 99 cents. The last day is today, so don’t miss out!
~ Mini-reviews: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau and Death by Living: Life is Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson

What are you thankful for, looking forward to, reading, listening to, watching, blogging these days?

Posted in sunday salon | Tagged | 20 Comments

“Today” by Billy Collins

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden sprouting tulips

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

Posted in poetry | Tagged | 6 Comments