Alternate Side

Alternate Side

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen (Literary Fiction/Women’s Contemporary Fiction)

Alternate Side is a character-driven slice-of-life story, the type at which Anna Quindlen excels. You get to know her people as though they were friends. As with most of us, their lives have moments of drama among mostly no-big-deal daily stuff, but because you know these people, you’re interested. If, perchance, you can identify with them and their problems, all the better.

Nora Nolan and her husband, Charlie, live in a closely knit New York City neighborhood of comfortably rich people with housekeepers and a shared handyman. They all know each other, socialize at catered neighborhood events, but are not quite friends. In other words, they don’t bare their hearts to one another. Still, they care about each other, and when something happens to one, the others come to help.

After nearly thirty years together, Nora and Charlie have grown apart. Their twins are graduating from college and moving on with their lives, leaving an empty nest. While Nora loves New York City life, Charlie wants to move to a warm climate where he can golf year-round. She has a job she enjoys; he’s not all that happy in his. Little things he does are starting to annoy her. He’s threatened by the possibility that she will take a new position with status greater than his. When an act of violence rocks the neighborhood, she and he see the incident very differently.

Having grown up in a friendly Midwestern neighborhood where block parties were common, I could identify with the measured camaraderie among neighbors. And being of a certain age, I could understand how Nora and Charlie felt. This story also deals with race relations, class privilege, and what are often referred to as first-world problems, yet refrains from passing judgment. If you are looking for fast-paced action , mystery, or romance, this book is not for you. But if you enjoy fine writing, Alternate Side is that.

Grandma gives Alternate Side five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Alternate Side will be released on March 20, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

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False River

False River

False River by H.G. Reed (Fantasy/Paranormal)

Joe Lawson has sold his soul to the devil, who takes on human form as a seductive young woman known as Ellie May. Joe did so out of love ten years ago, to save the life of his wife-to-be, Catherine, and now Ellie May is back. She has a new, terrible demand he dare not refuse if he hopes to protect Catherine and their young daughter, Madeline.

What Joe doesn’t know is that his town is full of Others — angels and archangels who are aware of his predicament and there to help, if only he will ask. Once he does, angels and demons take up sides to do battle in his front yard, with the fate of Joe’s family riding on the outcome.

Having read the excellent archangel novel Fall From Grace by J. Edward Ritchie, I was intrigued with the premise of this one. The execution, however, was a disappointment.

Joe Lawson is a pretty tedious guy. He can’t really feel love without a soul, and so he hasn’t been a great husband or dad. The family farm — an apple orchard, of course — is dying in the throes of a drought, and he has given up hope of holding on much longer. He mulls over his desperate situation again and again, paralyzed by his lousy luck, making no progress whatsoever. Meanwhile, Catherine is not a sympathetic character; we never see her as anything other than angry at Joe. The archangels have their moments, but overall — with the exception of Gabriel and a brief cameo by an unlikeable Michael — they are pretty flat. The one lively, well-rounded character is the devil, Ellie May. She’s witty and unerringly evil. She knows why she hates mankind, and she is the one character we truly understand.

There’s inference that Madeline’s existence holds something akin to messianic importance for the future, but that is never explained. A sequel in the making, perhaps? Overall, with more inspired writing and the injection of a personality for Joe, this could have been a fun read, but mostly I was counting the pages until it ended.

Grandma gives False River three stars. 3 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

We Own the Sky

We own the Sky

We Own the Sky by Sara Crawford (Fantasy/Paranormal)

Although this isn’t classified as Young Adult, the 16-year-old protagonist, Sylvia, her personal demons, and her knowledge of contemporary music make this an interesting, although sometimes dark, read for fans of Young Adult fiction.

Sylvia comes from a dysfunctional family, suffers from depression, and has been institutionalized for attempted suicide — facts that estrange her from most of the kids in her Marietta, Georgia, high school. She questions her own sanity because of the “flickering people” only she can see, including a handsome guy who keeps showing up whenever she is singing or playing an instrument. In time, she comes to realize that all of the flickering people hover around artists and that they are Muses — not the classic Greek ones, but Earthly Muses, deceased human artists given the opportunity to inspire others.

It’s a fun concept, and for a while it’s a pleasure to watch Sylvia’s life improve as she and her Muse, Vincent, interact, giving Sylvia a new lease on life and a chance to excel at what she loves — writing and performing music. However, some of the classic Greek Muses don’t agree with the concept of Earthly Muses and plot to put an end to their existence.

This is Book One in The Muse Chronicles, and as such it ends with a major cliffhanger that leaves one feeling abandoned. I also found her father’s ultimate reaction to her behavior hard to accept as reasonable, but to say more would give away too much. Overall, however, it’s a worthwhile read, as long as you’re ready for some dark moments without resolution until Book Two.

Bella gives We Own the Sky four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke (Young Adult)

I’m going to come right to the point on this one: it was a big disappointment.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is an obscenity-filled book about a nasty teen with a filthy mouth and a rotten attitude. That she finally decided to do something decent for someone else at the end of the book did not make for a satisfying character arc nor did it turn this into a worthwhile tale. It simply made me wonder why I kept reading in the hope that there might be a point to this book.

I understand using language that a teen reader might use in order to make a book feel relevant, but it was not necessary to give Jane Sinner such a foul mouth. Unlike Jessie in This is Not a Love Letter, Jane is not a girl I would want for a friend. The constant vulgar language did not make her endearing or funny. In fact, her stabs at irony fell flat more often than not. That a nice guy like Robbie would find Jane Sinner attractive was hard to believe.

The blurb: “The only thing 17-year-old Jane Sinner hates more than failure is pity. After a personal crisis and her subsequent expulsion from high school, she’s going nowhere fast. Jane’s well-meaning parents push her to attend a high school completion program at the nearby Elbow River Community College, and she agrees, on one condition: she gets to move out.

“Jane tackles her housing problem by signing up for House of Orange, a student-run reality show that is basically Big Brother, but for Elbow River Students. Living away from home, the chance to win a car (used, but whatever), and a campus full of people who don’t know what she did in high school… what more could she want? Okay, maybe a family that understands why she’d rather turn to Freud than Jesus to make sense of her life, but she’ll settle for fifteen minutes in the proverbial spotlight.”

So much of the story required suspension of disbelief. Did her highly religious, highly responsible parents really not insist on knowing where their previously suicidal seventeen-year-old was living? Was the teacher/advisor who hung out with students, encouraging them to gorge themselves on Chicken McNuggets until they threw up, supposed to be for real? The whole “she-becomes-a-reality-TV-star” felt like a fantasy written by a wannabee YouTuber.

The writing itself was fine, and the formatting used for the various journal entries was interesting.

Bella gives Nice Try, Jane Sinner two stars. 2-stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This is Not a Love Letter

This is Not a Love Letter

This is Not a Love Letter by Kim Purcell (Young Adult)

Jessie’s boyfriend, Chris, has gone missing shortly before high school graduation, and now she is documenting everything that is happening as she waits to find out where he is. The book is written as though she is speaking to him the entire time, so she is always saying things like “you would have liked …” or “your mom said …” or “it reminded me of when we …”. As a result, it wasn’t long before I felt like I knew both of them really well. The author did  an excellent job of describing Chris’s personality and attitudes through Jessie’s eyes and her anecdotes about their relationship.

Jessie herself is somewhat crude and tough. Her dad is out of the picture and her mom is a hoarder, making Jessie ashamed of her home and frustrated with her life. She shoots from the hip and doesn’t mince words. Chris is a gentle soul who recently moved into town – a straight-A student, a gifted baseball player, and a pacifist. He’s a good influence on Jessie, giving her a sense of worth and direction that she didn’t have before he came into her life. But he’s also a black kid from Brooklyn who doesn’t really fit into this all-white paper mill town in the Pacific Northwest, and he has already dealt with bullying from some of the locals. Many possibilities exist for why he has gone missing.

The book also has several strong peripheral characters who are well drawn and add to the story – both his friends and hers. I never knew for sure what was going to happen, and I really came to care about both Chris and Jessie. Being the same age as they are, I found myself thinking I would like to know them personally, which only happens when a writer does a great job of bringing characters alive. While the plot did not wow me as much, I really enjoyed the characters and the interesting way in which the story was told.

Bella gives This is Not a Love Letter four stars. 4 stars

Potty-mouth Index: Moderate use of the “f” word; realistic for the character depicted

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This is Not a Love Letter will be released on January 30, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

A Boy Made of Blocks

A Boy Made of Blocks

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart (General Fiction)

Alex Rowe, the thirty-something narrator of this story, cannot stop dwelling on a tragedy that occurred during his childhood. As a result, his marriage is falling apart, he cannot relate to his autistic young son, and he barely communicates with his sister and widowed mom. When his frustrated wife kicks him out of the house and he loses his job, he realizes he needs to change his ways. In an effort to connect with his little boy, he learns to play Minecraft, a video game the boy loves, and little by little they literally build their own world together. In the process Alex comes to understand both himself and his child better and finally comes to terms with his past.

Although this may sound like a dire scenario, Alex is funny and likeable, and we grow to love his son, Sam. The book is populated with interesting characters who round out his life, and the entire story is uplifting and poignant. In real life, the author is the father of an autistic child, and while this is not his son’s story, his first-hand knowledge of autism and its challenges is apparent.

Unfortunately, the extensive descriptions of their Minecraft world were often too much for me, and I found myself skimming those passages. While it’s important to understand the game and how one creates with it, the details made my eyes glaze over. In general, however, I found the story and its characters enjoyable and the narrator a delight.

Grandma gives A Boy Made of Blocks four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Right Handed Lefty

Right-Handed Lefty

Right Handed Lefty by Ryan Coughlin (Coming of Age, Young Adult)

This book has a strong sense of place, that place being southwestern Wisconsin in 1983. Locals talk like someone out of the movie Fargo, and small town life makes it hard to be different. Characters include a twelve-year-old Native American boy adopted by white parents; his two misfit friends, one of whom is Hmong; and adults haunted by the loss of a child, infidelity, and memories of combat in World War II. There is also a sexually abused girl and an elderly Native American man with his own history of persecution.

The story centers on the three boys but also delves into the minds and backstories of the adults, making this a multi-layered work that eventually all comes together. The one superfluous character is the girl, who has no real influence on the plot except to be a first love for Ellis, the Native American boy. It takes a while for the action to get going, but once it does, things move along pretty well. I admit to sliding over some of the description, and I really don’t like dream sequences since they don’t show what’s really happening and just bog things down.

The writing style is clunky at times, and the book needs a good editor. It has misspelled, extra, or missing words, and words that are just plain wrong, like “illicit” where the author meant “elicit.” I think the author has promise and his characters were interesting, but this book needs refining to be as good as it could be.

Bella gives Right-Handed Lefty three stars. 3 stars

POTTY-MOUTH INDEX: MINOR

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy of the book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.