Saturday, February 24, 2007

Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Susan Elizabeth Phillips
ISBN: 0-06-073457-4
Book #07-014

When Dean Robillard, star of the Chicago Stars football team, first encounters Blue Bailey, she is dressed in a beaver costume and intent on killing Monty, her ex-lover. Unfortunately for Blue, her bank account has been wiped clean and kicking Monty's butt just isn't satisfying. Dean, who's on his way to his farm in Tennessee, takes advantage of the diversion Blue presents and allows her to ride along with him since she has nowhere else to go, anyway. Blue pretends not to recognize the famous athlete. Her refusal to swoon over him as other women do both amuses and annoys Dean, but adds humor and snappy dialogue to the already sparkling plot.

Dean's farm is being renovated, but he's been unable to get in touch with his housekeeper. Upon arrival in Tennessee, he discovers why: his estranged mother has been doing the job under a made-up name. Riley, Dean's half sister, shows up in the middle of the night after running away from home, she is soon followed by the father Dean has never acknowledged. To complicate matters, Blue offends the matriarch of Dean's new hometown, and the old woman has Blue arrested and strongarms the workers into boycotting construction on Dean's house.

NATURAL BORN CHARMER is full of SEP's trademark sizzle and snap. Dean and Blue are lovers of the more adventurous sort, and Phillips conveys that without going into too much detail. Blue's constant snarkiness toward elderly Nita is hilarious in a hands over mouth, Oh-no-she-did-NOT! fashion. The adults in the story deal with Riley's painful pre-pubescent angst in ways that are true to their individual characters, and while everything turns out much as epxected, Phillips makes the journey worthwhile.

The biggest problem with NATURAL BORN CHARMER is Dean's behavior during an impromptu visit from his Chicago friends. Dean is incredibly unkind to Blue during that interlude, and the requisite grovel is glossed over far too quickly and perfunctorily to provide the emotional payoff readers have come to expect from Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Further, the Annabelle readers met in MATCH ME IF YOU CAN is not the same Annabelle who shows up in a cameo in NATURAL BORN CHARMER, to the detriment of all concerned. More time to develop the climax of this story and give the characters their due would have resulted in a more emotionally fulfilling novel. As it is, the traces of saccharine at the end of an otherwise wonderful book leave a bittersweet aftertaste of artificiality. NATURAL BORN CHARMER doesn't quite satisfy.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mind Game, by Christine Feehan

Christine Feehan
ISBN: 0-515-13809-6
Paranormal Romance
Book #07-010

Dahlia LeBlanc has the amazing ability to manipulate energy, which allows her to perform such feats as "walking" on the ceiling. Her gift comes with a high price, because Dahlia is unable to spend more than a few minutes at a time with other people, whose emotional energy inflicts psychic pain. Dahlia has been able to use her talents to help the government recover lost or stolen items, and has created a relatively satisfying, if lonely, life for herself.

When her latest mission goes wrong and Dahlia and her partner are nearly assassinated, Dahlia has nowhere to turn, except to Nicolas Trevane. Nicolas is a GhostWalker, with some of the same talents Dahlia possesses, and others she can only imagine. Nicolas shares his past with Dahlia and reveals that they were both at the mercy of Dr. Whitney, who started his experiments on children and graduated to soldiers in an attempt to engineer and enhance his subjects' psychic abilities. Whitney's daughter, Lily, had no idea what her father was doing, but when she discovered his research tapes, she vowed to track his subjects and help them cope with the side effects of their talents. It is Lily who sends Nicolas and his warrior team to Dahlia's rescue.

As a romantic couple, Nicolas and Dahlia generate a lot of heat, in more ways than one. MIND GAME, however, is a bit stilted in places, and some of the dialogue seems forced. Feehan is at her best when writing about the rapport between the male GhostWalkers. When Nicolas and his buddies are exchanging barbs or teasing each other, the action flows fast and furious. Feehan is masterful with love scenes, as well. It's the rest of the story that doesn't quite work in this novel. Dahlia comes off a bit whiny and sorry for herself, despite Feehans' attempts to make readers emapthize with her, and Feehan too often resorts to telling readers things they should be shown. Dahlia's reluctance to talk to Lily when Nicolas has her on the phone is a contrivance that strains credulity. Her capitulation to desire is also a bit awkward, and her reunion with Lily is disappointing. Readers will enjoy the GhostWalkers and want their favorites to have their own stories, but they should hope that the next installment of this series flows more smoothly than MIND GAME does.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Front Porch Princess, by Kathryn Springer

Kathryn Springer
ISBN: 0-373-78558-5
Women's Fiction
Book #07-009

Elise Penny has spent much of her life dreaming of getting away from small-town Prichett, Wisconsin. Falling for Sam and giving birth to Breanna before their first wedding anniversary has effectively tied Elise to the life she wanted so much to escape. Now that Bree is a teenager and has set her sights on a local boy, Elise is terrified that her daughter will waste her potential and end up stuck in Prichett, too.

When Bree enters Elise in a Christian beauty pageant, Elise does her best to get out of it, b ut soon realizes that the whole town is invested in the competition. Elise is the only one who seems to be avoiding preparations for the pageant as she helps her friend Bernice through a family crisis, becomes friends with (and mentor to) the new pastor's wife, and finds herself up to her ears in local events. Meanwhile, Sam is feeling hurt that even after all their years together, Elise still hasn't given up on her belief that rural life is inferior to the life she thinks she gave up to marry him. Bree is angry that Elise is pushing her so hard to go to college and shake the dust of Prichett off her feet. And Elise is bewildered that the town's view of her is so different from her own view of herself. The more Elise learns about the Proverbs 31 Woman, the less qualified she feels to compete for the title.

Kathryn Springer has written an engaging, funny, and ultimately heartwarming story about the power of dreams and faith to shape our lives. Elise's reaction to Annie, the pastor's wife, is wry and touching as she deals with the younger woman's conviction that they are friends. Bernice, the town hairdresser, is a bit brash, but her larger-than-life personality is masking a grief that adds a level of realism to the story. Readers will be pleased to learn that Bernice gets her own book, as author Springer leaves plenty of tantalizing business unfinished at the end of FRONT PORCH PRINCESS. Sam is a husband to die for, and Elise's adventures as the pageant draws near will leave readers smiling, if not laughing outright.

FRONT PORCH PRINCESS is a down-home treasure, sure to be savored for its easy-going approach to everyday faith.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Truth About Sparrows, by Marian Hale

Marian Hale
ISBN: 0-8050-7584-4
Young Adult
Book #07-008

Sadie Wynn is very happy with her life in Missouri. When she learns that her father is planning to move the whole family to Texas to find better opportunities in the midst of the Great Depression, Sadie immediately begins scheming to find a way back to her old home. She misses her best friend Wilma, whose family moved to California for the same reasons the Wynns moved, and is upset that her letters to Wilma have gone unanswered. Meanwhile, Sadie begins to see her family in a new light.

Marian Hale gifts young readers with a family that is strong and loving. Although Sadie's father's faith may not be conventional, Sadie marvels that he can always find a Bible verse for her to study that applies directly to whatever is happening in her life. Sadie's mother is fond of saying that people can see what is on the inside of others, and Sadie wonders if that means they can see her doubts and selfishness. Sadie's father is clever and ingenious, able to build things out of wood with very little scrap left over, and coming up with a way to drive the family car. The bond between Mr. and Mrs. Wynn is truly special, particularly as readers learn more about Sadie's father and his personal challenges.

In terms of Depression era history, the Wynns fall somewhere in the middle of experiences. They give up their relatively nice home and furniture to seek a better life somewhere more promising. Although their diet is rather unvaried, they never seem to be truly hungry. Sadie witnesses firsthand the depths to which deprivation has taken others she encounters through the course of the novel, and their misfortune opens her eyes to the bounty within her own life, while simultaneously strengthening her resolve to work her way back to Missouri.

Sadie's new friend Dollie, a cheerful redhead, guides her through life on the Texas coast, helping her to get a job in the shrimp factory and showing her the ropes in Sadie's new school. Unfortunately, Sadie is so focused on her promise that she and Wilma will always be best friends that she is unable to make room for Dollie. Dollie's elder brother, Davis, shows some interest in Sadie until Sadie says something so cruel that she realizes she's as bad as the girl at school who's been tormenting Sadie and Dollie. Sadie's concern for a homeless man (whom she calls Mr. Sparrow) eventually is the key to Sadie's epiphany about friendship and love for one's fellow man.

THE TRUTH ABOUT SPARROWS is a lovely book by first-time author Hale. Young readers will find it easy to relate to Sadie and her concerns. Although this book features a female protagonist, the boys in Sadie's life will keep young men engrossed in the story. THE TRUTH ABOUT SPARROWS is a new classic.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Monkeewrench, by P.J. Tracy

P.J. Tracy
ISBN: 0-451-21157-x
Book #07-008

Grace McBride and her partners in Monkeewrench are a group of computer whizzes who have created the game, Serial Killer Detective, despite the objections of one of their members. The game is in limited release, allowing players the chance to try it out and giving the Monkeewrench crew a last chance to tinker with it. When a couple of murders make the headlines, Grace realizes that someone is using her game as a prototype in real life. Now the Monkeewrench group must make a decision: Do they tell the police what they know and risk being put at the top of the suspects list, or do they keep their suspicions to themselves and take the chance that the killer won't finish the other eighteen scenarios?

Leo Magozzi is the primary detective on the Monkeewrench murders. All evidence to the contrary, he believes Grace is not the killer, but his frustration mounts as more people are murdered and the Monkeewrench gang protect their firewall of silence. When a pair of homicides in Wisconsin seems to tie in with the murders in Minneapolis, and everything traces back to long-forgotten records, Magozzi turns to the most unikely source of help in cracking the paperwork logjam: the Monkeewrench gang themselves.

Grace's partners are an interesting group, whose loyalty to McBride is unwavering. There's Roadrunner, a lycra-clad pencil of a man; Mitch, married to an up-and-coming artist; Harley Davidson, the bearded biker; and Annie, two hundred pounds of glamour and sex appeal on the hoof. P.J. Tracy juggles the characters deftly, honoring their individuality without ever losing sight of the fact that Grace is the cog of the Monkeewrench wheel. As the story hurtles toward its climax, readers are treated to a bravura demonstration of literary sleight-of-hand in which the possible killer's identity seems to shift as rapidly as images in a hall of mirrors.

MONKEEWRENCH is the first novel by mother-daughter writing team P. J. Tracy, but its taut, sleek writing indicates superb mastery. Tracy handles the large cast of characters with assurance, maintaining a tantalizing balance of humor and suspense that keeps pages turning in rapid abandon. The premise of the novel is deeply original in its execution, and the suspects are just as interesting as the detectives. As the reveals come quick and fast in the latter half of the book, readers will find it utterly impossible to put the book down and will resent anything that comes between them and the solution to this convoluted roller-coaster of a thriller.