Some New Fun Reads for June
By Jennie Hansen

The weather isn’t what is typically expected for June in my part of the country.  Instead of sunshine, we’re being treated to a daily deluge of rain and thunder storms.  This month’s books which I’ve chosen to review aren’t what I expected either.  Each one presents a refreshing, unexpected approach.  Just as the rain is filling the valley with vibrant growth and color, these novels open new entertainment vistas.

I was excited to receive a copy of Marcia Mickelson’s new book Pickup Games.  Her first book, Reasonable Doubt made a strong positive impression on me, so I was anxious to read this one. 

Going into major college basketball playoffs, Mark Webber was charged with the murder of his fianc and instead of dancing with the Big Four, he spent the tournament in a jail cell listening on a scratchy radio to his team crumble and blaming himself for their loss.

As time passes he discovers that being exonerated for the murder of his fianc doesn’t restore his reputation or the promising future he once took for granted.  His basketball career is over and his dream of becoming an ESPN sportscaster is going nowhere.  After five years he is a second string sports reporter for a local television station and his social life consists of a series of “once only” dates with women who don’t really interest him.

Through the help of a friend who has stood behind him, he gets a big professional break, but instead of getting his own show as he had expected he finds himself half of a two person team.  The other half is Cara Jones, recent women’s college basketball star, who was jilted on her wedding day and who now has a chip on her shoulder where men are concerned.  Though they clash personally, the electric spark between them creates a dynamic show, that catches the eyes of big people in the sports broadcasting world far beyond Utah and sets in motion tough temptations and stiff competition.

The story is a romance, but with a stronger appeal than to women only.  It is a fascinating inside look at sports, sports broadcasting, and healing.  It should appeal to a wide range of readers.

Did the book live up to my expectations?  Yes—and no.  I expected more of the murder mystery type of story found in Reasonable Doubt, but I wasn’t disappointed in the quality of writing, nor in the fresh approach to a romance between two previously hurt people.  Sometimes the author provides more petty detail than needed, yet the detail lends itself to a sense of the characters being real people doing real things.  Mickelson has created strong, likeable characters, has paced her story well, and has a winner in Pickup Games.  My disappointment with the book has nothing to do with the story itself.  I don’t like the title or the cover.  The duo are covering college basketball, not street pickup games, and though Mick starts out as a flirt collecting phone numbers of good-looking women, they’re not exactly pickup dates.  The title implies something cheap or casual which this story is not.  The pale lavender cover isn’t going to attract many male readers and probably not too many female ones either.  This is a striking story that deserves a striking cover and title.

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Once in awhile a book comes along that doesn’t quite fit into any preconceived mold.  Such is The Route by Gale Sears.  There is no convoluted plot, the characters are not young and beautiful, the concepts presented are not new and intricate, yet the book is a delight and hard to put down.  Beginning with a cover that is charming, appealing, and unusual, Sears tells a story loosely based on her own experiences delivering meals on wheels to elderly shut-ins.

Carol, who has just turned fifty and is pondering the meaning of life, makes a run to the store for chocolate.  There she discovers a poster asking for volunteers to deliver the meals and feels an urge to take up volunteer work and this seems to be something she could do.  She begins with ten ladies.  With some she forms a strong connection, some live in conditions she finds repugnant, and one is downright scary.  In time she finds each has a story and she is drawn into their lives.  At times she wants to pattern her own senior years after these ladies and other times she wants nothing more than to turn in her badge and run as far and fast as she can.  Her route gradually changes as some of the ladies go to care facilities, some die, new recipients of the meals are added.  Some of the new names on her list are men.

Like Carol, the reader will find humor, much to admire, situations that will cause anger, others that will touch the heart, and a new awareness of life’s waning years.  Sears has a gift for finding the extraordinary in ordinary lives.  If you’re thinking a book about old people can’t be much fun, you’re wrong.  This book is a fun read that will leave a warm, lasting impression.

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Agent in Old Lace by Tristi Pinkston is another book that isn’t quite what I expected.  Pinkston has written several intense, well-researched historical novels which I enjoyed, so when I learned she’d written a mystery and heard the title, I assumed Agent in Old Lace would be an historical mystery. Not so, the novel is a change-of-pace contemporary, and “old lace” has nothing to do with the story except as an odd reference to an FBI agent who goes undercover dressed in female garb.

Shannon Tanner is a savvy business woman and a partner in a successful financial referral company.  By chance she discovers that the man she loves has stolen a fortune from her father who lies critically ill in the hospital.  From expecting a proposal to finding her life in danger leaves Shannon reeling and struggling to survive.  When the FBI enters the picture, Shannon’s life takes more odd twists as agent, Rick Holden takes drastic measures to save Shannon’s life and capture the man she once planned to marry.

Agent in Old Lace is a fast, fun read.  The mystery is not complicated, but has interesting twists and turns. The characters are likeable, but require some stretching of the boundaries of imagination.  Shannon is a little gullible, queasy, and slow for someone who is supposedly so intelligent, and Rick’s drag masquerade would be easy to see through in real life.  I would have liked for some of the minor characters to be more fully developed and the mystery clues a little less obvious, though a less critical reader who doesn’t read as many mysteries as I do might not pick up on them as easily as I did.  The father/daughter relationship is nicely done with just the right amount of warmth and respect and it is easy to see genuine love between the two.  Romance elements of the story are developed without overt intrusion into the story, but remain an important element. The plot is paced well, though some of the action scenes could have featured more action and less talk.  The short length of the story somewhat hampers greater development of both the mystery and the romance.  Though not as intense as her in-depth historical novels, Agent in Old Lace will have a strong appeal for many mystery/romance readers.

Pinkston has a comfortable writing style that draws the reader in and an excellent command of language that suits her characters well. Her quirky sense of humor shows through in both dialog and situations.  Readers will enjoy Pinkston’s first foray into contemporary mystery writing.  I’m looking forward to more books in this genre by her, but I hope she’ll continue to give us great Historicals as well.

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Gregg Luke has written another high suspense novel, Altered State, which might be classified as medical horror.  This isn’t a book to start late at night because it’s a hard one to put down.

Two people, Morgan and Homer Winegar, have suffered serious hurt in their pasts, but now they have found each other and with her nine-year-old autistic son have settled in Logan, Utah, where she teaches psychology and does counseling at the University and he works for a research lab as a statistical analyst.   They’re happy and life looks good until a strange phenomenon takes place on campus and Morgan is drawn into trying to discover the cause of increasingly larger groups of students lapsing into strange trances.  As the bizarre behavior grows violent, their son provides them with a clue to an impending tragedy greater than the Virginia Tech massacre.  Just as the mystery and suspense build, old fears from previous betrayals tear at the Winegar’s relationship adding another dimension to the escalating terror.

The first few chapters left me reeling from an overload of chemical terminology; even so, I was intrigued by the introduction to characters that offered a wide spectrum of possibilities and personalities.  Before long I was thoroughly hooked on a story of greed, ego, and the lengths an unscrupulous drug company CEO and a research chemist devoid of ethics might take a brilliant discovery. The characters, including the autistic child, are well-developed with each having distinct personalities, motivations, and growth.  I like, and can identify with the main characters.  The plot moves quickly and Luke does a masterful job of revealing just enough clues to keep the reader expecting and dreading the next revelation of the plot line.

Luke is a pharmacist with a solid understanding of drugs and is familiar with the processes used to test and market pharmaceuticals. Still he drew on the expertise of other medical professionals in his research.  This background and a great deal of technical research is used to build a believable and even possible nightmare situation. 

Though the main characters are LDS and there are elements of trust that enter into the story, the main role religion plays is to provide hope and comfort to them.  The blue and yellow cover on the book featuring rows of test tubes sets an eerie tone before the reader even begins the story.  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys suspense, a touch of horror, and an all around exciting read.

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Michele Paige Holmes was the winner of a Whitney for Romantic Fiction in 2007 with her debut novel, Counting Stars.  Her new novel All the Stars in Heaven picks up the story of a minor character from that book, Jay Kendrich.  I wouldn’t call her new book a sequel because there’s no reason to read the first one to enjoy this one.  References to the other book are few and explained enough that the reader will have no sense of having missed anything if she hasn’t read the first book.  From a personal point of view, I found Counting Stars an interesting read but a little too formulaic for my taste.  I can’t say that about All the Stars in Heaven. I’ve found two outstanding romances so far this year and have nominated both for Whitney awards; All the Stars in Heaven is one of those two remarkable love stories.

This book is almost as much suspense as it is romance with its tale of complicated family relationships, a game of cat and mouse between a methamphetamine drug lord and a police force that can’t be trusted, and characters whose faith in themselves have been shattered.

Jay, a third year law student at Harvard, chances on a ballet rehearsal and is drawn to the young woman who plays the piano for the dancers’ practices.  When he approaches the young woman to introduce himself, he is attacked and knocked out by a large man, whom he later learns is the woman’s unwelcome bodyguard.  Instead of steering clear of the young woman, he grows more intrigued by her and suspects something is terribly wrong in her life.  He begins planning strategies to get to know Sarah and walks into a world of violence and intrigue.

Sarah is totally dependent on her father, who treats her badly and controls her life.  She isn’t allowed to go anywhere alone which means her brutal cousin, her paid bodyguard, makes certain no one approaches her.  Even when her father arranges an undercover narcotics job for her, she is stuck with her cousin shadowing her.  When her cousin attempts to kill Jay, she complains to her father who is the police chief.  His indifference fuels her desire to escape her miserable life.

The characters in this story are interesting and the author does an excellent job of not only tracing their growth, painting them not only in black and white, but she is liberal with shades of gray. The Harvard College campus, Boston, and the surrounding small cities and towns have been researched with thoroughness and are used as convincing, but not overpowering, backdrops.  Other elements of police procedure, drug enforcement, collegiate lifestyle, etc. show signs of careful research as well.  The chapters are annoyingly short, but I’m aware many readers prefer short chapters and there are a few places where I would have liked to see more action on stage instead of being led to a precipice, the chapter ends, then the reader is told rather than shown what happened.  The plot is well paced, leading to one cliff-hanger moment after another, making the book difficult to put down and, at the same time, hard to read in one sitting due to its length.

For years there has been a snobbish amount of sneering directed toward LDS fiction, largely due to the preponderance of romance in these novels.  Little distinction has been made between the light, cutesy, fun romance novels which aren’t meant to be taken seriously, the sloppy boo hoo ones that provide an excuse for a good cry, the formula novels that follow the general makeup of general market romances minus the explicit sex, and those that approach the relationship between a man and a woman as one of friendship that grows to something more as mutual respect and knowledge of who the other is gradually develops.  I prefer this last type where realistic and deepening relationships grow out of common beliefs and values, respect, shared goals and experiences, and a willingness to sacrifice for each other, as well as the physical attraction component.  The love story in All the Stars in Heaven is the latter kind of love story.  An enjoyable romance coupled with a fast-paced mystery/suspense makes this a book that will appeal to a wide range of readers and it has my hearty recommendation.

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PICKUP GAMES by Marcia Mickelson, published by Bonneville Books, soft cover, 214 pages, $15.99

THE ROUTE by Gale Sears, published by Walnut Springs Press, LLC, soft cover, 182 pages, $14.95

AGENT IN OLD LACE by Tristi Pinkston, published by Bonneville Books, soft cover, 182 pages, $14.95

ALTERED STATE by Gregg Luke, published by Covenant Communications, soft cover, 272 pages, $15.95

ALL THE STARS IN HEAVEN by Michele Paige Homes, published by Covenant Communications, soft cover, 373 pages, $17.95

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