Tuesday, July 17, 2018

And bring back the sun: PLAYING WITH MATCHES.

Playing with MatchesPlaying with Matches by Hannah Orenstein

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Sasha Goldberg's plans as a writer are quickly derailed when her boss tells her he doesn't have the funds to hire her on after her graduation. She's stuck--in New York City--without a Plan B. When she sees a job listing for a matchmaker, she's intrigued. Sasha's secret is that her parents met through a kind of matchmaker: her father chose her mom through a catalog and paid for her to come to the United States from Russia. Of course, it didn't exactly work out (they're divorced), but Sasha uses the story to get hired on at Bliss, an exclusive NYC matchmaking service. She's hopeful the job will tide her over while she waits for a writing gig. And, she thinks, she has to know something about love, since she's successfully with her boyfriend, Jonathan, who works around-the-clock in his Wall Street gig. But matchmaking isn't as easy as it looks--it's a lot of stressful Tinder swiping and tracking down potential mates in random ways--and it becomes even more complicated when Sasha develops a crush on one of her client's matches. One of the firm's rules is that matches are off-limits. Sasha's struggling: can she keep it all together?

This is one of those books where I find myself going into it warily, because you just know things are going to come crashing down, and you (me) are not 100% sure you want to be there for all of it. It's not a secret (it's in the book description) that Sasha and Jonathan break up and that she gets into a relationship with Adam, one of her client's matches. For some reason, I often have an issue with these sorts of books where the character just makes bad choices: Sasha makes no attempt to avoid what will be an inevitable downfall with Adam, so I found myself cringing as she made a string of poor decisions.

That's not to say Sasha isn't an engaging character. This book is very readable, and I certainly liked Sasha and reading about her life. However, I can't lie:I probably am a little older than the target audience for this novel. It offers a fun and engaging look at the dating scene in New York, but there wasn't a lot I could relate to. I felt protective of Sasha, not empathetic to her, if that makes any sense. Honestly, the book just made me feel relieved I no longer have to date or deal with basically anything Sasha had to endure during the course of this novel.

Still, Orenstein does a good job at capturing Sasha's voice and what it's like to be a young twenty-something trying to survive in the city. Sasha's relationship with her best friend Caroline and her mom are well-done. I didn't think there was as much overall about matchmaking as a job as I'd hoped--it seemed to be a lot of Tinder swiping and chatting--so that was a little bit of a bummer, but there was enough to know it's a job I'd never want!

Overall, if you're young and still dating, you'll probably really enjoy this book--especially if you live in a city. If not, some of its essence may be a bit lost of you, but you'll still like Orenstein's witty writing and the arc of Sasha's struggles. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

And I've been kicked by the wind: THE LAST TIME I LIED.

The Last Time I LiedThe Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifteen years ago at Camp Nightingale, three of Emma's fellow campers disappeared, never to be found again. Ever since then, Emma has felt guilt about the incident and her actions that night. She idolized the three girls, especially beautiful Vivian, the leader of the pack, who bossed around Emma and the other two campers, Allison and Natalie. Since then, Emma--now a painter--has been painting huge canvases of landscapes, where she (secretly) paints the girls within each scene. She holds a successful show of her works, but now she's stuck, unable to paint anything else but "the girls," as she calls them. So when the owner of Camp Nightingale, Francesca Harris-White, turns up at Emma's show and tells her she's reopening the camp and she wants Emma to come back as an painting instructor, Emma agrees. Perhaps this will give her the closure she has always lacked and a chance to move on, to begin painting something else. But once back at the Camp--in the same cabin where her friends disappeared-Emma feels watched. Strange things begin happening and Emma starts to wonder more and more about what really happened fifteen years ago.

Well, this was just a fun thriller and a completely engaging read. I'm so glad I gave it a chance, as--unlike most of the reading population, I actually wasn't a huge fan of Sager's FINAL GIRLS and I wasn't entirely sure I was going to read this one. But it was definitely worth the read! This is a quick read and really enjoyable.

Sager populates the novel with a bunch of mysterious pieces that begin to add up across the story--clues, if you will--but you are left constantly wondering as you read. I personally was guessing up until the end, which I really liked. I am always a fan of a thriller that isn't utterly predictable. The novel is told from Emma's perspective, but flips between the present and the past (fifteen years ago, when the three girls went missing initially). This turns out to be an amazingly effective and compelling storytelling format: I read the entire book in about 24 hours and the first half in one setting. You can't quite pinpoint what draws you in, but you find yourself compulsively turning the pages.

Emma is a wonderful unreliable narrator. I enjoyed that she wasn't the requisite annoying unreliable narrator that we seem to see so often: she's tough, engaging, and just happens to be fairly untrustworthy at times to boot. Just when you start to get a bit frustrated and ready to truly know what Emma lied about, Sager spills the beans and the saga continues, with more crazy reveals.

The scene setting in this one is great; while I've never actually been to camp, Sager sets the stage so perfectly: you can just picture everything. The entire novel has this wonderful layer of creepy and mysterious on top of it all. So much of it seems foreboding, which adds to the suspense. And, as many have mentioned, there is a great twist to the ending, which I personally liked.

Overall, I really enjoyed this thriller. It's foreboding, quite readable, and features a main character who draws you in. Between not enjoying FINAL GIRLS and then seeing so much hype for this one, I was ready to be disappointed, but THE LAST TIME I LIED proved me wrong: it was a really engaging and suspenseful read. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Monday, July 09, 2018

With your quiet voice and impeccable style: HER PRETTY FACE.

Her Pretty FaceHer Pretty Face by Robyn Harding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frances is struggling. She feels overweight and socially inept, struggling to keep up with the beautiful, wealthy mothers at the fancy private school, Forrester Academy, that her son Marcus attends. That struggle is made even harder by an incident with Marcus and a classmate, Abbey Dumas, that sets the other moms against her. Even worse, no one knows about a horrible event in Frances' past that haunts her: not even her husband, Jason, and Marcus. But she feels rescued when she forges a friendship with a beautiful mother, Kate Randolph. She's funny, irreverent, and almost seems to recognize a kind of darkness in Frances. Suddenly, life at Forrester--and life in general--seems bearable. Meanwhile Kate's teenage daughter Daisy feels as if her mother has stopped loving her. Every few years her parents uproot her and younger brother to move yet again. What is the purpose of trying at school--in life--she wonders? Then a startling discovery comes to light, changing everything for Frances, Kate, and Daisy.

The format of this novel makes it an incredibly quick read: we get present-day events told by Frances and Daisy, interspersed with snippets told by a young boy named DJ, whose older sister, Courtney was murdered by a man named Shane Nelson in the 1990s. I found this to be a fascinating thriller: it keeps you wondering the entire time, with some very interesting and unexpected turns. I always appreciate a novel with some twists that I'm not expecting. I especially enjoyed how Daisy grew on me--her character was really well-done and while, at first, she seemed out of place in the story, by the end, she was my favorite, and I couldn't imagine the book without her.

In many ways this is a more character-driven book than a straight-up mystery. While, as mentioned, there's definitely some unexpected moments, there was no explosive ending, which I thought might happen for a while. In the end, though, I think that was appropriate--you become somewhat attached to these characters and Harding does a good job of bringing you into their (often twisted) worlds.

Overall, I enjoyed this one. It was compulsively readable, with some great twists and turns and interesting characters. I've had THE PARTY on my Kindle for a while--this has definitely motivated me to push it up higher in my TBR pile. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 07/10/2018.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2018

A sweet whisper from the shadows: BEFORE AND AGAIN.

Before and AgainBefore and Again by Barbara Delinsky

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Driving her five-year-old daughter to a playdate, Mackenzie Cooper's life changes in a moment when she takes her eyes off the road to check her phone's GPS. In that second, she runs a stop sign, and as a result, the other driver and Lily are dead. In the aftermath, Mackenzie finds herself divorced, estranged from her mother and brother, on probation, and moving away from her friends and former life. She reinvents herself in the town of Devon, Vermont, now known as Maggie Reid. There, she does makeup for clients at the Devon Inn and Spa, while living alone in a remote cabin with her pets. Maggie has managed to build a new life for herself in Devon, where no one knows about her life as Mackenzie--plus, she likes her job and she has friends. So when one of them, Grace, finds herself in trouble: her fifteen-year-old son, Chris, is accused of hacking some powerful journalists, Maggie stands by her. It doesn't matter if this could affect her probation or her future. And that's not even the end of the trouble: some surprises from Maggie's past are coming back to her haunt her and threaten the private, quiet life she's worked so hard to create.

So, this was a tough one. Parts of this are a heartbreaking, emotional tale. Other parts I found to be far-fetched and so incredibly slow. The novel almost has two storylines, between Maggie's attempts to find some sort of peace in Devon and then the Grace and Chris tale. For me, it was tough connecting the two, despite the fact that both Grace and Maggie were being forced to confront their pasts and the sensationalism of the media. For most of the book, the two stories run parallel without really connecting, and I found it really hard to care or empathize with Grace at all. Her entire plot is a bit over-the-top. Both she and Maggie were difficult characters--prickly, with their protective shells up.

Of course, the book is also achingly hard to read at points, as Maggie's still reeling from the loss of her daughter. As a parent, I found those parts so difficult to read. But, there was so much talking and introspection from Maggie that it felt like the novel dragged on at points. With Maggie's constant reflection and rehashing, I sometimes just wanted to shake her or move things along. (Also, the endless descriptions of how makeup application worked were far too much for me.)

Still, there were definitely moments where the plot was compelling and moved along, especially near the end. I felt for Maggie, for sure, and enjoyed pieces of this novel. But overall, I found this one slow, disjointed, and hard to get into. Oh and for some reason, being someone even mildly into football, it bothered me that Maggie's probation officer was named Michael Shanahan (a former Redskins coach, among others). When things like that start bothering you, you realize it's probably not the book for you! However, this book is pretty much well-loved by most, so please realize it may have just not been a fit for me. 2.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Monday, July 02, 2018

And you might have to crawl even after you walk: ALL WE EVER WANTED.

All We Ever WantedAll We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Nina and Kirk Browning and their teenage son, Finch, live a good life, especially since Kirk sold his company and the family has experienced a great deal of wealth. Nina and Kirk are attending a fundraiser when they hear whispering that Finch has been involved in an incident with another student at his school, Windsor Academy. It soon comes out that Finch has taken an inappropriate sexy picture of Lyla at a party and sent it to friends, accompanied by a racist comment. The photo spreads around the community quickly, causing both the kids and parents to take sides. Lyla's father, Tom, who has been raising Lyla since she was small, is appalled--he cannot believe his daughter is involved in such a mess, and he wants justice for her. Lyla's at Windsor on a scholarship, and she just wants to fit in. Now, Nina, Finch, Lyla, and Tom must grapple with the aftermath of the photo and what exactly happened the night of the party.

This is a timely novel that certainly has a place in the #MeToo moment. It's a topic being covered more and more lately, and the idea of teens and sexting is just as horrifying as always. It draws you in from the beginning, and I found it to be a very fascinating read that kept my interest throughout. By alternating the point of view between Nina, Tom, and Lyla, we get to the story told from a range of characters, including the victim herself.

The biggest issue I had with this one--and even Lyla herself admits it--is that the characters sometimes come across as cliche: the spoiled rich boy hurts the poor, intelligent girl on scholarship. The only light of resistance is Nina, our wealthy wife with the obnoxious, rich husband. Even Nina's friends appear to be clueless (or worse) jerks brainwashed by their picture perfect Nashville lives. Still, Lyla is a great kid and reading her sections is lovely. Her father is a flawed individual, but you can't help but empathize with him as well. Nina is more complicated, and I would have liked to see her take on a little more responsibility for her son and the events that unfold around her. Yes, Nina had a conscience, but she didn't seem to do a lot with it, if that makes any sense, besides apologize.

In the end, I enjoyed this one because it wasn't totally predictable and because I really liked the characters of Lyla and Tom. I found it to be an easy and quick read. Still, it seemed like something was missing as I read, whether it was because some of the book felt like it was populated by stock characters or what, I don't know. While it's not exactly the same story, I would recommend the amazing Girl Made of Stars from Ashley Herring Blake if you're looking for a timely book on this topic. That powerful book blows this one out of the water, and maybe it's that power and emotion that I felt was lacking here. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

You can read my review of Giffin's FIRST COMES LOVE here.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Living for the chance to scare you back in place: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY.

The Death of Mrs. WestawayThe Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Things aren't going well for Hal, who has been struggling financially and emotionally since her mother passed away. So when she receives a letter stating that she's a beneficiary to a well-sized inheritance, she thinks it may be the answer to her prayers. She also quickly realizes that the letter was sent to the wrong person, but she hopes to use her abilities as a tarot-card reader to claim the money. Once at the funeral of her supposed "grandmother," Hal finds herself drawn to her fake new family, something she never had growing up. She also starts to feel like something is off about the supposed situation and the odd, imposing home where they are all residing.

This novel wasn't what I was expecting, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It's a creepy, almost gothic book--not your typical whodunit--but more a slow-burning thriller in a Agatha Christie type style. The star of the show is Harriet, aka Hal, whom the book focuses on and who is our narrator for the majority of the novel. We get most of the story from her point of view, with the exception of excerpts of diary entries from the 1990s. Luckily Hal is an interesting character, even if she's in a bit of trouble, having borrowed money from some disreputable sources, and basically just being over her head since the death of her mom a few years ago. She's young and while it seems insane that she'd go off on this quest to claim an inheritance that isn't hers, you can sense and understand her desperation.

Once Hal arrives at Trespassen, the imposing yet decreipt mansion of the woman who is supposed to be her grandmother, the gothic style of the novel ratchets up, and it is really quite eerie at times. We get introduced to a trio of men who should be Hal's uncles, if she was who she claimed. The cast of characters is limited and the story isn't fast-paced, per se, but I found it quite compelling, as the reader, along with Hal, is trying to work out a variety of things. We realize that Hal does have ties to this family, but nothing is truly as it seems, and all is creepy and foreboding.

Overall, I enjoyed this one. It's a bit slow at times, but still quite interesting, and I enjoyed Hal's character. It's spooky and a fun read. 3.75 stars.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

There's a sadness so deep the sun seems black: JAR OF HEARTS.

Jar of HeartsJar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Fourteen years ago, Georgina "Geo" Shaw's best friend, Angela Wong, disappeared without a trace. The girls were only sixteen years old. Now Geo is a successful executive--and it comes to a surprise to everyone (except Geo) when she's arrested at her pharmaceutical firm for her role in Angela's murder. It turns out, fourteen years ago, Geo was involved while her older boyfriend, Calvin James, killed Angela and buried her remains in the woods behind Geo's childhood home. Calvin has gone on to become a serial killer known as the Sweetbay Strangler. But to Geo, he's Calvin, her first love, despite their abusive and turbulent relationship. For all these years, Geo carried the secret of what happened that fateful night with Calvin and Angela. She told no one, not even the girls' best friend, Kaiser Brody, who is now a detective with the Seattle PD and working on Angela and Calvin's cases. Geo is sentenced to prison and all her secrets appear to be out in the open. But are they truly? And what does it mean when more bodies start appearing, killed in the same manner as Angela?

This was just a great thriller. It alternates its viewpoints, with pieces of the novel told from Geo and Kai and changing between the past and the present. The result is completely captivating. I was mesmerized by this compelling and well-executed novel, which draws you in from the start. The characters in this one are excellent; rarely do you get two such strong vivid main characters, but I felt drawn to both Kai and Geo.

The story slowly works its way back to that fateful night. Hillier unravels things so adeptly that I was kept guessing for quite some time, meticulously starting to work out pieces of the plot, feeling quite triumphant when I was proved right. This novel is just so intricately plotted and incredibly creepy at times--it's simply a pleasure to read. It's deep and dark, propelled by its wonderfully written characters. Honestly, I can't rave enough about both the plot and the characters.

Overall, you can't go wrong with this one. It features compelling characters and a twisted, dark story that will keep you reading until the very end. I need to track down more of Ms. Hillier's books and soon! Highly recommend.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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