Thursday, October 20, 2016

All you really need is someone to be here: THE SURVIVOR'S GUIDE TO FAMILY HAPPINESS.

The Survivor's Guide to Family HappinessThe Survivor's Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nina Popkin's mother has recently passed away and she's also freshly divorced. Adopted as a child, her mother's death rekindles Nina's desire to search for her birth mother. She's always felt as she's never belonged anywhere, searching strangers' faces and eyes for her potential birth mother. Amazingly, Nina manages to find her biological sister, Lindy, whom she actually knew as a kid from her neighborhood. But Lindy, who is obsessed with creating a perfect house and life, isn't too thrilled about her wayward sister bursting into her life. Lindy has three kids, a busy salon to run, and a lot of (hidden) anxiety to deal with. But Nina is force to be reckoned with and she's determined to bring Lindy on her journey to find their mother. But will this journey finally bring Nina the sense of peace and belonging she's always desired?

Dawson's novel is told from the varying points of view of its main women: Nina, Lindy, and their biological mother. It's a humorous--and sometimes heartbreaking--look at family and the different forms it can take. Dawson has created a cast of characters who seem incredibly real. She captures the little details just right, from family life with kids, to Nina's romantic woes. Nina is a trip: you can't help but love her and her relentless optimism. Even when the novel drags a bit in the middle, when you feel like Nina and the plot need a bit of a push, it recovers through its humor and Nina's personality. Perhaps the only part I found slightly weird was that Nina and Lindy's childhood neighborhood was so full of adopted children that they grew up knowing each other (though not knowing they were sisters), but perhaps that was truly par for the course for the era... who knows.

In the end, I really enjoyed this novel. It combines several other supporting characters, including the children of Nina's boyfriend, into a great read. At times it's truly laugh out loud funny, even if it gets a bit preposterous. But it's also heartfelt and touching and a lovely look at the bonds of family.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 10/25/2016.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

No matter who else loves you, you've always got me: INHERITING EDITH.

Inheriting EdithInheriting Edith by Zoe Fishman

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Maggie falls into a job housecleaning as a way to pay the bills. A college graduate, her work at a publishing firm barely lets her eke by. But she finds comfort in cleaning, even if it might not be the most glamorous trade in the world. Still, as a single mom, she's not exactly wealthy. So when a former employer and friend, Liza, passes away and leaves Maggie a home in a beach town, Sag Harbor, she's amazed. The only catch? Maggie must stay in the house with Liza's elderly mother, Edith, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. She's also a feisty, opinionated woman who is reeling from the loss of her only daughter. Neither Maggie nor Edith are too happy with this arrangement, but Maggie moves in with two-year-old Lucy in town. Slowly the two woman learn more about each other-- and their past.

This is an interesting little novel. The characters within are enjoyable and endearing. I took to Maggie immediately, as well as her sweet daughter. Even prickly Edith is one to root for. The supporting cast, particularly Edith's friend, Esther, are lovely. Still, somehow, the novel felt a little flat to me. As if it was trying too hard, or conversely, not enough. The book was good, but felt a little predictable, and the plot seemed to just barely scrape at the surface of the hard issues it dealt with: depression, Alzheimer's, adoption. It seemed like there could have been so much more depth of feeling and intensity shown in dealing with these hard subjects. I kept thinking back on one of my all-time favorite books, Elizabeth Is Missing, which is just this gorgeous, heartfelt story of a woman struggling with Alzheimer's and the daughter caring for her. In that novel, you could truly feel the pain of the characters. Here, they just sort of slide through, as if all these real problems can't truly touch them.

Still, it was a fun book, and as I said, the characters are endearing and often humorous at times. There is a lot of backstory that goes into Edith's early life, which is interesting, even if some of it becomes a tad farfetched. I'm glad I read it, but I wish it would have done more with its serious subjects and its lovely little cast. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Librarything - thank you! It is available everywhere as of 10/18/2016.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Round and round we do this song-and-dance: THE TRESPASSER.

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad, #6)The Trespasser by Tana French

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

We're up to the sixth installment in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series and she's still going strong. In this one, we hear from Antoinette Conway, the partner of Stephen Moran from French's previous novel, The Secret Place. Being a Detective on the Murder Squad isn't everything Antoinette hoped for. She isn't fitting in on the male squad--most of whom tease and prank her viciously--and she and Steve seem only to receive the most bland, boring cases. Not much bothers Antoinette, but she's about ready to leave the Squad behind for good. So when the latest case comes in--handed straight to Conway and Moran by their boss--it looks like much of the same: another domestic dispute. Beautiful, blond Aislinn Murray has been killed in her home. It looks like a typical lover's quarrel gone wrong. Aislinn's table is set for a romantic dinner, and she's dressed up for a beau. But as Antoinette and Steve investigate, they find things aren't exactly what they seem. Why is their colleague, Detective Breslin, so involved in their case? Why does Antoinette keep seeing someone following her home? And why is the local media out to get her? Antoinette knows the Squad doesn't like her, but now it seems like the hatred is wrapped up in her case, too. Who can she trust--and where will it end?

I'll say it up front: this was an excellent mystery. Just a wonderful read. I love all of French's novels, but thoroughly enjoyed this one. Antoinette was a refreshing voice and completely relatable. Her case was interesting and well-plotted, leaving you constantly guessing. As per a typical French novel, you don't receive just a simple mystery; each of her books comes with a backstory. In this one, we see Antoinette battling her demons and her inability to fit in with her Squad. Are they really out to get her, or is it all in her head? It's true that French's books probably aren't for everyone. There's a lot of talking, a lot of expounding, and a lot of knowing what her characters are thinking. But, in turn, you're presented with characters who are so complex, so rich and in-depth. It's amazing. I've said it in previous reviews, but I love that when I open one of French's novels, I know that I'll be completely transported into another world for a few days. Her writing is strong that you completely inhabit her characters and their environment.

Antoinette, as mentioned, is a complex female character -- strong yet vulnerable and just completely refreshing to find in a detective novel. Her relationship with Moran was very enjoyable to read about, especially after hearing about their initial early meeting in The Secret Place from Moran's point of view. There's a humor to Conway, lending levity when needed, but also a dark side. She's bitter with the world for a reason. Because the entire book is told from her perspective, we're figuring out the mystery with her, learning facts and alibis as she does, and unraveling the plot along with our detective. Of course, we're limited to seeing the case from her perspective, too. As Moran and Conway try to determine who they can trust, so do we. The book expertly leaves you guessing with the plot; it takes you in one direction early in an incredibly convincing matter. It also skillfully takes you inside the Squad, allowing us to see not only how a case is run, but the inner politics.

In this way, the novel is not just a well-crafted mystery but a lovely treatise on relationships and friendships and the lengths we go for both. I'm also left amazed at how much French can put into a novel. Her way with words is magical, and I just love her books, her stories, and her characters. I highly recommend this novel, or any of her earlier work. 4.5 stars.

You can read my review of THE SECRET PLACE here and the fourth book in the Murder Squad series, BROKEN HARBOR, here.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I'm walking around in a haze: DEAR AMY.

Dear AmyDear Amy by Helen Callaghan

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Margot Lewis is a harried teacher who also works as an advice columnist (Dear Amy) for the local paper. She's going through a divorce and rattled by the fact that one of her students, Katie, has gone missing. The police think Katie ran off, but Margot isn't so sure. When Margot receives a letter for her column purporting to be from Bethan Avery, a young girl who disappeared years ago, Margot thinks it must be a joke. But she also thinks of Katie and takes the letter to the police. When more letters show up, Margot is immersed upon a journey that will change her life forever--and endanger it in ways she could have never foreseen.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. It was in no way terrible, but the character of Margot was a tough one to relate to and empathize with. Unlike some other reviewers, I didn't immediately see the novel's twist coming, but I found much of the plot implausible and hard to stomach. While the twist wasn't clear, the connection to Katie seemed to be, and parts were easy to work out. Further, it seems as if Margot is ridiculed and undermined for having a history of mental illness, without given any support or understanding. The novel really does a bit of disservice to those with mental problems. Some of the characters are more enjoyable than others and I really enjoyed parts of the novel, so I hesitated on such a low rating. However, other pieces are just so crazy and out-of-this-world that it was tough to really buy in. Margot grew on me a bit, but the plot didn't, and I found it hard to reconcile how all of this would come together just so by the end.

In the end, bits and pieces of this thriller are interesting and well-done. The idea and structure are there, but it's not quite pulled off completely. I truly did enjoy some of it, and I don't really regret reading it, but I was left wanting a little more, or wishing it was better executed. It may speak to other thriller fans, it just didn't to me. Overall 2.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!).

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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

On the street of broken dreams: RIVER ROAD.

River RoadRiver Road by Carol Goodman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nan Lewis is a creative writing professor at a state school in upstate New York. She lives alone after the tragic death of her young daughter, Emmy--an incident which her marriage could not survive. She's recently been denied tenure by her school and is upset and agitated at the university's holiday party. On her way home, she hits a deer, but cannot find the animal when she goes to check on it. Nan eventually makes it back home in a snowstorm, leaving her car at the bottom of her icy, unplowed driveway. But when she wakes in the morning, she learns that one of her prized students, Leia, was killed in a hit-and-run the night before on River Road: the exact road where Nan hit the deer. Because her car was damaged from hitting the deer, Nan is the prime suspect, and she quickly loses the support of her colleagues, who point out that she has become a functioning alcoholic since her daughter's death. Even worse, Nan starts seeing signs that remind her of Emmy's death. Are Emmy and Leia's deaths related? How much did Nan have to drink the night she hit the deer? Will she clear her name before her entire life is destroyed?

I'm honestly not sure why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. It had several things working against it: 1) an unlikable narrator who drinks heavily; 2) a storyline that heavily involved dead children and pets (why?!); and 3) an easily guessed villain. Still, I found this one compulsively readable and stayed up far past my bedtime to finish the second half of the book. Nan grew on me, and I found myself almost protective of her. The lead policeman in the novel, Joe, was a favorite of mine. While I figured out the villain fairly early, I didn't understand the motives, so the plot kept me guessing until the end. Goodman weaves several storylines together--which intersect, but loosely--and somehow they all work. There are several supporting characters, including the woman who killed Nan's daughter and a young single mother from one of Nan's classes, who give the novel a surprising depth.

Anyway, despite some of the craziness, I found myself enjoying the book and racing to finish it. I first fell in love with Goodman due to her novel The Lake of Dead Languages. That book was impressive and still sits on my bookshelf to this day. If you haven't read it, I certainly recommend it. However, River Road is a fun thriller and a worthy diversion.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Well, I've been mad at everyone: SMALL GREAT THINGS

Small Great ThingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Ruth Jefferson is a successful labor and delivery nurse with over twenty years of experience. She has a nice home and a college-bound seventeen-year-old son, Edison. She also happens to be African American. When Ruth takes over for a colleague at shift change, she is simply doing a checkup on newborn baby boy Davis. But after his checkup, she's told Davis' parents don't want her touching their child. A post-it note in his file states that no African American staff should be touching the patient. Ruth is shocked-- and angry. The next day, when Davis has a medical emergency, Ruth is faced with a choice. Does she help the baby--defying the order of the parents and her supervisor? Ruth's decision leads her on a path that involves the police and being charged with a serious crime. Police come into her home, handcuffing her and her son. Her public defender, Kennedy McQuarrie, recommends that Ruth's defense not involve race: a lightning rod for juries, she says. But Ruth is angry and humiliated and wants to clear her name, at whatever the cost.

This is a touching and powerful novel. Told from the varying points of view of Ruth, Kennedy, and Turk--baby Davis' father-- it is a compelling look at how race and family history shapes the person we become. It is a poignant story at points: it is amazing what people can rationalize when it comes to hatred. I found the novel very fitting right now, with what's going on in the U.S. Honestly, it's very frightening at times and hits a little too close to home.

Picoult's characters are well-formed and dynamic, and you find yourself drawn into parts of each.
Turk, obviously, despite the loss of his child, is not a sympathetic character, but he is a complex one; his progression over the course of the novel is intriguing, and it's amazing how Picoult did not make him a one dimensional white supremacist. The book is extremely well-researched; both from the side of white supremacy, as well as racism and the medical aspects of Davis' case. Kennedy is likeable and her struggle with Ruth's case, as she realizes the depth of both the visible and latent racism her client faces on a daily basis, is real and relatable. I applaud Picoult for tackling such a difficult subject with such honesty. It's almost as if, through Kennedy, she's admitting exactly what she doesn't know. (I highly recommend reading Picoult's afterword, as well.)

For me, the hardest parts of the book was that it gets a little too poetic in the Jodi Picoult way (those who frequently read her novels will identify), with her waxing on about race and parents and being brought together, versus letting the story tell itself. At points the book just goes on and on a bit, versus getting to the story and the point. There are lots of little subplots that go off, detracting at times from the main story and frustrating the reader. And, of course, there are some weird twists and plot points in the typical Picoult style, though they don't seem to pack the punch of her older novels. It all wraps up a little too smoothly, though I have to confess I sort of enjoyed the ending. It may have been a bit trite, but I am often a sucker for such things.

Overall, I was impressed with how Picoult approached this novel, and I enjoyed the storyline for the most part (I was certainly invested), though it dawdled at times and ended a bit too easily. I'd rate this a strong 3.5 - 3.75 stars. Certainly worth reading, especially if you're a Picoult fan.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley; is available everywhere as of 10/11/2016.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

More letters from home never arrive: CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD.

Cruel Beautiful WorldCruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As young girls, Lucy and Caroline come into the care of the older Iris. The girls' parents had died, and they wind up living with Iris, who becomes a sort of adopted mother to the two sisters. Both Lucy and Charlotte are extremely close until high school, when they find themselves drifting apart. Studious Charlotte is focused on getting into college, where she hopes to study to become a vet. Lucy, however, can never quite seem to live up to her sister's academic shadow. That is until she meets a vibrant teacher, William, at her high school. Lucy falls fast for her older English teacher and suddenly finds herself running away to a remote area of Pennsylvania to start over with her new love. Iris and Charlotte, however, are devastated, and cannot give up their search for Lucy. Even worse, Lucy's life of promise and happiness with William may be falling short.

This book is not what I expected, but it was a wonderful (although sometimes haunting) tale. Leavitt creates nuanced, well-developed characters who jump off the page. The book has a poignant sadness that stays with you, even after you've turned the last page. Somehow, I inadvertently read this one directly after The Girls, with each tale being set in a similar timeframe, with mentions and allusions to the Manson murders, free love, etc. I actually preferred this novel and its intricate plot and characters, to whom I found myself growing quite attached. The story unfolds from the point of view of Lucy, Charlotte, and Iris, which allows us to get to know each of them. Each is different and beautiful in their own way.

Overall, I loved most of this book. It slowed for me about 3/4 through, but recovered by the end. Some of the characters' actions are frustrating, but it does not take away from its almost poetic nature. Definitely recommend.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and LibraryThing (thank you!).

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