Sunday, March 26, 2017

You were born to fly: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Anything Is PossibleAnything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Strout's latest is a follow-on to her novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and features a group of people tied together by poverty, awful childhoods, and abuse. (Don't worry, it's not as horrifying as it sounds.) Each chapter is its own story--the book is really a series of interconnected short stories--and told from a the perspective of a different character. Lucy comes from a background of poverty and abuse, but she's now a famous author who hasn't returned to her small town in many years. The idea is that each character in every new chapter is tied to Lucy Barton, or her connections, in some way. It's really as simple as that. There is no true story, per se, but glimpses into these associated people and their worlds.

There are certainly a lot of people and connections to keep track of; it takes a little bit to keep them all straight. As mentioned, the one anchoring thread is Lucy Barton--whom many of the characters don't truly even really know well. We get to see her through the prism of a variety of eyes. The linkages are intriguing, and I found it fascinating how all these various people were tied to Lucy and exactly what role she played in their lives.

This is not a particularly uplifting book, though there are lovely touching moments. It is instead a nuanced look at family relationships and what ties and binds people together. Strout has an amazing way of portraying her characters, so you can truly visualize them, and often you find yourself wishing you could learn more about each character, versus moving on to another in the following chapter. Her strength comes in the little details she shares, the small moments she tells about their lives, and how these little moments combine to depict the big picture.

I particularly enjoy how Strout can so carefully show the small injuries of life, as well as the deep effects of secrets on families. There is just something oddly mesmerizing about Strout's books. Honestly, subject matter that might sometimes typically bore you is fascinating in her deft hands. There were a few parts of chapters that dragged a bit, but overall, I just found myself intrigued and engaged by this novel. I was captivated by its characters, the central theme of Lucy Barton, and the various messages it carried. If you read My Name Is Lucy Barton and liked it, you'll probably enjoy this one, too. If you're looking for a book telling a linear story, with a set resolution, you may not appreciate this one as much. However, I recommend this novel for Strout's beautiful writing and thoughtful characters.

I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 04/25/2017.

You can read my review of MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON here.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

I could go back, rewind, and play it again: ONE GOOD THING.

One Good Thing (Ten Beach Road, #5)One Good Thing by Wendy Wax

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maddie, Avery, Nikki, and Kyra are all reeling from various events in their lives and have returned to their home, Bella Flora, a restored 1920s mansion in Florida, to lick their wounds. Their famous TV show, Do Over is in disarray, embroiled in legal battles with the network, who wants to take away the show and all the hard work they've put into it. They are busy trying to promote the Sunshine Hotel and Beach Club, which they'd renovated in hopes of starting a similar Do Over show or documentary, but the network is saying no. The group hopes that the Beach Club memberships and cottages they are selling will help restore their plummeting finances, but, at the moment, it's not looking good.

In fact, the only cottage sold has been to Joe, Nikki's boyfriend, with the plan that they will move in after the birth of their twins. But Nikki is terrified to plan that far ahead, fearing it will jinx the health of her babies. Meanwhile, Maddie has returned to Bella Flora after a romantic relationship with Will Hightower, a famous musician and rock star. Will wants Maddie to go on tour with him, but Maddie's still trying to find her own self after her divorce from Kyra's father. As for Kyra, she has a secret about Bella Flora she hasn't told any of the women: one that could destroy the last few bits of financial security the group feels. She's also dealing with her feelings toward her young son's (married) father, a famous actor. And finally, Avery feels like her relationship with her boyfriend Chase is crumbling, due to their inability to agree on how to raise his teenage sons. When a former financial backer of the gang, Bitsy, shows up and demands a cottage in return for her financial investment, the women are at a loss: scrambling to find a place for Bitsy and wondering what happened to her wealth. It seems like everyone in the group has something to hide or fear; will their secrets bring them together or tear them apart?

So, full disclosure on this one: most--though not all--of my issues with this novel tend to revolve around the fact that this is apparently the fifth novel in a series for Wax entitled "Ten Beach Road." I had no idea when I requested the book and while I usually prefer to read series in order, it's certainly not an ironclad rule, as most seem to stand on their own. I think I would have definitely enjoyed this book a lot more, however, if I had read some of the previous books, as I found myself somewhat lost for almost the first half of the book. So much that I almost gave up and moved on, because I was just so frustrated. There is a a lot of backstory involved with these women, and while the author attempts to explain a little of it, much of it is simply alluded to, and it gets confusing quickly. There are a lot of people and details to keep track of and truly, by the end of the novel, there were still some ancillary characters that I still had not figured out exactly how/where they factored in. It also didn't help that, and perhaps this was just my ARC copy, the paragraphs would just abruptly switch over to varying points of view, causing you to have to double back and figure out who was now telling the story.

Perhaps because I hadn't read some of the earlier novels, it was harder to get into the characters and really identify with them; seriously, for the first half of the book, I was just trying to figure out who the heck they were and how they were all related/intertwined with each other. I probably related the most with Nikki--being a mother of twins myself--but seriously, her whining could definitely get on your nerves, even if you could identify with some of her fears. Other issues included the fact that the women simply wouldn't Google why Bitsy showed up at their doorstep (seems a bit of a stretch) and a few other places where a simple conversation could have easily resolved what then became a major plot issue. The whole "oh let's just not talk" issue in books is a big pet peeve of mine.

So, for a while, I was pretty frustrated. I had no clue who these people were, nor did I really care. The book was confusing, and the whole money aspect of the plot was stressful (I don't know what it is about my personality, but I get stressed when people stand to lose it all in books, especially when they just don't think clearly about the situation!). Still, I won't lie, as the book wore on and I figured out the basics about the relationships, the characters and the plot grew on me a bit. It helped that there was a Kinsey Millhone reference (main character in Sue Grafton's amazing series). It was sort of like a soap opera; you know it's all really fantastical, yet you can't help but watch. You need to be prepared for famous actors and musicians, allusions to some pretty crazy things that happened in previous novels, and some silly decision-making. But, I couldn't help but keep reading by the time I was about 3/4 through, and I even found myself smiling a bit (shhh, don't tell). I might even consider picking up the next book at some point to find out what happens to some of these characters, because it definitely didn't tie up all the loose ends.

Overall, if you like tidy plots that make sense, or if it bothers you coming into a series midway, this one isn't for you. But if you're looking for a fun, beachy read that can get your mind off things, and you've either read the earlier books in the series, or you can adjust to being confused for a bit, you might enjoy this silly, soapy tale.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 04/25/2017.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

I'm here for you, if you let me: THAW.

Thaw (Seasons of Love, #2)Thaw by Elyse Springer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Abby is an introverted librarian happily living a regular life in Brooklyn. But things change when she attends a charity gala with a friend and meets Gabrielle, a famous actress and model. The two connect on the dance floor, and Abby is immediately taken by this lovely woman known in modeling circles as the Ice Queen. And while she can see how Gabrielle has earned this nickname, she also senses a softer side to her. Gabrielle asks Abby on a date, and the two begin to get to know each other, discovering they have a lot of similar interests. But even though Gabrielle seems to let her guard down around Abby, she also has problems opening up about her past. Meanwhile, while Abby finds Gabrielle fascinating, she's worried what will happen to their relationship when she admits she's asexual. She's also dealing with issues in her own personal life related to her library position. Can these two women overcome a variety of obstacles to find love?

This novel definitely follows the trope of a regular gal falling for the rich, remote, often angry lesbian: you have to surrender yourself to that and you'll enjoy the book more (much like watching a romantic comedy). There is a little too much focus at times on the fact that Gabrielle runs hot and cold, and her personal dynamics can be slightly weird at points. Still, even while occasionally annoyed, I found myself intrigued and interested at her reticence and wondering at its cause.

However, the real star of this show isn't Gabrielle, but Abby. Abby is just a real sweetheart. She's truly the force of the book. I personally identified with her and adored her love of books, avoidance of makeup, and general introverted self. She was a well-written character, and I found myself wanting to protect her. The fact she's asexual is interesting, and it really cast a light on a sexual orientation that I knew very little about. It was a good learning experience, honestly.

Much like said romantic comedies I mentioned earlier, a lot of this plot is predictable, but the book was written well-enough that I didn't mind: it's what I had signed up for, after all, and I was happy to be along for the ride. I still was really excited for the outcome and read the entire thing in about 24 hours. Besides, the novel has a hidden depth to it, giving us an interesting commentary on society's expectations about sex and relationships. Plus, Springer inserts some hidden inside jokes about books, literary series, and such. A lot of the novel just made me smile, between Abby, the asides, and the overall resolution. It was surprising and for the most part, very enjoyable. Probably a 3.75 stars, but bumped up to 4 stars due to the way it made me feel. I will definitely seek out the other novels in Springer's Season of Love series (this was actually #2, but it seemed to stand-alone just fine).

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 04/24/2017.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

And you feel you've come undone: THE PERFECT STRANGER.

The Perfect StrangerThe Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leah Stevens needs to get away from Boston. Due to an article she published, her job as a journalist is over thanks to fears of a lawsuit coupled with an in-place restraining order. So when she comes across her old friend Emmy in a bar, the timing seems perfect. Emmy is coming out a bad relationship and she suggests the pair--once former roommates--move to rural Pennsylvania and start over. Leah gets a teaching position at the nearby school, and Emmy picks up a series of odd jobs. But their fresh start is jeopardized when a local woman, with a startling likeness to Leah, is attacked. Then Emmy vanishes, and Leah really starts to worry. Leah works with the local police, but quickly fears she may be under suspicion as well, as it rapidly becomes clear that Leah didn't know Emmy well at all. In fact, Leah is starting to wonder: did Emmy even exist?

This is Miranda's follow-on to All the Missing Girls, and I actually found myself liking THE PERFECT STRANGER even more. While GIRLS hooked you with its backward narrative shtick, STRANGER pulls you immediately with the strength of its story, and it never lets go. Everything in the novel is complicated and interrelated, it seems, and you're constantly digesting details and facts and trying to put these intricately interwoven pieces together, just as Leah is. Because she has a past as a reporter, she's great at digging through facts, but you also can't trust her as a narrator, and it puts you--the reader--in quite a bind. What is true? Who is real? It was a frustrating (in a good way) dilemma, and I loved it.

The novel gets progressively creepier as it unfolds: to the point that I found myself checking the curtains when I was up late at night (frantically reading the book, of course!). I kept wondering what on earth was going on and how everything could possibly fit together. At one point, there was a great plot twist that I totally didn't see coming. I love when that happens! The book kept me puzzling right up until the end. It's really quite spellbinding.

It reminded me a bit of a Mary Kubica novel; you really do start to doubt if Emmy exists. As mentioned, Leah is a very unreliable narrator in many ways. She brings her reporter instincts to this small town (despite trying to escape that part of her past), and it's truly fascinating watching her try to unravel the story. Her searches become really exciting, even if you don't completely trust her or know if you can believe her.

Everything ties together really well. The only downside for me was that the ending was a bit anticlimactic, but the "aha" moments when everything fits together are amazing. It's a really intricate and well-plotted novel. I stayed up late to finish it because I could not go to bed without knowing what had happened. I was more excited about finishing this book than Duke's defeat in the NCAA tournament - that should say a lot. :)

Overall, a very exciting and interesting (and often spooky!) thriller. Definitely recommend.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 04/11/2017.

You can read my review of Megan Miranda's ALL THE MISSING GIRLS here.
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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Always falling down without a place to land: THE FINISHING SCHOOL.

The Finishing SchoolThe Finishing School by Joanna Goodman

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

It has been 20 years since Kersti Kuusk set foot on the grounds of the Lycée, the prestigious boarding school she attended as a teen. Kersti was a scholarship student from Canada at the elite school, and she left abruptly in her senior year, after her best friend, Cressida, fell from her balcony one evening. The school declared the event an accident, but now, Kersti finds herself unconvinced. A timely letter from another of her school friends brings up more questions: was Cressida pushed, or did she attempt suicide? Kersti knows that Cressida had become increasingly obsessed with a secret society within the Lycée--banned since the 1970s when two of its members were expelled. As the school plans a celebration of its 100th anniversary, Kersti considers returning. She also starts looking further into Cressida's fall. However, some secrets are meant to stay buried.

THE FINISHING SCHOOL is told in alternating chapters between the present day and Kersti's school years, leading up to Cressida's fall from the balcony. This effective technique certainly creates tension and suspense, leading you to madly flip the pages, trying to figure out what happened - particularly to Kersti's group of friends at the Lycée twenty years ago. The novel pulls you in fairly quickly and hooks you rather rapidly. Goodman is quite adept at capturing the voices of her characters, especially the teens, and the boarding school passages are rather effective. (They are also great at making you want to never send your child to boarding school. Parts of it reminded me of Tana French's THE SECRET PLACE in that way.)

For me, the only thing that held this book back was that some of the plot was a little weird: mostly some of the things relating to Kersti's personal life and her obsession with Cressida. They didn't necessarily seem required for the story to be successful, but they bothered me. It's a shame, because overall I liked Kersti, and I felt a connection with her. Present-day Kersti is suffering from infertility, and, as someone who has been there, I can say that Goodman captures that angst very well. I just wasn't sure about some of her choices.

At times, some of the school drama gets a little tedious, but it picks up as the novel gains momentum, especially near the end. I figured out parts of the plot, but not all of it, and I was quite frantic to finish the last portions of the book to put it all together. It's quite a dark and twisted tale, overall. Certainly worth a read. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 04/11/2017.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

But you got me good and I can't quit: GET IT TOGETHER, DELILAH!.

Get It Together, Delilah!Get It Together, Delilah! by Erin Gough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Delilah is seventeen and in her last year of high school in Australia. She's also stuck working endless hours in her father's cafe, the Flywheel, as he goes on a whirlwind world trip: hopefully to mend his broken heart. You see, Delilah's mother, June, left him for another man and moved away, leaving Delilah and her father (and the cafe) all alone. But suddenly Delilah finds herself seventeen and running the Flywheel solo. She has no time for school, homework, or even her friends. She barely even finds time to sneak glances across the street at the beautiful Rosa, whose family runs a nearby business. Delilah thinks Rosa is amazing, but she doesn't know how to tell her (and besides, the last time she fell for a girl, she was bullied endlessly at school). What can she do to get her life on track?

This novel has all the makings of a lovely little lesbian YA book. And, truly, many aspects of it are simply delightful. My biggest problem is that I could never get past the fact that Delilah's father left his seventeen-year-old daughter alone to oversee his business (supposedly it was left in the charge of Delilah and another employee, who is quickly removed via a car accident and visa issues). So much of the novel focuses on Delilah's plight of having to save the cafe: ordering the supplies and food, oversight of its finances, and even making major legal decisions in her father's stead. I just couldn't buy it. And she missed so much school; I get that the legal age for that choice is different in Australia than America, but it was very odd. Basically every parent in the novel was completely absent: it seemed really far-fetched. So did asking a "friend" to run the place day-after-day, or to look at the accounts, or make extensive determinations regarding the Flywheel's fate. Or perhaps I'm just a literalist who is no fun.

On the plus side, beyond the cafe aspects, Delilah is a sweet character, and it's always refreshing to see a lesbian protagonist in YA fiction. The portions of the novel where she is attempting to work out her sexuality are far more realistic. She is bullied at school (oh how I wish this didn't have to be a staple of teen fiction, because it no longer existed), which does contribute to her unwillingness to attend, and that I can understand. But she's a plucky heroine, and she definitely grows on you. Her cast of supporting characters is actually pretty slight, with a focus on her best friends Charlie and Lauren and her crush, Rosa. None of these are as fully developed as Delilah, but they are fairly interesting.

I would have enjoyed this novel more if its focus had been more on Delilah working through her sexuality and relationships versus so much of the Flywheel drama. Some of the scenes with Delilah and Rosa, or her other friends, are very poignant and spot on, and I quite enjoyed them. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel was a bit unrealistic and melodramatic and kept me from enjoying it fully. Still, it picked up at the end, and I did find myself rooting for these characters (and even the darn Flywheel). I also seem to be in the minority with my review, so don't let my feelings stop you from picking up the book.

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

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Monday, March 13, 2017

The targets ever changing but the war, it rages on: THE DRY.

The Dry (Aaron Falk, #1)The Dry by Jane Harper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aaron Falk is an investigator for the federal police in Melbourne. There, he follows money trails left by criminals. And while he may live a rather solitary life, at least he's also left behind his childhood home of Kiewarra, where the locals literally ran him and his father out of town. But all that changes when Aaron finds out that his best friend in Kiewarra, Luke Hadler, is dead. So is Luke's wife, Karen, and their young son, Billy. Luke apparently killed Karen and Billy before turning the gun on himself: the only person he spared in his family was his baby daughter, Charlotte. Aaron grew up as a second son to Luke's parents, and they call on him now to look into Luke and Karen's finances. Were things really so bad that Luke would enact such violence? As Aaron and the local police sergeant, Raco, begin investigating, it's quickly apparent that the case isn't as cut and dried as it seems. But the people of Kiewarra have long memories, and they still blame Aaron for something that happened over 20 years ago. Is Aaron safe in his hometown? And can he clear Luke's name--if it even needs clearing?

I have been hearing about THE DRY since before its release and wasn't sure it would live up to the hype, but I was wrong. I really, really enjoyed this novel and read it over the span of about 24 hours. My only regret about the entire experience was that it was over so quickly. This was an incredibly well-written, interesting, and intricately plotted novel that just flowed effortlessly. The story at its core is a dark one, and the town of Kiewarra is a sad and depressing place: the townspeople find it easy to believe Luke killed his family because everyone is down on their luck. The town is plagued by a horrible drought (hence the title), which spells certain doom for a community that makes it living primarily on farming. Luke and Karen had bought their farm from Luke's parents, and many think he killed himself because the farm couldn't remain profitable. Harper does an excellent job at portraying the people of Kiewarra--the small town town becomes almost another character in the novel. She does an excellent job of depicting depressed small town living.

In fact, I loved all the nuanced characters in THE DRY. You know when an author just captures her characters' voices perfectly? That was this book for me. Falk just slides effortlessly off the page, and I was completely taken with Sergeant Raco, as well. But you can also easily visualize all the people in Kiewarra that Aaron encounters. While the story primarily takes place in the present-day, we get key flashbacks to the past, when Luke and Aaron were teens, and they hung out with two other kids, Gretchen and Ellie. The slow buildup to a big event surrounding this foursome also creates incredible suspense, as both stories (what happened with Luke and family and what happened when all four were kids) unravel in parallel. It's remarkably well-done.

I enjoyed how the story kept me guessing the entire time, which isn't easy to do. Even when I had a decent inkling what happened with Luke, there was still so much I hadn't figured out. I was completely captivated by the story and frantically turning the pages to find out what had happened--both in the present and the past. I could see the setting, the people, and the town so clearly. The novel truly hooked me from the very beginning and never let me go.

I'm very excited to see that this might be a series featuring Aaron, as I really loved his character and Harper's writing. I read a lot of thrillers, but this one packaged everything together perfectly, and I highly recommend it. 4.5 stars.

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