Friday, February 20, 2015

All of us under its spell, we know that it's probably magic.

I zipped through two books lately. Both tied up their plot-lines a little too quickly and easily for my taste, but I still think they are both worth reading... 

I definitely enjoyed the first, the latest novel by Sarah Pekkanen entitled Things You Won't Say. It's the first of her books I've read and after I completed it, I looked back on Goodreads and saw I've had several of her earlier novels on my "to read" list for a while. I certainly liked what I read here enough to go back and explore some of her earlier works. Probably the only thing that prevented me from giving this a 4-star rating (I'd say this is about 3.5 stars) is that the novel wrapped up suddenly and a little too easily.

The novel follows the story of Jamie, a stay-at-home mom with three young kids and a teenage stepson. Her husband, Mike, is a cop. The story is very current -- not long after his partner is seriously wounded in a shooting, Mike finds himself in another dangerous situation. There's another shooting--at Mike's hands.

The story unfolds from the viewpoint of the women in Mike's life: Jamie; her sister, Lou - a slightly eccentric zookeeper and part-time barista; and Christie, Mike's ex-girlfriend, who is night to Jamie's day, but also mother to Mike's eldest son, Henry.

The characters are well-developed and complex. Jamie is a bit irritating at times, but I really liked Lou. The book is a rapid read and a very easy one, as well, even if it's rather stressful. It's certainly a worthwhile and enjoyable read. I'll be curious to see what some of Pekkanen's earlier books are like.

(Note: I received an advance ebook version of this book from Edelweiss in return for an unbiased review.)

Next, came a short book and a very fast read: Michael C. Grumley's Through the Fog. I read it in less than 24 hours. The story is really far fetched, but almost compulsively interesting. Evan hits his head in a bike accident shortly after he turns 18 and starts having strange visions when he falls asleep. His psychiatrist, Shannon, attempts to help him. As she does, she realizes that Evan, using his visions, may be able to help her find her young daughter, Ellie, who disappeared 18 months ago. The problem is that each vision seems to take a crazy toll on Evan, and it seems likely that finding Ellie may kill him.

So, definitely compelling. Evan seems sweet and likable. None of the characters were particularly well-drawn or complex. We meet Shannon's sister, a nurse, who helps find a similar case to Evan's, from many years ago. We don't learn that much about this person, though. And even when we learn more about what happened to Ellie, it all ties up a little easily, with this "aha" moment that seemed a little to neat for my taste.

Paradoxically, a lot is left unresolved with Evan, and I almost found myself wishing for a sequel, so I could learn more about his future.

Still, I was quite intrigued by this one. It was oddly enjoyable.

(Note: I received an advance ebook version of this book from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

As I've stated things can be complicated.

I read the most bizarre book lately - seemed almost worth its own post.

I wanted to like Molly Campbell's Keep the Ends Loose. I really did. It was a quick read, but honestly, I kept reading partly because the ridiculous and far-fetched plot sucked me in and partially because I just wanted it to be over. There were times when I found myself gritting my teeth because of the rather annoying diction and narration. You sort of became lulled into it the more you read, but it really was painful.

The novel follows 15-year-old Miranda (Mandy), who thinks she has a rather boring life and family, until her mother reveals a shocking secret that turns the family upside down. It involves Mandy's aunt, Iris, whom she adores, and  encompasses the entire family - her father, Roy; her 17-year-old brother Adam; her best friend, Barley (seriously, Barley); and a whole cast of other characters.

I'll hand it to Campbell - she creates a cast of rich characters and it's a plot worthy of a soap opera. The problem is that everything just seems a little off. Mandy is so adamant about her life previously being so boring and her startling "realizations" that adults, too, have depth and problems, that you feel like you're being hit over the head with it. The author bashes you over and over with Mandy's coming of age thoughts, rather than simply letting them unfold naturally from the plot.

Further, while Mandy is supposed to be a naive 15-year-old, at times she sounds like a kid. Other times, she's drinking beer and ruminating on sex. It's really disconcerting. Her narration is jumbled, and I was left wondering if the author actually knew any teens at all. Both Mandy and Adam exhibit a host of age-inappropriate behaviors and diction -- no matter what happens to them!

Finally, the storyline is so inane that I found myself wondering what sort of parents would actually do this to their children? If Mandy's parents were so supposedly boring and placid, the behavior seemed awfully odd. It was all just a little unbelievable and again, left you a tad jarred.

Overall, about 2.5 (out of 5) stars. A lot of promise, really, but just didn't get fulfilled.

(Note: I received an advance ebook copy of this novel from Netgally in return for a honest review.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Promise me you'll stay with me and keep me warm tonight.

 I've been reading some random books lately. Of these four, I'd probably recommend Marisa de los Santos' newest novel.

I've actually loved Marisa de los Santos since I read Love Walked In eight or so years ago. She has a lovely, poetic way with words and The Precious One doesn't disappoint there. It's told in the alternating voices of two sisters: Taisy, a grown woman, who has always wondered why her domineering father, Wilson, was never a true father to her, and who has been basically estranged from him since 18, and Willow, her 16-year-old half sister, Wilson's pride and joy.

After Wilson suffers a heart attack, he summons for Taisy and her twin, Marcus. Only Taisy -- still longing for the fatherly approval she could never attain-- comes. There she learns that Wilson wants her to write a book about his scholarly life. As she embarks on that quest, she learns more than she bargained for about her father, her halfsister, her stepmother, and herself.

Here's the thing about this book. Much of it is incredibly implausible. It's kind of insanely implausible. There's a line where Willow, who is truly this pure, kind child of 16, after being isolated her entire life by her father, is talking to a school friend and asking how anyone could possibly be so nice. That's how I feel about half the characters in the book. Willow, said friend, Luka, Taisy... we also meet Taisy's high school boyfriend, Ben, whom she abandoned when the Wilson craziness happiness. Even he's amazingly nice.
They're all so kind and amazing and introspective. Well, except for Wilson, who is a completely horrible person: even after you learn about his past, he's just an ass.

But it doesn't matter if the characters seem a little too nice, or things happen a little to easily. There's definitely adversity, and poor Willow is certainly put through the wringer in a short period in this book. You find yourself rooting for her (she's just so nice, dammit) and Taisy (she's just so feisty and kind, dammit!) and for their relationship(s). There's also a beautiful moment, where things sort of come full circle, and you find yourself amazed about de los Santos' writing all over again.

It's a pretty book, and a romantic book, and a slightly improbable book, but still a good read nonetheless. Rated 4 stars here, probably truly a 3.5 rating (there's a little de los Santos nostalgia that goes into that rating).

(Note: I received a free ebook copy of this novel from Edelweiss in return for a honest review.)

In a bit of a turn from de los Santos' romantic novel, I tried Amy Poehler's memoir, Yes Please. I wasn't sure how to feel about this book. In some ways, I appreciated that it was more serious than some of the other "funny people" memoirs going around. I am not a huge fan of books written by silly people full of silly things that pretend to tell the story of their life. What's the point? At least Amy makes an attempt to write a memoir, chronicling bits and pieces of her life and actually detailing true thoughts and feelings about things, rather than just jokey things that have no meaning. I found myself sort of rushing through some of the silly lists and spending more time on the actual writing, though some of the funny bits were good - fake acceptance speeches and the like.

The problem is that the book jumps around a lot and never really delves too much into anything. Not wanting to cover her divorce - okay, I get that. There is a really sweet chapter on her sons, which was lovely. You get a rough chronicle of how she became a kid from New England who wound up in New York by way of Chicago. But there's not a lot of detail. I also, selfishly, wish there had been more Tina Fey.

I enjoy that you get the impression that Amy is a deep person with deep thoughts - and isn't even perhaps always nice. She's not afraid to tell stories that don't necessarily flatter her. You get an idea of her as multifaceted person - actress, writer, mom, etc., and not just someone who tells funny stories. There are also some good stories that feature celebrities, which you are always looking for in a celebrity memoir. Finally, there's a fun bit annotated with notes by Parcs & Rec creator Mike Schur. He and Amy talk about a holiday gift Mike gave all his family and friends containing every email, text, and phone message he received during the Red Sox's successful World Series run in 2004. I was left thinking I want to read *that* book.

Anyway, the book just felt a little flat to me, as if it was missing something. It was a little disjointed in its presentation and content. Because it jumps the line between serious and funny, you're left without a full idea of who Amy is, but yet it's not funny enough to just make you laugh and forget all the other flaws.

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about Ian McEwan's The Children Act. Certainly a 360 degree turn from Poehler! I didn't particularly like it or dislike it. In the beginning, the novel seems to be the story of Fiona, a high up respected family court judge in London, and her husband, Jack, who comes to her, asking for an open marriage.

However, the story quickly drifts away from that thread and is pulled abruptly toward Fiona and her cases, particularly a 17-year-old boy, Adam, a Jehovah's Witness, who has leukemia. He needs a blood transfusion, which goes against his religion (and that of his parents). It's an interesting case, and Adam makes for an intriguing character (via the snippets we learn of him), but we never really get to understand quite why Adam grows to have such power over Fiona.

By the end of the novel, without revealing the ending, I felt a bit deflated, and left wondering why I'd read the story to begin with. It was certainly well written, but it seemed a bit pointless at times, and I didn't find Fiona or her husband that likable, and didn't get to learn enough about Adam or anyone in her other cases.

Last book of this group was Joyce Carol Oates' Jack of Spades. This book was certainly a page turner and a quick read, although I really just wanted it to be over.  Andrew J. Rush is a successful mystery author -- married with a wife and three grown children. He also secretly (not even known to his wife and children) writes under the pseudonym Jack of Spades - and these books are dark, violent thrillers.

The book starts with Rush receiving a court summons that a woman in nearby locale is accusing him of stealing - basically plagiarism. He feels threatened and slowly, the unbidden Jack of Spades within Rush starts coming out.

The book is peppered with Stephen King references and I don't typically read King's more dark novels, so I can't say if there's a comparison here. Overall, I didn't find the book scary, or even that psychologically interesting, but a bit stupid. While a character in a novel like this shouldn't be likeable, per se, you should have some sort of admiration for their cunning. Instead, I just found Rush annoying and stupid.

Oates provides us with a back-story that is supposed to explain Rush's pathology, but it seems thinly constructed. The whole premise just seems off. I can't imagine someone not picking up on this guy and his behavior, his wife not just walking out, his kids not just taking their mother away, etc. It was just not my cup of tea.

(Note: I received an advance ebook copy of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

You were too far gone after the fall.

So I haven't hit a home run yet in 2015, but if I had to recommend a book of these three, it would probably be Before I Fall.

First, I was somewhat disappointed by Jane Green's Saving Grace and I'm not exactly sure why. I think because its plot synopsis reminded me somewhat of a Liane Moriarty book and by the end of Green's novel, I felt that Moriarty had done it much better.

Saving Grace tells the story of Grace and Ted Chapman. Ted is a famous and beloved author, though one in the bit of a decline, and Grace his faithful wife, well-known mostly for her style and grace (haha). To an outsider, the Chapmans look to be the perfect couple, but we learn that Ted is quick to rage and Grace continually finds herself walking on eggshells around her husband.

The one person who seems able to calm these rages is his assistant, Ellen. When she leaves to care for her ailing mother, Grace finds herself in despair. She feels as if her life is falling apart, trying to care for her house and Ted's needs. (At this point, I find myself a little frustrated and flabbergasted. Seriously? Join the real world, lady.) However, she feels like her prayers have been answered when her daughter, Clemmie, introduces her to Beth. Beth becomes Ted's assistant and also Grace's helpmate. But Grace quickly feels as if Beth is taking over -- not just as Ted's assistant, but over Grace's life. We're left to wonder, is Grace crazy? Or Beth?

The story itself is sort of a compelling one -- assistant moves in and takes over perfect wife's life. It sounds quite exciting (Lifetime movie, anyone?). However, Grace is not that compelling of a character, and her whiny ways did not garner a ton of sympathy with me, even if Beth was a horrible person. Her husband was clearly an ass, but we really didn't get to learn much about his character, either. Or, really, even Beth's. There's also a lot of far-fetched plot points - yes, Ted is under Beth's spell, but would he really believe some of the tales she weaves about his wife? It's all just very strange.

All in all, I read the book fairly quickly, interested to see what would happen to Grace, mostly for the sake of finding out. However, in the end, I just felt Green could have done so much more with the story, and with Grace's character.

Next, I forget where I saw a recommendation for Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (who am I kidding, probably People or Entertainment Weekly, about the extent of my "literary" reading these days), but it wasn't quite what I expected. Less mystery surrounding a disappearance/death and more "human interest" about a-- truth be told-- rather unlikable family.

The novel chronicles the Lee family, who wakes up one day to find their eldest daughter/sister, Lydia, missing. Eventually Lydia's body is found in the local lake, and the family is turned upside down. It goes without saying, but it's really a rather depressing book. Lydia's parents, Marilyn and James, are just awful, and not just because they are grieving. I found very little to like in them. Lydia's siblings, Nath and Hannah, aren't nearly as bad (Hannah is truly the redeeming one in the family), but still. It's hard to root for a family that you don't much care for. There are also some strange side plots involving the siblings that never really seem resolved.

As a parent, I found aspects of the book interesting -- the way Lydia's mom pushes her so much to attain a dream that really belonged to Marilyn. In addition, the family is still reeling from Marilyn's brief disappearance before Hannah was even born. Ng does do a good job of showing how much this impacts the family, especially the kids. It's a little frightening, really, as the sinking realization of how every little thing you do can follow your children, even 10 years later (though in Marilyn's case, she really does some damaging things).

Still, those redeeming moments couldn't salvage the whole book for me. I liked it well enough, but I was left at the end feeling a little depressed and annoyed and wishing more loose ends were tied up.

 As for Before I Fall (Lauren Oliver), I think I would have enjoyed it even more if it wasn't coming on the heels of me reading several other tragic YA books about teenagers dying (including The In Between and If I Stay). I sort of felt bludgeoned by the senseless tragedy of it all - perhaps I need to get out more?!

Anyway, the book follows the main character Sam, who dies in a car crash one night after a party. However, she finds herself reliving that day over and over (think Groundhog Day) for some reason and has to figure out how to make it stop. It's a rather weird premise and the way she finally breaks out sort of bothers me, so I felt a little deflated at the end.

That being said, I really liked Sam. She's a compelling character. Also refreshing is the fact that Sam and her gaggle of friends are the popular kids, on top of the pyramid at school. It's a change of pace from the usual romantics and geeks that show up in YA novels. (It does, however, make me 110% terrified for my children to reach high school.) As Sam starts to realize her own mean girl status-- and that of her friends--Oliver sets up a good message about high school and friendship. Not sure it would be readily apparently to every teen reading the novel, but I appreciate the effort.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Oh look, it's the woman we ordered.

My first two books read this year couldn't be more different...

For the first, it's a little unfair to John Grisham, but I probably would have rated this book 4 stars if he didn't write it. It was a pretty good book, but I kept waiting for the typical Grisham-flair to pop up - a huge courtroom battle, an epic good versus evil duel, etc.

Instead, the battle and storyline I would have really wanted to read about goes on in the background as a secondary storyline. The main plot follows Samantha Kofer, a young law associate at a powerful firm in New York City. However, when the recession hits in '08, Samantha finds herself furloughed and in order to keep her health insurance, and to potentially get her old job back, must intern at a rural legal aid clinic in Brady, Virginia.

There Samantha meets a cast of characters, including Mattie, who runs the clinic; her nephew, Donovan, also a lawyer; Donovan's shady brother, Jeff; and a host of other rural townsfolk. She also gets her first taste of real law. We, the reader, learn about the atrocities of Big Coal and strip mining, including Black Lung Disease, which the book goes into in great detail (and which personally, makes me want to become a lawyer or social worker, as it's all awful).

It's interesting to have Grisham write in the voice of a young female. It takes me back to Darby Shaw (of The Client - one of my all-time favorite Grisham novels), though Samantha is *no* Darby Shaw, by any stretch of the imagination. She's a bit spineless, though, really, she's not given much story to work with. The first 3/4 of the book I mostly enjoyed and then the last 1/4 just sort of tapers off. It almost seems as if a sequel is in order, but who knows.

Again, I think I might have liked Samantha and her story a bit more if it wasn't Grisham, as I might have expected a bit less. It's a good read, but leaves you wanting more.


For the second read of 2015, I requested Olivia Pierce's The In Between from NetGalley on a whim, based on the book's description. I confess that the book was not exactly what I was expecting. The novel appears to tell a typical tale of YA love, but it also spends much of its time in a paranormal, mystical world of the "In Between." It's very odd and I wasn't expecting so much talk of Heaven and Hell, despite the hint from the title.

The story follows Tara Jenkins and Justin Westcroft. Friends as children, they become close again after Tara saves Justin's life, when he nearly drowns in an accident at the public beach. Now in high school, Justin is a popular soccer star, while Tara is just a "regular gal." Tara and Justin quickly fall madly in love and become each other's world.

Part of my issue with this book is just that - Tara and Justin are in high school and the entire book centers on their "great romance" and the idea that they are made for each other, destined for all eternity. Some people pull it off, even if it's a cheesy YA series like Twilight. You find yourself rooting for Bella and Edward. Here... I don't know. Pierce's characters just aren't well-developed enough. I like Tara, but I'm not fully invested in her. I actually cared for Justin a bit more (he seemed to have more of a head on his shoulders), but I don't get to learn enough about him, or really get to know him enough as I read the novel. Instead, you are just left wondering why two young kids are so in love and so convinced, at this age, that they are meant for each other. Instead of falling for their love story, it seems like a Made for TV Special.

Once Justin actually dies (and I'm not giving anything away, the book's summary is forthright in telling you that Tara can't save Justin a second time) and he goes to the "In Between," you find him in this weird mythical, mystical land, and it's just odd. I do feel empathy for Justin as he struggles to get back to Tara, and even for Tara, as she grieves for Justin, but it often feels like two kids playing at being grown up. With the distraction of some weird mystical characters thrown in to boot.

That being said, the book managed to keep my interest. I kept reading, wanting to know what would happen to Justin and Tara. Would they kill them both? Would they be reunited? Surely it wouldn't just end with him stuck here and her still pining away? After all this?! In the end, the ending is rather "pat" and the book just sort of ends.

Come to think of it, this probably *would* make a great Lifetime movie. And I'd no doubt guiltily enjoy it with a box of chocolates.

(Note, I received a free digital copy of The In Between in return for a honest review.)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Someday we all will live the dream.

At the beginning of the year, I set a goal on the amazing site, Goodreads, to read 50 books this year. Somehow (basically by ignoring work, chores, and sleep in the evenings!), I surpassed the goal, ultimately reading sixty books in 2014.  If you follow that link, you can take a look at all the books I read in 2014 and my ratings. Note that not all books were published in 2014, of course, they just happened to be books I picked up over the year.

2014 was a good year in books. One of the (many) things I love about Goodreads is its ability to rate books. Below is a run-through of my most highly rated books of the year (beginning with the most recently read). (I also marked my three favorites of the favorites, in case you want the Cliff Notes version!)

After We Fall (formerly titled Falling) – Emma Kavanagh.  I was pleasantly surprised by this one. The novel is told from the viewpoint from four characters - Tom, a police officer; Celia, a flight attendant and Tom's wife; Jim, a father and former police officer; and Freya, a young student. Their lives intertwine over the course of the book, all centered on a plane that goes down one snowy night. Their stories are superbly told and each character extremely well-drawn-- albeit not always likeable. There are several mysteries that build within the book-- why did the plane go down, of course--along with a murder that's central to the story. You would think with so few characters that the plot would seem trite and the outcome apparent, but Kavanagh does a great job of creating suspense and keeping you on your toes. Just when you think you've figured something out, there's another small surprise.  I found myself completely immersed in the character's lives (I was immediately drawn to Tom, liked Jim and Freya, and had issues with Celia, but that's all just from my own perspective). Definitely a worthwhile read. Quick too, I downed it in a couple of days, even though I was staying up until all hours wrapping presents! (Read via Netgalley ARC; After We Fall will be published 6/1/2015)

The Burning Room – Michael Connelly. Another great Bosch novel (#19!) by Connelly, though the ending left me a bit unsettled. I love Bosch like an old friend. In this chapter, Bosch is still solving Open-Unsolveds, this time with a rookie partner, Soto. They wind up with a politically charged case, which soon looks to be tied to another old case – this one that has personal ties for Soto. It’s another great mystery, per usual, and the way Connelly voices Bosch is just soothing to me. But, then of course, this comes from the person who read about 15 Bosch books while pregnant. He’s kept me company through a lot. 

One Plus One – Jojo Moyes. One of my favorite books of the year. It’s sort of silly and outlandish in plot, but you don’t care, because you’re just riveted, wanting to read it as quickly as possible. Jess is a down-on-her-luck mom of two (her daughter, Tanzie, plus stepson Nicky), whose husband has abandoned her so she must work two jobs to make ends meet. She meets Ed, a millionaire who is also a bit down-on-his-luck (oh just some investment fraud charges and such) while cleaning his vacation home. Eventually Ed comes to their rescue (literally, as the family is sitting on the side of the road) and helps drive them to a math competition for young Tanzie, who is a maths expert. Along the way, a lot happens. You’d think the novel would be pat and predictable, but it’s really just… lovely. And one of the few books I’ve really loved that I actually think would make a good movie, provided I can approve all casting choices, of course.  **2014 favorite**

Blue Lily, Blue – Maggie Stiefvater. Two Maggie books in one year. Insanity. This is the third book in Stiefvater’s “The Raven Cycle,” which is a series not exactly for the faint of heart, as it details a mystical and crazy dreamland world. But it’s a beautiful and captivating series. The third book does not disappoint. The series follows Blue, the daughter of a psychic and her friends from a local boy’s school – the beautiful Gansey, who is chasing King Glendower; the volatile Rowan; and Adam, a local boy on scholarship. To describe the series, I only have to tell you that Blue and her mother can see the dead once a year and that she knows that Gansey will eventually die. And Blue also knows that she can’t kiss her true love, or he will die. Oh and Rowan can dream anything he wants to life (his father could do the same and actually dreamed his mother into existence). And yet, none of this seems too crazy when you read these books. In this installment, the gang continues their search for Gansey’s king, Blue suffers a horrible loss, and they meet someone who actually knew Glendower…

Leaving Time – Jodi Picoult. I actually really enjoyed this Picoult novel, and I haven’t really been a huge fan of some of her later works. It tells the story of Jenna, who lost her mother in a sad accident at an elephant sanctuary. Trying to find her, Jenna goes through her old research journals and enlists the help of two kooky characters: a dejected psychic, Serenity, and an even more dejected PI, Virgil. The story follows their journey to find Jenna’s mother, Alice, along with flashbacks into Alice’s life and how she met Jenna’s father. It also contains A LOT of research and information about elephants. As in, probably, more than you’d ever like to know. You will probably skim that a bit – a lot of readers have complained about it – but I didn’t find it detrimental to the story, just a tad supplemental. The story features one of Picoult’s crazy twists, and Jenna is just such a complete and complicated character that you can’t help but root for her, poor kid. 

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust – Alan Bradley. I can't help it. I just find Flavia de Luce absolutely delightful. I want to be her friend, her confidante, her laboratory buddy. This novel finds Flavia in Canada, navigating boarding school after discovery that she's to be inducted in the same secret society as her mother. Perhaps I envisioned a bit more secret-spy training for Flavia than the book delivered - instead, immediately upon her arrival, a dead body falls out of a chimney, and Flavia sets upon her usual course - proving the adults wrong and finding out whodunnit. It's a formula that still hasn't gotten old, because Bradley simply writes Flavia so well. She is such an amazing character - so likable, so true to herself. I can just picture her in the situations in which she finds herself, and imagine the adults around her and their expressions. Flavia has some good interactions with both her fellow students and teachers at this new academy -- many of whom knew her mother, the late Harriet. She proves herself a worthy detective, again, of course, using her wits and chemistry. The whole Nide business is still a bit odd and confusing to me. I suppose that's the point, but it's hard not to have some resolution - though I suppose we are supposed to be sharing Flavia's similar frustration at this point. Nevertheless, I am amazed at Bradley's ability to continue to write books that so embody this character. I often try to envision a Flavia film and then find myself hoping it never happens, as I would hate to have the Flavia in my head ruined by the movies. Definitely worth a read, as always, and now I'm left bereft that I'll have to wait over a year for the next installment of Flavia's adventures. (I read this via a Netgalley ARC; it will be published 1/6/15.)

The Same Sky – Amanda Eyre Ward. Another one of my absolute favorites of the year. It is just a beautiful book. Ward's writing is simply lovely and magical. When I finished the book, I was left feeling a bit disappointed - not by the plot or the writing, but that it was over. It's one of those novels that I'll be recommending to everyone. The Same Sky tells the story of two unique individuals. The first is Alice, a forty-year-old living in Texas, with her husband. Together, they run a successful BBQ restaurant and appear incredibly happy. But they've been through a long and sad string of infertility, and Alice is left empty by the latest episode - a birth-mother taking back a baby promised to her, after Alice spent the night with the baby she thought was going to be hers. Alice's chapters alternate with those of Carla, a young girl in Honduras. Carla's mother leaves for America early in the story, leaving Carla with her grandmother and one of her younger twin brothers. Carla's voice is just amazing. Ward captures this young teenager perfectly. I'm not sure how you can read this book and not fall completely for Carla. There are times when I didn't completely love Alice, or when I wanted to shake her, but Carla - I just wanted to hug her and take her home. As you read the novel, Alice and Carla's stories are completely separate, which is fascinating. They provide an intriguing commentary on our society and the American Dream -- Alice seems to have it all in America, but she feels empty due to her childless state. And Carla wants nothing more than to come to America to be with her mother. I simply loved the book - I won't give away any more of the plot, but it was well-written and beautiful. (I read this via a Netgalley ARC; the book will be published on 1/20/15.) **2014 favorite**

Natchez Burning – Greg Iles. Apparently this book is even longer than The Goldfinch and I picked it up as a “beach read.” Hmm. Genius that I am, I didn’t realize it’s actually the fourth in a Penn Cage series by Iles until I was too far into the plot to stop, so oh well. He apparently wrote three Cage novels earlier and then this one later, so it does stand alone, if you’re willing to be a bit confused. It was still a really good read about Penn Cage, mayor of a small Southern town, who unwittingly stumbles upon a series of racist crimes as he tries to exonerate his father, the exalted Dr. Tom Cage, from a crime. The story flashes back 40 years to the times of MLK, the Kennedys, and the KKK. It’s amazing, and there are so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of them sometimes. But the book is stunning and the characters are so fully drawn that they truly seem real, and you’ll start to get confused about what history is real and what Iles is making up for Burning. My only warning if you read this – Burning is apparently the first in the second half of another trilogy of Penn Cage novels, so if you read this huge book looking for complete resolution… well, forget it!

Like This, For Ever – S.J. Bolton. I can’t remember how I discovered the Lacey Flint series, but I’m glad I did. I need another spunky detective in my life, even if she does frustrate me to no end. (Just accept that Joesbury loves you already, Lacey!) This one is a little tough to read, as it centers around a series of murders of young boys, but the plot certainly keeps you guessing. As always, Lacey finds herself at the center of trouble (shocking, I know). 

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty. I would basically read anything Moriarty publishes by now. Her books are just witty and fun and usually a good story. This one is no exception. This is the story of several moms with kids in the same school in Australia (perfectionist Madeline; beautiful Celeste; and newcomer Jane). Moriarty is great at creating distinct characters. At the beginning of this one, we’re told there’s been a murder, and the whole book unfolds leading up to that day, coupled with police statements taken by those in attendance. You get some lovely (and heartbreaking) stories from the women in question, along with a pretty good mystery. Hard to go wrong with that. 

Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healy. One of my all-time favorite reads of this year. It’s poignant and heartbreaking and gorgeous, with pieces that will make you laugh out loud. It’s really hard to believe that this is Healy’s first novel. It tells the story of Maud, who is suffering from memory loss, and who is convinced her best friend, Elizabeth, is missing and in trouble. As we hear from Maud, we meet her daughter Helen, who bears the burden of caring for her, various other paid caretakers, and Elizabeth’s son. We also get glimpses into the past, as Maud remembers back to times spent with her sister, Sukey. I can’t really describe how lovely this book is, or how perfectly Healy seems to capture Maud’s memory disintegrating as the novel carries on. I recommended this book to my Mom, who is caring for an ailing parent, thinking she’d find some comfort in Helen’s story, and Maud’s too, and she also loved it. It’s really amazing. **2014 favorite**

Sinner – Maggie Stiefvater. I pretty much always love Maggie’s books, and it has nothing with her attending the same college as me. I vacillated on my 4 star rating for this one, but I sort of see this as a love letter, of sorts, to fans of her Shiver trilogy (this is billed as Shiver #4, or a standalone companion). If you’ve read the Shiver books (and you should, they’re so much fun), you’ll remember Cole and Isabel – this novel follows Cole and Isabel, post all the adventures in the earlier books. It’s lovely and beautiful and sad and funny and all the emotions a Maggie book usually brings into your life.  

That Night – Chevy Stevens. This was a bit of an “It book” this year, but it was definitely worth picking up. Toni is a fairly typical rebellious teen, until her younger sister is murdered. Toni and her boyfriend are sent to prison for the crime. The book centers on Toni and Ryan—both out on parole—trying to figure out life after prison. The two aren’t supposed to have contact, but each is determined to prove their innocence. The story alternates between past and present and it’s surprisingly engrossing, even if I wanted to kick Toni sometimes for being so stupid.  

The Divorce Papers – Susan Rieger. This was one of those books that surprised me. It was a book told entirely through correspondence (emails, letters, legal papers, etc.) and while it takes a bit to get used to (some of the legal stuff is really… legal), it’s an engaging book. The protagonist, Sophie, is a young criminal lawyer with no interest in divorce law whatsoever. But she winds up taking on one of the firm’s most important clients, Mia (through no fault of her own) and landing the case. By doing so, Sophie earns the ire of others in her firm and gets to tackle Mia, who is no easy client. But Sophie is fun, Mia is a trip, and the whole book is quite enjoyable – and a bit crazy to look at the legal battles the rich go through! 

The One & Only – Emily Giffin. I’ve read a lot of Emily Giffin’s so-called fluffy “chick lit” books and apparently, this book was pretty polarizing in its plot. I fell on the really loved it spectrum. Admittedly, it’s right up my alley, as it was all about sports and football. Shea is adrift in life, working a dead-end job and stuck in a relationship she doesn’t care for. She starts having feelings for her best friend’s dad, who happens to be a pretty famous football coach. The story seems like it would be unbelievable, but I didn’t think so. Shea was a little clueless at times, but a pretty engaging character. And I, of course, loved all the football references thrown in. 

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt. I resisted reading this book for a while, as it was sort of the “It Book” of late 2013/early 2014, but I’m glad I gave in. Be warned, it’s long, but it’s a worthy and captivating read. It starts with young Theo, who survives a crazy accident that kills his mom. He winds up living with a family of a school friend, and he embarks on this crazing coming of age journey. The book follows him as he grows up, all the while returning to the thread of this painting that reminds Theo of his Mom. I won’t lie, parts of the book are a little wild and weird, but overall, it’s a really amazing story. The kind where you just want to keep reading – chores and kids and jobs and bedtimes be damned – to get to the end. 

Together Alone- Barbara Delinsky. I chose this book to rest my brain, and it was perfect, enjoyable fluff. I basically figured out the plot about 50 pages in and still enjoyed it anyway. It’s part romance, part mystery. Emily’s daughter goes off to college, leaving her with her distant husband. We learn that Emily also had a son who was kidnapped and never found. As Emily grapples with her daughter growing up and her husband’s strange behavior, we learn more about her young son’s disappearance. The novel is silly but enjoyable and a fast read.  

Josie & Jack – Kelley Braffet. This book was mesmerizing and weird. It sucked you into the story of the two siblings, basically living alone in a creepy old house with their abusive father, who leaves them to their own devices. It's not for the faint of heart, for sure. Josie is a not an easy character to like (her brother even less so), but the story is rather spellbinding. I'd compare it to another book, but I feel like that would be too much of a spoiler to anyone interested in reading it. I give the whole book minus the epilogue 4 stars. The epilogue didn't seem necessary. Still, a worthy read.

Lock and Key – Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen became my new "read all her books like a crazy person" obsession in March. I really enjoyed this book. Ruby, at 17, winds up living with her estranged sister after her mother disappears. Her sister and her husband have money and Ruby has to start her life basically over. Ruby was a very realistic character, and for some reason, I really liked her brother-in-law, too. I couldn't put the book down. I was completely immersed in Ruby's coming of age tale.

Someone Like You – Sarah Dessen. This was a very engrossing YA novel about Halley, whose best friend Scarlett's boyfriend passes away. Lots of rather outlandish things seem to happen, but Halley is a very lovable character and you find yourself rooting for her. Somehow it all seems believable nonetheless.

The Accidental Tourist – Anne Tyler. This book was different than I usually read. At first, I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it (the protagonists are splitting up after the death of their son). The novel focuses on the husband, where I thought I wanted it to focus on the wife. But it turned out to be very enjoyable, though I cannot pinpoint why. Macon goes on his own little journey of self-discovery and you go right along with him. He's a quirky guy and it's a quirky book, but also deep, if that makes any sense.

Someday, Someday Maybe – Lauren Graham. Well, you have to take my review with a grain of salt, because I love anything Lauren Graham does. The end of the book told me she also has a MFA. What? Whatever, Lorelai Gilmore/Sarah Braverman. Frankly, I kept imagining those characters writing this as I read it, or seeing Franny, the main character, as one of those characters. The story was a tad predictable in places, but that's (let's be honest) the kind of story I like. Franny was very likable and it was a very fun and engaging tale.

The Mothers – Jennifer Gilmore. This book was very well-written and almost hard to read. Jesse and her husband Ramon have spent years trying to get pregnant and are now turning to adoption. It presents an extremely accurate portrayal about infertility and I bet about the adoption process, too. The main character is almost unlikable, but also real -- like a friend you would find frustrating, but love anyway. I just enjoyed it. It was a good read.

Feeling Sorry for Celia – Jaclyn Moriarty. OK, so in January, I read a bunch of books by this woman's sister (seriously, how do families get all this talent in one place?), so I decided to try Jaclyn's books. This novel is in a different format (all letters, some of which are from imaginary societies or people) but features a very engaging heroine. Elizabeth is in high school, dealing with a flighty best friend who keeps disappearing. The story unfolds via a series of letters between Elizabeth and her mom; a pen pal from another school; Celia (the flighty best friend); imaginary societies, etc. Elizabeth is winsome - no other way to put it and the format grows on you rather quickly. I didn't want it to end, because I'd grown attached to the kid!

The Hypnotist’s Love Story – Liane Moriarty. As you see, I'm not a discerning rater. I rate based on pure enjoyment or not, not some sort of literary prowess. This tells about Ellen, a hypnotherapist who falls for Patrick. All is great, except Patrick has a stalker -- his ex-girlfriend. The book is mainly from Ellen's point of view, but we hear from her (the stalker) sometimes, too. Very poignant story in some ways. I really enjoyed this one.

The Faraday Girls – Monica McInerney. I was surprised I liked this as much as I did. The story of a father and his five daughters, whom he brings up after his wife's death. It focuses on them mostly in their adulthood. One has a baby, Maggie, and part of the novel skips forward to Maggie as a young adult. They were a very dysfunctional family, but quite fun to read about.

What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty. I read The Husband's Secret and then got on a kick reading the rest of Liane's books (bought the first one and then found the rest via the library or Oyster, so I didn't feel too guilty about it). In this one, Alice hits her head at the gym and wakes up thinking she's 29 and pregnant, despite the fact that she's actually 39. She's forgotten the last 10 years of her life. The book chronicles her struggle to get her memory back. The ending is a probably a little pat, but I really liked this one.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The best thing you've ever done for me is to help me take my life less seriously.

I recently received a copy of Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting via Netgalley in return for an honest review.

This book is quite engaging and an incredibly quick read – I downed in it in a few days after Christmas. The characters in it are quite that – characters, for sure. The main one is Tallulah “Lulu” de Longland, who befriends young Annabelle Andrews in grade school and finds her life transformed (and not always for the better) by their friendship. 

This book has some great pieces – Lulu’s relationship with her parents, the steady Harry, a plumber, who is always there for Lulu, her twin brothers, and her mother Rose, who suffers from depression. It’s nice to see a fairly honest and yet original treatment of depression in a novel (not to give too much away but Rose names her dresses and her family gauges her behavior by what dress she’s wearing – it’s a neat little add). We also get Annabelle’s quirky parents, Annie and Frank, both artists, who don’t always do her any favors. And then there’s Josh, Lulu’s high school boyfriend, who leaves a lasting imprint on both Lulu and Annabelle.  And finally, we get Duncan, Lulu’s eventual employer, a true character (on radio) who works so hard to change Lulu’s life. 

But it’s Lulu who truly has to make the decision – once a good girl, always a good girl?

I found Lulu a very enjoyable character (for the most part, though I wanted to kick her into gear sometimes) and her supporting cast was fun for the most part. The plot is very fantastical—a stretch even for me, and I can buy just about anything. Still, it’s a fun, worthy read. (3.5 stars)