Saturday, May 27, 2017

There's trouble where I'm going but I'm gonna go there anyway: INTO THE WATER.

Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


When the police show up at her door, Jules Abbott knows it isn't good news, but she isn't expecting this. Her older sister, Nel is dead--drowned in the lake known as the Drowning Pool back in their hometown. Jules has always vowed to never return to that place, but she finds herself back: in her childhood home, where Nel lived with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Lena. The assumption is that Nel committed suicide in the Pool, but Jules knows that isn't possible. Even though she hasn't seen her sister for years, she is convinced her water-loving sibling would never willingly die in the water. Meanwhile, Jules discovers that Nel was looking into other local residents who died at the Drowning Pool over the years for a book she was writing. What exactly happened to them--and Nel?

It's never easy to follow up a blockbuster like The Girl on the Train - I cannot even imagine the pressure. I didn't adore that book, but I do remember that I basically read it in one sitting. That wasn't the case with INTO THE WATER, though in its defense, I read it during an extremely busy period with work, where I basically collapsed in bed each night to read a few chapters.

This is not a bad book, but it wasn't a great one, either. It's not one that will stay with me. For one thing, much of its plot is predicated around one of my most reviled literary pet peeves: ridiculous miscommunication. You know, that whole thing where if the characters would just talk to each other, as normal folks do, for about 5 minutes, we wouldn't have to go through any of this? Yes. That. So that irritated me to no end.

There are also a lot of points of view in this book. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly took a while to keep everyone straight. I was glad I was reading this as an actual book, so I could flip back and see whom I'd been reading about earlier. Slogging through those early portions of many characters slowed things down for me and made it harder to get into the story.

As I said, it's not a bad book. I enjoyed reading it. The storyline is fairly interesting, overall, and it held my attention, even when I was pretty tired. I had a pretty decent suspicion of "whodunnit" fairly early on and turned out to be correct, but about halfway through, I was still second-guessing myself and pretty captivated. Nel, Jules, and Lena are intriguing characters, if not fairly frustrating in their lack of ability to talk to one another.

Still, overall, I was left feeling a little deflated by this one. There was no big "gasp" moment for me (perhaps because I had a decent inkling what had happened early on?) like GIRL. It was just a fairly good thriller that kept me entertained for a few days.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A plot like this will always have a twist: THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK.

The Last Place You Look (Roxane Weary, #1)The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Roxane Weary is good at finding things. She always has been. So when she's hired by Brad Stockton's sister, Danielle, to find Brad's teenage girlfriend, Sarah, she doesn't think it will be a difficult case. Danielle is convinced she spotted Sarah at a gas station--despite the fact she disappeared fifteen years ago. Meanwhile, Brad is in jail--set to soon be executed--for the brutal murder of Sarah's parents the night Sarah disappeared; the prosecution also alleged that Brad killed Sarah as well. Brad did not put up much of a fight in his defense, but Danielle refuses to give up. Roxane quickly becomes caught up in Sarah's story and finds ties between her disappearance and other girls in the seemingly idyllic town of Belmont-- as well as connections to cases worked by her father, a police officer.

This is just a great book. It's easy to read and funny, albeit dark and sad at times. Roxane's dark, sarcastic humor is perfect. She gives off a Kinsey Millhone type vibe, if Kinsey was a functioning alcoholic with major Daddy issues. She's a complicated character (a complicated, real, female character - so refreshing!). She's bisexual (so wonderful to see reflected realistically in a novel). The other characters are well-formed and range from awful to sweet, but they support Roxane and the story perfectly.

As for the plot, it draws you immediately and keeps you constantly guessing, wondering what people know, who is telling the truth, and what's the actual story. I actually didn't figure this one out, so kudos to Lepionka. There are a few amazing "aha" moments that basically made me gasp. The town of Belmont is creepy and dark, and you'll find yourself completely wrapped up in its twisted, sad characters.

It looks like this is the first in a series, and I couldn't be happier; I can't wait to see where Roxane is headed next. Definitely recommend this one to mystery and thriller fans alike.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/13/2017.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

But if there were no music then I would not get through: THE WHOLE WAY HOME.

The Whole Way HomeThe Whole Way Home by Sarah Creech

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Jo(anne) Lover is a successful country music artist--a talented singer and fiddler--who is making music her own way. She's well-known as a down-home singer from Virginia who writes her own songs and loves the music she makes. Jo plays to packed crowds across the U.S. who love her more traditional style of music, her fiery spirit, and her patented red cowboy boots. But when the popular country band J.D. Gunn and the Empty Shells joins Jo's label, Asphalt Records (who just happens to be run by her future father-in-law), things change. J.D. Gunn and Jo grew up together, and along with their friend, Rob, were in a band as children. But Jo is now in a very different place from her childhood friend. J.D. has embraced modern country music (and it he). He sings songs about girls and pickup trucks--none of which he writes himself anymore. And he's made a lot of money doing so. But Jo can't quite adopt what modern country radio embodies: her heroines are Dolly and Loretta and her music reflects that. Still, J.D. and Jo have a storied past together, one that Jo increasingly cannot forget the more time they spend together.

This is a really interesting story of three linked artists: Jo, J.D., and Denver, who plays in a band with an African American singer, Alan. It's told in a conversational style from their various viewpoints, covering the present day as well giving us more background when the characters think back on the past. It's a very effective technique.

I cannot remember exactly why I requested this ARC, but I'm glad I did. This book is basically tailor-made for me: I'm a gigantic country music fan (from Virginia), who adores 90s country music and a lot of Jo's various heroines. As a child, my idol was Mary Chapin Carpenter, I was obsessed with cataloguing every country song I heard on the radio, and I wanted to be a country music singer/songerwriter (slight problem: I can't carry a tune). Needless to say, I loved Jo immediately.

Creech's novel presents a realistic take on modern country music, especially its stance toward African Americans and women. Her portrayal of the old country versus new country dichotomy is spot-on, but could potentially offend those who do love their songs about girls in pickup trucks sung by a revolving door of carbon copy male singers. You probably have to appreciate older country music for this book to work best.

But, don't fear if you aren't a country music fan. At its core, this is a love story, and while it's sometimes predictable and things tend to resolve themselves a bit too easily, it's really a fun one. It's a story of falling in love over music, as well as love of music. It's a strong story, but also captures the essence of what makes music special and magical. It portrays how music can be a business, or music can be a salve for your soul. Jo and J.D. are interesting characters and the supporting cast is intriguing and fun. Along with J.D.'s bandmates, we have Jo's assistant, Marie, and Denver's bandmate, Alan. There's also Jo's fiance, Nick, who is no stock character. While it has most of the earmarks of a typical romance-type novel, there are plenty of surprises along the way. It's also surprisingly profound for a soap opera tale. I enjoyed how it was a saga of music and love, but also a story of changing times and a look into what is fake and what is real. Jo and J.D.'s stage personas and the images they create for the world versus their real selves is pretty fascinating. It's sort of a backstage pass into country music, which is fun.

Overall, this may be a 3.5 - 3.75 star book, but I'm rounding up to 4 stars because I enjoyed the plot so much and because it's one of Creech's earlier books. The plot was fun without being silly and it just offered a good escape. Honestly, I would love it if there was another book picking up where this one left off.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/06/2017.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

And I don't want to think about tomorrow: THE SUNSHINE SISTERS.

The Sunshine SistersThe Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Ronni Sunshine has summoned her daughters home. The aging actress is ill, and she wants her daughters by her side. This, however, will be easier said than done, as her three children--Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy--are estranged, both from each other and their mother: the result of a traumatic childhood. Even Ronni will now readily admit she focused on her acting career and beauty rather than her daughters. Her constant belittlement and pressure on the girls made them turn on each other as well. Nell lives the closest to her mother, on a nearby farm, and her son River is in grad school. Middle child Meredith spent her childhood struggling with her weight, thanks to endless biting comments from Ronni; she fled to England and is now engaged. Youngest Lizzie escaped most of her mother's wrath and appears to be the "golden child": she's a successful chef and celebrity, with a TV show and line of related products, but her marriage and personal life aren't all that they seem. Frustrated by their mother's long history of hypochondria, the girls reluctantly return home, excepting to find her fine. However, it seems this time Ronni may be telling the truth: she's really sick. Can the Sunshine sisters set aside their differences? And can they ever forgive their mother?

In some ways, I'm not sure why I keep giving Jane Green books a chance. I liked Summer Secrets well-enough, but was really let down by Saving Grace and Falling. I was intrigued that in her acknowledgements, Green mentions that this is the first book in while where she's felt like herself. I went in hoping that this was true, but still wary, and truthfully, this wariness may have clouded some of my thoughts and feelings about the book.

Overall, this is a summery read, though it does deal with some serious subject matter. If you're looking for a book that will surprise you, this isn't it. Most of these plot points I saw coming from a few miles away; I predicted the majority of the twists and turns before they happened. And, truly, I think the ending is a foregone conclusion. Green relies a bit to heavily on some tropes, as well. Serious older sister? Check. Insecure middle sister? Check. Flighty younger sister? She's here, too, don't worry.

Still, this was a fun book--despite the dark topic at its core--and I found myself compelled to read through the second half in nearly one sitting. Despite some of the transparency of the characters, I was oddly invested in their lives. The novel starts out with a brief glimpse of Ronni summoning her daughters home, then goes back in the past, allowing us to learn about the Sunshine family via various snippets from the sisters at different points in time. In this way, we sort of catch up with the family fast-forward style--it's like a cheat sheet of sorts. It also allows us to get to know each sister a bit better and explore their relationship with their mother (and other sisters). It's easy to see how much influence Ronni had on their lives and how she shaped them into the women they are today.

The girls can certainly be frustrating at times. Poor, needy Meredith drove me nearly mad, with her insecurities and inability to stand up for herself. There's also a point in the book where Meredith magically cleans up after a party (everything is fixed) and later loses a large amount of weight (everything is fixed, again!). I would have liked to have seen a little more plot realism. It was also hard to see how anyone could be quite as big of a doormat as Meredith, even with her mother's influence. And, truly, Ronni is pretty bad. It's an interesting technique--learning how terrible of a mother she is after we're told in the beginning of the novel that she's sick. But, in this way, we're allowed to see how the sisters were alienated by their poor upbringing and how everyone has reached the point we are at today.

Eventually, we reach the present day, with the girls learning about their mother's illness and coming to grips with reality. And, Ronni, of course, must grapple with the kind of mother she was to her children. She's a surprisingly compelling character considering how awful she was to her children, so that's a testament to Green's characterization. To me, the novel picked up a bit more in the present day time period. There were still some silly, unbelievable moments, but I truly did find myself invested in Meredith, Nell, and Lizzy (and Ronni).

The book does wrap things up too easily, as I stated. It's often quite trite and cliche, so you have to go in prepared. Think Lifetime movie, wrapped up in a bow. Still, it's fun at times and certainly a quick read. Well-suited for the beach or a vacation.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/06/2017.

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Oh it hurts so bad to let go of your hand: THE HATE U GIVE.

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Starr Carter lives a divided life. At sixteen, she spends part of her life in her impoverished inner city neighborhood and another portion in the suburbs, attending an elite prep school, where she is one of a handful of African American students. Starr feels like she is two Starrs, and she keeps these two people very separate, with a different set of friends and personas for each world. But her careful facade is threatened when her childhood best friend, Khalil, is killed by a police officer. Starr is with Khalil when he is shot--unarmed--and her life will never be the same. In the aftermath, the media begins to call Khalil a drug dealer and a gang member. But speaking up about what she saw isn't so simple, especially when not everyone wants to hear the truth.

You've probably heard about Thomas' debut novel by now--it's been getting a lot of coverage and truly, deservedly so. This is definitely a powerful, eye-opening, and timely story. Thomas has created an excellent main character in Starr, whose voice shines clear and strong in the book. Her struggle to fit into two worlds is one many can relate to: Starr's just happens to have life and death consequences. Starr has wonderful, supportive parents and two humorous brothers who fill out the book with a realism and warmth that's hard to describe. Thomas is superb in capturing her characters' voices, and I found myself easily able to picture Starr and her family. I especially loved such snippets that made them jump off the pages--for instance, the family settling down to watch NBA basketball, complete with all their little superstitions (I've definitely been there) was perfect.

Starr's story isn't always easy to read (nor should it be), but it offered strong insight into the systemic problems facing African American communities--much of it framed by Starr's pragmatic parents. I thought some things tied up too easily, but I was still very profoundly affected by the story. I loved Starr and her tough yet vulnerable self. I loved her parents, their love, and their history. Her brothers cracked me up. At its core, this is a story about family, as well as identity and race. It's important, serious, heartbreaking, and yet sometimes really funny. It's also beautiful, powerful, and definitely worth a read.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Then your heart changes your mind and it changes you: ALWAYS AND FOREVER, LARA JEAN.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I've Loved Before, #3)Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


In the final book of Jenny Han's "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" series, we find our heroine, Lara Jean, in her senior year of high school and facing some big changes: college choices; her dad's impending marriage (yay, Mrs. Rothschild!); and figuring out the fate of her relationship with her handsome high school sweetheart, Peter K. The plan, of course, is for Lara Jean and Peter to head to UVA together. Peter already has a lacrosse scholarship there, and Lara Jean's acceptance email should be arriving any day. Still, Lara Jean is worried about the possibility of change and if things do not go exactly according to her plans.

I can't remember how I stumbled across this series, beloved to me (a mid-thirties lesbian) and teen girls everywhere, but I do have such a soft spot for Lara Jean. My girl is all grown up now! *sniff sniff* I love this series even more because it's basically set in my hometown, and I get to read about references to Bodo's Bagels, UVA and the Rotunda, BBQ Exchange, and more.

The strength of Han's series certainly centers around Lara Jean. She's such a realistic and endearing character, and she's grown and progressed over the three books. I adore her spirit, her love of baking, and her fierce devotion to her family. Indeed, Lara Jean's family is very well fleshed out, and you can so easily visualize each of her sisters and their poor, beleaguered father. Everyone--even our additional supporting characters--feels like family by now.

The hardest part of this book was that it felt a bit like filler. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Han wrote a third book, and I'm happy to see what happened to Lara Jean, Peter, and the rest of the gang, but it sort of feel like we were killing time for the sake of killing time. There's no major plot impetus beyond college decisions and Mr. Covey's wedding preparations. It ties back to a thread in the first book involving Lara Jean's mom warning about not going to college with a boyfriend (remember Margot and Josh?), but it's a tenuous thread.

Still, this is a sweet book, and I enjoyed most of it, though Peter didn't always seem like his usual self. (I don't enjoy when "stress" is an excuse for guys to treat girls poorly.) I was glad to see Lara Jean stay true to her Lara Jean self: she's just so fun, spunky, and adorable. Han says definitively at the end that she won't write anymore about Lara Jean and even though I felt like this book was a little bit of fluff, I still felt sad reading that, because darnit, it was Lara Jean fluff, and I love her.

You can find my review of the first book in Han's series here and the second here.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

I wonder what we would’ve become: SECRETS OF SOUTHERN GIRLS.

Secrets of Southern GirlsSecrets of Southern Girls by Haley Harrigan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Ten years ago, Julie Portland accidentally killed her best friend, Reba. Even worse, no one else knows. Consumed by guilt, Julie has long left her small Mississippi hometown behind, but she can't escape the memories. They have already ruined her marriage, and they threaten to take over her life. So when Reba's long-ago high school boyfriend shows up, claiming Reba left behind a diary, Julie reluctantly returns home with him to help search. Once there, however, she's caught up in a swirl of memories and secrets.

Oh, I have mixed feelings about this one. The novel switches POV and time periods in an effort to set up suspense. Our main character is Julie, but we hear from others as well, and the author includes snippets from Reba's diary. Bits and pieces of the story unfold slowly, with portions coming from the past and then others as the characters think back and remember. For the most part, this does work; you become almost frustrated, waiting and wondering what on earth happened back then. Reba's diary entries don't always seem to be in the voice of a seventeen-year-old teen, though, and some of the plot (both current and past) just seems odd. Plus, we also get bits and pieces of more recent parts of Julie's life and those really just distract from the real story.

I think the hardest thing for me was that while I really didn't have a major problem with the novel, I just wasn't incredibly connected to it, either. I liked Julie well enough, but I wasn't really invested in her, or really, Reba's story. I was curious about what happened to her, but I didn't particularly care, and there's a big difference there. In the end, I felt like there was a build up for... not much. I found the story intriguing and suspenseful, but somewhat disappointing. I kept waiting for some big shocker, or reveal, but it never happened. The ending felt a little cliche, and I was just sort of frustrated by the end.

So, overall, this isn't a bad book. In fact, it's often quite intriguing and can be a real page-turner at times. Unfortunately, I was bogged down by its uninteresting characters and a plot that I found to be a bit of a letdown. I'd go with 2.5 - 3 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/06/2017.

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Saturday, May 06, 2017

One day I'll get up that hill: MY NOT SO PERFECT LIFE.

My Not So Perfect LifeMy Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


Katie Brenner is doing her best to make it (and fake it) in London. After all, moving to London from her village town in Somerset has always been Katie's dream. But, if Katie's really honest--and not just posting glamorous-but fake-pictures on her Instagram--her life isn't all she'd hoped it be. Her commute is horrendous, and she shares a minuscule flat with two nightmare flatmates. Her job in branding is what Katie always wanted, but she's stuck at the bottom rung of the office ladder. This means she's constantly abused by her beautiful, brilliant boss, Demeter--and that's when she even remember Katie's name. Just when Katie thinks she's making headway: she's attending some meetings at work and sharing ideas, she's invited to drinks with co-workers, and she's met (and felt sparks with) a handsome co-worker, she's fired. Before she knows it, Katie finds herself back on her family farm, helping her dad and stepmom start a glamping business (yes, glamping; surprisingly, this works in the plot). It's far from the dreamy, perfect London life she always envisioned.

I'm not a Sophie Kinsella disciple (I haven't even read the Shopaholic series, don't kill me), but this book was so popular among my Goodreads friends that I couldn't help but pick it up. It's certainly a cute, entertaining read, based mainly on the strength of her main character.

There's something about Katie. She can be irritating, but she's gutsy and smart. She has dreams and goals, and she truly wants to achieve them. She's also insightful and kind. You can't help but be drawn to her and root for her character. It also helps that she's not spoiled, like so many of her co-workers and the people she encounters. While the book may play on the "rich" versus "poor" dichotomy a bit much, it's clear that Katie is fairly grounded, and you like her all the more for it.

The book certainly has some comedic moments, which I wasn't completely expecting, and Katie even has a bit of a dry wit. Things definitely move along in a bit of a cliched fashion sometimes, with Katie's realizations about life coming a tad too easily at moments. Still, there's a little twist in the plot that I didn't see coming that engages you and keeps the last quarter of the novel moving quite briskly.

Overall, the book winds up all its loose ends way too easily, but, of course, you really wouldn't have it any other way. I found myself grinning goofily in a few parts, because I'm totally a sucker for stories like these sometimes. Katie is endearing, her romance is fun, and the plot moves quickly and easily. This was an enjoyable, breezy read, and I'm glad I picked it up. 3.5 stars.

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