Saturday, January 21, 2017

I let your love in, I have the scar: SAVING SOPHIE.

Saving SophieSaving Sophie by Sam Carrington

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Karen and Mike Finch are upset and appalled when their seventeen-year-old daughter, Sophie, is brought home by the police. She was found drunk and wandering lost and confused around town. But Karen is also concerned and feels as if something is off: Sophie has no memories of most of the evening, and one of her friends, Amy, still hasn't returned home by morning. An agoraphobic thanks to an attack two years ago, the events with Sophie trigger Karen's intense anxiety. And soon, the Finch family will find themselves embroiled in a dark series of events that may threaten their own safety and sanity.

This was a strange novel. It definitely sets up with a well-done twist that hooks you. However, it then sort of slows down a bit, and it is burdened by some very strange and unbelievable storylines. For me, I found that I really didn't like or have a lot of sympathy for anyone in the Finch family, even with all they had been through. Sophie was a rather hateful teenager, who treated her parents with complete disdain, and she showed very little rationale in her decision-making. Karen's endless musings went on too much, and she was even worse in the decision area. And Mike was just hateful and rude. Sophie and her friends just seemed clueless and really hateful in their actions (without giving away too much).

Overall, the book was definitely engaging, and it certainly kept my attention; it was a fast read. Still, I found myself appalled by the characters' actions; people made some of the dumbest decisions and had some of the worst motivations in this novel, from the "bad guy" to the Finches to Sophie's friends. This made some of the story difficult to believe and buy. There's nothing really bad about it, I just found myself annoyed with the characters and frustrated by the story.

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

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

With a weight upon my chest and a ghost upon my back: THE GIRL BEFORE.

The Girl BeforeThe Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Two wounded women reeling from personal issues are looking for a new apartment. For Emma, she requires a safe place after being the victim of a break-in while her loyal boyfriend, Simon, was out. For Jane, it is a new place that holds no reminders of the baby she lost. For each woman, the house at One Folgate Street seems to offer exactly what they are looking for. It is designed by well-known architect, Edward Monkford, and comes with a set of rules created by the inscrutable man himself. In fact, to live at One Folgate Streets means signing off on over 200 rules, ranging from no books or personal mementos, to total tidiness, to agreeing to showing the house on architectural tours, to accepting to the intense technology that it comes with, including the house monitoring your well-being and moods. At first, the rules and clarity that come with One Folgate Street seem comforting to Emma and Jane. But as they spend more time in the house--and learn about its past, including its mysterious builder--they become terrifying and stifling.

THE GIRL BEFORE is a fascinating novel told solely from the point of view of Emma, One Folgate Street's previous tenant, and Jane, its current tenant. All activities are filtered through the lens of these two women. The novel effectively builds suspense with the parallel nature of the two women's stories, but it also can get a little repetitive at times (and sometimes a little confusing, as you have to remind yourself, mostly in the beginning, who is talking). The book starts off exciting, as you are drawn into both Emma and Jane's tales while they acclimate to the house and all the oddities it offers. The house itself almost becomes another character in the novel. It starts to drag a bit halfway through as you wonder what will happen in the next half (people living in a technologically advanced house can only be so exciting, right?). But then, suddenly, the novel takes some odd turns (there are some interesting sexual plot twists) and eventually grows quite interesting again with some psychological and thrilling revelations. Perhaps my favorite part about this book is that many of these developments truly surprised me, which isn't always easy to do in a thriller.

Overall, this is an interesting novel. It's certainly suspenseful and different. To enjoy it, you really have to set your disbelief aside at the actual conditions of living at One Folgate Street (no books, what?!) and accept that the two women are so broken (and perhaps broke, as the house apparently comes at a great discount) that they will go along with anything. It has a lot of varied plot threads and some of them aren't always fully explored or truly necessary, which can be a little frustrating. Still, the book truly surprised me with its twists and kept me entertained, with a deep desire to get to the end. Overall, 3.5+ stars.

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 01/24/2017.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

But my scars gonna shine brighter than your sun: THE YOU I'VE NEVER KNOWN.

The You I've Never KnownThe You I've Never Known by Ellen Hopkins

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Ariel has spent her entire life drifting from place to place with her Dad, Mark. Abandoned by her Mom as a baby, Ariel and her father move often, leaving Ariel unable to form relationships and always feeling as if the latest place they touch down is just the next in a series of temporary stops. They've been living in Sonora long enough for Ariel to finish an entire year of school, and she's finally formed a few friendships. One of them is to her closest friend, Monica, to whom Ariel feels a deep friendship-- and attraction. Their friendship and potential relationship is complicated somewhat when Ariel meets Gabe, the nephew of her father's girlfriend, Zelda. Ariel is attracted to Gabe, too, and she isn't sure exactly what that means.

Meanwhile, Maya is trying to escape her hateful mother, and the only out she can see is Jason Ritter, an older man in the military. But now Maya is pregnant, and married life with Jason is turning out to be scary and lonely.

Told in both prose and verse, there's no doubt that Hopkins' story is often beautifully done. My biggest issue with the novel wasn't the book itself, but that the plot description reveals, in my opinion, a major spoiler that doesn't actually occur until past page 350. If you ask me, that's far too deep within the tale to reveal in the description, and I would have enjoyed figuring that twist out myself and getting there on my own. The story itself, as I mentioned, is told in various ways, and you need to be prepared for the verse, as it does take some getting used to. I haven't read many of Hopkins' books (in fact, Goodreads tells me I've just read Tilt, which I'll confess I don't recall at all), and I probably had to go at least 75 pages until I was sort of in the swing of the verse "thing." The book is told from both Ariel and Maya's point of view (though mostly Ariel) and most of Ariel's pieces are in verse.

So, combine the verse/prose aspect and the fact that I was constantly waiting for this plot twist to happen while reading, and it took a bit to get into the book. There's definitely a lot going on this novel, but it was nice that at least Ariel's sexuality wasn't always the main focus. It was also refreshing to find a bisexual teen heroine. Overall, the book seemed to handle it fairly well, too, without so much of the usual stereotyping you can find in other novels and/or the media. I think a teen struggling with similar issues could find some comfort in this book, and that's important. For me, I wasn't completely sure that all the threads of the book were truly fully formed. I'm not completely sure how to explain that fully; it's not that I expected resolution to everything, but there were some serious topics dealt with in in the novel (beyond Ariel's sexuality) and it sometimes felt like they all got glossed over or moved past rather quickly. Bisexuality, rape, abuse... those are serious topics, and I'm not sure they got the ultimate focus they always needed.

So, in the end, I find myself a bit stumped by THE YOU I'VE NEVER KNOWN. I was certainly intrigued by the book and enjoyed it. As a bisexual female, I greatly enjoyed the character of Ariel and welcomed finding her in literature. While parts of the book went on a bit for me (though perhaps that was the verse format, I'm not sure, or waiting for the aforementioned spoiler), I found it interesting. Still, in the end, something felt a tad off for me. However, much of the writing was lovely, and the storyline different and often engaging. Overall, I'd probably give this one 3.5 stars.

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 01/24/2017.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

When this thing blows you'll just be rubble: FATAL.

FatalFatal by John Lescroart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kate and her husband Ron, have a seemingly perfect life: happily married, two kids, etc. So Kate is thrown off by her attraction to another man, Peter Ash, when she meets him at a dinner party held by one of Ron's colleagues and his own wife. Peter himself is married, with twin sons. Unable to get Peter out her mind, Kate ignores the warnings of her friend Beth, and arranges an encounter. Shortly after that event, Kate and Beth are involved in a horrific terrorist attack, and it seems like nothing will ever be the same.

This was a slightly bizarre novel with an interesting premise: a sort of anti-adultery treatise, in a way. The novel confounded me slightly with its two different tracks: one of personal angst and murder (I don't think it's a spoiler to state that shortly after the terrorist attack, Peter Ash winds up murdered) and then the terrorist attack, which seems somewhat oddly inserted into the novel's plot. Kate's friend Beth is a police detective, and for me, Beth was driving force of the book (and seriously, practically the only sane person in this story). I enjoyed her character and while it's been noted that this was a standalone novel for Lescroart, I could see another book featuring her.

Beth is perplexed as she tries to solve Peter Ash's murder. For us: not really. I felt as if the suspect was fairly easily identifiable the whole time. Lescroart did a fairly good job as casting suspicions on someone else; at one point, I finally thought, oh, ok, maybe I really am wrong (but I wasn't). There's a whole host of characters in the novel and they are interesting, but not really as complex or intricate as Beth. Overall, I enjoyed this novel-- I haven't read anything by Lescroart since some of his early Dismas Hardy books ages ago-- but I didn't find it to have an amazing "wow" factor or anything. It was an interesting, if somewhat predictable thriller, with some strange plot points thrown in.

I received a copy of this novel from Netgalley and the publisher (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 01/24/2017.

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Can't say I didn't see this ship about to sink: THE FIFTH LETTER.

The Fifth LetterThe Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Joni, Eden, Deb, and Trina have been friends since high school, when a teacher grouped them together by their last names. However, as they age, it seems the women are growing apart. Desperate to keep her friends together, Joni books a vacation house for them by the ocean. It's been a yearly tradition for the group, and she's insistent they all keep it up. However, it becomes clear that the women are a little reluctant to gather together: three of them are mothers now, and many are busy with their careers and other worries. So they come up with an idea: they'll write anonymous letters on an old computer at the beach cottage, and read one a night during their vacation. But the game turns dark quickly, as the women struggle to guess who wrote what letter. Even worse, Joni discovers a "fifth letter" in the fireplace; partially burned, it appears to be filled with hate toward one of the women in the group (from another). The foursome is supposed to be the best of friends, but it appears it isn't so. Can they recover from this vacation? And who in the group wrote that awful letter?

I feel terrible, as I really enjoy the other Moriarty sisters (Liane Moriarty and Jaclyn Moriarty), but I just didn't care for this book at all. Throughout the entire novel, I never found myself able to care for these four women or their problems whatsoever. The premise of the book seemed utterly ridiculous: why on earth would a group of grown women write a bunch of letters like children and if they were such good friends, how could they know so little about each other? It was painful to read. Furthermore, the book itself was difficult to read. The book was set up in various ways: we had the current day thread at the beach cottage; we had threads in the past with the girls at school. Then, there's a thread where Joni is telling a priest (via confession) about what had happened at the cottage. Then we get pieces of the letters. Then we get snippets from the fifth letter. It was so utterly confusing that for parts of it, I couldn't tell who was talking, or what the dialogue related to, and it drove me insane.

Pieces of the women's problems were resolved far too easily, while others were blown far too out of proportion. Others were incredibly serious and just - ugh. When the big "reveal" happened, it made me cringe. I feel awful, but it almost felt like a bad imitation of Liane's book, Truly Madly Guilty. A bunch of angst leading to a big "reveal," which sort of leaves you feeling let down.

Overall, I have high admiration for the Moriarty sisters, and I truly feel bad that I didn't enjoy this book more. I just couldn't find any sympathy with the characters, and the way the novel was laid out irked me. I kept comparing it with another book where the women escape for a girls getaway: Girls' Weekend, which was such a more nuanced and enjoyable portrayal of some similar subjects. I would recommend picking up Achterberg's book instead.

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 01/24/2017.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Maybe tomorrow will be better: THE WRONG SIDE OF GOODBYE.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Harry Bosch, #21; Harry Bosch Universe, #26)The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Harry Bosch is retired from his days as a detective with the LAPD, but certainly not from his days investigating crime. Bosch is working for himself, as a private investigator on a referrals only basis, and he's also a reservist with a small police department with a limited budget in San Fernando Valley. When Bosch gets word that a new client, Whitney Vance, wants to hire him, he can't help but be intrigued. Vance is a billionaire and heir to a fortune via his family's company, Advance Engineering. The aging man wants Bosch to track down a supposed heir: when Vance was in college, he had a fling with a young Mexican woman, and believes she had a child. If so, somewhere out there could be a heir to Vance's vast fortune (besides his eager, greedy board). Vance swears Bosch to secrecy, as no one associated with Advance Engineering and the board would be too keen to hear about someone standing in the way of their potential fortune. Meanwhile, in his work at the police department, Bosch is helping his colleagues track down a serial rapist. The suspect seems to be getting more and more bold; can they stop him before he strikes again?

Picking up a Harry Bosch book is always like coming home again, and this one was no exception. Bosch is a well-loved, nuanced, and wonderful character. He is complex and well-written, and I will forever be saddened when Connelly stops writing about him, or Bosch decides to stop investigating crime. I sincerely love him dearly. This novel is Bosch and Connelly at their best: a well-plotted mystery novel backed by Bosch's backstory and ruminating. Bosch is amusing, stubborn, and familiar, and he's also wonderful at his job.

Connelly does an excellent job of telling the tale with Bosch's two disparate cases (Vance and the Screen Cutter rapist); neither seem to overshadow the other, and you don't get confused with both threads going on simultaneously. Both are interesting cases, and Bosch is torn finding time to devote to each, much as the reader is. The story features appearances from Bosch's daughter and Mickey Haller (Bosch's half-brother, and a key character in the Lincoln Lawyer series), which is always fun, too. I was very intrigued by both of Bosch's cases, and Connelly kept me guessing until the end. I find it amazing that he's managed to keep Bosch so relevant and in the game all this time, but I suppose that's a testament to Bosch's skill (and Connelly's).

Overall, this isn't some amazing beyond words mystery, but it's just so well-done, with its dual cases, and features such a wonderful character, that I really loved it. If you haven't read any of Connelly's books, I highly recommend them. I started at the beginning with the Bosch series and certainly didn't regret it. But you could always start with this one, too. 4.5 stars

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Saturday, January 07, 2017

People hide from the truth: HER EVERY FEAR.

Her Every FearHer Every Fear by Peter Swanson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kate Priddy suffers from anxiety. Neurotic since childhood, her recent fears have good reason: in college, Kate was attacked in a horrific incident by her boyfriend. It's taken Kate years to recover from that day. So when her parents tell her that her distant cousin, Corbin Dell, is looking to move to London and wants someone to switch apartments with for six months, Kate jumps at the chance. Six months in Corbin's spacious apartment will give her a chance to start her life over on her own. But shortly after arriving in Boston, Kate receives some unsettling news: the woman who lived down the hall, Audrey, is missing. She soon discovers that Audrey was murdered. Even worse, she realizes that Corbin is a suspect in Audrey's death. As Kate tries to adjust to life in Boston, she meets another fellow apartment-dweller, Alan Cherney. Alan claims he didn't know Audrey, but he seems to know a lot about her. Kate suddenly regrets her temporary move to the States, and soon she finds herself wondering if she's even safe there.

This novel was the first Swanson I've ever read. It starts off from Kate's perspective, but switches over after a couple of chapters to Alan, and we hear from Corbin and others throughout the story as well. While doing this, the story sometimes double backs to get the same perspective from a different character. While it's effective in showing different sides to one plot element, it seems to drag the story on, and make things repeat unnecessarily. I enjoyed the character of Kate, though couldn't always find myself attached to her. She was probably my favorite of the group, though. For me, I found some bits of the plot a little over the top (the list of things that have happened to Kate seems extreme, for example).

I guessed a good part of the mystery plot early on, but was still confounded by other pieces, so I did find it interesting, and it certainly had creepy pieces. Still, I wasn't incredibly invested in this one -- either the plot or the characters. Things just seemed a little "too much" at times, and then by the time we did get to the dramatic ending, it tied up really quickly, which was a little anticlimactic. Overall, this was a good thriller, but not great.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available as of 1/10/2017.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Best Books of 2016, Part 2: My Top Ten Books of the Year.

It's that time -- to look back on my favorite books of the past year. At the beginning of 2016, I set my goal on the site, Goodreads, to read 60 books this year. It was a good (!) year, and I surpassed the goal, ultimately reading 105 books. If you follow this link, you can take a look at all the books I read in 2016 and my ratings. Note that not all books were published in 2016, of course, they just happened to be books I picked up over the year. In fact, because some of them were Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs), they won't be published until 2017.

One of the (many) things I love about Goodreads is its ability to rate books. In Part 1 of my "best of" entry, I did a run-through of my most highly rated books of the year (beginning with the most recently read). This mostly means any book rated 4 stars or higher. I quickly realized that reading over 100 books meant that entry became long quickly, so I separated my top ten favorite books of the year into this entry. You can find reviews of any of these via my goodreads site, or simply follow the link in each entry to the in-depth review in this blog. Happy reading in 2017 and beyond!!

So, in no particular order, my top ten favorite books read in 2016...

1.The Sun Is Also A Star - Nicola Yoon.This is an amazing story of two young people: most of it occurring across the day they meet. Told from the alternating perspectives of Natasha and Daniel, but interspersed with bits and pieces of history, facts, and small insights into the people with whom they come into contact on their one magical day, this is a beautiful, lovely, and touching story. Daniel readily admits in the novel that he's a cheesy guy, and yes, the story may be a bit cheesy at points, but boy, it draws you in immediately, and it's just... great. I really loved Yoon's first book, Everything, Everything, and I think this one may be even better. Daniel and Natasha spring to life in front of you, as you frantically flip pages, wondering what will become of these two people. The bit players in their life take on a life all of their own, thanks to the little insight you receive via their own chapters. I am just awed at how well this woman writes teenage characters - spirited, real, flawed, lovely characters. I read the second half of this book in one sitting, because I just had to see how it ended, and find out the fate of Natasha and Daniel. Indeed, the racial and immigration plotlines of this novel could not seem more timely, what with the Presidential Election and the current tumult America is undergoing. I wish this book was required reading of every citizen. This is not just a potential love story; this is a book that will make you think and make you cry. It's a love story of teens, it's an ode to New York City, and it's a tribute to both science and poetry.

2.The Animators - Kayla Rae Whitaker. This book is insane and amazing. It is a powerful, gut-wrenching novel that will drag you into its story and characters and eventually spit you out, exhilarated and exhausted. Sharon Kisses (yep, that's her real name) and Mel Vaught meet in college. Sharon is a reserved, talented girl from a rural Kentucky town. Mel is a out, tough, lesbian from Florida -- all bravado hiding a softer interior. The two form a fast friendship, bonding quickly over their art and their family histories: both come from dysfunctional families who have formed the girls into what they are today. Mel and Sharon pour this into their art, and they become talented animation partners, with their first movie showing a raw, truthful look at Mel's childhood and her mother, a rough woman who ended up in jail. The two are on the cusp of success -- tours, awards, artistic grants. But success comes with an edge: Mel starts drinking and turning to drugs, while Sharon doubts herself and her role in this brilliant duo. Suddenly, however, none of that matters when tragedy strikes the pair, and everything they've known changes in an instant. There was so much about this novel I loved and related to: the fast friendship of two girls in college; an actual lead lesbian character (but whose lesbianism wasn't her only defining aspect - how refreshing); Sharon and her doubts and insecurities - the way she feels as if she's disappearing into herself in her thirties; the way Whitaker so easily captured growing up in a rural town (Sharon's Kentucky hometown)... I immediately identified with both characters, although Sharon is our protagonist, and the one telling us our story. I won't lie to you: this book will make you feel uncomfortable. It's not a fun read, or really even a pleasant one. It's not a "feel good novel." It hurts--physically hurts--to read this book. Some of the novel is uneven, and it jumps around a bit. This is Whitaker's first novel, and I think she's only going to get more amazing as she goes, because you can look past this, and see so much power and force in this book. It's raw. It's the story of a friendship, and it's told so beautifully that you are completely drawn into Mel and Sharon's world. When you read this book, there is really nothing else going on in your life but this novel. Mel and Sharon are real, you love them, and you can see them in your mind. The storyline, for me, was unexpected, and, as I said, jumped a bit, but it worked. I had one issue with the end (a bit of a cliche about straight/lesbian friendship, but I won't go into it much, for spoiler reasons), but otherwise, found this novel to be energetic and forceful. It's dark, it's an ode to art and friendship and life, it's deep - I really have no words. It will take you to an exposed place inside of yourself, but you'll be glad it did. [Note: this one comes out January 31, 2017]

3.The Trespasser - Tana French. We're up to the sixth installment in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series and she's still going strong. In this one, we hear from Antoinette Conway, the partner of Stephen Moran from French's previous novel. Being a Detective on the Murder Squad isn't everything Antoinette hoped for. She isn't fitting in on the male squad--most of whom tease and prank her viciously--and she and Steve seem only to receive the most bland, boring cases. So when the latest case comes in--handed straight to Conway and Moran by their boss--it looks like much of the same: another domestic dispute. Beautiful, blond Aislinn Murray has been killed in her home. But as Antoinette and Steve investigate, they find things aren't exactly what they seem. I'll say it up front: this was an excellent mystery. Just a wonderful read. I love all of French's novels, but thoroughly enjoyed this one. Antoinette was a refreshing voice and completely relatable. Her case was interesting and well-plotted, leaving you constantly guessing. As per a typical French novel, you don't receive just a simple mystery; each of her books comes with a backstory. In this one, we see Antoinette battling her demons and her inability to fit in with her Squad. Are they really out to get her, or is it all in her head? It's true that French's books probably aren't for everyone. There's a lot of talking, a lot of expounding, and a lot of knowing what her characters are thinking. But, in turn, you're presented with characters who are so complex, so rich and in-depth. There's a humor to Conway, lending levity when needed, but also a dark side. She's bitter with the world for a reason. Because the entire book is told from her perspective, we're figuring out the mystery with her, learning facts and alibis as she does, and unraveling the plot along with our detective. Of course, we're limited to seeing the case from her perspective, too. As Moran and Conway try to determine who they can trust, so do we. The book expertly leaves you guessing with the plot; it takes you in one direction early in an incredibly convincing matter. It also skillfully takes you inside the Squad, allowing us to see not only how a case is run, but the inner politics. In this way, the novel is not just a well-crafted mystery but a lovely treatise on relationships and friendships and the lengths we go for both. I'm also left amazed at how much French can put into a novel. Her way with words is magical, and I just love her books, her stories, and her characters. I highly recommend this novel, or any of her earlier work.

4.Commonwealth - Ann Patchett. This is an expansive book, covering the lives of the intertwined Cousins and Keating families in a series of almost interconnected stories. They are linked, of course, and form the framework of Packer's novel, but almost seem as if they could stand on their own. They are also set against the backdrop of another Commonwealth: when Franny Keating, then in her twenties, meets famous author Leon Posen, she tells him the many stories of her misguided family. He spins them into the tale of his novel, Commonwealth, forcing the family to face up to some of their most awful losses and decisions in the starkness of print. Some of the chapters of COMMONWEALTH aren't always particularly exciting, but they are poignant, and there is a deepness to them. They offer an amazing insight into these families-- an almost "behind the scenes" look at five or so decades of their lives. The varying viewpoints of the narrators helps as well, and you can watch a Cousin or Keating child age in just a couple of chapters. It's also interesting to watch the spouses--so changed by the affair--and how it's affected their lives. Overall, this is a lovely book, tender in many ways, and a little heartbreaking. It's not a page-turner, but it's beautiful and leaves you thinking.

5.Good As Gone - Amy Gentry. Even though I'm tired of books with Gone or Girl in the title, this one still has to make the list. This novel hooked me from the beginning, and I tore through it less than two days. Anna and Tom Whitaker's lives are irrevocably changed the night their thirteen-year-old daughter, Julie, disappears. The broken parents remain in their home, hoping against hope that someday their daughter will return. And then, amazingly, one night the doorbell rings and there she is: Julie. Now a young woman, with a harrowing tale to tell of abuse and horror, but otherwise unscathed. And just like that, the broken family is whole. But is it? The novel starts out with Julie arriving home and then we hear from Anna and some of the other characters as the family adjusts to Julie's homecoming. But we also delve into the past, which adds this amazing layer of suspense and intrigue and leaves you slightly befuddled, completely invested, and flipping pages like mad. Gentry has created a book that is compulsively readable from a thriller standpoint, but also features emotionally damaged characters, struggling to survive after losing Julie for so many years. What I enjoyed so much about this book is that it's not only an excellent thriller, which keeps you guessing and wondering, but a nuanced portrait of a truly fractured family, who is still reeling from Julie's kidnapping. The interactions between Anna and her family is fascinating in itself -- Julie's sister Jane, for instance, has had her entire life basically formed around the disappearance of her sister. You don't always get explicit descriptions of their reactions, but you see it in every interaction and emotional attachment (or lack thereof) the family displays. Overall, this is a great thriller: a fast-paced read, with a plot that will have you guessing (and gasping) and turning pages long into the night.

6.Read Me Like a Book - Liz Kessler. This is a lovely gem of a book. It's the perfect blend of heartbreaking and funny. Ashleigh Walker's life is crumbling around her. Her parents are fighting constantly, she's not doing well in school, and her boyfriend, Dylan, doesn't exactly make her heart sing. Suddenly, the one bright spot in Ash's life becomes her new English teacher, Miss Murray. Young and hip, Miss Murray engages Ash in a way she's never felt before. She's even joined the debate club, for pete's sake, and started working hard on her English submissions. But there's more to it than that. Miss Murray makes Ash feel something else. Thanks to Kessler, Ash is no one-dimensional teen: she's intricate and her own person. As she deals with the agony of her parents' own issues, plus her own inner angst about her love life, your heart goes out to the girl. Kessler easily paints the angst one feels when in love with a teacher, especially if LGBT - coupled with the delusion that comes with youth, no matter your sexual orientation. Ash's feelings are so real, so strong, and she seems so alone. It's an excellent portrayal of what young teens go through as they wrestle with their sexuality (believe me, I know; it took me back to some tough times in high school). If anything, some of the resolution is a little too easy, a bit quick and forced at times, but it really doesn't diminish from the force of the book. Watching Ash grow up before our eyes is rather magical. There are some excellent comedic portions from the novel to balance out the heaviness, coupled with a great supporting cast of characters, including Ash's best friend, Cat, and some other youth she meets via school, family, and friends. The novel is perfect for teens struggling with their own sexuality, or needing to see someone "like them" in print, and those looking to support a LGBT best friend, but should also be given to parents of those teens -- as Ash's parents play a role in the story as well. Overall, I found myself completely wrapped in Ash's coming of age (and coming out) tale. Books with a true to life, multi-dimensional lesbian heroine are still sadly hard to come by, it seems, but Kessler's novel certainly tries to change that.

7.June - Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. There are really no words for this book. It's a beautiful and magical adventure. Cassie is twenty-five and living in the dilapidated mansion, Two Oaks, she inherited from her grandmother, June. The house is literally falling down around her: also a pretty good metaphor for Cassie's life. She's fled her life as an artist in New York and come to St. Jude, Ohio, to grieve for her grandmother and lick her wounds. That basically amounts to hiding in the house, ignoring the phone, and letting the mail (and bills) pile up around her. But even she can't ignore the constant ringing of the doorbell. With it comes some pretty shocking news: Cassie has been named sole heir to the fortune of the legendary movie star, Jack Montgomery. Considering Cassie only barely knew of Jack's name, this comes as quite a surprise. Why did this famous actor leave her his fortune? Did Jack know Cassie's grandmother, June? Suddenly Jack's two daughters show up, wanting answers as well, and Cassie's life will never be the same. The novel takes what should be a fairly simple event - figuring out whether Cassie is related to Jack - and turns it into a lovely, suspenseful read. I simply couldn't put this book down. The characters are so real, so fully actualized that they jump off the page. Cassie, June, June's childhood friend Lindie, Jack, the people of St. Jude - they are all there, truly vivid in your mind's eye. You're pulled into the spellbinding world of then versus now... the story twists between present day, told from Cassie's point of view and the 1950s, which is really accurately portrayed. I'm usually a contemporary fiction reader all the way, but this period portrayal is so well-done, and I loved it. The character of Lindie, especially, makes your heart ache. As the book flips between time and the story unfolds, you become completely enmeshed in the characters' world; Beverly Whittemore does such a good job of creating them that you feel with them and really become part of their lives. I am trying to think of any flaws, but I can't. I guessed at a few of the plot twists, but only narrowly before they happened, and it certainly didn't ruin my enjoyment of the story whatsoever. Cassie can be a frustrating character at times (read your mail, darn-it), but it's only because she's so well-created. Overall, this is really a beautiful, suspenseful book that brings you into its world.

8.I Let You Go - Clare Mackintosh. This was an excellent thriller-- a real surprise, honestly. One rainy evening, an accident occurs on a quiet neighborhood street. Walking home from school with his mother, young Jacob is hit by a car, and killed. Even worse, the car quickly backs up and drives away, leaving Jacob's mother shattered and Detective Inspector Ray Stevens and his team, particularly eager young DC Kate, to seek out answers. With her world ruined by the accident, Jenna Gray seeks refuge by the coast. She finds a small cottage, gets a dog, and tries to escape the nightmares of the accident that haunt both her dreams and waking hours. Meanwhile, Ray and Kate are forced to close Jacob's case, no closer to the suspect than when they started. But the two remain undaunted, working on the case in their off hours, and an anniversary plea one year after the accident turns up some potential leads. The beginning of the novel started out slow, and was so horrendously sad, what with Jacob's accident and his mother's terrible grief. Divided into several parts, things pick up immensely at the end of the first part, when Mackintosh throws in an excellent plot twist (I shan't say anymore so as not to ruin it). Mackintosh is excellent at conveying Jenna's anguish and the sadness that the accident causes. We also have a side-plot of Ray and his feelings toward his subordinate, Kate. Ray's home life is unbalanced: he's dealing with issues with his son, Tom, and his wife. The police subplot (watching them try to piece things together) is interesting, also. In fact, the book alternates in perspectives: we hear from Ray, Jenna, and one more character. In part 2, we go back in time for some of the characters, but remain in the present with Ray and Kate as they (much like us, the readers) try to solve this crime. It's an interesting technique and works surprisingly well. Jenna is a complicated character, but a well-drawn one. Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. I won't spoil anything, but I will say that there is definitely a trigger for domestic abuse/violence, so please be forewarned for that. There's a character in the novel who reminds me of the husband in that creepy Julia Roberts' film "Sleeping with the Enemy" (I'm totally dating myself here). As such I was up late reading one night, completely creeped out. However, that's the sign of an excellent thriller in my opinion. I raced through the last 2/3 of the book and really wasn't disappointed. There are several more twists, but they actually are pretty believable, not outlandish like in many thrillers. Definitely recommend this one (with the abuse caveat thrown in). A unique psychological thriller that's worth your time, for sure.

9.Eligible - Curtis Sittenfeld. If you thought a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice--set mainly in present day Cincinnati--didn't exactly sound like a page-turner, no one could exactly blame you. But, nonetheless, you'd be quite wrong. Sittenfeld's novel imagines the Bennet family in our modern times; Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live in a rambling Tudor home in Cincinnati: broke and somewhat clueless as their house crumbles around them. Mrs. Bennet spends her time clucking around her five unmarried daughters: Jane, Liz, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. The book revolves mainly around the perspective of Liz, a magazine writer in her upper thirties living in New York City. She and Jane, also in NYC, return home to their parents and younger sisters after Mr. Bennet has a heart attack, only to find the house and the family in a bit of a shambles. The book is amazing. It's been a while since I read "Pride and Prejudice," but even I can tell you that the novel does an excellent job of following the original plot without being annoying or cloying. It's Pride and Prejudice with lesbians and hate sex! The book comes across as familiar yet new, allowing you to ache, laugh, and rage at what feels like a group of old friends. Mr. Bennet is a trip, even while having a heartbreaking sadness and sweetness at his core (though some of his zingers are priceless). The younger sisters are as (nearly) vapid as to be expected--truly awful at times--for much of the book. But seriously, Lydia and Kitty loving CrossFit? It's awesome. And Liz is wonderful; you will adore this surprisingly realistic and modern Liz, with all of her foibles and issues: a truly modern Liz struggling mightily to keep her family together and afloat. As for Darcy, well he's as Darcy as ever. Somehow Sittenfeld has managed to truly capture the essence of Austen's Darcy and Elizabeth in her new characters. I don't know how, but it's funny and lovely all at the same time. Overall, I found this book funny, touching, and compulsively readable. The characters are truly characters: they are fully formed within moments of picking up the book. If you loved the original, you'll find this updated version enjoyable and imaginative, with a surprising depth behind it. If you've never read Austen's work (and you should), you will still discover a funny, sweet yet weighty story of a family trying to make it in this day and age.

10.The Expatriates - Janice Y.K. Lee. It sounds trite - the linked stories of three women, but this book is nearly magical. It details the lives of three American women living in the expatriate community in Hong Kong. Their lives and stories are linked in small and large ways, as they each traverse the difficulties of life and the consequences of their actions. The chapters are compelling and amazing: you truly feel as if you are there, with the characters, getting completely caught up in their lives and stories. It's one of those books where not a lot happens, yet in some ways, everything happens, and it's mesmerizing somehow. Lee has a unique voice for each character and they each become clearer and defined as the book goes on; they are so themselves that you can't ever imagine not knowing them, or how they would react to a given situation. Much of what happens is sad- in fact, there were times where I felt like my heart was physically hurting reading - but there is much redemption in the book as well. I truly found parts of it to be beautiful. The ending, which I felt like could have been too easy, or conversely, easily ruined, felt perfect somehow. My only complaint with this book? That it ended. After I finished it, I found myself standing at the sink later that evening, washing some dishes, and thinking, "oh at least I get to read my book later tonight" and then feeling nothing but profound disappointment that the book was over, and I was done being a part of these characters' lives. Lovely, poignant book.

Best Books of 2016, Part 1.

It's that time -- to look back on my favorite books of the past year. At the beginning of 2016, I set my goal on the site, Goodreads, to read 60 books this year. It was a good (!) year, and I surpassed the goal, ultimately reading 105 books. If you follow this link, you can take a look at all the books I read in 2016 and my ratings. Note that not all books were published in 2016, of course, they just happened to be books I picked up over the year. In fact, because some of them were Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs), they won't be published until 2017.

One of the (many) things I love about Goodreads is its ability to rate books. This entry is a run-through of my most highly rated books of the year (beginning with the most recently read). This mostly means any book rated 4 stars or higher. I quickly realized that reading over 100 books means this entry got long quickly, so I separated my top ten favorite books of the year into a separate entry, which you can find here. You can find reviews of any of these via my goodreads site, or simply follow the link in each entry to the in-depth review in this blog. Happy reading in 2017 and beyond!!

Best books read in 2016... (look for my top 10 books of the year in the next post!)

*The Beautiful Dead - Belinda Bauer. This was the last book I read in 2016, and it surprised me. Eve Singer is a crime reporter who becomes embroiled with a serial killer. This novel was certainly creepy, but also had a certain nuance and depth to it that I wasn't expecting. Eve is a complicated and likeable character, and the book doesn't just cover murder and gore, it goes into her personal life, and the struggles she has caring for her father and his failing memory. It lost me slightly for a bit near the end, but managed to get back on track, and even threw in a very interesting twist I didn't see coming. This was a well-done thriller with a different and engaging plot. I really found myself drawn to Eve, and her father, Duncan. It was an enjoyable novel with which to end the year.

*Talking As Fast As I Can - Lauren Graham. Apparently, I'm rather picky with my celebrity memoirs, but this one won me over. Lauren Graham's first nonfiction work is a series of stories and essays covering her thoughts on her time on Gilmore Girls (both the old show and the new Netflix series), her childhood, breaking into acting, Parenthood, and more. It's told in Graham's unique, humorous voice, and it's just a fun, witty look at her life and what it was like to play Lorelai Gilmore (twice). I could have read about 100,000 more of her perceptions. Some of them are so unfathomable because they counteract the completely realistic portrayal of the characters on the show. But they are insightful and intriguing. Graham reminisces about her time on the actual show -- a lot of it reinforced by going back and watching the episodes (something she does reluctantly, as she hates watching herself on film). Overall, sure, this book is a little light. But it still spans a lot of Graham's life and I felt like a learned a decent amount about her, considering she's such a private person (something she repeatedly mentions). She's a fun and humorous woman, and I gained some insights about all the various versions of Gilmore Girls I would have never had before. I read this book in basically one day and thoroughly loved it. This book may not have the same impact on someone who isn't a Graham/Gilmore Girls/Parenthood fan, but if you are, it's a fun, quick read.

*The Twilight Wife - A.J. Banner. This was a fascinating book that really took the premise of the "unreliable" narrator to a whole new level. Kyra Winthrop and her husband, Jacob, are headed to live on a remote island to get away from it all. Kyra recently suffered a head injury in a diving accident; she hit her head on a rock and while Jacob saved her, she cannot remember the past four years of her life and is having trouble with her current ability to retain things. Kyra and Jacob hope time away, in a quiet place, will let Kyra--and her memory--heal. But once on the island, Kyra begins to remember more and more about the accident and about her past. What I enjoyed the most is that we learned the bits and pieces about Kyra's life, and who she was, just as she did. This made the novel very suspenseful and helped make up for any points where it seemed a little unbelievable (e.g., only forgetting exactly these 4 crucial years, no Internet on the island except at their home, etc.), or where the story felt a bit flat. Kyra is our main character, and she's interesting and complicated, with her memory loss and unknown past. She's truly trying to find out who she is. I found the book captivating and basically read the second half in one sitting: it's a very fast read, and you become easily drawn into Kyra's world. It's a little eerie, a little creepy, and a little haunting. It was sort of a fun version of a Lifetime movie--one that had me hooked and enjoying the plot, versus rolling my eyes and changing the channel--and because I so enjoyed seeing everything come together and racing through the end of the book, it pushed my rating up to 4 stars.

*Holding Up the Universe - Jennifer Niven. This was just a lovely book. I sped through this novel in about a day, because it was just so amazing, but I sort of wish I had savored it more, because it was so good. In it, Libby Strout has the distinction of being "America's Fattest Teen" -- the girl who was once lifted out of her house with a crane. But no one has ever really taken the time to know Libby, a complicated and kind person who is still struggling with her mom's death and the aftermath of the crane incident. At school, Libby meets Jack Masselin. Jack is a popular kid struggling with a secret: he doesn't recognize faces. This issue makes high school popularity (and life) surprisingly complicated. Jack's life becomes even more complicated when he gets caught up in an awful high school bullying game that involves Libby. As a result, the two of them wind up in counseling together. Libby is an excellent character. There were moments were I was simply amazed by her, and it's easy to say that I fell hard for her. Jack, too, but Libby - Libby is something special. You cannot help but root for Libby. As with many YA books, it did seem like Jack and Libby were a little mature for high school, but mostly, they felt right on point; if anything, they were each a reflection of how kids have to grow up so much faster now, what with the world being so cruel and all the bullying around them. Besides, each had suffered so much in their own way, even if Jack's life was so much easier on the surface than Libby's. It was a well-written and beautiful book and just left me with a good feeling at the end... even if it also left me wishing I could meet Jack and Libby in real life.

*Inherit the Bones - Emily Littlejohn. This was an excellent and well-plotted mystery novel. The story reels you in immediately and never lets you go with its strong, complex narrative. Gemma is a likeable, fairly deep, and interesting lead character. Early in her police career, while skiing, Gemma found the long-buried bodies of two young boys who disappeared in the mid-1980s. The boys were murdered; their killer never found; and their disappearance and the subsequent crime has haunted the town. Now, in the present day, Gemma is called upon to investigate the gruesome murder of a teenage circus worker who was part of a circus traveling through town. Soon though, Gemma will come to realize that this murder is connected to the disappearance of the boys. She'll uncover a dark past that haunts her town--and discover that someone desperately wants her to leave the past alone. I took to her quickly and found myself wrapped up in her life. Working in a small town, she finds quickly that she can't really trust anyone, and Littlejohn gives us good insight into her squad dynamics. She also captures small town living fairly well. This is a town wrapped up in its past, unable to move on from a web of secrets and lies that have tormented it for years. Indeed, the secrets continue to unfold, but in a completely believable manner, which I really appreciated. I guessed a part of the plot early on, but there were still so many pieces to the story that I was very much riveted until the very end. There's a strong supporting cast here as well, without the usual simple stock characters who sometimes support a rural detective.

*The Survivor's Guide to Family Happiness - Maddie Dawson. Dawson's novel is told from the varying points of view of its main women: Nina, Lindy, and their biological mother. Adopted as a child, her mother's death rekindles Nina's desire to search for her birth mother. She's always felt as she's never belonged anywhere, searching strangers' faces and eyes for her potential birth mother. Amazingly, Nina manages to find her biological sister, Lindy, whom she actually knew as a kid from her neighborhood. But Lindy, who is obsessed with creating a perfect house and life, isn't too thrilled about her wayward sister bursting into her life. It's a humorous--and sometimes heartbreaking--look at family and the different forms it can take. Dawson has created a cast of characters who seem incredibly real. She captures the little details just right, from family life with kids, to Nina's romantic woes. Nina is a trip: you can't help but love her and her relentless optimism. Even when the novel drags a bit in the middle, when you feel like Nina and the plot need a bit of a push, it recovers through its humor and Nina's personality.In the end, I really enjoyed this novel. It combines several other supporting characters, including the children of Nina's boyfriend, into a great read. At times it's truly laugh out loud funny, even if it gets a bit preposterous. But it's also heartfelt and touching and a lovely look at the bonds of family.

*Cruel Beautiful World - Caroline Leavitt. This book is not what I expected, but it was a wonderful (although sometimes haunting) tale. Leavitt creates nuanced, well-developed characters who jump off the page. The book has a poignant sadness that stays with you, even after you've turned the last page. As young girls, Lucy and Caroline come into the care of the older Iris. The girls' parents had died, and they wind up living with Iris, who becomes a sort of adopted mother to the two sisters. Both Lucy and Charlotte are extremely close until high school, when they find themselves drifting apart. Studious Charlotte is focused on getting into college, where she hopes to study to become a vet. Lucy, however, can never quite seem to live up to her sister's academic shadow. That is until she meets a vibrant teacher, William, at her high school. Lucy falls fast for her older English teacher and suddenly finds herself running away to a remote area of Pennsylvania to start over with her new love. Iris and Charlotte, however, are devastated, and cannot give up their search for Lucy. Even worse, Lucy's life of promise and happiness with William may be falling short. The story unfolds from the point of view of Lucy, Charlotte, and Iris, which allows us to get to know each of them. Each is different and beautiful in their own way. Overall, I loved most of this book. It slowed for me about 3/4 through, but recovered by the end. Some of the characters' actions are frustrating, but it does not take away from its almost poetic nature.

*Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd - Alan Bradley. Book 8 in Alan Bradley's wondrous series picks up with Flavia returning home from Canada--no longer in boarding school--and back home among her sisters, family servants, and faithful bike, Gladys. Unfortunately, upon returning home, she is met with the news that her father is gravely ill with pneumonia. Only Flavia's pesky cousin, Undine is around to greet her. Out and about in town, Flavia runs an errand and--in true Flavia fashion-- stumbles across the body of a dead man. From there, Flavia's downtrodden spirits lift immediately, as there is nothing like a dead body to return her to her true self. She sets out to solve the case before her pal, Inspector Hewitt, can, but this case will offer plenty of twists and turns, even for our young sleuth. This novel is immediately Flavia, from the start, like picking up with an old friend. With Flavia back from Canada, it's a return to Bradley's tried and true Flavia de Luce formula, but it's certainly not trite, or tired. While the plot is a bit twisty and keeps you guessing, as always, it's Flavia who is the true star. In this book, we see our heroine growing up a bit: not just in age, but in maturity. Thankfully, though, she's still our Flavia, with her feisty spirit and deep love of chemistry. Truly, she's just a dear character and Bradley is amazing in how he captures her voice so perfectly. These novels never fail to disappoint -- this one, as well. I will continue to highly recommend this series.

*It Looks Like This - Rafi Mittlefehldt. This book is heartbreaking in many ways, but hard to describe without completely ruining the entire plot. Mike and his family move from Wisconsin to Virginia for his father's new job. Mike isn't thrilled, as he's in high school, but the family is used to doing what Mike's overbearing father desires. Quiet Mike, who loves art more than sports, doesn't fit in well with his religious family, or with a lot of the boys at his school. Quickly, he finds himself being bullied by several kids at school and pressured by his father to join a school sports team. But Mike finds comfort when he meets Sean, another kid at school, and the two become fast friends. However, other people at school have an eye on the pair's friendship, too. It's a lovely gem of a LGBT book. It's difficult to read: the dialogue is all jammed together (no quotation marks, for example) and in my ARC, there wasn't even a space between the start of a new section of thought. Once you get used to that, it's easier to read, and you get into the flow of Mike's thoughts. Tension builds slowly, as you learn more about Mike, his life, and his inner thoughts and desires. I wish this book could be standard reading for gay youth--and their parents. It's poignant and truthful, albeit it hurt my heart in many places. I quickly grew fond of Mike, whom I wanted to take in, and I loved his spunky younger sister, Toby. Mike's never-ending need for detail grows old at times (just get on with story already), but this is still a worthy read, and certainly a great tale for LGBT youth. It definitely affected me deeply.

*All Is Not Forgotten - Wendy Walker. This is a timely thriller, which will keep you guessing until the last minute. One evening, teenage Jenny Kramer heads to a party. She's planning to meet a boy, but when she spots him with another girl, she's devastated. Drunk and embarrassed, Jenny heads into the woods to be alone; instead, she is attacked and viciously raped for over a hour. After the horrific incident, Jenny is given "the treatment," which erases the incident from her memory. But Jenny cannot move on from that awful night. Jenny is taken to a psychiatrist, Dr. Forrester, who has some experience with the treatment, including another client of his--a war veteran named Sean. Can Dr. Forrester help Sean and Jenny retrieve their memories? Will Jenny track down her rapist before she's consumed by that night's events? This novel gets you immediately from the beginning (definite trigger warning for violence/rape, though). The entire book is told from the perspective of Dr. Forrester, which gives it a totally unique slant. Is he reliable? He's certainly a weird guy, and hearing the story from his side only makes things more intriguing. I thought the story would be more about both sides of forgetting and "the treatment," but it's really, truly the story of Jenny's rape, tracking down her rapist, and the interconnected story of several people in her town. Overall, this is a great thriller, with a ton of twists and turns. I always enjoy a novel where I don't actually see every plot piece coming, and this one didn't disappoint. The cast of characters in the novel is varied and intricate. Some of the good doctor's machinations are a little preposterous, but it doesn't detract from the your enjoyment of the book. Even better, the ending kept up with the earlier parts of the novel and actually made me go "wow." (That's not easy to do.) A very enjoyable, different, twisty novel - worth picking up.

*The Beauty of the End - Debbie Howells. This is a suspenseful and fascinating thriller. Noah Calaway is a lawyer (though he's left his city practice) and semi-successful crime novelist who lives alone in a secluded cabin. A barely functioning alcoholic, Noah is stuck in the past, when he was in love with a beautiful girl, April Moon, "his goddess" and supposed the love of his life. Over the years, the two would run into each other and were even engaged for some time. But April left Noah shortly before the two's wedding, and he's never really recovered. However, years later, Noah receives a call from another of their friends, Will. April is in the hospital, nearly dead from an overdose, and even worse, she's suspected of murder. Noah makes the trip to her side, and begins sifting through the pieces of April's life, trying to figure out what happened. As he does, he uncovers a different April than the one he thought he knew--and much more. It alternates Noah's story with a tale of a young girl named Ella, whose tale is told in italics. Noah's story flashes back in forth in time as he recalls his various encounters with April, as well as describes the present day happenings. This is a little confusing at first--it takes some getting used to--but once you're in the groove, the book picks up speed and completely hooks you. This is a feat in itself because our main character, Noah, is not particularly likeable, a bit clueless, and really rather frustrating. The one we truly might empathize with, April, is in a coma, and we only learn about her life through various stories filtered by our potentially unreliable narrator. But somehow, Howells makes it all work. She's really a master at unfurling the suspense. The story becomes crazily readable (hey, that's a term) quite quickly. The cast of characters is layered, complicated, and complex, but they add to the story and its intrigue in just the right way. The plot leaves you constantly guessing and trying to stay a step ahead. I found myself figuring some things out and kicking myself for missing others. Overall, I really enjoyed this one. Parts of the plot and Noah's actions certainly frustrated me, but the storyline was exciting and fun to read.

*Defending Taylor - Miranda Kenneally. I can't help it: Kenneally's books are just enjoyable. In her latest, Taylor has always grown up expecting the most of herself. After all, her father is a State Senator, and he and her mother have high expectations for their youngest daughter. At her private school, Taylor excels at school and is now captain of her soccer team. But all of that changes when Taylor makes a mistake--and gets kicked out of school. Now she's forced to start over at the local public school, which puts her dreams of Ivy League college in jeopardy. She joins the school's soccer team and tries to make things right with her family, but she can't deal with the secrets she's keeping, or the crushing disappointment of her entire family. This one leaves you in the dark in the beginning as to exactly what happened to Taylor--while frustrating, it builds suspense effectively and keeps you turning pages. Taylor's under so much pressure, but Kenneally easily captures the teen experience and the dramatic "life and death" sensation of being a teenager. Sometimes you roll your eyes at Taylor's actions, but you have to remember what it's like to be a teenager: you really do feel bad for the kid. Her parents put a crazy amount of pressure on Taylor, as do her perfect older twin siblings, and the book offers a good commentary about the burden and anxiety teens face these days regarding school and the college process. Plus, Taylor has the extra stress of her behavior being under the microscope of her father's senate campaign. I was a little frustrated about how Taylor couldn't handle talking to her parents about her life, but could fall quickly and easily into a mature romantic relationship, but that seems to be par for the course for many YA novels these days. Besides, you can't help rooting for her relationship (and the cute guy). I enjoyed the message in this novel about taking a step back, finding yourself, and doing things your own way. I think it's a message that could benefit many teens. I also couldn't help but fall for Taylor, even if she was frustrating at times, and overall, I enjoyed this one. Kenneally has a way with words and writing teens--her books are worth the read.

*The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. This novel received a lot of hype, so of course I avoided reading it for a while. As I was reading it, I thought for quite some time that I'd been duped, as it seemed to be about a bunch of greedy, hateful siblings who cared about nothing but money and appearances. But D'Aprix Sweeney has a deft way with words and somehow, amazingly, this book is compulsively readable and surprisingly enjoyable. The four Plumb siblings aren't exactly the most likable group of brothers and sisters. Is their rather despicable, hands-off mother, Francie, to blame? Further, the siblings can't agree on much, either, except how they are all looking forward to the inheritance they've deemed "The Nest." Their late father intended the money to simply be a small sum to help each of his children along late in life (they can't get the money until the youngest turns 40), but the money has been inflated by the stock market and wise investments, and now each sibling is seriously relying on the money in some way. But then, one evening at a wedding, the eldest brother Leo drunkenly gets behind the wheel of his Porsche, a young waitress from the party at his side, and crashes the car. The waitress is badly injured, and the children's mother dips deeply into The Nest to get Leo out of his jam. The other siblings are enraged as they are forced to confront their own financial problems. After a while, you get to know each Plumb sibling fairly well. While some are pretty despicable (ahem, Leo, ahem), some are just people and parents trying to get by--albeit not always in the most reasonable fashion. The most interesting part about this novel is that D'Aprix Sweeney doesn't just focus on the four siblings, but she opens up the aperture to include a whole cast of supporting characters, and that is where the novel really shines. Everyone becomes connected somehow, but it doesn't feel trite. We hear from folks in the literary world who work (and love) the siblings, for instance. So while parts of the novel are predictable and I found myself wondering if I cared about any of the Plumbs whatsoever, it's the characters to whom they are connected that are interesting. It takes a talented author to make you want to read a story, even if you don't like the main characters, per se. However, you'll find yourself caught up in the story and wanting to find out what happens. The bonus of extending the characters beyond the four Plumbs is that you get several characters' perspective on an issue or event. In the end, things tie up and together, but again, not too neatly or annoyingly. The ending is perfect somehow--again, a testament to the author's skill. Overall, the novel surprised me. I honestly usually am not a fan of the spoiled New Yorker novels, but this one was different. It really drew me in. There's a depth and a warmth behind the characters.

*The Lost Girls - Heather Young. This novel was a quick read, which pulled me into its tale immediately. In 1935, on the last evening of summer vacation, six-year-old Emily disappears from her family's vacation lake home. Emily's doting mother is devastated, and she and her two daughters (Emily's older sisters) spend the rest of their lives at the lake house, waiting for Emily to return. Six decades later, only Lucy, the middle sister, is still alive. Afraid of dying without telling her story, she writes the tale down in a notebook and leaves it, along with the house, to her sister's granddaughter, Justine. When Justine receives the news that her great-aunt has left her a house in Minnesota, she's shocked. But Justine realizes the house represents a way to flee the suffocating life she's living now, and to give her daughters a better life. So they pack up for Minnesota, only to find the house run down, the Minnesota winter cold and isolating, and their only neighbors two elderly men who live in the nearby lodge. The POV alternates between present-day (late 1990s) with Justine and then flips back to the 1930s, as Lucy tells her story via letter. In this way, we get snippets about the past in chunks, allowing for the story to unfurl slowly, building up suspense. Young does an excellent job in creating her characters: Lucy and her older sister Lilith practically jump off the page, as does little Emily. Lucy was the star of the show for me, both as her younger self and via her letter-writing. Her sadness is easily apparent as she tells a tale of a family trapped by their own secrets. This is a somber book with serious themes; it's not always an easy read. Still, the back and forth POV works well in this case, and you'll quickly become enraptured in Lucy and Lilith's past, in particular. Justine and Maurie are more frustrating characters, but their story is still interesting, especially as you learn about Justine's mother's life growing up at the lake house with Lilith and Lucy. Overall, this was a different book (in a good way), with insightful and well-drawn characters, and an intriguing plot. Lucy sticks with you, even after it's over.

*First Comes Love - Emily Giffin. This was a difficult book, but one I really enjoyed. Josie and Meredith are sisters with an often antagonistic relationship. Meredith and Josie lost their older brother in a tragic accident: an incident that influences and affects their entire family, even after fifteen years. With the anniversary of Daniel's accident looming, Josie and Meredith have to face their painful past, for once and for all. I will warn you up front: neither Josie nor Meredith is a particularly likeable character. However, they were, at least to me, relatable, which is key. Their flaws are human and ones we can spot in ourselves and those around us. This book particularly hit home to me as a very real portrayal of how families deal with with loss and grief. Giffin did an excellent job of showing how Meredith, Josie, and Daniel's parents and close friends were still so affected by his passing after fifteen years. This will hit home to others in similar situations, grappling with the guilt and grief that comes with losing someone you love. The book isn't always easy to read because of this, but I do think it's worth it. There are some comedic moments in there as well. Still, sometimes it's good to read about real life and to see it portrayed so realistically and clearly. The characters are flawed, but vivid and real and you become invested in their lives. Their tangled web is a twisted one, but it's one you want to see them emerge from. By the end, I found myself smiling and feeling at peace; I had really become caught up in these characters' lives, which I feel is the sign of a good book. It's not the tense sort of novel I'd like to read all the time, but this one resonated with me.

*The Widow - Fiona Barton. This one received a lot of hype when it was published, so I was a little wary of picking it up. However, it totally sucked me in. I read it in one day and it completely kept me guessing, which isn't always easy to do. Jean Taylor is a dutiful wife, who always stands by her man, Glen. But now Glen is dead, and Jean no longer needs to play the role of silent, obedient wife. This works well for Kate, a reporter known for getting her subjects to open up. Meanwhile, Bob, a detective, is desperately working to close the case of missing toddler Bella, who was brazenly taken from her front yard while her mother, Dawn, was inside making tea. The novel is the intersection of these various stories. The chapters cross both time periods and character point of view, which can get a bit confusing. However, it all combines into a very compelling story -- you'll be left flipping pages frantically, wondering what happened to Bella, to Glen and Jean's marriage, and more. This is an exciting thriller and well-worth the read.

*The Raven King - Maggie Stiefvater. The fourth and final book in Stiefvater's "Raven Cycle" series picks up shortly after the third. Obviously, if you haven't read the three previous books, you should, and you shouldn't continue reading this review, as there will be spoilers. Gansey, of course, is still after the elusive Glendower, a buried king whom he believes will change his life. Blue, daughter of a psychic, is not-psychic, but still an amplifier of those who are, and still destined to kill her true love upon their first kiss. The pair--now in love--are joined by their usual gang: Ronan Lynch, dreamer of all things magical; Adam, a survivor, who is tied to the magical forest of Cabeswater in mysterious ways; Noah, who is dead; Maura, Blue's mother; and many more. In fact, we gain several more characters in this final installment, namely far more involvement from fellow Aglionby Academy student, Henry. Together, this group is focusing on the frenzied search to find Gansey's beloved king. This whole series is amazing and crazy. I need to re-read all four books at some point, now that all are released. This novel actually started out a bit slow for me. It was, as weird as it sounds, almost a bit too fantastical, filled with almost too bizarre magic and plot. However, as things continued to unfold, pieces fell into place, and I was consumed by the story and its characters, per usual. Overall, I found this a fitting end to a beloved series. I will insert a caveat that it doesn't tie up loose ends for some of the ancillary characters and some pieces may leave you a bit befuddled. But some of the magic of these books is that everything doesn't make sense to the characters, so I give it a pass when it doesn't all make sense to us as well. I'd recommend the series-- it's an amazing trip to another world, and I certainly have grown to love the characters. I'll miss them!

*The Space Between - Michelle L. Teichman. Overall, this is a dynamo of a book, which I sped through rapidly. Harper Isabelle has a pretty good life: she's beautiful, smart, and popular. Her first year in high school is going quite well, thanks in part to the protective shadow cast by her sister, Bronte, the most popular girl in school. For Sarah Jamieson, however, things aren't exactly as smooth. While Sarah's twin brother Tyler has always been in the in crowd at school, Sarah has not. So imagine Sarah's surprise when Harper shows an interest in her-- and when Sarah herself feels drawn to Harper. It actually builds its storyline rather slowly, as Harper and Sarah deal with their feelings for each other, but I found it that a nice antidote to the usual YA where the characters seem to fall in love overnight. This was similar to some of my own experiences coming out. Harper and Sarah are well-drawn characters who pop on the page -- they are complicated, sweet, and beautiful as they work through the multitude of emotions that comes with falling in love in high school. There is definitely a cheesy element to some of the writing but it really doesn't take away from the experience of watching these girls struggle to find each other. Perhaps the only thing that takes away from the story is a little of the weirdness factor in that Harper also dates Sarah's brother; it manages to work with the story, but it does occasionally give you pause. Honestly, I was very touched by this book and found it to be a sweet coming of age/coming out story. I wish there had been more of these around when I was going through a similar experience. It does an excellent job of showing some of the difficulty teens still face in dealing with their sexuality in high school (and with their families) today. You'll find yourself quite invested in Harper and Sarah's story.

*Girls on Fire - Robin Wasserman. This is an oddly captivating and compelling novel. The story unfolds before you and you're powerless to stop the events as they occur. Hannah Dexter has led a fairly mundane life in the small town of Battle Creek, where everyone knows everyone else and everything that happens to everyone. But her life is turned upside town by two events: the suicide of a local boy, Craig, and the arrival of a new girl, Lacey, who quickly becomes the town's resident bad girl. Hannah and Lacey quickly unite over their hatred of the town's "it girl" Nikki Drummond. Lacey transforms Hannah into Dex--a darker version of Hannah. It's told mainly from the alternating points of view of Lacey and Hannah, and we slowly learn about the events that led to their friendship and its aftermath--and also Craig's suicide. The book wasn't a particularly fast read for me, but it was fascinating. It's an accident where you can't look away, even though you know something horrible will happen. This book is dark and disastrous and makes you afraid to ever send your children off to high school. Parts of the novel are a bit cliched (it's almost too dark, too awful) but it doesn't stop it from being intriguing and captivating. It pulls you in to Lacey and Hannah's world and as time somehow moves forward, yet we learn about what happened to Craig in the past, Wasserman does an amazing job of unfurling her plot. I was drawn to the book and the characters. Tragic Lacey, confused Hannah, evil queen Nikki: you can see them so clearly in your head. The book almost casts a spell over you as it sucks you into its world. The writing is intense, the storyline is intense, and you're left almost breathless at the end. I didn't really enjoy the book, per se, but I appreciated it. It's a wild ride, a dark one, and definitely one worth taking.

*Girls' Weekend - Cara Sue Achterberg. Upon first reading it, the premise to this novel seems a little farfetched, but the characters immediately seem very real and the book gives a lot of little details about motherhood that lend it realism (for instance, humming annoying intro music to a children's show at inappropriate times). Each woman is different, but you can relate to a piece of each of them. I found myself liking parts of each and being frustrated with other parts - just like your actual friends. Charlotte, Dani, and Meg have been friends for ages-- bonding over motherhood and the issues that accompany it. However, each woman has their own problems and are reluctant to bring them up with their friends. When the three women get a chance to go away for a girls' weekend, they jump at the chance, even if involves a little rearranging of schedules. But once there, they make a fateful decision: they aren't coming back home. The book speaks universally to many women, especially mothers: those seeking answers in life, those feeling guilty for not being happy when life seems perfect on paper, those wondering when life simply became a series of errands. I felt like Achterberg did an excellent job of dealing with and capturing some of the quintessential problems facing the modern mom. The book is painful to read at times, but only because it's so well-written. It lags a little in the middle, but really, the women do too, as they try to figure out exactly what they should do. It is fascinating because they are doing what you can't quite imagine pulling off. My mind was racing as I read: I mean, who would really watch your kids for that long? What spouse would be OK with this? Who could leave their kids for that long? And yet, you sort of dream for the time away, envy the women as you read the novel. It's easy to empathize with them, even as you may question some of their motives. Overall, the book was easy to read and Charlotte, Meg, and Dani were interesting and relatable characters. The book made me think (and highlight many passages). It's a fun read, but also goes deeper, too.

*P.S. I Still Love You - Jenny Han. In this sequel to To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Lara Jean is back - still a hopeless romantic, but also a bit more grown up. Lara Jean is struggling with the ramifications of her relationship with Peter, including a viral Instagram post that leads to a great deal of humiliation (oh the joys of high school). As she and Peter learn to navigate a "real" relationship, she also finds herself writing John Ambrose McClaren-- one of the original boys who received a love letter in Book #1. I actually found myself enjoying this book more than the first. Perhaps I'd just become more accustomed to Lara Jean and her style, but this was a really sweet and enjoyable novel. Lara Jean comes into her own in the sequel, as she negotiates high school and all the romantic woes she encounters along the way. The second book also avoids a few of the "icks" I felt from the first (e.g., crushing on her older sister's boyfriend). You become a little more used to some of Lara Jean's idioms, and she really does grow up a bit -- taking care of her sitter, Kitty (still a spitfire and a great character all in her own), looking out for her dad, and coming out of her own world a bit. Even better, the plot is unpredictable and keeps you guessing. Both boys seem viable options for Lara Jean, and she truly comes out of her shell and lives a little, while still remaining true to her self (key). The book presents a great family dynamic with Lara Jean's dad, a single guy raising his three girls, and the supporting cast of characters (especially Kitty) are fun and well-developed. Overall, I read this one in about 24 hours and found it quite entertaining and delightful. A great presentation of high school life and certainly a worthy sequel.

*The Woman in Blue - Elly Griffths. The eighth book in Elly Griffths' Ruth Galloway series finds much of the action taking place in Walsingham, an English town famous for its religion. Cathbad, Ruth's druid friend, is in town housesitting for a friend, when he sees a lovely woman in a dress and cloak in the nearby cemetery. In the morning, a young woman is found dead in Walsingham - wrapped in blue cloth. At the same time, Ruth is receiving emails from an old friend, Hilary, now a priest. She's receiving threatening letters from someone who clearly isn't happy about women in the priesthood and wants Ruth's help. Are the letters and the death connected? When Hilary comes to Walsingham to attend a conference for women priests, Ruth finds herself in the middle of it all. As does DCI Harry Nelson, of course, who is tracking not only the woman's killer, but Hilary's letter writer. I've made it clear by now that I'm a huge fan of Griffths' Galloway series. I think of Ruth as an old friend. Curling up with one of these books is like going home, or talking to a familiar and beloved friend. The characters' quirks make you laugh simply because you know them so well. Griffiths has created a cast of characters who are so well-done, so simply "them," that you look forward to returning to their world. The eight installment differed a bit, to me, as it focused a bit more on the personal side of things, mainly the Ruth and Nelson story (or, truly, the Ruth, Nelson, and Michelle triangle). This was certainly good, albeit stressful, as it's difficult when you're favorite characters aren't getting along. Still, the developments in this novel are necessary in the trajectory to move all three characters forward. The religious plot was a little confusing for me, at times - between a lot of British references I don't always quite get, but the mystery was still enjoyable and plotted well. The supporting cast of characters introduced in this tale rounded out the story well, and I was truly left wondering until nearly the end about "whodunit." All in all, another great Ruth tale, which made me laugh out loud several times.

Black-Eyed Susans - Julia Heaberlin. This was a wonderful book; the subject matter is frightening, but the book itself was a captivating page-turner. The mystery is extremely well-plotted and riveting. When she was sixteeen, young Tessa "Tessie" Cartwright was found, hanging on to life, in a field of Black-Eyed Susans. The other girls "dumped" with Tessa did not survive (in fact, some were just bones), and Tessa is doomed to live her life as the surviving "Black-Eyed Susan" in the press. Justifiably, the event haunts her life and her nightmares. Further, she is tormented by the fact that her testimony about what happened helped put the suspect, Terrell, on death row. Now, a grown woman and mother, Tessa is working with the Terrell's legal team to exonerate him. This includes a forensic scientist (the forensics in the book are detailed and excellent). Her main reason? It seems wherever she lives, a patch of Black-Eyed-Susans follows, forcing her to live in fear, and to wonder if the sentenced killer truly is guilty. But if he isn't, are Tessa and her daughter safe? Even when I was pretty sure I had things figured out, I was rapidly turning pages, still guessing and eagerly awaiting to find out what had happened to Tessa (and the other "Susans," as she calls them) back then. The book flips between present-day Tessa's point of view and to "Tessie," as a younger Tessa was known, talking about events leading up to and right after Terrell's trial. It's a suspenseful plot device that works well here; I was up late turning pages, desperate to know what happened. Tessa is a well-formed character, even with her angst and anxieties resulting from her horrific past. Her supporting cast - her daughter, Terrell's lead lawyer, the forensic scientist, a quirky neighbor, her best friend from her youth - are all well-done, too. At times, the book is confusing due to Tessa's unreliable narration; she is suffering from memory loss and anxiety, after all, but it only adds to the book's suspense and intrigue. Perhaps the only thing I can find to complain about is that the ending is a bit too pat: it pops up suddenly to resolve things, but there's still a door left open, and it does nothing to diminish how enjoyable the book and the story is. Overall, an excellent thriller and a worthy read.

I shall love you until I die: THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD.

The Beautiful DeadThe Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eve Singer is a beleaguered TV crime reporter dealing with a pushy boss who wants Eve to be everything: younger, covering every story, and on top of every lead. In her personal life, Eve goes home to her childhood home and her father, Duncan, who is suffering from dementia. When Eve winds up covering the murder of a young woman, she doesn't realize she will soon be entwined with the girl's killer, someone who is obsessed with death, and the desire to be recognized for his "killing performances." As the killer pulls Eve deeper into his twisted web, she has some startling choices to make.

I have to say, my last book of 2016 surprised me. This novel was certainly creepy, but also had a certain nuance and depth to it that I wasn't expecting. Eve is a complicated and likeable character, and the book doesn't just cover murder and gore, it goes into her personal life, and the struggles she has caring for her father and his failing memory. The bits with her father are often both sad and humorous; they are very real and give the book a true humanity. Indeed, there's a real depth to Eve, who is stuck in a man's world and the pressures and unfairness that brings to to her career-wise (there's always a younger, prettier reporter waiting in the wings, as her boss never hesitates to remind her), as well as the burdens a woman feels as a caretaker. After all, it's not her brother taking care of her dad. Further, the book looks at an interesting psychological conundrum: how our society seems to need murder and the way it feeds on the social media aspect of it, as of late. Without society's interest in murder and death, Eve has no job.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. It lost me slightly for a bit near the end, but managed to get back on track, and even threw in a very interesting twist I didn't see coming. Although I admit, I kept wondering where the police's behavioral scientist was. Why was the poor Lead Detective reading and deciphering everything from a serial killer alone? However, I digress. This was a well-done thriller with a different and engaging plot. I really found myself drawn to Eve, and her father, Duncan. It was an enjoyable novel with which to end the year.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it's available in the U.S. as of 01/03/2017.

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