Thursday, March 19, 2015

And she always expected the worst in the back of her mind.

The Shadow Cabinet (Shades of London, #3)The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read nearly 3/4 of this book curled up in my easy chair while the kids napped, snow falling softly outside. It is rare that I get that much peace and quiet anymore, so I roared through the book, wanting to finish it before the twins awoke and shattered the peace.

Therefore, any nitpicks I have about anything in the book feeling rushed are no doubt of my own doing, as I manically flipped pages, wanting to find out what happened to Rory and the rest of the gang. When the series is over, I look forward to reading all the books again, and savoring them a bit more.

Needless to say, I loved this book. Definitely my favorite novel to date this year. I am sure Johnson's Shade of London series isn't for everyone, but I've fallen for American-based Rory, a transplant in London, who can now see ghosts. It sounds preposterous, but Johnson has made it work- and work well- in all three novels so far. I love Rory, I love her character, and I love the group of people she's come to surround herself in London - far away from the home she knows in New Orleans.

*spoilers if you haven't read the first two books - which you should, immediately!*

In book three, Rory is dealing with the grief of losing Stephen, as the team frantically tries to find his ghost. They are also trying to find her prefect, Charlotte, who was kidnapped by Rory's therapist, Jane. We learn more about Jane and her past involvement in an ancient cult and a likely string of murders. It all involves a much bigger plot involving London's ability to harness its dead, and the existence of a murky, rumored government organization who polices ghosts.

We also meet a new character in this novel, Freddie (a girl), who is quite bright, but of whom I still remain suspicious - silly, perhaps, but it's so hard to trust new people coming into the gang. We see more of Jerome, which is nice, and Boo and Callum, of course. There's actually less focus on actual ghosts than you'd think and more on some big conspiracies, but it all works, really well. The camaraderie of the team, and the way Johnson voices Rory is just lovely, and the book reads so well. Even what should be a crazy plot is made readable and believable through the lens of these developed characters.

As always, I'm left a bit bereft, waiting for the next book. (And, for the record, I finished the last few pages right before the twins woke up. I feel like that's fate, right?)

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And his mouth so quick to mock.

 True to my word, I read a book about Michael Jordan after my last couple of less than fruitful reads.

Michael Jordan: The LifeMichael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a huge Michael Jordan fan, so I was excited to read this book. It was definitely a worthwhile read, especially if you're a basketball, MJ, or Chicago Bulls fan. The level of detail is amazing, and I learned a lot about Michael's early years, especially, as well as some great facts about his college selection process, his first deals with Nike and such. If you're a sports geek, you'll eat this stuff up.

The book picks up speed once Michael joins the Bulls and sort of blows through his Championships. I get it - there are plenty of other reads about those events (including some by Lazenby himself, I believe), but I wouldn't have minded a few more details about some of his years with the Bulls.

If those years go by quickly in the book, his time after the Bulls is really glossed over. For me, that was the one real disappointment of this biography. That's sort of the part of MJ that's such a mystery and it was a little sad not to know more about what he's up to these days. There is, however, some great information about his time with the Wizards organization.

All told, even when some of the years pass by quickly, the book is a worthy read. I think it presents a pretty fair portrait of Jordan. He's recognized as a hero to many, but Lazenby certainly brings in quotes and perspectives from all sides, including those who don't always sing his praises. You learn a lot about MJ's childhood and family make-up and how it created the determined, competitive individual that he is. If you're a fan, there are some quotes that will make you laugh out loud and other passages that will fascinate you. And there are plenty of little tidbits you can trot out at dinner parties... (ok, ok, maybe just with your other sports nerds friends. But there are lots of fun stories and facts throughout the book!)

By the end you'll know a lot about Michael, but still be left wondering a bit. But perhaps that's the key to Jordan all along.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

'Cause when I close my eyes, I'm somewhere with you.

I've been incredibly swamped with work and kids and life lately, but I did manage to read Eight Hundred Grapes, by Laura Dave. I feel torn about the rating for this book, which probably truly clocks in at 3.5 stars. For a decent part of this novel, I felt slightly annoyed with its protagonist, Georgia. Georgia returns to her parents' home in disgrace a few days before her wedding, after finding out her fiance has been keeping a crazy secret from her.

Her parents' home is a vineyard in California, where Georgia grew up with her older twin brothers, Finn and Bobby. She expects to find the comfort she always experienced as a kid (but also ran away from - she's very clear that she left the vineyard for a life as a more glamorous lawyer). But upon arriving home, she finds that no one is really happy -- not her parents, not Bobby and his wife, and not Finn.Yet, she finds herself longing for life at the vineyard more and more, even as everything is falling apart around her. Hmm.

There are several plotlines in this novel that, when combined, all seem a little ludicrous. Georgia's fiance Ben's secret involves a movie star. The crazy issues between the brothers. The problems and arrangement between her parents. What happens with the vineyard. Even the ending. One or two of the storylines, perhaps, I would have found more believable. All together, it is a bit much. Add in Georgia's constant vacillating (I'm getting married! I'm not! I am!), and it gets to be a bit old.

However, I have to cut Georgia some slack, as I realize, despite the lawyerly job and upcoming wedding, she's young, and she has had quite a shock. She eventually grew on me a bit as the storyline progressed and she herself grew up a bit. And, as silly and as "neat" (as in, neatly tied up) the ending was, it warmed my heart a bit and made me end the book on a good note.

Still, I think I may pick up a Michael Jordan biography next. I'm a little tired of flighty thirty-somethings! Time for a clever, genius, and sometimes angry athlete for a change of pace.

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

As I've stated things can be complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

You were too far gone after the fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Oh look, it's the woman we ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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