Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Fighting a war that you'll never win: THE GIRL MADE OF STARS.

Girl Made of StarsGirl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

My rating: 4.5+ of 5 stars


Owen and his twin sister, Mara, have been close for their entire life--bonded by their twinhood, joint storytelling, and love of the stars--particularly their "own" constellation. But that all changes when Mara's good friend, Hannah, accuses Owen of rape. Suddenly Mara finds herself torn between her friendships and her family. Even worse, she has no one to talk to, after breaking up with her girlfriend/best friend, Charlie. Everything feels unknown and confusing. How will Mara navigate this new world--and what will she do about Owen and Hannah?

This novel. Oh my goodness. It will break your heart and yet leave you speechless with wonder. It's so beautiful. It started off with a quote from Virginia Woolf (The Waves), so I knew it was going to be good. And it certainly was.

The book is so achingly gorgeous and real, with its realistic look at high school. It portrays how both amazing and awful kids can be at this age. Mara is such a lovely character. The Owen/Hannah situation leaves her conflicted and forces her to face something terrible in her own past. By placing Mara in such a difficult situation, Herring Blake also does a good job of showing how hard it is being the female in this situation and how so few people believe the girl. It's such a timely commentary (albeit a sad one). It may not always be easy to read, as we see how hard things are for Hannah (and Mara), but it's so well-done.

I mean, really, this book is just heartbreaking at times. And yet I was riveted. These kids, with their big problems, so many of them living other people's dreams. It was so poignant, so true to so many of my own experiences. And the relationships here--well, wow. I mean, for one thing, we get a truly bisexual character in Mara, which is so refreshing. And then Charlie is genderqueer/nonbinary. It was so wonderful to have these characters in this novel, as a positive representation for teens--living real lives, with real problems, but in no way serving as the villain or maligned character. I was incredibly impressed. I wish this novel was on the shelf of every high school (well, on the shelves everywhere, honestly).

The girls in this book are in a group called Empower, which stands up for females--how they are portrayed, the double standards they face, and more. They are so strong, despite all the hurdles they face on a daily basis. Honestly, despite so much sadness in this novel, there is so much hope. So much strength. I adored Mara. She is wonderful -- such a strong, amazing, and lovely character. I found myself rooting for her as if she was my own kid.

I loved this one. I don't even remember how or why I stumbled across it and requested it, but I'm so glad I did. This is a beautiful, powerful book about the strength of human existence. The girls in this novel will make you cry, make you laugh, and make you both despair for and have faith in humanity. I will be tracking down the rest of Herring Blake's books for sure. 4.5+ stars.

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

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Singing out loud when the sun came up: PAPER GHOSTS.

Paper GhostsPaper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


Carl Feldman was a famous photographer whose photos were well-known and whose books sold around the country. Then, he was tried--and acquitted--for the murder of a young mother. Now he lives in a home for wayward folks and criminals with dementia. Supposedly his mind is going, and there's much he doesn't remember about his past. There are tremors in his arm and gaps in his past. But each week a young woman visits, claiming to be his daughter. Eventually, she shows up to take Carl on a trip. But this isn't a father/daughter bonding ritual. She's convinced Carl knows what happened to her sister, Rachel, who disappeared when she was twelve and Rachel nineteen. She's spent years accumulating clues and evidence that point squarely to Carl's guilt--including his own photographs. How much does Carl really remember about those years? And how much is she at risk driving into Texas with a potential killer?

This was really different and odd book--not necessarily in a bad way, but it takes some getting used to and it's hard to explain, especially without spoiling anything. Our characters are few, with a focus on our female protagonist (who isn't named until the end of the book, so I won't name her here) and Carl. Both come alive through Heaberlin's well-written words, but neither are easy to like at times. Our main character is on a quest--one she's been on from the moment Rachel disappeared: to figure out what happened to her beloved sister. Her drive and desperation seep through the pages, and she's a fascinating and dynamic character, if not always a sympathetic or reliable one.

Yet she's completely lovable next to Carl, a potential serial killer who could be whispering to ghosts or plotting to kill her--it's so hard for us to know. What's so intriguing about this book is the bond to the two form as they drive across Texas, whose landscape becomes almost a third character in the novel. While at times I felt the plot dip and drag a bit, wondering where things were going, other times I was struck by the amazing dynamic Heaberlin created between the two. So much of the book is just Carl and our main character, alone in a vehicle in Texas, and it's very interesting, honestly, how she kept that interesting!

The book is creepy and tense at times, with Carl's behavior coming across as spooky and a layer of distrust covering the whole book. Who can we trust or believe? How much does Carl really remember? What is our main character really trying to achieve with this journey with Carl; is she telling us everything? I was left jumping and mistrustful, always wondering what would happen next.

The mixed media aspect of the book helps too, with not only commentary from our main character, but also excerpts from her childhood journal, pictures of Carl's, and snippets from one of his photography books. As such, things unfold slowly and ominously, overlaying the tense atmosphere of the novel. A lot happens and it can get a little perplexing at times, but it's also intriguing and compelling. A few twists and turns made me go "whoa." There's even a few moments between Carl and his "daughter" that are humorous. By the end, you're a little dazed and worn out, and the ending seems shocking. It definitely wasn't what I was expecting, that's for sure. The whole book felt the way, even though I enjoyed it.

Overall, this is slow-burning thriller that takes some time to warm to, but once you get into the rhythm, is interesting and compelling. The main characters are well-faceted, different, and unreliable. It's a creepy and tense read. 3.5 stars.

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

You can read my review of Heaberlin's novel BLACK-EYED SUSANS here.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sometimes I feel like giving up: HOW TO WALK AWAY.

How to Walk Away: A NovelHow to Walk Away: A Novel by Katherine Center

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Margaret Jacobsen is working on the perfect life she's always dreamed of: ideal job; handsome fiance, Chip; beautiful condo; and more. But that all changes in the blink of an eye, and Margaret wakes up in the ICU. Once there, she realizes how bad things really are. She's assigned a physical therapist, Ian, that even the nurses do not want her to have. He's gruff and unpleasant and barely speaks a word--the exact opposite of Margaret. The crash also brings back her wayward older sister Kitty, who hasn't spoken to the family in three years. However, Margaret recognizes she needs all the help she can get to heal--physically and emotionally-and move on with her life.

This was a fascinating and fun book, despite its serious subject matter. It had the unique ability to draw me in, even when I knew where it would go and wind up from practically the beginning. It reminded me how much I enjoy women's fiction, which I feel like I have pushed to the wayside a bit lately for thrillers and psychological fiction, the "it" genre du jour.

Anyway, it took me some time to warm up to Margaret, whose outgoing and chatty self is the complete opposite of me. However, I could identify with her need for perfection in her life, her unwillingness to fail, and her desperate desire to please those around her, especially her parents. She was a very real character, with her ability and need to fantasize about ideal situations and coming out on top when she wasn't in the best position. She was funny at times, but also serious, and it was so easy to root for her.

The other characters in the novel were dynamic, especially Ian and Kitty, if not a bit polarizing. The mothers (Margaret's and Chip's) are just awful, to the point where I wanted to shake them at times. I know Margaret's probably meant well, but good grief! There's a lot of sideline drama with Margaret's family, most of which proves a good accompaniment to Margaret's issues. It's a very emotional read, making it easy to grow attached to the likeable characters (and to dislike the "bad" ones). I was definitely along for the ride and caught up in Margaret's life, health, and drama.

Overall, this was a touching read with interesting and fun characters that hooked me immediately, even if I could see where it was heading. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as 05/15/2018.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

We were born for better days: THE DARK ANGEL.

The Dark AngelThe Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars


Ruth is dealing with a lot on the personal front, including the fact that Nelson's wife, Michelle, is pregnant. Ruth and Nelson's daughter, Kate, is six now, and while Michelle knows about Kate, Nelson's older daughters do not. Nelson was very close to leaving Michelle for Ruth, before he found out his wife was pregnant again. So when Ruth is invited to Italy to assist a former friend, Angelo Morelli, in looking at some bones, she is actually a bit excited at the thought of a holiday/work trip. It will give her and Kate a chance to get away. They embark on the trip along with Ruth's friend Shona and her son, Louis. Once there, Ruth realizes how entrenched the people of the Italian village are in the past--including what happened during World War II. Further, Angelo is convinced someone is trying to kill him. Before she knows it, Ruth is immersed in a modern-day murder mystery: something she can't seem to avoid, no matter where she travels.

It's no secret that I love Ruth and Elly Griffiths' series of novels featuring our intelligent, plucky heroine. Despite the fact that I know absolutely nothing about bones, I identify with her (e.g., stepping on a plane with Kate for the first time and feeling nervous flying with her daughter, whose safety "overrides everything else"). Ruth's wit, sarcasm, and sense of humor are always absolutely spot-on, and it's wonderful being back with her and her circle of pals, especially the grumpy yet protective Nelson. The Nelson/Ruth dynamic is its typically complicated yet oddly sweet self, and there's a surprising amount of progress or information regarding the characters' personal lives in this novel.

As mentioned, these books are always just lovely and humorous. The narration style is impeccable and works flawlessly. Each character is so perfectly "them," and I enjoyed that we heard from a lot of characters this time around, even Nelson's elder daughter. Oh, and yes, there's also a great mystery plot thrown in, involving an Italian town, some bones (of course), and a variety of deeply buried secrets. Griffiths introduced us to some new characters with the new locale, and I found the mystery to be interesting and engaging. It was front and center enough to keep us interested, but refreshing to get a little more movement on the characters' personal lives, too.

Overall, another winner from Griffiths. As always, I cannot wait for the next Ruth novel (especially because there is some serious unresolved business by the end of this one!). I think of Ruth, Harry, Kate, and the entire cast as dear friends by now. You can read this as a stand-alone, but as always, I recommend reading the whole series, because it's just so darn good. 4.5 stars.

A huge thanks to the publisher and Edelweiss for a copy of this novel in return for an unbiased review; it is available in the U.S. everywhere as of 05/15/2018.

You can read my review of THE CHALK PIT here.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2018

And you might be a little bit bruised: THE PERFECT MOTHER.

The Perfect MotherThe Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The May Mothers--a group of parents who all gave birth in May--meet regularly to discuss their parenting woes, joys, and everything in between. On the 4th of July, the group decides to go out in the evening--their first time out since their children were born. They meet at a bar, and most of the group is looking forward to an evening of drinking and dancing. But Winnie, a single mother, is reluctant to leave her son, Midas, with a babysitter for the first time. And, that evening, all goes wrong: while Winnie is out, Midas is taken from his own home while the babysitter sleeps: stolen from his crib without anyone leaving a trace. Suddenly Winnie's life is splashed across the media, who are also saying the police have done everything wrong with the investigation from the start. Three of the other mothers only want to help Winnie get Midas back--but will it come at the cost of their own privacy as well?

This is a compelling and suspenseful novel that grabs you from the beginning, when we are told that it is a year later and a woman from the Mother's group is in prison due to Midas' disappearance. From there, the story rewinds, as told from the point-of-view of several women in the group, including Francie, Colette, Nell, and Winnie. It slowly unfolds with snippets from each and turns out to be incredibly suspenseful. The characters are all entwined a bit, and there are some excellent twists and turns as plot pieces unfold.

Even better, the novel offers some excellent commentary on how women are treated wrapped up in the mystery plot. Woven into the plot twists, we see some of the harsh realities of motherhood (in the U.S., especially) related to working mothers, breastfeeding, sleeplessness, and the overall pressure placed on new moms. As Winnie is increasingly tried in the media, Molloy does a good job of weaving in TV news and commentary on how mothers are expected to behave. It's well-done and I enjoyed the dual aspect of a well-done thriller but also the social commentary aspect, too.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. It was very exciting and very surprising. At times, there often seemed to be a frustrating character involved with something to hide and making bad decisions (secretly copying files, hacking into things, etc.), but I suppose that comes with the territory. And yes, I am a little tired of the multiple POV/surprise twist format, but it worked so well here that I'll forgive. In the end, this is a really enjoyable novel with a vast cast of characters, some excellent twists, and amazing insight into motherhood. I'm really excited that this will be turned into a movie with Kerry Washington.

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

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Monday, May 07, 2018

I want a wild, wild, wild, wild love: OUR KIND OF CRUELTY.

Our Kind of CrueltyOur Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


Mike Hayes had a terrible childhood, where he was neglected by his drunken mother and beaten by her string of hapless boyfriends. At ten, he was taken into care, eventually winding up with a nice couple. With their help, Mike went on to a good university, where he met Verity (V), with whom he fell madly in love. V helped Mike learn the ways of the world and society. They also played a sexual game called the Crave that brought them even closer together. However, after Mike went to New York for two years for work, their relationship ended. Even worse, Verity is now getting married to another man, Angus. At first, Mike is devastated. But soon, he realizes that V's wedding invitation is just another piece of Crave. As such, he must watch her, track her, and prepare his home for her inevitable return--all parts of the tense and careful game that is Crave.

Well, this was an interesting one. It was a pretty quick read, yet sometimes felt a bit long. It was definitely creepy, for sure. Hall has created a slow-burning thriller here, and you become eerily mesmerized by Mike's crazy. In fact, at times, I almost found myself rooting for him, despite the fact you knew he was unreliable, delusional, and not at all good for anyone in the novel. The book is less "edge-on-your-seat" thriller and more a character-driven study. Be prepared for Mike, Mike, and more Mike. The novel is told from his perspective and we're reliant entirely on his mindset. Because we know we can't trust said mindset, we're constantly waiting for something bad to happen. It's like watching a train wreck. A very twisted one.

That being said, the novel can be fascinating at times, but it also hard to know where it's going. As you're constantly waiting for something terrible to occur, you're waiting. And waiting. The novel moves slowly, with its intense focus on Mike, and his thoughts on Verity. I would have liked more insight to V, for instance, or the other people in Mike's life. So at that point, things can get feel drawn out. Not to mention, is Mike really this delusional, you wonder? Can he really believe what he's spouting? Needless to say the book is very effective at making you feel uncomfortable. It captures anger, longing, tension, and more (stalking?!) very well.

Overall, this novel drew me in with its creepy tone and compelling character of Mike. It's definitely slow-moving at times, but oddly fascinating as well. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 05/08/2018.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2018

And you wince as waking pounds your head: WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE.

What You Want To See (Roxane Weary, #2)What You Want To See by Kristen Lepionka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Roxane Weary is hired by Arthur Ungless, owner of a print shop, to track his fiance, Marin, whom he believes is cheating on him. But her case devolves quickly, between a bounced check and Tom (Roxane's dad's former partner) and a rude cop named Sanko showing up on Roxane's doorstep with the news that Marin is dead. Not only that, they make it pretty clear that they want Roxane to stay out of it. But this is "pathologically nosy" Roxane we are talking about. Stay out of it she cannot. So Roxane continues to work Arthur's case--as the husband, he's the main suspect after all. Roxane is determined he's innocent: a perspective not shared by Tom and Sanko. As she digs deeper into Marin's life, she discovers that she led quite the double life, and Roxane finds herself lost in a world of antiques dealing, wealthy families, and a lot of danger.

I loved this book. I love the first person aspect. The Roxane Weary series is straight-up great mystery writing. No unreliable narrator, no chapters that alternate POV or time periods, no gimmicks--just an excellent protagonist and a strong plot. It makes you long for mysteries of old (think Kinsey Millhone). The ways I love Roxane cannot truly be enumerated--she's a female lead in a mystery series, for one. She's smart, witty, and sarcastic. She's bisexual, but this characteristic is just who she is, not her main defining element or the entire defining point of the novel. As a bisexual female, I cannot stress how amazing this is in literature. To have bisexual representation (and have that representation be intelligent, funny, and not portrayed as evil and deviant), well, it's wonderful. She has relationships of all kinds and works on figuring out herself, just like any other person. Gasp! Imagine that. I couldn't love Roxane more (or Kristen Lepionka for creating this character). Also, Roxane calls waffles "golden beauty" and well, what more do you need in your PI? She's the Leslie Knope of private investigators.

I was worried that the second Roxane Weary novel wouldn't stand up to the first, but I was anxious for no reason. The second book is just as wonderful and intricately crafted as the first, and we get to see Roxane both struggling and growing professionally and personally. The case is a great one--it had me frantically reading and totally shocked me at the end, which I love. So rarely can a detective novel keep me guessing to the anymore. Marin Strasser is quite the character, and her web of lies pulls in a whole host of supporting characters.

We also see Roxane navigating new territory with Tom, her former lover (and, as mentioned, her dad's ex-partner), and get appearances again from the appealing Weary brothers and Roxane's mom. Roxane is still working on her relationships--not just romantic ones, but life ones, and you'll be touched as she figures out trying to be a "surrogate aunt" to Shelby, who appeared in book one. Watching her let her guard down at times is enjoyable.

The case is still mainly the star, though, and it won't disappoint. It's complicated and intriguing and everything comes together in ways that will make you gasp and keep you riveted. I was definitely shocked several times while reading. Not to mention I love it when an author can write a character that I truly hate--you know they've done a good job when you can feel that anger viscerally through the pages!

Overall, I have nothing bad to say about this book. Maybe that it's over, and I have to wait now for a (hopeful!!) book three? I love Roxane. I feel kinship toward her for sure, this sarcastic, bisexual PI whose still navigating the world around her. The mystery in this book won't disappoint, nor will the characters. If you haven't read the first Roxane Weary novel, I do recommend reading it first (mostly because it's also so good - my review here ), but this will stand on its own. Highly recommend - 4.5+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you); it is available everywhere as 05/01/2018.

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