Wednesday, November 25, 2015

All of the bright colors that live inside of me are now just tiny pieces of what used to be.

The Night SisterThe Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As children, Amy, Piper, and Margot were thick as thieves until an incident at the Tower Motel, where Amy and her family (including her mother and aunt) grew up, tore them apart. Now Piper and Margot, her sister, have moved on. Piper has moved away, while Margot lives in the same town with her husband, Jason. But when Margot calls Piper in the middle of the night, with some horrible news about Amy and her family, the two sisters are forced to revisit their childhood, and the incident at the Tower Motel that ended their friendship with Amy. What exactly happened to Amy and her family? And is it related to Amy's mother Rose and her sister Sylvie?

As seems to be the case a lot late, this novel weaves its story through a variety of perspectives, including Piper, Rose, and even Margot's husband, Jason. This means jumping back and forth in both perspective and time period. It does this frequently enough that, while suspense does build, it's a little hard to get into the characters or even story momentum at times.

McMahon has a track record of bringing in spooky elements into her books. I'm torn on whether this one almost would have been better with just the human element. Or, conversely, I would have liked to have seen her run with the supernatural aspect a little bit more. As the story was written, you had to suspend your disbelief a bit (so be prepared for that; if that's not your style, you won't enjoy this book). However, it was so lightly woven in that it almost seemed like everything could be pushed onto to other elements. Hard to explain, but I would have liked to have seen the book fall more in one direction or the other.

Still, it was an interesting story and definitely creepy. I certainly found myself a little skittish that night in bed, after finishing the novel.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

But it's a little too late to do the right thing now.

We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cadence (Cady) grows up slightly insulated from the world - the first grandchild born to the weathly Harris and Tupper. Her mother is one of the Harris' three daughters, all of whom have their own children and each of whom vie for their father's affection (and eventual inheritance). During the summer's, Cady stays on a private island with her family, growing up with her cousins - including a group they call the Liars, composed her herself, her cousins Mirren and Johnny, and Johnny's friend, Gat. Thick as thieves during the summer, it seems like nothing can separate the quartet - but is that really true?

So, this is a tough one to review. I'd heard a lot of glowing things and this had a ton of positive reviews from my friends. Even my stepmom (who lent the book to me) liked it. So maybe my expectations were just too high when I read it, but I felt "eh." That's not to say that I didn't find the big *ahh spoilery ending* to be amazing and shocking. I did, and I felt wowed and, yes, a bit amazed, and did sort of want to re-read things in that context.

But, I don't think I could. Because, overall, I found the book kind of annoying. I certainly don't think you have to like every character you read about, but good grief, I just found Cady whiny and deplorable. She and her entitled cousins were so irritating. Johnny's friend, Gat, attempts to bring them back to reality (Gat's heritage is Indian, meaning Cady's grandfather despises him and also forbids Cady's aunt to marry Gat's uncle, or risk being disinherited), but he definitely fails. The aunts are selfish and petty and only care about their inheritance, not their children. Lockhart's prose is lovely in many places, but in others just confusing - the metaphors and use of language to refer to Cady's illness (she suffers from migraines and such) is borderline confusing.

The ending was jarring, yes (don't read any spoilers - it won't be worth it), but the rest of the book didn't seem to be matched to it. I didn't see the point of all Cady's whining and the family squabbles. Just because the family was rich, they weren't interesting, nor mysterious. Perhaps I missed the larger point, but I was left shaking my head.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

And in my head I paint a picture.

My Name is Lucy BartonMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lucy Barton is a New Yorker. She's also a writer, a mother, and wife. At one point in her life, she spends over two months in the hospital, recovering from what should have been a basic operation. Lucy had a difficult and impoverished childhood and she has a distant relationship with her parents and siblings. We learn all of this in Strout's latest novel - through Lucy's "recordings" and musings as she talks about her life and memories.

This is a lovely book. Note that it is rather short and really comes across as a series of connected and interwoven short stories, each presented as a recording, or story, from Lucy. Many originate as Lucy is in the hospital and her mother visits her for five days, telling her tales about people from their hometown.

The stories give you an interesting insight into Lucy - you're left feeling as if you know her extremely well, and yet not at all. Some of them leave you with a staggering feeling, especially short bits about her childhood. It's not a happy book, at all, but a beautiful one, if that makes any sense. It also provides an amazing look at how one's childhood can affect you and the impact of your parents on your life. (If you're looking for a book that follows a narrative thread from point A to point B, however, this one isn't for you.)

I loved Strout's "Olive Kitteridge" - it was also a lovely, touching book. I didn't think this book was a good as "Olive," but it's still poignant in its own way. I feel like pieces of it will stay with me for some time.

(Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.)

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mend your own fences and own your own crazy.

The New NeighborThe New Neighbor by Leah Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Elderly Margaret Riley lives alone in rural Tennessee. She seeks comfort in her mystery novels and her memories - not other people. One day Margaret looks across her pond and realizes she has a new neighbor. Margaret becomes intrigued and eventually meets the young woman, Jennifer, and her son, Milo. Margaret begins telling Jennifer about her past and finds herself increasingly curious about Jennifer's own past. Why are she and Milo in Tennessee? What is Jennifer not telling her? Fancying herself a detective similar to those in her beloved novels, will Margaret unveil Jennifer's secrets?

The novel reveals its stories (and secrets) through varying narratives - mainly those of Margaret and Jennifer. We see Margaret's increasing curiosity about Jennifer's life and Jennifer's own increasing reluctance to share why she and Milo have left their old life behind. Further, we see that the two women may not be as different as they appear. Margaret begins telling Jennifer about her life as a nurse during the War, while we learn about Jennifer's life with her drunken husband. Suddenly, the parallels between the two women -- especially when pushed to the brink -- seem surprisingly clear.

This was an intriguing book, in many ways. Neither Margaret nor Jennifer are incredibly likable characters (Margaret is often your classic "old biddy" for sure), but they are interesting. In some ways, nothing really happens in the book - a lot of the action has happened in the past, and we're simply learning about it as Margaret and Jennifer reveal their respective pasts and secrets. Still, it's an insightful look into the two woman's lives - I found it quite compelling. The end was somewhat fascinating, though it did seem to fall a bit flat after all the buildup. Still, a solid 3.5 stars.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

We've been so busy, keeping up with the Jones.

Pretty GirlsPretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Claire Scott leads a seemingly perfect life - she's beautiful and adored by her wealthy husband, Paul. However, Claire's life is shadowed by the disappearance of her eldest sister, Julia, over twenty years ago. Julia went missing while in college and was never seen again. In the aftermath, Claire lost not only Julia, but her other sister, Lydia, as the sisters have been estranged for years. As a result, Claire has clung to Paul and the comfort and security he provides . However, a new tragic event changes everything for Claire - and will eventually lead her to look at everything in her life differently, including Julia's disappearance and her relationship with Lydia.

I really enjoyed this novel - it's engaging and suspenseful: filled with twists and turns. Sometimes you see them coming and other times you don't. It's a quick read, but not a particularly light one - be prepared for a dark read. The book is raw, violent, and even heartbreaking at points. Most of the story unfolds from Julia and Claire's point of view, but we also hear a little bit from their father between chapters. As the novel progresses, we learn not only about the present day mystery (which is captivating) but what happened to their sister, Julia, so long ago.

The book's strength is that it presents not only a compelling and interesting mystery tale, but a chilling portrait of its characters, as well. You get a good look into the lives of Lydia and Claire and their own psychological motivations. It goes beyond a thriller into a story of parenthood and sisterhood. Frankly, as a parent, there are parts of this book that break my heart and made me want to never let my children out of my sight! But, truly, that was what made it so good - it deftly portrayed the evil that can befall them in the world.

Some of the plot points are a bit fantastical and it suffers from the trope where Claire and Paul Scott just have unlimited financial resources, but overall, I found this one fascinating. Definitely a worthy read.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Raised by the women who are stronger than you know.

Angels BurningAngels Burning by Tawni O'Dell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dove Carnahan is Chief of Police in a rural Pennsylvia town. Her job is typically more administrative than investigative. So when a girl's body is found beaten and burned in abandoned part of town, Dove must rally her team's limited resources to find out what has happened. In addition, she must work with the state police, including Chief Nolan, with whom she has a past, to solve the crime. In doing so, Dove becomes entwined with a local redneck family. The crime also brings up memories of the murder of Dove's mother many years ago. Will Dove be able to bring justice for this crime, without getting sidetracked by her own past?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it took me by complete surprise. Part of it was that I felt that I knew the characters. I've grown up with families like these - gone to school with them, live near them now. O'Dell portrayed the town dynamics flawlessly and she did a magnificent job of bringing each character into full detail.

Dove is an interesting character - flawed in many ways, but you cannot help but root for her and like her. The entire book felt somewhat familiar, like I'd picked up in the middle of series. (Speaking of, when this ended, I thought, oh I hope O'Dell writes another book featuring Dove.) Dove reminded me a little bit of Kate Burkholder, from Linda Castillo's excellent series - another strong female detective fighting for her hometown.

There were a few plot points that seemed a bit unbelievable (at one point, Dove shoots out the tires on a boys' pickup truck, just because he's annoyed her - something that would no doubt get her fired in this crazy media/viral video age we live in), but O'Dell's writing and plot gets you past any missteps. I thought Dove focused a bit too much on worries about her age (she's just turned 50) and her gender -- pointing out how men wouldn't treat her a particular way if she was actually a man. But really, Dove is so excellent at her job that she really just manages to prove that she can do anything - age or gender be damned.

The plot is intriguing and compelling and you find yourself drawn into the deceased girl's family and acquaintances, as well as Dove's own family and past. Honestly, when this one was over, I felt sad, which is a rare quality anymore. 4.5 stars.

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

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Wanda looked all around this town and all she found was Earl.

Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper: A NovelMovie Star by Lizzie Pepper: A Novel by Hilary Liftin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lizzie Pepper became a famous actress as a teen -- growing up before America's eyes on her TV show. Eventually Lizzie meets America's most famous movie star, Rob Mars -- and quickly their courtship and marriage becomes tabloid fodder and her life changes forever. At first, Lizzie is head over heels in love with Rob and all that he brings: romance, lavish trips, and instant stardom. But soon, her life is taken over by Rob's wealth and fame -- his constant absences, a complete lack of privacy, and a world overshadowed by Rob's total commitment to One Cell Studio, a form of study and practice that nears cult status. Once they have children, Lizzie begins to doubt everything about their relationship -- and what her husband stands for.

This was a fun book. Written by Hilary Liftin, a celebrity ghostwriter, Lizzie is a really enjoyable and insightful character. The book is clearly supposed to be based on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. I kept imagining Rob Mars as a creepy twist between Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe, which was a little frightening. The One Cell piece is oddly disconcerting, as it's supposed to be, and made me want to delve more into the weirdness that is Scientology. Lizzie's evolution was fun to read about (I enjoyed, on a personal level, that she had twins) and she remained a realistic and relatable character, despite being elevated to movie star status. It truly makes you think about some of the insanity that movie stars have to go through, especially those that have children. It also gets you thinking about various religious cults and the power they have over people. In the end, probably a 3.5 star book, as it's a quick, fun read, but with a surprising depth behind it in places. After all, in the end, a marriage crumbling is a marriage crumbling, even in Hollywood.

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