Friday, April 20, 2018

No diamonds in our bathtub rings: YOU THINK IT, I'LL SAY IT.

You Think It, I'll Say ItYou Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

This short story collection features ten short stories from author Sittenfeld, featuring a cast of diverse, real characters. Told from a variety of point of views--a bored housewife, a wealthy bachelor, a new mom, and more--they offer pointed and humorous insight into current society.

I typically am not a huge fan of short stories because they don't give me enough information about the characters, and I'm a very character-driven person. But when I saw that Curtis Sittenfeld had a short story collection coming out, I knew I wouldn't be able to resist. She gets a lot of press for Prep, but I feel like American Wife and Eligible are both still so fully ingrained in my brain. I loved them both so much, and they are go-to recommendations when I get the standard, "oh you like to read, what should I read?" question.

But, I digress. Sittenfeld. Short stories. I shouldn't have been surprised, honestly, that her collection would be above the typical fare. I probably enjoyed this set of short stories more than any other I've read in ages. It's so well-written and engaging. As with Sittenfeld's other work, the stories are so wonderfully descriptive, so you can immediately picture the characters and their situations. I felt like I was quickly transported to the setting of each story as soon as it began.

The stories are similar but not repetitive, which was also refreshing, and seem to be real, instead of striving to reach some sort of literary bar that makes them tedious and therefore unreadable. They are about real, relatable characters struggling with misinformed impressions, lingering resentments, and different types of relationships. But - oh hooray - even better, the majority of the stories didn't leave me with that unfinished feeling. They are honestly fascinating, and I enjoyed how they all start (I enjoyed them all the way through too, of course, but it seemed like each had a bit of a common thread in its beginning). I could have read more about each story's characters, sure, but I didn't feel frustrated when they ended, which was so amazing and different for me.

I really liked each and every story. For instance, there's "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" which begins with a woman (girl?) who idolizes a fellow college student from afar in line at the post office. Two of the stories, "Plausible Deniability" and "The Prairie Wife," had actual twists and surprises, which was so much fun. And some of the longing that came across in these characters was very touching and heartfelt. I have a soft spot for slightly nerdy high school/college kids, even once they're all grown up, and for slightly fatigued moms, so these stories were my cup of tea.

Overall, this was a great set of short stories. They are filled with real people set in complicated yet enjoyable and interesting situations. They are easy-to-read and don't leave you wanting for more--except maybe more stories. This only cements my feeling that I'll continue to read (and adore) anything Ms. Sittenfeld writes.

I received a copy of this story collection from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 04/24/2018.

You can read my review of ELIGIBLE here (spoiler: it's awesome).

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

And this kid sister thing was old by that time: RELATIVE STRANGERS.

Relative StrangersRelative Strangers by Paula Garner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jules is a senior in high school; for as long as she can remember, it's always just been her and her mom, a recovering alcoholic. But when Jules goes to look for a baby picture to include in her senior yearbook, she makes a startling discovery: she spent the majority of her first two years in foster care. Angry at her mom for never telling her, Jules seeks out her foster family. She discovers the picture perfect family she always dreamed of, including her older foster brother, who always dreamed of finding her again. Jules is thrilled, but quickly realizes she also has a crush on him. She's always dreamed of having a family, but will she ruin it all with her unfortunate crush?

I requested this book on a whim from Librarything, and I'm so glad I did. I haven't read Paula Garner's previous book, but I will now. This was just a really enjoyable, touching story that drew me in from the start. I fell for Jules immediately and never stopped. I am typically a pretty stoic reader--it takes a lot to move me--but I actually teared up a couple of times with this one.

The main focus of the novel is Jules, and she proves to be a strong, likeable character and a good storyteller. As I said, I felt engaged with her from the beginning. I had to remind myself a few times that she was still in high school, but that was about it. She's actually pretty mature for her age, really, and does some growing up and maturing as the story progresses.

The supporting characters are varied, and while they aren't as strong as Jules, they certainly help fill out the book. (I'm looking at you, Eli.) There were definitely a few instances where I felt like things were repeated a few times too many: yes, Jules' two best friends knew each other longer than they knew Jules, etc., but they were only minor distractions from the strength of the story. The book hinges on Jules and she doesn't disappoint. Her discovery of her foster family is, honestly, fascinating, as is her newfound friendship with her former foster brother, Luke. At times I was a bit skeptical that a once six-year-old would have such fond memories of his baby foster sister, to the point he wanted to develop the relationship as an adult, but I went with it. Jules' struggle with her sense of identity and belonging is well-done, and I really enjoyed the arc of the novel.

Overall, this was a lovely surprise. It's hard not to fall for Jules, and once you do, this is just such an engaging novel. Her struggle to find herself is both heartbreaking and inspiring. 4 stars.

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

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Monday, April 16, 2018

All our goals have turned into schemes: OUR LITTLE SECRET.

Our Little SecretOur Little Secret by Roz Nay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"All love stories are crime stories and all crime stories, love. If you say that's not true, you're not looking properly. Perhaps when two people join, it's inevitable, the things they'll damage in each other." ~Angela to Novak*

Angela is being held for interrogation at the police station. Detective Novak wants only one thing from her--to know where Saskia is. But Angela cannot comply; instead, she tells Detective Novak a story, one starting with her senior year, when she fell in love with a boy named HP. As she tells her tale, it becomes clear it is one of love, sadness, betrayal, and anger. Does Angela know where Saskia is? And can we trust her?

This was a really fascinating and different book, and it was so refreshing to read something that felt original and unlike so many of the suspense novels I've read lately. I will say upfront: Nay is an excellent storyteller, and I found this novel to be wonderfully written. Parts of this story actually hurt me to read, because it was so vividly told. I could so clearly picture the events unfolding and visualize this tale of teen love gone wrong.

I loved the idea that our entire book is Angela, trapped at the police station, telling the story of the last several years of her life to Detective Novak. It seems unconventional, and it is, but it worked well for me. It took the unreliable narrator trope to a different level, and it was so much better than the drunken, rambling, angry unreliable narrator that we see so often. Angela tells her tale of woe and bitterness to the Detective, with only minor interruptions as he provides some pieces of new evidence that occasionally cast doubt upon her viewpoints. As such, we are left to guess how truthful she is being with all of us. Every statement she makes is charged with double meaning. I found the entire thing to be incredibly compelling and oddly fascinating. I was completely hooked, madly flipping the pages to find out what happened next. Even more, I was amazed at how Nay created sympathy toward a character who wasn't all that likeable at times. I was rooting for her, even when I knew I probably shouldn't.

I felt this faltered only a little near the end, where I wasn't quite sure I was on board with everything, but it certainly wasn't enough to diminish my love of the novel. And the actual ending is excellent and basically redeemed it all. Overall, this was an excellent, well-written, suspenseful novel. Angela is a dynamic and complicated character who immediately draws you in with her narration. I was constantly second-guessing her as I read and found the entire novel to be incredibly powerful and satisfying. Apparently this is Nay's first book, which is even more impressive. Can't wait for the next one. Definitely worth a read! 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).
*all quotes from an advanced reader copy and subject to change

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Life just seems to sink into the ground: THE ELIZAS.

The ElizasThe Elizas by Sara Shepard

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Eliza Fontaine heads to Palm Springs and finds herself at the bottom of the hotel pool. Eliza can't swim, and her family assumes this was yet another one of Eliza's failed suicide attempts, as she has a history of winding up at the bottom of swimming pools. But Eliza swears this time was different; yes, she was drinking that evening, but she's sure someone pushed her, even if she can't remember exactly how she wound up at the pool or even the hotel bar. The sole witness is the man who rescued her, so Eliza tracks him down. But as they attempt to figure out what happened, Eliza only grows more confused. She's about to get her first novel published, and it seems as if events from the novel are intertwining with her life. She thought her novel was fiction, but now she's bewildered, feeling followed, and wondering if she's finally losing her mind for good.

This was an odd little book and not at all what I was expecting. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, and the more I think about it, the more I should have realized that Sara Shepard is quite masterful at playing with our minds. This is actually almost two books in one: we get the novel itself; as well excerpts from The Dots, Eliza's debut novel, which is set to be published a few weeks after she's found in the pool. As we get deeper and deeper into The Dots, we're left to wonder how much its protagonist, Dot, is like Eliza--where does Eliza end and Dot begin?

It's really quite an ingenious setup and it's quite fun. I actually really liked the excerpts more at times. The novel revolves around the confusing question of identity, as Eliza struggles to figure out who she is and what she remembers about her life and past. My only struggle was that Eliza does a lot of thinking (aka talking or narrating) and I lost interest at some points when she talked on a bit. Still, most of the time, this was a pretty suspenseful book; it's certainly "trippy" and often confusing, as you work to puzzle out things alongside Eliza. I definitely didn't have everything figured out immediately, though I worked most things out as I went along.

Overall, this is a quick read (I read the entire thing during during two consecutive plane rides), and the book-within-a-book setup is fun and adds to the suspense. This isn't a read for those who love intricate, deeply plotted thrillers, but it's enjoyable and compelling and perfect for YA fans looking for a psychological thriller. 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 04/17/2018.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ten bucks to renew whatever hope you lose first: I HAVE LOST MY WAY.

I Have Lost My WayI Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Freya, Harun, and Nathaniel. Three very different individuals whose paths are about to collide in New York City. Freya is an aspiring singer who has just lost her voice. Harun is running away-literally-from his loving, yet overbearing family. And Nathaniel is coming to New York following a misguided plan. Soon Freya will fall off a bridge and fatefully bring the three together. Each feels lost and alone in this giant city. Will accidentally finding each other change that?

I very much love Gayle Forman and am always excited when she has a new novel. This one almost felt like a novella, with my hardcopy clocking in at a little over 250 pages. It was a fast, easy read, as I quickly became immersed in the lives of these three different and diverse characters.. The book is told over the course of one day--the day these three individuals meet, but we get flashbacks into their pasts, as well. Each character gets a chance to tell things from their point of view.

Forman is a lovely storyteller, and it's easy to get lost in this book. If anything, the day--and the book--is over too quickly. I found myself drawn to each character for different reasons. They are each vulnerable in their own way, and it's easy to get lost in their stories. I loved how the characters had diverse backgrounds and ethnic origins, as well. It's a beautiful novel, really, with gorgeous writing. The storylines are often touching and heartbreaking, yet the book felt light and airy--buoyed by the unlikely trio's friendship.

The book seems brief and is over very quickly; it left me wanting to know more about all three individuals. It flies by, especially since you skip from one narrator to the next, limiting what you learn about each, and getting snippets doled out over the course of the story. It all comes together by the end, but at that point, I found myself still wanting to learn more about each of our three characters, or have more time in their lives. It's easy to get invested when the characters are so well-formed.

Overall, this is a very easy-to-read book as it flawlessly draws you in with its diverse characters and excellent writing. It often reminded me of another beautiful tale, The Sun Is Also a Star. It's over all too quickly, but is quite enjoyable while it lasts. Definitely a worthy read.

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Monday, April 09, 2018

Go away somewhere all bright and new: THE OTHER MOTHER.

The Other MotherThe Other Mother by Carol Goodman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Daphne flees her home, taking very little but her six-month-old daughter, Chloe, she isn't sure what to expect. She's leaving everything behind (including her controlling husband) to work for one of her favorite authors, Schuyler, as an archivist. She'll be living in the shadow of a mental hospital, which Schulyer's late father ran for many years. Daphne hopes this will be a new start and a way to escape both her husband and the dark moods, diagnosed as postpartum mood disorder, she felt when Chloe was born. She'll also miss her friend, Laurel, with whom she formed a tight bond after meeting in a mother's group.

Get ready: this book is a crazy, bewildering ride. It will also always have the distinction of being the novel I was reading on an airplane trip to San Diego when one of my five-year-old daughters threw up. Twice. So it will be memorable in several ways. :)

If you're looking for an easy, linear psychological thriller, this one may not be for you. This novel is confusing and crazy and makes you question everything you're reading. But it's an exciting, twisty thriller and a great, fast read (and a welcome distraction from vomiting children). Most of it is told in current-day descriptions from Daphne, along with excerpts from her journal from her postpartum mothers group. As Daphne meets her new boss, Schuyler, and becomes fascinated with a patient of her father's, Edith, we also eventually hear from Edith and excerpts from Edith's journal, too. The entire result is a wonderful, twisted, tale that has you frantically turning pages, trying to work things out and figure out who is who and what the heck is going on.

I don't want to reveal too much, as it's best going in without too many preconceived notions. The novel has a bit of gothic in it, as many of Goodman's do, with the mental hospital looming in the background. The idea of postpartum depression and motherhood is a theme running throughout, as well.

Overall, even though I was sometimes frustrated as I tried to work through this one, I wound up enjoying it. I was impressed at how things came together and enjoyed the wild ride I was on. I've loved Goodman since The Lake of Dead Languages and find myself looking forward to each new novel she releases. This one was different, but I was quite caught up in its characters and dark themes. Definitely worth a read.

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

You can read my review of Goodman's novel RIVER ROAD , here, and her novel THE WIDOW'S HOUSE (one of my "Best Books of 2017") , here.

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Sunday, April 08, 2018

All the walls seemed to listen in: THE BELOVEDS.

The BelovedsThe Beloveds by Maureen Lindley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Betty adores only one thing in her life: her childhood home, called Pipits, and desires nothing else than to live in it. Alone. So when her mother passes away and wills the home to her younger sister Gloria and her husband, Henry, Betty is beyond angry and ruined. She puts Henry and Gloria in a class called the Beloveds; people she deems loved and admired and lucky in love and everything they do. Betty, of course, is on the outside looking in on these Beloved sort. She vows she will do whatever it takes to get Pipits back, at any cost.

This novel features Betty talking to us directly in a conversational style, which I liked. However, sadly, the rest of this one didn't work too well for me. For one thing, it's just maddeningly slow. There is so much talk from Betty and she is so mean, crazy, and cruel. Halfway through the novel, I felt as if nothing had happened, other than her rantings. Beyond her being mentally ill, the whole book is built on her obsession for this house, and it became a bit much for me. I understand that it should be creepy, but it just didn't work for me.

For much of the novel, Betty isn't really even that good at being evil, she's just mean-spirited and a ranting drunk. I kept reading out of a morbid curiosity, but I really wasn't all that interested or engaged or drawn to anyone in the novel. In fact, I just despised Betty completely and couldn't even find myself liking her as a "bad guy." She was just mean. Also, again, I felt somewhat bad despising someone who was so clearly mentally ill, but she was so hateful, and her obsession with this house was just all-consuming and hard to empathize with.

Overall, this one didn't work for me. It was so slow, with such a despicable main character with odd motivations. However, I've read a lot of reviews where others really enjoyed its creepy nature, so it may work for you.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgally in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 04/03/2018.

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