Thursday, February 23, 2017

With your bright lights and your avenues so wild: THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH.

The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Mill Valley is the perfect little town, and Molly Nicoll is excited to start a teaching career in English at the local high school. However, when she starts up mid-year, she has no idea about a tragedy that occurred in her students' eighth grade year. To Miss Nicoll, these kids are in deep need of understanding and guidance, even if they are sometimes a bit rude and unfocused. There's Abby, the perfect student prepping for her Ivy League future, but also hiding a secret; Nick, an intelligent kid with a trick for every situation; Cally, a prominent player in the early tragedy, who now floats through school with the other hippie kids; Emma, a talented dancer who loves to let go and party on the weekends; Damon, who just wants to have fun; Ryan, a popular kid who hangs with Nick and Damon; Elizabeth, the most beautiful girl in school - and the one without any friends; and Dave, who is struggling with the weight of his parents' expectations. These kids have known each other for years, and their lives are shared in every way possible - in their small town, at school, and across all forms of social media.

I'd heard a lot of advance praise for this novel, and had put it on hold at my local library ages ago. I was excited to finally get a chance to read it, but upon finishing it, was left feeling conflicted. This is going to be yet another one of those lauded novels that everyone loves where I feel a bit "eh." Don't get me wrong: this is a well-written book--even a beautiful one at times--and it often tells a compelling and sometimes frightening story of kids growing up in suburbia. The novel starts with the gang in eighth grade and goes through their senior year. It's told in snippets from various students, as well as Miss Nicoll.

The problem, for me, is that it read more like a series of interconnected short stories than a novel. We get brief insights into a variety of students, but no real depth or insight into anyone. You're able to infer a lot about each and how their home life and past has affected them, but every student's piece leaves you wanting more, feeling unfinished. Even Miss Nicoll's role sort of trails off. It's a shame, because most of the teens are so clearly written that you can visualize them so well - they each stand out on the page, and each one could have commanded the book on their own. Instead, they come and go, and at times, the plot veers off into strange side stories that seem unnecessary or unbelievable.

This is one of those novels that terrifies me to have my children grow up, because it presents high school as one never-ending saga of bullying and partying. The rich, disaffected teens are abandoned by their similarly rich and disaffected parents and no one really seems to care about anything. Still, you find yourself getting into one kids' story, only to have the point of view turn and you're thrust into another student's life instead. By the end, I found myself frustrated, wanting to know more, and wishing for more finality to, well, everything. 3.5 stars

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tell me that you're alright: THE ARRANGEMENT.

The Arrangement: A NovelThe Arrangement: A Novel by Sarah Dunn

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Lucy and Owen fled Brooklyn for the suburbs not long after their son, Wyatt, came along. In the perfect little town of Beekman, they have a beautiful old house, a yard full of chickens, and interact with a cast full of eclectic characters. Lucy also has her hands full with Wyatt, a challenging kid with autism. One evening, when some friends come over and the drinks flow freely, they mention their open marriage. At first, Lucy and Own are a bit shocked. But as the exhausted duo look around at their life, they begin to consider "the arrangement." Owen grabs a pad and a pen and they eke out some rules. It still seems like a joke, until Lucy says she wants to give the arrangement--a six-month experience where they each have an ongoing, no questions asked free pass in their marriage--a go. Surely nothing will go wrong, right?

This novel is a different, oddly intriguing read, offering an extremely realistic portrayal of marriage and raising children. Warm and fuzzy it is not, yet it's still engaging and features relatable characters. Lucy and Owen's exhaustion is palatable, as is Lucy's frustration and love for Wyatt, who is an intelligent, fun, and extremely challenging special needs kid. (You will grow to love him, even as you completely empathize with why poor Lucy might need a break--one of the definite strengths of the book.) For a good early portion of the novel, I found myself thinking I would be reading a quite grim look at parenthood and marriage. And it is, in many ways. After all, why are Lucy and Owen so willing to embark on the arrangement, you wonder? Are they bored with their life, with each other? Are they simply tired parents? What causes them to choose this? As the arrangement begins, their reactions to its ongoing presence in their lives is surprising, and Dunn does a good job at capturing some nuance in their character that you might not expect. These are real married people, with real issues.

Still, there are definitely some odd bits and pieces stuck into the story. It seems disjointed at times, and some of the characters and their stories seem to pop up at weird times, forcing you to remind yourself how they fit into Lucy and Owen's life and the town of Beekman (for we don't hear just from our main couple, but several others who live in town). The novel meanders at times, and I wouldn't call the ending closure, per se, though it falls in line with the realism of the novel.

Where Dunn shines is her humor, which slips through even some of the darker moments. Moments with Wyatt are perfectly captured. Lucy's friend, Sunny Bang, is one of the best things about this book, and you'll love every second featuring her. There's a scene at the town church with many of the local kids (and their pets) that is solely worth purchasing the entire book. Seriously, Dunn writes with a sharp wit, and it's one of the main reasons my rating upped to 3.5 stars. The book is often smartly funny and feminist, even if it has its depressing, wandering moments. It's a fascinating look at marriage, for sure, and I was certainly intrigued to see how the arrangement would play out. It was also a welcome break from all the thrillers I'd been reading lately, so thanks! If you like sharp and witty characters coupled with a psychological inside look at modern-day marriage, you'll find this one quite compelling. 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 03/21/2017.

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Tuesday's Book Bag: New Releases for 2/21.

It's been a quiet February in terms of new releases on the blog, but today we feature two novels by popular contemporary authors, Clare Mackintosh and Amanda Eyre Ward. Mackintosh became famous with her debut release, I LET YOU GO, which was an amazing and surprising thriller. Ward has published a variety of novels, but her last book, THE SAME SKY, was a very timely look at race, immigration, and the American Dream. Both works were well-written and extremely well-received, which immediately begs the question: could their next novels live up to the hype?

Clare Mackintosh's new thriller, I SEE YOU, tells the story of Zoe Walker, a busy mother of two grown children. Her partner, Simon, works for a local paper, and Zoe is divorced from her kids' father. One day, Zoe spots an ad in the classifieds that appears to feature her photo. The ad features a website and phone number, but Zoe cannot get into the password-protected site. The next day, the same ad shows a photo of another woman, and so on and so on. Meanwhile, Detective Kelly Swift is struggling to get back in the good graces of the police force after an incident derailed her career. Kelly is working a series of tube (subway)-related incidents, but she really wants to get back into real investigating. When Kelly and Zoe's paths cross, it doesn't seem as if Zoe is in any real danger, but that all changes suddenly. For me, I LET YOU GO was such an amazing novel with an amazing twist and this one didn't quite live up to my expectations. It's certainly an interesting novel with an intriguing premise, but I didn't buy the idea outside of a novel. You sort of have to suspend disbelief to allow yourself to read on with the plot: even though it's rooted in technology and our society's obsession with technology and dating, the overall construct just seems to be a stretch. The beginning portion of the novel was compelling, but slow, and I kept waiting for it to pick up. I also could see a lot of the plot pieces coming. I liked Kelly's chapters so much more and found myself a bit annoyed going back to Zoe at times - she was whiny and irritating for a while. Kelly was far more nuanced (though a bit too focused on the past), but her chapters were far better at adding suspense and tension. The novel certainly does pick up nearing the end, and I definitely wanted to find out what happened and who was responsible for what. But even then, the motivation for the "bad guy" was a bit odd and poorly done. Like a lot of the plot, it seemed a bit of a stretch. It was saved somewhat by the epilogue, which offered a good twist (although I had my suspicions), but I wasn't sure it made up for the whole book, and it didn't make me gasp like her first book. (Poor author, being held up to impossible follow-on standards.) Overall, I did find this novel puzzling, though hindered somewhat but a slightly preposterous plot. I'm glad I read it, but I certainly prefer her first novel. (I'll still eagerly await anything from Mackintosh, however!) 3 stars

In Ward's novel, THE NEARNESS OF YOU, Suzette and Hyland have a happy marriage and a busy life when Hyland surprises his wife with the news that he really wants a child. Married fifteen years, children had always been off the table, as Suzette did not want to pass on the genes of her mother, a woman who gave Suzette a horrifying and unstable childhood and eventually wound up in a mental institution. But Hyland proposes a new solution: what if they use a surrogate, with his sperm and a surrogate's egg? Suzette, a busy and successful heart surgeon, reluctantly agrees. Even though there are some red flags, the couple eventually chooses young Dorrie, a woman who wants to use the surrogate fees to go to college. Dorrie and Hyland bond, and Suzette realizes she must get on board with the idea. But soon Dorrie will make some decisions that will affect everyone in this new trio. Much like with Mackintosh, I am a bit conflicted about this novel. I so adored THE SAME SKY, which is a beautiful novel and one everyone should read in this current political climate. It's hard not to compare others to that magical book, and this one did fall short. Ward does, however, have a way of weaving stories with her words, and while I wasn't nearly as attached to the characters in this novel, I still found myself reading the last half of the book somewhat compulsively. The novel started out slow, but picked up about 1/4 through, with a twist in the plot. It's told from a shifting rotation of perspectives, including Suzette, Dorrie, and Hyland. There are some large shifts in time as the novel progresses, which did make it harder to attach to some of the characters. None of the plot twists are exactly surprise, as they are foreshadowed a bit in each character's description: this is more of a character-driven novel versus a shocking dramatic novel. Still, even though I tore through the last half of the novel, I just felt the book lacked something, and I felt a tad let down by a story and characters that weren't completely fully developed (the ending is a bit abrupt as well). I enjoyed the perspectives on motherhood that the novel offered, but felt there could be more. That's not to say the novel isn't worth reading; Ward is a wonderful writer, but I just felt a little perplexed and frustrated when this one ended. I had hoped for more. 3 stars

I'd still recommend reading both of these novels - they are interesting, even if not as diverse and fascinating as their predecessors. Happy reading, everyone! (And thanks to Netgalley for copies of these novels.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

I turn my bones from the narrow grave: ILL WILL.

Ill WillIll Will by Dan Chaon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dustin Tillman is a psychologist in Ohio; he's married with two sons and rarely even thinks about the horrific incident of his childhood, when his adopted brother, Rusty, murdered Dustin's parents and his aunt and uncle. Dustin was just a child then, and his brother was arrested largely on the testimony of Dustin and his cousin Kate and the 1980s' fears over satanism. But now Dustin learns that Rusty is being released from prison; his appeal has been granted, and his verdict overturned based on DNA evidence. Meanwhile, Dustin is struggling with one of his patients, Aqil, a former police officer who believes there is a link among a group of drunken college boys who have died by drowning. As more and more things start going wrong in Dustin's life, he gets drawn into Aqil's paranoia-- and he threatens to bring down his family with him.

This book had an interesting premise: linking two sets of crimes in the past and present, but I felt like that premise was a little forced/falsified, and I never got into the book, or the characters. As a reader, you'll probably find the way it's written either brilliant or incredibly irritating, and I fell squarely into the irritating camp. There are very abrupt chapter switches between the present and the past that are quite annoying, making it difficult to tell exactly where you are in time. The changes in point of view aren't as bad, allowing you to hear from Dustin, his son, and others, but it still gets confusing quickly. (Sidebar: doesn't anyone just tell a linear story from one person's point of view anymore?)

Even more, the story is written quite like the characters think--which is fine in theory--for instance, this includes Dustin's tendency to just stop mid-sentence, something his family teases him about. After a bit you get somewhat used to the random sentences that end mid-thought, or the weird white spaces, but it's still strange. Other parts are the story are split into two or three parts on a page and told almost in parallel, causing you to flip back and forth to read each set. I never was quite sure of the point of that. Yes, people in the novel are going crazy and on drugs. I could get that concept and not have to flip back and forth constantly to read chunks of the story. It's one of those storytelling devices that, to me, could be amazing, but just winds up driving you slightly insane.

This novel is also very dark. Again, that's fine. I just finished The Roanoke Girls, which was incredibly dark, and loved it. But this one: I just didn't find it that interesting. I found myself finishing it more out of a vague curiosity and duty than anything else. I figured out one of the main plot points pretty on and wasn't engaged with any of the characters. Then, after all of this, the ending is awful and vague, and there's no resolution, and I found myself just throwing the whole thing down in disgust. Definitely not one of my favorites. I can see the potential for others, but it wasn't for me.

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 03/07/2017.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

You thought God was an architect: THE GIRL WITH A CLOCK FOR A HEART.

The Girl with a Clock for a HeartThe Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

George Foss is enjoying drinks with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Irene, in a Boston bar when he is convinced he has spotted his college girlfriend, Liana. When George returns later that evening, his suspicions are confirmed. George hasn't seen Liana for twenty years, since she disappeared in a cloud of uncertain (and illegal) circumstances after their first semester freshmen year. As such, he knows that Liana has probably been on the run for the entire period. She quickly asks George for help, and he finds himself embroiled again in Liana's drama. Immediately, he wonders if his safety (and hers) is at sake.

This is the second book I've read by Swanson now, and I've liked them both well-enough, but haven't been overly impressed with either. So many people seem to love him, so I was kind of disappointed that I didn't enjoy this one more. I never connected with any of the characters, and the book just sort of meandered about, taking a while to get to its various points. Yes, it certainly has some twists and turns, and some "aha" moments, but I was always waiting for some big shocking moment that never came. Instead, the plot was rather straightforward. George was a rather spineless creature who seemed to get into trouble easily, while Liana was never fully fleshed out. I would have liked to learned more about her - besides the fact that she was "heartless."

Overall, while I found the plot for this one intriguing, it didn't wow me, and I don't think this one will stay with me very long.

I received this novel via a Goodreads Giveaway in return for an unbiased review - thank you!

You can read my review of Swanson's novel HER EVERY FEAR here.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

I think I'm stuck in some bad dream: THE ROANOKE GIRLS.

The Roanoke GirlsThe Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Lane Roanoke is just a teenager when her mother commits suicide, and Lane is sent to live with her grandparents in Kansas. While Lane lived a sad life with her depressed, volatile mother, her wealthy grandparents represent a chance for a new start - and Lane can meet her cousin, Allegra, who is close to her age. When Lane arrives in Kansas, she quickly befriends Allegra and is amazed by the kindness of her grandfather, but she also realizes not everything is as it seems.

Eleven years later, after Lane has fled the farm (and left her family there behind), Lane receives a call from her grandfather: Allegra is missing. Can she please come home? Reluctantly Lane returns to a place she vowed she'd never see again to search for her cousin, whom she has always felt bad about leaving behind. But returning only brings up bad memories, and Lane quickly worries that something terrible has happened to Allegra. Can Lane face her fears and figure out what happened to her cousin?

This book, oh this book. Wow. This is quite the novel! The story alternates between the present-day and that fateful summer (from Lane's point of view), with a few snippets from earlier generations of the other Roanoke girls thrown in. It's slightly confusing at first (you'll need easy access to the family tree at the beginning of the book), but quickly pulls you in and never lets you go. I was immediately captivated by this novel and read it in less than 24 hours. It's not some "feel good" novel, but it's amazingly well-written and just spellbinding. It starts off with a bombshell and then hooks you from there with the dark story of the twisted Roanoke family.

There is something completely alluring about how messed up and sick the Roanokes are. I couldn't turn away from them. The book is great because you become quickly intrigued and invested in the story of what happened to Allegra, but there's also a bit of suspense to the "then" storyline as Lane finds out something terrible about her family. Engel is remarkably talented because we know the secret already, and Lane knows it in the present-day portion of the book, but it's still enthralling watching it unravel as she's a teen. There's also just a pure fascination and horror at this family. There are also periodic shockers throughout the entire novel and several "wow" and "didn't see that coming" moments for me. The whole thing is extremely well-done.

I was extremely expressed by Engel's characters. For instance, Lane is a broken and damaged person who cannot trust or love. As such, she is frustrating with her guarded heart but still sympathetic. She drove me crazy, but I loved her. Engel did an excellent job with all of these characters. Even those that seemed (or were) absolutely awful; they all seemed so real. She also did a great job at portraying small towns and their tangled web of secrets. The broken Kansas town where the Roanokes lived was expertly done, with all of its bit characters and the descriptions of its streets and happenings.

Overall, I was incredibly impressed with this book. Its entire plot was creepy and twisted, and it was compulsively readable, with plenty of shocking moments. Yet it also had empathetic, well-written characters. It was an amazing dark look at the power of childhood, your parents, and your past. It's a mean and twisted novel and impeccably written, because you feel such a range of emotions for its characters. Definitely recommend.

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 03/07/2017.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

You're like a fever that I'm coming down with: YOU.

You (You, #1)You by Caroline Kepnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe Goldberg works in a bookstore in New York. One day, a gorgeous girl walks into his store, and Joe is immediately transfixed. She charms Joe in their brief encounter and so he searches for the name he saw when he swiped her credit card. He lucks out, easily finding Guinevere Beck all over the Internet. In fact, she seems to live a great deal of her life publicly on Facebook and Twitter, allowing Joe to digitally watch her from afar. But quickly, Joe begins to actually watch "Beck," as he learns she is called: hiding outside her apartment and eventually arranging a chance encounter. Beck and Joe's lives quickly become entwined, as Joe becomes more and more obsessed with his perfect girl. Beck thinks Joe could be the ideal boyfriend, and he's determined to be just that: no matter what it takes.

Oh my, I have some mixed feelings about this book, but ultimately wound up rating it 4 stars simply because I just couldn't put it down, and I don't think I will stop thinking about it anytime soon. I actually found myself feeling suspicious of other people during and after reading it, as if being watched -- that's how good Kepnes was at weaving her tale of stalking and obsession. Joe is a fascinating character, and you become almost immediately sucked into his delusions. The book is told from his point of view, and it's written as if he's speaking directly to Beck. Once you become used to that, it's compulsively readable.

This is not a book full of characters with whom you will love and empathize. Now I admit that there were times that Joe felt so normal that you forgot he's basically batshit insane, and sometimes Beck herself (the victim, you have to remind yourself) is pretty terrible, too. This is a book about awful people doing terrible things to everyone in their lives. It's dirty (Joe's brain is not a pretty place) and dark, so dark. It dragged a little bit for me about 3/4 through (it's a pretty long book), but picked up very quickly as it neared the end.

In the end, I found this book to be amazingly intense. I continued to have complicated feelings for Joe up until the last pages. The novel is certainly a warning about our digital age and how easy it is to have your digital footprint (and subsequent actual life) invaded. It's also a twisted story of obsession. It will keep you turning the pages late into the night (with the curtains CLOSED).

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Thursday, February 09, 2017

Playing your story in fits and starts: THE PANTS PROJECT.

The Pants ProjectThe Pants Project by Cat Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Liv (Olivia) was born a girl, but knows in his heart that he's a boy. But this realization isn't easy for a kid entering middle school, which can be a heartless place for anyone. What complicates things for Liv is a move to a new school, which brings a stringent dress code: girls must wear skirts. No exceptions. Whatsoever. Liv knows in his heart that he's a boy, but the school system (and kids at school) don't see it that way. Liv is already dealing with enough, but now he feels uncomfortable everyday in his school clothes. It also doesn't help that his best friend is dropping him for a group of mean-spirited bullies who bully Liv on a daily basis. But Liv perseveres and comes up with an idea: Operation Pants Project. Liv is going to get this uniform dress code overturned, no matter what.

This is an excellent YA novel that draws you in immediately. I found the storyline to be interesting from the very beginning, and it never wavered. Liv is a wonderful, amazing, resilient young man, and I loved him from the moment I met him. Liv's story is heartbreaking at times, but also very poignant. I see this tale as a must-read for transgender kids, but also all middle school kids, as it offers a wonderful chance to teach empathy. But, seriously, just having this story, and the way Liv expresses his thoughts on being transgender is so key. Yes, a lot of the story is probably a tad simplified, but still. It's just so refreshing to see this in book form.

Liv also has same-sex parents (two mothers) for which he is teased at school, which breaks my heart (being part of a same-sex marriage and having two young daughters). So much of the story hurts your heart at times and makes you just despair how much young kids have to go through at school. Liv meets a new friend in middle school, Jacob, and in reading this book, I just hope that the world continues to be filled with more Liv and Jacobs: it will make it a better place for sure. (I also enjoyed that Clarke seemed to insert an inside joke about how awful and cliche lesbian films can be!)

Overall, I loved this book, and I wish it was on the shelves of every middle school (and high school) -heck all libraries and bookstores-- everywhere! Huge portions of it make you smile, and you will find yourself just rooting for plucky, wonderful Liv and his spirit. There's a great sappy message in this book that I wish everyone could read in these troubled times. Liv has a wonderful sense of humor, and Clarke's writing is perfect for the targeted age group. I do think a great deal is this book is probably a little simplified (not all parents may be as supportive of Liv, for instance), but the bullying aspects at school are spot-on. Just seeing a transgender "tween" in print is great. I would like to see a list of support resources at the end of the book (and I just read an ARC, so it's not the final version) for those who do not have the same support system as Liv. Yes, this book goes a long way toward showing acceptance, but it's not as easy for everyone. I certainly hope it inspires kids to treat everyone equally: it's an important message. I definitely recommend this wonderful novel for kids and adults alike.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 03/01/2017.

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