Tuesday, June 20, 2017

I'm wide awake and I'm in pain: PART OF THE SILENCE.

Part of the SilencePart of the Silence by Debbie Howells

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Charlotte Harrison is shocked when a woman in her local town of Cornwall is found badly beaten. Things like that don't typically happen in this quiet town. The beating has left the woman with little memory of who she is or her life: she insists her name is Evie and that her three-year-old daughter, Angel, is missing. But as the investigation continues, the police can find no evidence that Angel even exists. Charlotte recognizes Evie as Jen Russell, a former classmate. She goes to the police and finds herself sucked into the case, as it seems as if Evie has no friends or family able to help. Charlotte and the police know that, as a teen, Jen Russell was babysitting a local girl, three-year-old Leah, when she disappeared and was never found again. Is Jen/Evie simply transposing these memories into that of "Angel"? Or is her daughter really missing? And, if so, is Evie still in danger?

This novel was a page-turner for me, despite a cast of fairly odd and unsympathetic characters, led by Charlotte. She comes across as callous from the beginning--unfeeling, harsh toward her boyfriend, Rick, and getting involved in helping Evie only to show Rick she has a heart. While you feel sorry for Evie, you don't get to know her very well, thanks to her memory loss. The POV also shifts to Jack, who is a police officer, and flashbacks from Leah's older sister, Casey, who hated her perfect little sister and the ruin her disappearance wrought on her family.

The novel is captivating early on as details unfurl slowly about Evie's past. As it continues, the book certainly kept me confused about Evie/Jen's state of mind. Is she simply confused, or did someone truly steal her daughter? It grabs you, for sure, but after a while, you get a little tired of the "poor Jen trapped in her house, wondering what happened to her daughter." Things do move along eventually, though there's never any frantic action. Just a slow, suspenseful buildup to the final reveal.

Some things are a tad frustrating. For instance, Jack doesn't always seem to act like a police officer, and I'm never quite sure of his role or why Howells decided to insert him partway through, though I liked him as a character. And, personally, I'm not sure I would want the police force in Cornwall to assist in any crime related to me -- they seemed a bit inept. Small town police, perhaps?

Still, overall, I enjoyed this one. I was able to figure out bits and pieces, but it kept me guessing and engaged throughout. If you've never read any of Debbie Howells books before (which would be a shame), I'd point you to The Bones of You first. This is still a solid thriller and rates 3.5 - 3.75 stars. I will definitely continue to be eager to read anything Howells writes.

You can read my reviews of two of Howells' previous novels here: THE BONES OF YOU and THE BEAUTY OF THE END.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available (in the U.S.) everywhere as of 06/27/2017.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Fate skips a beat and it scares you to death: THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS.

This Is How It Always IsThis Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Rosie and Penn are a bit of an amazing love story. They both knew they'd fall in love before they even met. Now they have five rambunctious kids, a farmhouse in Wisconsin, and a crazy, wonderful life. Things get a little more complicated, however, when their youngest son, Claude, starts wanting to wear a dress to preschool. Claude wants long hair with barrettes. Claude wants to be a princess when he grows up. Rosie and Penn are supportive of Claude: they just want their children to be happy, after all. But they soon realize Claude isn't just going through a phase. Claude has gender dysphoria, and their son wants to become a little girl named Poppy. The family is willing to support Poppy, but Rosie and Penn make the decision to do so in secret. But secrets don't stay kept forever.

This is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and beautiful book. It's filled with endearing characters, and I will certainly be recommending it to many people. I had a few issues with some of the realism aspects (more on that below), but I loved its details about raising children (of all kinds) and its humor. Penn, Rosie, and their kids are real.

Woven and embedded throughout this novel is a fairytale that Penn tells his children--starting with when his first boys were babies--and in some ways, the novel itself has its own fairytale moments. Frankel mentions that she does have a child who used to be a little boy and is now a little girl, but the story is not about her daughter. It is, she writes, "an act of imagination, an exercise in wish fulfillment." Still, you can imagine her as a supportive parent. That's certainly not everyone's experience. Does that mean everyone has to write a novel where the child's parents throw them out and society shames them? No. Would I have liked to have a seen a little more of a realistic take on how Poppy and her parents would deal with her secret and how those around her would take it? Maybe. It's not that the family doesn't have hardship, because they do, and Frankel does a good job showing that it takes a bit of a toll on her clan of brothers, as well. But--and I don't want to go into too much, as I don't want to give spoilers--I felt the resolution to the story was a bit pat. Much like Penn's fairytales, it seems to allow things to just wrap up quickly easily. So that was a little problematic for me. But, I didn't feel as irritated after reading Frankel's afterword, because I realize that this novel--for her--is indeed an "exercise in wish fulfillment." This is what she wants in the world. I won't lie: it's what I wish for as well. And perhaps reading novels like this, featuring a wonderful, precocious little boy who can become a wonderful, beautiful, mostly accepted little girl, is a great first step.

The novel is intricate and very detailed, though quite well-written. It's heartbreaking in Penn and Rosie's realization that Claude wants to be a girl and what that will mean for him and the family. They only want for their children to be happy. Frankel does an excellent job at portraying how adults and children can see the world so differently--in terms of gender and much more. As a parent, I often found myself wondering about what I'd do in their situation: it's a book that gets you thinking, for sure. In the end, I loved the family very much and was quite invested in their happiness. Again, another reason why I would have liked a slightly more developed ending after having gone through so much with them.

Still, this is a lovely, timely book. No matter some of the issues I had, I still enjoyed it and certainly recommend it.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

This fire is out of control: THE BREAKDOWN.

The BreakdownThe Breakdown by B.A. Paris

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Cass is driving home one rainy night--taking the back road to her house--when she sees a woman stopped by the side of the road. Cass pauses to help her, but eventually drives home without making any contact. She feels bad about not assisting, but the crazy storm prevents her from even seeing who is in the car. It's only later that her husband tells her that someone was murdered that night, and Cass realizes that it was the same woman she saw. Eventually Cass realizes it was a woman she knew, Jane, and she feels even worse. After, Cass is consumed by Jane's murder. She feels watched and is convinced the murderer is calling her house repeatedly. She's forgetting things, unable to work her household appliances, and receiving items she swears she never ordered. Is Cass truly going crazy--and is the murderer coming for her next?

This book was a weird one for me. I'm one of the few who didn't read Paris' first novel, but I'd heard all the hype and was curious to try this one. The novel relies on the unreliable narrator trope big time; I was certainly befuddled early on whether Cass was indeed an unreliable narrator going mad, or whether someone was messing with her. The problem, for me, was that I was expecting an amazing thriller, but I found the novel rather predictable from the get-go. I figured things out early on. Still, I have to give it to Paris: I felt compelled to keep reading despite it all. The book is a page-turner, for sure.

However, the plot is based on silly secrets and a lack of communication (both huge pet peeves of mine). Cass won't go to the police about seeing Jane's car simply because she doesn't want to tell her husband she took a shortcut she promised she wouldn't take? Seriously? Her friend's life is worth less than that? Further, she won't tell anyone about her dementia fears and forgetfulness. It was very frustrating and often times, I found myself more baffled than intrigued by the mystery.

In the end, this was an interesting one. I found it very predictable and honestly felt like I'd read this novel already (I swear I've read a book with a very similar plot: something that will drive me crazy forever). Still, it was compulsively readable and easy-to-read. Overall, probably about 2.5 stars for me. However, it seems like most people loved this, so take my review with a grain of salt!

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere (in the U.S.) as of 07/18/2017.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Can I handle the seasons of my life: OUR LITTLE RACKET.

Our Little RacketOur Little Racket by Angelica Baker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The idyllic community of Greenwich, Connecticut is shaken when the investment bank, Weiss & Partners, fails. Its CEO, Bob D'Amico--a man known throughout the banking community for his loyalty to his employees--is at the center of the storm: did Bob know this was coming? And even worse, did things fall apart due to criminal actions on his part? Meanwhile, Bob's teenage daughter, Madison, struggles to understand what this all means, both for her father and her family. She gets little help from her mother, Isabel, who offers Madison no comfort during this crazy time. Madison's nanny, Lily, is busy caring for her younger twin brothers. Isabel's best friend, Mina, wants to help, but is still too afraid of offending Isabel: a pillar of the Greenwich scene. And Madison and her best friend, Amanda, seem to be drifting further apart every day. Madison and her family are under intense scrutiny, yet she's still just a girl trying to navigate being a teen. She's sure her father didn't do anything wrong; right?

I had a tough time with this book. There were several points where I considered setting it down for others in my always growing "to be read" pile, but I soldiered on. I can't say I really enjoyed it, though I did find parts of it interesting. It's clearly influenced by the Madoff scandal, which is referenced in the novel, and there is a lot of financial lingo in the book, even if it's really a story of a troubled family at its core.

The problem is that so few of the characters are really engaging, and the story seems to drag on endlessly at points. It's a peek in the world of the truly wealthy (think household servants, golf courses at their homes, multiple residences, hired cars, etc.), but I found myself unable to care for most of the characters. None of them are very nice to each other, and Bob and Isabel come across as neglectful and awful parents for the majority of the story. Even worse is the gaggle of Greenwich women, who gossip about the situation, feel like they are unable to continue to purchase expensive clothing and wares after Bob's "situation," and generally just annoy you with their harping. They don't understand anything about what their husbands do, but they run their households (well, they delegate it all) and fear that their carefully polished way of life is in jeopardy. You understand that this is a serious event for them, but you don't really care. Was I supposed to feel sorry for them? The novel is confusing at times in this facet. Perhaps I missed a great point somewhere: is it profound or just pretentious? Hard to tell.

The one thing that kept me reading was Madison. While she could be hateful at times, the story of her coming of age in a very strange environment, with a spotlight shining on her, was the most interesting part of the novel. Her dynamic with her father, whom she clearly adored, and her cold, distant mother, was far more fleshed out than any of the other characters. You could see her struggling to find her place in the world: she was just doing it under the watchful eye of the community (and a security detail hired to keep the press away from her family). Baker deftly portrays Madison's heartbreaking forays in romance, as well as some great scenes in which the teen shows off some spunk that will have you rooting for her. I couldn't help but want to give her a hug: even though I could see that her mother was a complicated individual, her parents were pretty awful, and poor Madison was forced to confront that in some terrible ways.

Still, despite Madison's story, most of this book fell flat for me. The epilogue was interesting and tied up some loose ends, but it ended things very abruptly as well. So much of the novel was about how Greenwich was nothing but smoke and mirrors: nothing was real in this world. Yet, I would have enjoyed some characters who felt more human, whom I could relate to in some way, whom I wanted to care for and to see come out of this "crisis" intact. Rating a 3-star due to Madison and the intricate story, but probably more of a 2.5-star on the overall enjoyment level scale for me.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 06/20/2017.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

One day I'll get up that hill: THE CHALK PIT.

The Chalk PitThe Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dr. Ruth Galloway is called in to investigate some bones found underground: local architect Quentin Swan is building a large center, and he worries the bones will delay his plans. Ruth fears he is correct, as she quickly realizes the bones are human (and not ancient). Meanwhile, members of DCI Nelson's team are looking into a missing "rough sleeper" (homeless person, in American parlance). Others in the community are saying she went "underground." Is this a figure of speech, or really true? After all, a geologist at Ruth's university says that there is web of chalk mining tunnels beneath King's Lynn. Nelson is also dealing with a new boss, who is putting pressure on him from all sides--from driving more safely (as if) to focusing more on strategy and less hands-on investigation. Can Nelson put aside this new distraction and solve these cases?

It's hard to believe this is the ninth book in Elly Griffiths' fantastic Ruth Galloway series. I'm sure all my reviews are starting to sound somewhat similar by now, but these books are just so wonderful, and I love them so. Ruth is a great character: she's well-written and completely herself, and the cast of characters that surround her in each book (Nelson, his wife, Judy, Cathbad, Clough, Tanya, etc.) are also their own people. Each are so fully developed that you feel as if you know them as intimately as friends. I love Ruth and her antisocial nature, her sarcasm, and her fierce devotion to her daughter, Kate (who can be so different from her mother). I love gruff Nelson. I love all of Nelson's subordinates on the force. They seriously do feel like friends, and while I loved this book, I felt bereft when it ended, because it means I have to wait again for another one (I will be so sad when this series ends).

I have no complaints with book #9. I enjoyed the plot and while it wasn't a total page-turner, it kept me guessing, and I didn't figure out everything ahead of time, which I always appreciate. There are some interesting developments in the whole Ruth/Nelson/Michelle saga and while I wish I could just flash forward to find out everything that happens, I was intrigued by all of them. This little love triangle is a great backstory to the novels, and the tension between Ruth and Nelson is so achingly portrayed in the books: Griffiths is doing a wonderful job of depicting it as Kate ages and new complications emerge with the dynamic.

In the end, as I always say: if you aren't reading this series: you should. It's wonderful, engaging, and I truly think you will fall for Ruth and her world. You don't necessarily need to read these books in order (novel #9 and its plot will stand on its own), but I think starting at the beginning will certainly enrich the experience. Meanwhile, I will be patiently waiting for #10 and secretly dreaming of a world where Ruth and I are the sort of friends where we can eat food together without judgement and occasionally get together without any social pressure.

You can read my reviews of book #8, THE WOMAN IN BLUE, here; book #7, THE GHOST FIELDS, here; and book #6, THE OUTCAST DEAD, here.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

But a dreamer's never cured: I FOUND YOU.

I Found YouI Found You by Lisa Jewell

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Alice Lake is a frazzled single mother of three children. One day she spots a man on the beach; he is alone and getting drenched in the rain. Despite her better judgement, Alice goes to talk to him. He has no memory of who he is or where he came from. Alice is drawn to him, and she invites him to stay in the shed on her property. Her young daughter dubs him "Frank." Meanwhile, in Surrey, Lily reports her husband missing. Married for less than a month, Lily cannot believe that her husband would simply abandon her: they are madly in love. She hasn't been in the country for long, though, and soon Lily learns that the name on her husband's passport was fake: he never truly existed. Cut to more than twenty years ago: teenagers Gray and Kirsty are (reluctantly) on vacation with their parents. While on the beach, they meet a young man who clearly has eyes for fifteen-year-old Kirsty. He charms their parents, but quickly rubs Gray the wrong way. Together, these characters combine for Jewell's latest.

This was a rather spellbinding novel for me, even if it requires you to sort of check your rational thought at the front door when beginning it. Alice is a bit of an odd duck--a loner mom with three children by three different fathers who doesn't really play by the rules. The fact that she so easily invites a complete stranger, with no history or backstory, to stay with her family is rather bizarre. As is everyone's reluctance to not just report Frank missing (found?), to say, the police. But we're led to believe that this is rather par for the course for the eccentric Alice and if you can just go along with that, the story falls into place fairly easily. This novel probably came along at a good point for me: I'd just finished a big project at work and needed something for a quick escape. I FOUND YOU is perfect for that: I blew through it in about 24 hours and while I basically had things figured out, it kept me guessing the entire time, wondering if I was right.

I was never truly attached to any of Jewell's characters - Alice is a bit flighty, Lily a tad remote, and Gray and Kirsty a little young. If anything, I was almost more drawn to "Frank" and his predicament. Still, I enjoyed how the story unfolded in bits and pieces, slowly letting the reader in on the past, while still giving us points of view from Lily, Alice, and Frank in the present. As I said, I was never quite sure if I was on the right track with the story, which kept me compulsively reading. Many of the characters' decisions are a bit bizarre, but I still found this to be a fun, quick read for a bit of an escape. Overall, 3.5+ stars. Great for a vacation or an airplane ride.

You can read my reviews of two of Jewell's previous novels here: THE GIRLS IN THE GARDEN and THE THIRD WIFE.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Here comes your ghost again: GIRL LAST SEEN.

Girl Last SeenGirl Last Seen by Nina Laurin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lainey was ten when she was taken. She spent three horrible years in her kidnapper's basement, enduring horrible things. Lainey is supposed to be "lucky," since she escaped, but it's hard for her to see it that way sometimes. Her entire life has been formed by that awful period in her life. And now, another girl has gone missing. Olivia Shaw, who looks exactly like Lainey did thirteen years ago. Lainey's kidnapper was never found: the police say because she could never give strong enough evidence to identify him. So Lainey has spent these years afraid, living in a haze of pills and booze, and waiting for something bad to happen. Well, something bad has happened. How exactly is Lainey involved, and is she ever going to be safe again?

I definitely have some mixed feelings about this one. It certainly grabs you from the beginning and has some moments that make you go "what?!" Parts of the story are very unique--I enjoyed the plot of two young women/girls aligned by a potential kidnapper--but the story was marred somewhat by the focus on Lainey's drinking and drugs. She's presented as an unreliable narrator, which I understand, and as a flawed heroine. Some of the scenes with her nearly make you cringe: you feel a mix of such sympathy and frustration, because she's such a stressful protagonist. The trend toward these frustrating, unreliable narrators lately has grown a bit old for me.

My other issue was Lainey's strange dynamic with the detective investigating Olivia's disappearance, Sean: the same detective, coincidentally, who found Lainey thirteen years ago as she stumbled helplessly along the road after escaping her horrible fate in the basement. Their dynamic, frankly, is just odd, and I found it almost distracting from the main story. Romance? Just a side story? Is he involved? It was less a bit of intrigue though and, as I mentioned, a distraction. And honestly, a little confusing. After a while, I started to get a little bored with Lainey's helplessness, her interactions with Sean, and the overall lack of things moving forward.

That changed about 3/4 in, when things picked up and became interesting again. There are definitely some fascinating moments in the book, and I did find it engaging overall, despite some stumbles along the way. This is a first novel and I see room from improvement, for sure. I'm going for a 3-star rating -- this is based on a combination of 2.5 stars for some stilted/cheesy writing combined with 3.5 stars for some exciting plot twists, including one near the end that pretty much made it all worth it. I would certainly be intrigued to read Laurin's next book. Don't let my review scare you from this one: I read a lot of thrillers, so I get bit jaded reading some similar plot devices. There's still plenty of pieces to like here.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/20/2017.

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Saturday, June 03, 2017

That's my daughter in the water: THE SALT HOUSE.

The Salt House: A NovelThe Salt House: A Novel by Lisa Duffy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hope and Jack Kelly's life changes irrevocably when their young daughter, Maddie, doesn't wake up from her nap. Hope, working a few rooms away from Maddie's crib, is paralyzed by grief and unable to return her to freelance writing job or really, most portions of her life. Jack, meanwhile, throws himself into work to escape the pain: spending hours away from his family on his lobster boat. Maddie's two older sisters, Jess and Kat, are forced to deal with the loss of their sister while watching their parents fall apart. Young Kat is trying to make sense of it all, while teenage Jess struggles watching her parents argue constantly. Then Jack's childhood rival, Finn, returns to town: threatening Jack's fishing territory and sanity.

This is a raw, heartbreaking novel full of real emotion. It's honestly awful and a little gut-wrenching at times: it's so powerfully written that it made me want to hold my two young daughters extra close. The brutal reactions and grief of poor Hope and Jack are tough to read, as is watching their children struggle.

Duffy is an excellent writer: the book is quite well-done. The story unfolds a year after Maddie's death and is told in varying perspectives by each member of the Kelly family. She captures each of their voices perfectly, even young Kat, who may be the best of all.

There is certainly some drama in this novel, though it's mainly the story of two hurt people coping in their own (stubborn) way. My heart went out to Hope, and I quite liked her two daughters, but I found myself often frustrated with Jack, even though I recognized he was grieving. Even so, his stupidity and inability to communicate drove me a bit crazy at times.

This is a well-written story of family, grief, and love. It's not always an easy read, but it's a certainly a worthy one.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/13/2017.

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

There's trouble where I'm going but I'm gonna go there anyway: INTO THE WATER.

Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the police show up at her door, Jules Abbott knows it isn't good news, but she isn't expecting this. Her older sister, Nel is dead--drowned in the lake known as the Drowning Pool back in their hometown. Jules has always vowed to never return to that place, but she finds herself back: in her childhood home, where Nel lived with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Lena. The assumption is that Nel committed suicide in the Pool, but Jules knows that isn't possible. Even though she hasn't seen her sister for years, she is convinced her water-loving sibling would never willingly die in the water. Meanwhile, Jules discovers that Nel was looking into other local residents who died at the Drowning Pool over the years for a book she was writing. What exactly happened to them--and Nel?

It's never easy to follow up a blockbuster like The Girl on the Train - I cannot even imagine the pressure. I didn't adore that book, but I do remember that I basically read it in one sitting. That wasn't the case with INTO THE WATER, though in its defense, I read it during an extremely busy period with work, where I basically collapsed in bed each night to read a few chapters.

This is not a bad book, but it wasn't a great one, either. It's not one that will stay with me. For one thing, much of its plot is predicated around one of my most reviled literary pet peeves: ridiculous miscommunication. You know, that whole thing where if the characters would just talk to each other, as normal folks do, for about 5 minutes, we wouldn't have to go through any of this? Yes. That. So that irritated me to no end.

There are also a lot of points of view in this book. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly took a while to keep everyone straight. I was glad I was reading this as an actual book, so I could flip back and see whom I'd been reading about earlier. Slogging through those early portions of many characters slowed things down for me and made it harder to get into the story.

As I said, it's not a bad book. I enjoyed reading it. The storyline is fairly interesting, overall, and it held my attention, even when I was pretty tired. I had a pretty decent suspicion of "whodunnit" fairly early on and turned out to be correct, but about halfway through, I was still second-guessing myself and pretty captivated. Nel, Jules, and Lena are intriguing characters, if not fairly frustrating in their lack of ability to talk to one another.

Still, overall, I was left feeling a little deflated by this one. There was no big "gasp" moment for me (perhaps because I had a decent inkling what had happened early on?) like GIRL. It was just a fairly good thriller that kept me entertained for a few days.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A plot like this will always have a twist: THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK.

The Last Place You Look (Roxane Weary, #1)The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roxane Weary is good at finding things. She always has been. So when she's hired by Brad Stockton's sister, Danielle, to find Brad's teenage girlfriend, Sarah, she doesn't think it will be a difficult case. Danielle is convinced she spotted Sarah at a gas station--despite the fact she disappeared fifteen years ago. Meanwhile, Brad is in jail--set to soon be executed--for the brutal murder of Sarah's parents the night Sarah disappeared; the prosecution also alleged that Brad killed Sarah as well. Brad did not put up much of a fight in his defense, but Danielle refuses to give up. Roxane quickly becomes caught up in Sarah's story and finds ties between her disappearance and other girls in the seemingly idyllic town of Belmont-- as well as connections to cases worked by her father, a police officer.

This is just a great book. It's easy to read and funny, albeit dark and sad at times. Roxane's dark, sarcastic humor is perfect. She gives off a Kinsey Millhone type vibe, if Kinsey was a functioning alcoholic with major Daddy issues. She's a complicated character (a complicated, real, female character - so refreshing!). She's bisexual (so wonderful to see reflected realistically in a novel). The other characters are well-formed and range from awful to sweet, but they support Roxane and the story perfectly.

As for the plot, it draws you immediately and keeps you constantly guessing, wondering what people know, who is telling the truth, and what's the actual story. I actually didn't figure this one out, so kudos to Lepionka. There are a few amazing "aha" moments that basically made me gasp. The town of Belmont is creepy and dark, and you'll find yourself completely wrapped up in its twisted, sad characters.

It looks like this is the first in a series, and I couldn't be happier; I can't wait to see where Roxane is headed next. Definitely recommend this one to mystery and thriller fans alike.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/13/2017.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

But if there were no music then I would not get through: THE WHOLE WAY HOME.

The Whole Way HomeThe Whole Way Home by Sarah Creech

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jo(anne) Lover is a successful country music artist--a talented singer and fiddler--who is making music her own way. She's well-known as a down-home singer from Virginia who writes her own songs and loves the music she makes. Jo plays to packed crowds across the U.S. who love her more traditional style of music, her fiery spirit, and her patented red cowboy boots. But when the popular country band J.D. Gunn and the Empty Shells joins Jo's label, Asphalt Records (who just happens to be run by her future father-in-law), things change. J.D. Gunn and Jo grew up together, and along with their friend, Rob, were in a band as children. But Jo is now in a very different place from her childhood friend. J.D. has embraced modern country music (and it he). He sings songs about girls and pickup trucks--none of which he writes himself anymore. And he's made a lot of money doing so. But Jo can't quite adopt what modern country radio embodies: her heroines are Dolly and Loretta and her music reflects that. Still, J.D. and Jo have a storied past together, one that Jo increasingly cannot forget the more time they spend together.

This is a really interesting story of three linked artists: Jo, J.D., and Denver, who plays in a band with an African American singer, Alan. It's told in a conversational style from their various viewpoints, covering the present day as well giving us more background when the characters think back on the past. It's a very effective technique.

I cannot remember exactly why I requested this ARC, but I'm glad I did. This book is basically tailor-made for me: I'm a gigantic country music fan (from Virginia), who adores 90s country music and a lot of Jo's various heroines. As a child, my idol was Mary Chapin Carpenter, I was obsessed with cataloguing every country song I heard on the radio, and I wanted to be a country music singer/songerwriter (slight problem: I can't carry a tune). Needless to say, I loved Jo immediately.

Creech's novel presents a realistic take on modern country music, especially its stance toward African Americans and women. Her portrayal of the old country versus new country dichotomy is spot-on, but could potentially offend those who do love their songs about girls in pickup trucks sung by a revolving door of carbon copy male singers. You probably have to appreciate older country music for this book to work best.

But, don't fear if you aren't a country music fan. At its core, this is a love story, and while it's sometimes predictable and things tend to resolve themselves a bit too easily, it's really a fun one. It's a story of falling in love over music, as well as love of music. It's a strong story, but also captures the essence of what makes music special and magical. It portrays how music can be a business, or music can be a salve for your soul. Jo and J.D. are interesting characters and the supporting cast is intriguing and fun. Along with J.D.'s bandmates, we have Jo's assistant, Marie, and Denver's bandmate, Alan. There's also Jo's fiance, Nick, who is no stock character. While it has most of the earmarks of a typical romance-type novel, there are plenty of surprises along the way. It's also surprisingly profound for a soap opera tale. I enjoyed how it was a saga of music and love, but also a story of changing times and a look into what is fake and what is real. Jo and J.D.'s stage personas and the images they create for the world versus their real selves is pretty fascinating. It's sort of a backstage pass into country music, which is fun.

Overall, this may be a 3.5 - 3.75 star book, but I'm rounding up to 4 stars because I enjoyed the plot so much and because it's one of Creech's earlier books. The plot was fun without being silly and it just offered a good escape. Honestly, I would love it if there was another book picking up where this one left off.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/06/2017.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

And I don't want to think about tomorrow: THE SUNSHINE SISTERS.

The Sunshine SistersThe Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ronni Sunshine has summoned her daughters home. The aging actress is ill, and she wants her daughters by her side. This, however, will be easier said than done, as her three children--Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy--are estranged, both from each other and their mother: the result of a traumatic childhood. Even Ronni will now readily admit she focused on her acting career and beauty rather than her daughters. Her constant belittlement and pressure on the girls made them turn on each other as well. Nell lives the closest to her mother, on a nearby farm, and her son River is in grad school. Middle child Meredith spent her childhood struggling with her weight, thanks to endless biting comments from Ronni; she fled to England and is now engaged. Youngest Lizzie escaped most of her mother's wrath and appears to be the "golden child": she's a successful chef and celebrity, with a TV show and line of related products, but her marriage and personal life aren't all that they seem. Frustrated by their mother's long history of hypochondria, the girls reluctantly return home, excepting to find her fine. However, it seems this time Ronni may be telling the truth: she's really sick. Can the Sunshine sisters set aside their differences? And can they ever forgive their mother?

In some ways, I'm not sure why I keep giving Jane Green books a chance. I liked Summer Secrets well-enough, but was really let down by Saving Grace and Falling. I was intrigued that in her acknowledgements, Green mentions that this is the first book in while where she's felt like herself. I went in hoping that this was true, but still wary, and truthfully, this wariness may have clouded some of my thoughts and feelings about the book.

Overall, this is a summery read, though it does deal with some serious subject matter. If you're looking for a book that will surprise you, this isn't it. Most of these plot points I saw coming from a few miles away; I predicted the majority of the twists and turns before they happened. And, truly, I think the ending is a foregone conclusion. Green relies a bit to heavily on some tropes, as well. Serious older sister? Check. Insecure middle sister? Check. Flighty younger sister? She's here, too, don't worry.

Still, this was a fun book--despite the dark topic at its core--and I found myself compelled to read through the second half in nearly one sitting. Despite some of the transparency of the characters, I was oddly invested in their lives. The novel starts out with a brief glimpse of Ronni summoning her daughters home, then goes back in the past, allowing us to learn about the Sunshine family via various snippets from the sisters at different points in time. In this way, we sort of catch up with the family fast-forward style--it's like a cheat sheet of sorts. It also allows us to get to know each sister a bit better and explore their relationship with their mother (and other sisters). It's easy to see how much influence Ronni had on their lives and how she shaped them into the women they are today.

The girls can certainly be frustrating at times. Poor, needy Meredith drove me nearly mad, with her insecurities and inability to stand up for herself. There's also a point in the book where Meredith magically cleans up after a party (everything is fixed) and later loses a large amount of weight (everything is fixed, again!). I would have liked to have seen a little more plot realism. It was also hard to see how anyone could be quite as big of a doormat as Meredith, even with her mother's influence. And, truly, Ronni is pretty bad. It's an interesting technique--learning how terrible of a mother she is after we're told in the beginning of the novel that she's sick. But, in this way, we're allowed to see how the sisters were alienated by their poor upbringing and how everyone has reached the point we are at today.

Eventually, we reach the present day, with the girls learning about their mother's illness and coming to grips with reality. And, Ronni, of course, must grapple with the kind of mother she was to her children. She's a surprisingly compelling character considering how awful she was to her children, so that's a testament to Green's characterization. To me, the novel picked up a bit more in the present day time period. There were still some silly, unbelievable moments, but I truly did find myself invested in Meredith, Nell, and Lizzy (and Ronni).

The book does wrap things up too easily, as I stated. It's often quite trite and cliche, so you have to go in prepared. Think Lifetime movie, wrapped up in a bow. Still, it's fun at times and certainly a quick read. Well-suited for the beach or a vacation.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/06/2017.

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Oh it hurts so bad to let go of your hand: THE HATE U GIVE.

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Starr Carter lives a divided life. At sixteen, she spends part of her life in her impoverished inner city neighborhood and another portion in the suburbs, attending an elite prep school, where she is one of a handful of African American students. Starr feels like she is two Starrs, and she keeps these two people very separate, with a different set of friends and personas for each world. But her careful facade is threatened when her childhood best friend, Khalil, is killed by a police officer. Starr is with Khalil when he is shot--unarmed--and her life will never be the same. In the aftermath, the media begins to call Khalil a drug dealer and a gang member. But speaking up about what she saw isn't so simple, especially when not everyone wants to hear the truth.

You've probably heard about Thomas' debut novel by now--it's been getting a lot of coverage and truly, deservedly so. This is definitely a powerful, eye-opening, and timely story. Thomas has created an excellent main character in Starr, whose voice shines clear and strong in the book. Her struggle to fit into two worlds is one many can relate to: Starr's just happens to have life and death consequences. Starr has wonderful, supportive parents and two humorous brothers who fill out the book with a realism and warmth that's hard to describe. Thomas is superb in capturing her characters' voices, and I found myself easily able to picture Starr and her family. I especially loved such snippets that made them jump off the pages--for instance, the family settling down to watch NBA basketball, complete with all their little superstitions (I've definitely been there) was perfect.

Starr's story isn't always easy to read (nor should it be), but it offered strong insight into the systemic problems facing African American communities--much of it framed by Starr's pragmatic parents. I thought some things tied up too easily, but I was still very profoundly affected by the story. I loved Starr and her tough yet vulnerable self. I loved her parents, their love, and their history. Her brothers cracked me up. At its core, this is a story about family, as well as identity and race. It's important, serious, heartbreaking, and yet sometimes really funny. It's also beautiful, powerful, and definitely worth a read.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Then your heart changes your mind and it changes you: ALWAYS AND FOREVER, LARA JEAN.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I've Loved Before, #3)Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the final book of Jenny Han's "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" series, we find our heroine, Lara Jean, in her senior year of high school and facing some big changes: college choices; her dad's impending marriage (yay, Mrs. Rothschild!); and figuring out the fate of her relationship with her handsome high school sweetheart, Peter K. The plan, of course, is for Lara Jean and Peter to head to UVA together. Peter already has a lacrosse scholarship there, and Lara Jean's acceptance email should be arriving any day. Still, Lara Jean is worried about the possibility of change and if things do not go exactly according to her plans.

I can't remember how I stumbled across this series, beloved to me (a mid-thirties lesbian) and teen girls everywhere, but I do have such a soft spot for Lara Jean. My girl is all grown up now! *sniff sniff* I love this series even more because it's basically set in my hometown, and I get to read about references to Bodo's Bagels, UVA and the Rotunda, BBQ Exchange, and more.

The strength of Han's series certainly centers around Lara Jean. She's such a realistic and endearing character, and she's grown and progressed over the three books. I adore her spirit, her love of baking, and her fierce devotion to her family. Indeed, Lara Jean's family is very well fleshed out, and you can so easily visualize each of her sisters and their poor, beleaguered father. Everyone--even our additional supporting characters--feels like family by now.

The hardest part of this book was that it felt a bit like filler. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Han wrote a third book, and I'm happy to see what happened to Lara Jean, Peter, and the rest of the gang, but it sort of feel like we were killing time for the sake of killing time. There's no major plot impetus beyond college decisions and Mr. Covey's wedding preparations. It ties back to a thread in the first book involving Lara Jean's mom warning about not going to college with a boyfriend (remember Margot and Josh?), but it's a tenuous thread.

Still, this is a sweet book, and I enjoyed most of it, though Peter didn't always seem like his usual self. (I don't enjoy when "stress" is an excuse for guys to treat girls poorly.) I was glad to see Lara Jean stay true to her Lara Jean self: she's just so fun, spunky, and adorable. Han says definitively at the end that she won't write anymore about Lara Jean and even though I felt like this book was a little bit of fluff, I still felt sad reading that, because darnit, it was Lara Jean fluff, and I love her.

You can find my review of the first book in Han's series here and the second here.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

I wonder what we would’ve become: SECRETS OF SOUTHERN GIRLS.

Secrets of Southern GirlsSecrets of Southern Girls by Haley Harrigan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ten years ago, Julie Portland accidentally killed her best friend, Reba. Even worse, no one else knows. Consumed by guilt, Julie has long left her small Mississippi hometown behind, but she can't escape the memories. They have already ruined her marriage, and they threaten to take over her life. So when Reba's long-ago high school boyfriend shows up, claiming Reba left behind a diary, Julie reluctantly returns home with him to help search. Once there, however, she's caught up in a swirl of memories and secrets.

Oh, I have mixed feelings about this one. The novel switches POV and time periods in an effort to set up suspense. Our main character is Julie, but we hear from others as well, and the author includes snippets from Reba's diary. Bits and pieces of the story unfold slowly, with portions coming from the past and then others as the characters think back and remember. For the most part, this does work; you become almost frustrated, waiting and wondering what on earth happened back then. Reba's diary entries don't always seem to be in the voice of a seventeen-year-old teen, though, and some of the plot (both current and past) just seems odd. Plus, we also get bits and pieces of more recent parts of Julie's life and those really just distract from the real story.

I think the hardest thing for me was that while I really didn't have a major problem with the novel, I just wasn't incredibly connected to it, either. I liked Julie well enough, but I wasn't really invested in her, or really, Reba's story. I was curious about what happened to her, but I didn't particularly care, and there's a big difference there. In the end, I felt like there was a build up for... not much. I found the story intriguing and suspenseful, but somewhat disappointing. I kept waiting for some big shocker, or reveal, but it never happened. The ending felt a little cliche, and I was just sort of frustrated by the end.

So, overall, this isn't a bad book. In fact, it's often quite intriguing and can be a real page-turner at times. Unfortunately, I was bogged down by its uninteresting characters and a plot that I found to be a bit of a letdown. I'd go with 2.5 - 3 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 06/06/2017.

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Saturday, May 06, 2017

One day I'll get up that hill: MY NOT SO PERFECT LIFE.

My Not So Perfect LifeMy Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Katie Brenner is doing her best to make it (and fake it) in London. After all, moving to London from her village town in Somerset has always been Katie's dream. But, if Katie's really honest--and not just posting glamorous-but fake-pictures on her Instagram--her life isn't all she'd hoped it be. Her commute is horrendous, and she shares a minuscule flat with two nightmare flatmates. Her job in branding is what Katie always wanted, but she's stuck at the bottom rung of the office ladder. This means she's constantly abused by her beautiful, brilliant boss, Demeter--and that's when she even remember Katie's name. Just when Katie thinks she's making headway: she's attending some meetings at work and sharing ideas, she's invited to drinks with co-workers, and she's met (and felt sparks with) a handsome co-worker, she's fired. Before she knows it, Katie finds herself back on her family farm, helping her dad and stepmom start a glamping business (yes, glamping; surprisingly, this works in the plot). It's far from the dreamy, perfect London life she always envisioned.

I'm not a Sophie Kinsella disciple (I haven't even read the Shopaholic series, don't kill me), but this book was so popular among my Goodreads friends that I couldn't help but pick it up. It's certainly a cute, entertaining read, based mainly on the strength of her main character.

There's something about Katie. She can be irritating, but she's gutsy and smart. She has dreams and goals, and she truly wants to achieve them. She's also insightful and kind. You can't help but be drawn to her and root for her character. It also helps that she's not spoiled, like so many of her co-workers and the people she encounters. While the book may play on the "rich" versus "poor" dichotomy a bit much, it's clear that Katie is fairly grounded, and you like her all the more for it.

The book certainly has some comedic moments, which I wasn't completely expecting, and Katie even has a bit of a dry wit. Things definitely move along in a bit of a cliched fashion sometimes, with Katie's realizations about life coming a tad too easily at moments. Still, there's a little twist in the plot that I didn't see coming that engages you and keeps the last quarter of the novel moving quite briskly.

Overall, the book winds up all its loose ends way too easily, but, of course, you really wouldn't have it any other way. I found myself grinning goofily in a few parts, because I'm totally a sucker for stories like these sometimes. Katie is endearing, her romance is fun, and the plot moves quickly and easily. This was an enjoyable, breezy read, and I'm glad I picked it up. 3.5 stars.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Careful now don't get caught in your dreams: PRACTICING NORMAL.

Practicing NormalPracticing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Poor Kate Turner. She lives in a beautiful home in Pine Estates with her family: husband, Everett; teenage daughter, Jenna; and tween son, JT. But things are not as lovely (and normal) as they appear from the outside. Everett works at a security firm, but he also disappears for hours on end, and Kate worries he's having (another) affair. Jenna learned to break into homes from her dad, and she's busy skipping school and putting that talent to good use. She also has no use for her father since his mistress appeared on their front doorstep. And JT is a wonderful, intelligent kid, but he is also dealing with Asperberger's and the fact that his father would love nothing more than for him to be "normal."

I just have to preface my review to say that I don't understand why more people don't know of and read Cara Sue Achterberg. I read her last novel, Girls' Weekend, and it was so good. She also has a great twitter, fosters dogs, and is just so fun. Darn you, world!

Anyway, I liked the characters of PRACTICING NORMAL (or at least was drawn into their worlds) immediately -- there was no way I was ever going to like Kate's husband, though. Kate is so real--she is flawed, she is tough, she is a loving mom. She is no stock character. Achterberg does spot-on coverage of Kate's mother, Mildred, a crotchety old woman with borderline dementia. Mildred's love of her backyard songbirds is just awesome: you will laugh (and perhaps cry). There are also touching (and probably pretty realistic) interactions with her son. Meanwhile, her husband is just a piece of work.

Achterberg has a way of making you empathize so deeply with her characters. I felt so badly for Kate. Other times I wanted to shake her, wake her up, and get her out of her life. No matter what, I was completely invested in her story. She's relatable and will certainly appeal to the overworked, stressed moms of the world. (There's a moment where Kate wishes she could just have a temporary health issue and wind up in the hospital for a moment - where people actually care for her for once. Oh yes. Haven't we all been there--guiltily--for a minute or two?)

The POV varies mainly between Kate and Jenna--and about a quarter way through the story, we hear from that "louse" (as Mildred would say) Everett. I enjoyed how Achterberg used shorter sentences and simpler words when speaking as Everett. I'm sorry, but I could just never warm up to that guy. (Read it, you'll understand.) Now Jenna? She's a gem. A spitfire of a teen with the ability to see through the pretend layers everyone puts on. I fiercely wanted to protect Jenna--a testament to Achterberg's writing and this character she had created.

I was a bit irritated by Kate's sister Evelyn and her constant focus on bringing their deadbeat father back into their life (though that storyline picks up later), but Evelyn certainly stood for yet another thing poor Kate must deal with. I mean, seriously. This poor woman.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. Much like GIRLS' WEEKEND, I am just amazed at how well Achterberg writes her characters and how quickly she draws you into their lives. I might have enjoyed GIRLS just a tad more, but only because I am more at the point of those women in my life (with younger kids) than Kate. I still really liked this novel. I would find myself just smiling at parts while I read it, because I was so taken by the characters. I was rooting for Kate and Jenna (and JT!) and, often, very much against Everett and Evelyn. It's truly a lovely reflection on the different kinds of love we have for others, and yes, the spectrum of normal. Highly recommend with 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review. It is available as of 06/06/17.

You can read my review of Achterberg's previous novel, GIRLS' WEEKEND, here.

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Monday, May 01, 2017

You know I'll always be your slave 'til I'm buried, buried in my grave: STARS ARE FIRE.

The Stars Are FireThe Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grace Holland is living a fairly ordinary-if not particularly happy-life with her husband Gene and their two young children in Maine. It's the late 1940s, and Grace's life revolves around Gene and her family. She cannot drive, she does not have a job, and her role in life is pretty clearly laid out: serve her husband and their children. All that changes when an awful drought hits Maine. As a horrible string of fires burns near Bar Harbor, where Grace and her family live, Gene joins a group of other men to help fight the blazes. Suddenly, Grace is awoken in the night by little Claire: the fire is upon the house. Gene is still gone, so Claire rushes to save Claire and baby Tom, as well as her best friend Rosie and Rosie's two young children. They huddle in the sand near the ocean for hours, and when they are finally rescued, nothing will ever be the same.

This was an amazing book. I'm not always an historical fiction fan (the story is based on actual fire that occurred in Maine), but I'll make an exception for Shreve, whom I've loved since her beautiful novel, The Pilot's Wife. There is just something poignant and touching about this novel. I was immediately drawn into Grace's story, and I read the novel quickly over the course of a day or so. Shreve creates a fierce and wonderful character in Grace, and you cannot help but root for her.

Grace is held back by so much in her life: her gender, her financial circumstances, her husband. After experiencing such a terrible loss: her entire town is basically burned to the ground, including her home, it's amazing to watch her resilience in the face of such horror. In many ways, it's not as if a lot happens in this novel, yet I feel like so much occurs during Grace's journey. I so loved her spirit, and I also wanted to swoop in and take away all the horrible things that occurred in her life.

I don't want to go into much detail and ruin the details of the plot, but I'll just say that this is a lovely book, with well-drawn characters--led by the tough and wonderful Grace. I was captivated by the story, and I would certainly recommend the novel. 4 stars.

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Internet is forever: TOUCH.

TouchTouch by Courtney Maum

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Sloane Jacobsen is the most famous and sought after trends forecaster in the world. Companies across the globe seek Sloane's knowledge about the "next big thing." Sloane may be confident in her work life, but her personal life is a mess. She's not happy with her boyfriend, Roman, and she's basically estranged from her family--all since she fled to Paris shortly after her father's death. But now Sloane is working for six months in New York: she's back near her family, and Roman is accompanying her on the trip.

This book immediately got off on the wrong foot with me as the main character ranted against how society has changed--using peanut allergies and the horror of having to avoid her favorite peanut-filled treats on a plane as proof. As someone with a kid with a peanut allergy (who has met these lovely people on planes in real life), I was already turned off by Sloane. It never really got any better.

Sloane is supposedly a trend forecaster. Her entire life she's been able to "see" things and predict where society is going with certain trends. She is credited with foreseeing the famous "swipe" action. The problem Sloane faces now is that she thinks society is going to turn against the technology it has come to hold so dear: something that doesn't sit well with the technology-focused firm, Mammoth, who has hired her. After all, Mammoth uses a driverless car to transport Sloane while she works for them. They want her to present at a convention that aims to showcase technology for the childless set.

On the surface, this doesn't sound so bad. Consider parts of it satire and a critique on our tech-obsessed society, and it has real promise. Unfortunately, for me, the premise fell flat. My favorite character wound up being Anastasia, the driverless car. Sloane's boyfriend, Roman, wears a Zentai suit (imagine a full-length wet-suit that covers his entire body) and preaches an anti-touch, pro-cybersex agenda. He's strange. That whole part of the plot is weird, albeit one that offers the occasional comic moment. Maybe my sense of humor is not finely developed enough?

The book nails a lot of the corporate world (you can certainly picture Dax, the head of Mammoth, and many of his worker bees). Other parts of the plot are harder to swallow. Sloane waffles. Roman irritates. The dialogue is oddly written at times. Large pieces of the plot didn't really seem necessary. Other pieces were interesting, but felt like reading a research paper (and I found myself skimming).

So while there were certainly funny moments (and it picked up a bit as it neared the end), overall I just found myself cringing. I didn't like the plot, I never warmed up to Sloane, and I wanted to hit Roman and Dax. Maybe I missed a higher meaning to this novel, as it seems to be getting a lot of better reviews, so take mine with a grain of salt. For me, I just didn't enjoy reading it, and that's why (and I debated this a while), I'm going with 2.5 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 05/30/2017.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Take it from me darling, you don't want a heart: MY HUSBAND'S WIFE.

My Husband's WifeMy Husband's Wife by Jane Corry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lily marries her husband, Ed, only six months after they meet. Lily's adolescence has been marked by family tragedy, and she's determined to move on. But as soon as she and Ed return from their Italian honeymoon, Lily is thrown into her first murder case as a solicitor. She meets her strange client, Joe, accused of murdering his girlfriend. Lily feels an odd affinity for Joe. Soon she is consumed by his case--and Joe himself. Meanwhile, Lily's neighbor, Carla is struggling to find her footing at school. Only nine, she feels like an outsider there, where the kids tease her for being different and fatherless. Lily and Ed become involved in Carla's life--watching her occasionally for her mother--but they have no idea how entwined their lives will become.

This novel is not exactly suspenseful (we're not truly solving a crime, but instead looking into the complex lives of our characters--which albeit may lead to some sort of crimes at times), but I still found it compulsively readable, consuming it in about 2 days. Lily is a unreliable narrator and as such, bits and pieces of her story unfold throughout the book, making us question exactly how much she's told us--and its veracity. There are certainly some "wow" moments as particular plot points are revealed; I appreciated Corry's ability to surprise me early on. (Even if some of these "wow" moments didn't really seem to come up again, or be completely developed into the overall thread of the narrative.)

The novel is definitely a rumination on marriage, faithfulness, and family. The alternating chapters between Lily and Carla help add some heightened tension to the plot, as does an eventual fast forward in time. None of our main characters are particularly sympathetic, but they get into your head quite effectively. The story is far more character-driven and emotional than I expected, yet there are still those "wow" moments I mentioned before. Some of the pieces fit together quite well; others not so much. There's a lot to weave in: Lily's first murder case and her pushy client, Joe; Lily's past; Lily and Ed's son; Carla and her mother; and more. Collectively, these characters bring a great deal of secrets and baggage.

I didn't find the ending completely surprising, as the novel sort of builds up to it, but it's still interesting and intriguing. I enjoyed how all the characters were interrelated and that the novel seemed focused on looking into what made them "tick." I won't lie, though, it did seem like something was missing at times: a piece of plot somewhere or something more to propel the story along. It's hard to describe, but it's almost as if the book just sort of happened, and you're like oh yeah, of course, yes, I see. By the end, nothing was really shocking, per se.

Still, I found the book incredibly readable and oddly fascinating. 3 stars.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

It's so disappointing the day has come so soon: THE HEIRS.

The HeirsThe Heirs by Susan Rieger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rupert Falkes is a wealthy, (somewhat) self-made man. A British orphan, he came to America, charmed his way into Yale Law, and made a career as a successful lawyer. He also married well: the beautiful (and rich) Eleanor Phipps. Together, the pair had five sons (Harry, Will, Sam, Jack, and Tom) and a happy life. When Rupert dies of cancer, a woman comes forward, claiming to have had two sons with him as well. The revelation causes different reactions among Eleanor and all the Falkes boys (now men), setting off a chain of reactions throughout the privileged family.

I'll be honest; I requested this ARC solely because I enjoyed Reiger's previous novel, The Divorce Papers, so much. I did not realize THE HEIRS was set in New York City and focused purely on a wealthy family--it seems like so many of these novels lately are tedious, and I can't find any connection to the characters.

And, truly, at first seemed it seemed like a boring look at a bunch of rich people. However, the novel becomes more interesting and nuanced as it progresses, with the viewpoints varying by chapter (and really within each chapter). The story is told by the people who were within Rupert Falkes' orbit. We hear from his wife, some of his sons, and past love interests of both Rupert and Eleanor. It turns out to be an effective way to tell the story, with bits and pieces of various stories coming out from the characters throughout the book, including about the possible illegitimate sons. (The focus is less on these two potential heirs than you would think, albeit their potential existence sort of kicks off the story.)

About halfway through, I found many of the characters to be petulant and annoying again--probably because we were in whiny middle son Sam's chapter. Truly, a lot of the people in this book are jerks. Sadly, Eleanor and Rupert's sons aren't always of the best character. Still, Eleanor is a fascinating person. She's strong, witty, and deep. She was definitely my favorite character in the novel, and any stories related to her were my favorite as well.

There is a lot of talk about money, class, and heritage in the novel. It's set in an earlier time period; it sometimes seems a bit much, but I suppose it's a realistic portrayal of wealthy New York in that era. Still, it is a lot of Jews versus Gentiles, rich versus poor, Yale versus Princeton.

I was a bit torn on this one for a bit, but I can't deny that I really enjoyed it, even if I didn't always like the characters. Besides, I was quite taken with Eleanor and even Anne (the wife of Eleanor's past love, Jim). Rieger is simply a good writer: her books are crisp and sharp. While on the surface the novel seems to be about a bunch of rich people, it also depicts the ties that bind us; there's meaning behind the sniping. There are touching moments in this novel, heartbreaking ones, and even funny ones. I didn't love it quite as much as THE DIVORCE PAPERS, and would probably rate as it 3.75 stars, but I'll round up to 4 stars here.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Librarything (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 05/23/2017.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Oh, he's mean as a snake: SHADOW MAN.

Shadow Man: A NovelShadow Man: A Novel by Alan Drew

My rating: 3.5+ of 5 stars

Detective Ben Wade and his then-wife, Rachel, returned to their hometown of Rancho Santa Elena for a peaceful, safe life for themselves and their daughter. After all, as a detective, Ben knows the darker side of life. But even the idyllic California community couldn't save his marriage with Rachel--his high school sweetheart--and now the two are divorced and jointly raising their teenage daughter, Emma. And, for the most part, Ben's career is pretty dull: nothing like his old LA one. That all changes when a serial killer starts haunting the area. They come around at night, slipping in doors and windows, and terrifying the residents of this planned community. At the same time, Ben is trying to figure out if a young Hispanic teen truly committed suicide. Are these two crimes interconnected? And how much destruction will this killer bring until found?

I'm a sucker for a good crime novel, so I was intrigued by the description of Alan Drew's book; I have never read anything by this author before. I'm not sure I realized the novel was actually set in the late 1980s; I tend to read more contemporary fiction, but I was pleasantly surprised by this mystery. Although mystery is somewhat of a misnomer. While there is a case to solve here--two really--this is far more a character-driven novel, with an intense focus on Ben, his personal life, and how his past life has made him into the detective and man he is now.

In many ways, this is a novel about the passage of time and the effects it has on a person. It is a novel about the effects of abuse, as well, and what it can do to someone. Can a child who suffers abuse come through unscathed? I wasn't expecting such a storyline when I started the novel, but it worked. It's quite well-done and while much of the book is often sad, it's well-written and the pages pass quickly.

The novel is told from three points of view: Ben; our serial killer; and Natasha Betencourt, the local assistant Medical Examiner. Of course, Natasha and Ben have a bit of a personal relationship (this is a novel, after all). And, sure, Ben often comes across as the cliched crime detective who doesn't always follow the rules. Because of this--and because of the California setting--I couldn't help but think of Michael Connelly's amazing Harry Bosch as I was reading this (Bosch probably being my all-time favorite fictional detective). I actually would sometimes even accidentally read "Ben" as "Bosch." Still, to be compared to Bosch and not come across completely lesser for it is pretty high praise. Ben is no Bosch, but he's a well-written character, even if he is a bit cliched from time to time. Yes, he's dealing with a past. Yes, he likes to break the rules to get the job done (hey, so does Bosch). My only issue was that it was implied that he sometimes let his detective work slip a bit due to his personal ties in one of the cases: that didn't seem right.

Still, overall I really enjoyed this novel. The two storylines--the first being the serial killer case, the second being the teen suicide--intersected well and kept the book moving. Ben's ties to the teen were surprising and gave the book an emotional depth I wasn't expecting. While I'm not sure Drew could keep up the emotional rollercoaster for every novel, I could see Detective Ben Wade becoming a recurring character in a series. If so, I would certainly read the next book. 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 05/23/2017.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I dream of buildings that burn: IT'S ALWAYS THE HUSBAND.

It's Always the HusbandIt's Always the Husband by Michele Campbell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aubrey, Jenny, and Kate meet at Carlisle College--an elite institution on par with the Ivies--when they are placed as roommates their freshman year. Aubrey is on financial aid and looking for a chance to restart her life. Jenny, a "townie," has lived in Belle River, New Hampshire, most of her life. And finally, there's the beautiful Kate, whose wealthy family has long ties to Carlisle. The three quickly form a fast friendship, but it's problematic as well. Aubrey is in awe of the enigmatic Kate, while Jenny often resents her lovely, popular roommate. And then, near the end of their freshman year, a tragic event changes their lives forever.

Be forewarned: this is a book populated by annoying, pathetic, self-involved characters. While it supposedly centers on a friendship that begins in college, that couldn't really be further from the truth. These three girls are not friends. The centerpiece is wealthy Kate Eastman, a daughter from a privileged family, who somehow attracts everyone into her orbit, despite being a real narcissistic jerk. Frankly, it's hard to read a book when you really don't care about anyone. This is exacerbated by some stilted and forced writing--backed up by cliches--that makes the novel hard to read at times.

I was amazed by Kate's power over everyone and frustrated by their devotion to her. We are probably supposed to feel sorry for her, due to her hateful family and deceased mother, and for the other characters and the power the Eastmans exert over them. But I just couldn't -- at least not continuously throughout the novel. In fact, it's impossible to root for either side, or anyone, in this book.

Now, the second half of the novel switches over to the present day and allows a bit more focus on a mystery. You're left guessing and there is at least less spotlight on the girls and their pettiness (though it's definitely still there). Unfortunately, I thought the second-half mystery was somwhat spoiled (not to spoil anything myself) by a main player in the puzzle plot who carried a ridiculous and biased torch for Kate, despite having spent a sum total of about three hours in her presence. That one plot point irked me so much that I enjoyed the second half of the novel less than I would have otherwise. And the second half is better: I read it straight through in an evening, and it kept me turning the pages, wondering how things would turn out.

Unfortunately, it was marred by the earlier half of the book, a cast of despicable characters, and some cliched writing that left a lot to be desired. Still, I have to hand it to Campbell: she kept me reading in spite of all of that. Because of that, I'm going with 3 stars: a combination of 2.5 for the first half of the novel and 3.5 for second.

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 05/16/2017.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Was I on your mind: SYCAMORE.

SycamoreSycamore by Bryn Chancellor

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Jess Winters and her mother, Maud, arrive in the small town of Sycamore, Arizona hoping to start afresh: Maud is recently divorced from Jess' father and both are reeling from the event in different ways. Maud copes by sleeping most of the day away, but a restless teenage Jess wanders the town, searching for peace. Eventually she finds a friendship with Dani Newell, the local "smart kid" at the high school, and her boyfriend, Paul, the son of Jess' employer, Iris. Maybe, just maybe, Jess thinks, she could be happy here.

Flash forward nearly twenty years, when a new resident to town, another restless spirit, stumbles upon some bones in the local dried up lake. Residents immediately fear they belong to Jess, who disappeared shortly before Christmas: a young seventeen-year-old who was never seen again.

Oh, this is a magical book. I felt an immediate attachment to Jess from the first opening chapter. I was connected to her as a child of divorce, as someone who once had that urge to wander, who shared that restlessness as an adolescent. You quickly find that Chancellor has the power to create such real characters, who draw you in from the start.

The book--and the story of Jess--unfolds in snatches and snippets of these characters. Each chapter is told by a different inhabitant of Sycamore, and we get reminiscences and memories of their past, telling more about what happened with Jess, as well as their current life. We also get chapters of Jess' time as a sixteen-and seventeen-year-old in the town. In a way, it is as if we are being caught up backwards sometimes. I was captivated by the oddly suspenseful way they each tell stories from different times and varying viewpoints. It's an interesting (and effective) technique. You are piecing together a mystery, yet also reading a beautiful novel of interwoven characters.

One of the most amazing things about this novel is that for each different point of view, for each character, they have their own voice. Chancellor captures each one in their own unique way: the different way they speak. Some chapters are told in a distinctive sort of format and more. Every one has their own personality. It allows the characters--and the entire town--to really come to life so easily as you read. You can picture this entire small town and its inhabitants so clearly because of her beautiful, clear writing. It's just such a powerful book and so well-written.

There's a sweet tenderness to this book that I cannot truly describe. It really touched me. It's not always an easy read, or a happy one, but it's a lovely book in many ways. It's wonderfully written, surprisingly suspenseful, and a heartbreaking but amazing journey. I highly recommend it. 4.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 05/09/2017.

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Sunday, April 09, 2017

I'm getting closer to getting over you: THE BEST OF ADAM SHARP.

The Best of Adam SharpThe Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Adam Sharp is nearing fifty. He's had a decent turn in life as an IT contractor and he's lived with his girlfriend, Claire, for many years. But Adam has always held a torch for his first love, Angelina. For a few brief months, the two bonded and shared a relationship solidified over Adam's piano playing and music. It's been over twenty years since the pair have had any contact, but one day--out of the blue--Adam gets an email from Angelina. She's married to her husband, Charlie, with three kids. Still, the emails quickly turn flirty and Adam starts to wonder what her intent is. Getting back in contact certainly brings up all his old feelings for Angelina and the past.

The book begins with present-day Adam remembering back on his relationship with Angelina, filling us in on what happened. Those snippets are interspersed with updates about Adam's current life, and he eventually catches us up to the present. Those beginning portions are fairly interesting as we learn how Adam and Angelina fell in love.

Unfortunately, though, the book lacked anything comedic (one of the things so enjoyable about the Rosie series Simsion is so famous for), beyond a few funny scenes featuring Angelina's parents and family. Instead, there is just so very much talking from Adam. So very much. It would have been okay, except I never really formed a connection to his character, and I found that I really only cared so much. I felt as if I had no horse in the race--with his relationships or life in general.

In many ways, I think I might have enjoyed the book if I was just a bit older and closer in age to Adam. I didn't connect as much with the music he mentioned so frequently in the novel (despite, of course, a love for music and an understanding of how it can connect and create memories throughout one's life), nor even the idea of pining for a lost love at one's midlife (despite, of course, having loved and lost). While I felt captivated at times during the novel, as much as I hate saying this, I often just felt bored. I read the book during vacation, and it was just such a poor choice, because I found myself almost dreading picking it up, but feeling duty-bound, both because I love to read on vacation and because I needed to review it. Oh sigh.

In addition, there are just some really weird plot twists in this one--once Angelina, Charlie, and Adam are all together--that frankly it made me feel a little icky. I'm open-minded and all, but it just didn't seem right and some of it rubbed me the wrong way. It also made it even harder to become attached to the characters.

By the end, perhaps I'm cynical, but some of the love scenes didn't even move me: I just didn't care. I was tired of everyone communicating by oblique song references. Anyway, I really wanted to love this because it seemed to be an ode to music and love. And, because I loved Simsion's Rosie novels. It's not fair, really, to compare an authors work in such a way, but I couldn't help it, and I didn't enjoy the plot and characters in this one anyway. I was ready for the book to be over. It definitely had some good points, but I was mostly so disappointed and annoyed and ready to be done.

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 05/02/2017.

My review of Simsion's novel THE ROSIE PROJECT can be found here.

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