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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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Let me open my eyes to a new sunrise: NEVER LET YOU GO.

Never Let You GoNever Let You Go by Chevy Stevens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Lindsey Nash has not had the easiest of lives.

She escaped in the dark one night with her six-year-old daughter, Sophie, and just a few of their possessions. They were running from Andrew, Lindsey's drunken, abusive, and possessive husband. Lindsey knew that it was only a matter of time before Andrew killed her, leaving Sophie without her mom. But the night the two disappear, something else happens: a drunken Andrew gets behind the wheel, crashes his vehicle, and kills another woman. The accident puts him in prison for 10 years, giving Lindsey a small sense of freedom, but it's short-lived. Before she knows it, he's out, and headed for the town where Lindsey and Sophie have started over. Strange things start happen, and Lindsey is terrified for her life again--and Sophie's. Andrew claims prison has changed him, but Lindsey can't believe it. How will she and her daughter ever be safe?

This is my fourth Stevens book, and I know by now that she will keep you up late, frantically turning the pages, wondering what will happen. Of the ones I've read, I still think That Night is my favorite, but this one was quite an enjoyable and fast-paced read as well. I blew through it on vacation in about 24 hours, and it had a chilling creepiness to it that made me feel like I should be looking over my shoulder or continually pulling the curtains shut.

First, let's just put out there, as with most of Stevens' books, a big warning for abuse triggers. Please make that known to anyone who might be affected by such a storyline.

One of the best things about this novel was the way Stevens slowly unfurled bits of the plot, making you go "wow" each time something was revealed. The book is divided into three parts, and the first one switches between the present and the past, showcasing some of Lindsey and Andrew's abusive marriage. It's very effective. In the later parts, we hear from both Lindsey and Sophie, who is now a nearly grown teenager. Again, it's a compelling storytelling tool and allows Stevens to work the unreliable narrator angle. Is Lindsey just imagining all this? Can we trust her? Has she just brainwashed Sophie against her father?

The novel sets up a series of suspects, and I admit that I guessed "who did it" before page 100, but I still enjoyed the book immensely. It took me longer to work out why, and I was quite engrossed in the characters. I liked both Lindsey and Sophie, though I didn't love them or feel particularly attached to either, but I so enjoyed the mechanics of the story and what was going to come next that I was completely engaged nonetheless. The novel is very chilling, very eerie, and written so vividly that you can quite imagine many of its more frightening and suspenseful scenes. I can easily see it being made into a movie where I would be peeking tensely through my sleeves.

Overall, this was a suspenseful, fast page-turner. Definitely a good, quick read. I'd say 3.75 stars rounded up to 4.

You can read my review of Chevy Stevens' THOSE GIRLS here.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

It was all with the best of intentions: AFTER THE FALL.

After the FallAfter the Fall by Julie Cohen

My rating: 4.5+ of 5 stars


There are all sorts of falls.

For Honor, it is an actual fall. An intelligent, proud woman, Honor raised her son, Stephen, alone. But Stephen married and then unexpectedly passed away, and Honor lives by herself. A fall down the stairs of her stately home lands her in the hospital with a broken hip and her pride deeply wounded. Suddenly, Honor is at the mercy of her former daughter-in-law, Jo, who was Stephen's wife, to help care for her.

For Jo, her fall may not be physical, but she feels as if she's always trying to catch up. Perpetually optimistic, Jo is constantly cheerful for those around her, but she cannot always hide her own doubts about where her life is headed, or if she's doing right by her three children. She's a busy mom to Lydia, Oscar, and Iris, and recently divorced from Oscar and Iris' father. She also fears she may be falling... for another man.

And for Lydia, she too has fallen in love. But she's also a teenager, who lost her father young, and she's dealing with the trials of school and exams. Lydia has a secret, as well: one that threatens her ability to blend in at school and home.

This book, oh this book. I adored this book so much. I fell for these characters (so sorry for that awful pun) hard. From the moment I started reading about feisty Honor, cheery Jo, and teenage Lydia, I loved them. I loved their problems, their sense of humor, and their family. This novel is beautifully written, achingly touching, and often laugh out loud funny.

It alternates between the points of view of our three main women: Honor, Jo, and Lydia. Honor and Jo have never been close, as Honor resented Jo marrying her son, and Jo felt intimidated by the intelligent and strong Honor. But after Honor's fall, she's forced to move in with Jo, her granddaughter Lydia, and Jo's young children with her second husband. The book slowly unfolds the details of how Stephen (Honor's son) passed away and the effect it had on all three women. The entire novel, really, is about little life details and how each they've impacted the three in various ways. In fact, you learn that while we are hearing these stories from three connected people, they really don't know each very well at all. Cohen captures so well how much they need each other, but can't admit it.

As such, there is a poignancy to the novel, as we watch the women navigate life and keep a variety of secrets and hidden sadness from each other. But unlike so many novels, where I want to just scream at the characters to communicate, or where it seems like the entire plot could have been avoided by someone simply talking to another character, this novel is real and true. For instance, Lydia's teen angst and the trials of her adolescence are also so beautifully (although heartbreakingly) portrayed.

It also captures the trials of having children so perfectly. There are some hilarious scenes as Jo navigates caring for her two younger children. Even better are the moments of prickly Honor interacting with young Iris and Oscar. You cannot help but laugh. There is a moment with Oscar and Honor that made me laugh and nearly cry; it was just so funny and touching. The novel is filled with many of these wonderful and witty moments.

I loved how these characters never failed to surprise me. Yes, there were some plot points you could see coming, but they didn't diminish my joy for the book or the depth of the characters. Nothing felt too cliche, and I remained captivated and intrigued. I felt a part of their story and lives. The novel really makes you think; its plot is not just "fluff."

By the end, I still loved all three so much, and my only disappointment was that the book ended. A beautiful 4.5+ stars.

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

You can read my review of Julie Cohen's novel DEAR THING here.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

You were born to fly: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Anything Is PossibleAnything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Strout's latest is a follow-on to her novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and features a group of people tied together by poverty, awful childhoods, and abuse. (Don't worry, it's not as horrifying as it sounds.) Each chapter is its own story--the book is really a series of interconnected short stories--and told from a the perspective of a different character. Lucy comes from a background of poverty and abuse, but she's now a famous author who hasn't returned to her small town in many years. The idea is that each character in every new chapter is tied to Lucy Barton, or her connections, in some way. It's really as simple as that. There is no true story, per se, but glimpses into these associated people and their worlds.

There are certainly a lot of people and connections to keep track of; it takes a little bit to keep them all straight. As mentioned, the one anchoring thread is Lucy Barton--whom many of the characters don't truly even really know well. We get to see her through the prism of a variety of eyes. The linkages are intriguing, and I found it fascinating how all these various people were tied to Lucy and exactly what role she played in their lives.

This is not a particularly uplifting book, though there are lovely touching moments. It is instead a nuanced look at family relationships and what ties and binds people together. Strout has an amazing way of portraying her characters, so you can truly visualize them, and often you find yourself wishing you could learn more about each character, versus moving on to another in the following chapter. Her strength comes in the little details she shares, the small moments she tells about their lives, and how these little moments combine to depict the big picture.

I particularly enjoy how Strout can so carefully show the small injuries of life, as well as the deep effects of secrets on families. There is just something oddly mesmerizing about Strout's books. Honestly, subject matter that might sometimes typically bore you is fascinating in her deft hands. There were a few parts of chapters that dragged a bit, but overall, I just found myself intrigued and engaged by this novel. I was captivated by its characters, the central theme of Lucy Barton, and the various messages it carried. If you read My Name Is Lucy Barton and liked it, you'll probably enjoy this one, too. If you're looking for a book telling a linear story, with a set resolution, you may not appreciate this one as much. However, I recommend this novel for Strout's beautiful writing and thoughtful characters.

I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 04/25/2017.

You can read my review of MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON here.



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Thursday, March 23, 2017

I could go back, rewind, and play it again: ONE GOOD THING.

One Good Thing (Ten Beach Road, #5)One Good Thing by Wendy Wax

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Maddie, Avery, Nikki, and Kyra are all reeling from various events in their lives and have returned to their home, Bella Flora, a restored 1920s mansion in Florida, to lick their wounds. Their famous TV show, Do Over is in disarray, embroiled in legal battles with the network, who wants to take away the show and all the hard work they've put into it. They are busy trying to promote the Sunshine Hotel and Beach Club, which they'd renovated in hopes of starting a similar Do Over show or documentary, but the network is saying no. The group hopes that the Beach Club memberships and cottages they are selling will help restore their plummeting finances, but, at the moment, it's not looking good.

In fact, the only cottage sold has been to Joe, Nikki's boyfriend, with the plan that they will move in after the birth of their twins. But Nikki is terrified to plan that far ahead, fearing it will jinx the health of her babies. Meanwhile, Maddie has returned to Bella Flora after a romantic relationship with Will Hightower, a famous musician and rock star. Will wants Maddie to go on tour with him, but Maddie's still trying to find her own self after her divorce from Kyra's father. As for Kyra, she has a secret about Bella Flora she hasn't told any of the women: one that could destroy the last few bits of financial security the group feels. She's also dealing with her feelings toward her young son's (married) father, a famous actor. And finally, Avery feels like her relationship with her boyfriend Chase is crumbling, due to their inability to agree on how to raise his teenage sons. When a former financial backer of the gang, Bitsy, shows up and demands a cottage in return for her financial investment, the women are at a loss: scrambling to find a place for Bitsy and wondering what happened to her wealth. It seems like everyone in the group has something to hide or fear; will their secrets bring them together or tear them apart?

So, full disclosure on this one: most--though not all--of my issues with this novel tend to revolve around the fact that this is apparently the fifth novel in a series for Wax entitled "Ten Beach Road." I had no idea when I requested the book and while I usually prefer to read series in order, it's certainly not an ironclad rule, as most seem to stand on their own. I think I would have definitely enjoyed this book a lot more, however, if I had read some of the previous books, as I found myself somewhat lost for almost the first half of the book. So much that I almost gave up and moved on, because I was just so frustrated. There is a a lot of backstory involved with these women, and while the author attempts to explain a little of it, much of it is simply alluded to, and it gets confusing quickly. There are a lot of people and details to keep track of and truly, by the end of the novel, there were still some ancillary characters that I still had not figured out exactly how/where they factored in. It also didn't help that, and perhaps this was just my ARC copy, the paragraphs would just abruptly switch over to varying points of view, causing you to have to double back and figure out who was now telling the story.

Perhaps because I hadn't read some of the earlier novels, it was harder to get into the characters and really identify with them; seriously, for the first half of the book, I was just trying to figure out who the heck they were and how they were all related/intertwined with each other. I probably related the most with Nikki--being a mother of twins myself--but seriously, her whining could definitely get on your nerves, even if you could identify with some of her fears. Other issues included the fact that the women simply wouldn't Google why Bitsy showed up at their doorstep (seems a bit of a stretch) and a few other places where a simple conversation could have easily resolved what then became a major plot issue. The whole "oh let's just not talk" issue in books is a big pet peeve of mine.

So, for a while, I was pretty frustrated. I had no clue who these people were, nor did I really care. The book was confusing, and the whole money aspect of the plot was stressful (I don't know what it is about my personality, but I get stressed when people stand to lose it all in books, especially when they just don't think clearly about the situation!). Still, I won't lie, as the book wore on and I figured out the basics about the relationships, the characters and the plot grew on me a bit. It helped that there was a Kinsey Millhone reference (main character in Sue Grafton's amazing series). It was sort of like a soap opera; you know it's all really fantastical, yet you can't help but watch. You need to be prepared for famous actors and musicians, allusions to some pretty crazy things that happened in previous novels, and some silly decision-making. But, I couldn't help but keep reading by the time I was about 3/4 through, and I even found myself smiling a bit (shhh, don't tell). I might even consider picking up the next book at some point to find out what happens to some of these characters, because it definitely didn't tie up all the loose ends.

Overall, if you like tidy plots that make sense, or if it bothers you coming into a series midway, this one isn't for you. But if you're looking for a fun, beachy read that can get your mind off things, and you've either read the earlier books in the series, or you can adjust to being confused for a bit, you might enjoy this silly, soapy tale.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 04/25/2017.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

I'm here for you, if you let me: THAW.

Thaw (Seasons of Love, #2)Thaw by Elyse Springer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Abby is an introverted librarian happily living a regular life in Brooklyn. But things change when she attends a charity gala with a friend and meets Gabrielle, a famous actress and model. The two connect on the dance floor, and Abby is immediately taken by this lovely woman known in modeling circles as the Ice Queen. And while she can see how Gabrielle has earned this nickname, she also senses a softer side to her. Gabrielle asks Abby on a date, and the two begin to get to know each other, discovering they have a lot of similar interests. But even though Gabrielle seems to let her guard down around Abby, she also has problems opening up about her past. Meanwhile, while Abby finds Gabrielle fascinating, she's worried what will happen to their relationship when she admits she's asexual. She's also dealing with issues in her own personal life related to her library position. Can these two women overcome a variety of obstacles to find love?

This novel definitely follows the trope of a regular gal falling for the rich, remote, often angry lesbian: you have to surrender yourself to that and you'll enjoy the book more (much like watching a romantic comedy). There is a little too much focus at times on the fact that Gabrielle runs hot and cold, and her personal dynamics can be slightly weird at points. Still, even while occasionally annoyed, I found myself intrigued and interested at her reticence and wondering at its cause.

However, the real star of this show isn't Gabrielle, but Abby. Abby is just a real sweetheart. She's truly the force of the book. I personally identified with her and adored her love of books, avoidance of makeup, and general introverted self. She was a well-written character, and I found myself wanting to protect her. The fact she's asexual is interesting, and it really cast a light on a sexual orientation that I knew very little about. It was a good learning experience, honestly.

Much like said romantic comedies I mentioned earlier, a lot of this plot is predictable, but the book was written well-enough that I didn't mind: it's what I had signed up for, after all, and I was happy to be along for the ride. I still was really excited for the outcome and read the entire thing in about 24 hours. Besides, the novel has a hidden depth to it, giving us an interesting commentary on society's expectations about sex and relationships. Plus, Springer inserts some hidden inside jokes about books, literary series, and such. A lot of the novel just made me smile, between Abby, the asides, and the overall resolution. It was surprising and for the most part, very enjoyable. Probably a 3.75 stars, but bumped up to 4 stars due to the way it made me feel. I will definitely seek out the other novels in Springer's Season of Love series (this was actually #2, but it seemed to stand-alone just fine).

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 04/24/2017.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

And you feel you've come undone: THE PERFECT STRANGER.

The Perfect StrangerThe Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Leah Stevens needs to get away from Boston. Due to an article she published, her job as a journalist is over thanks to fears of a lawsuit coupled with an in-place restraining order. So when she comes across her old friend Emmy in a bar, the timing seems perfect. Emmy is coming out a bad relationship and she suggests the pair--once former roommates--move to rural Pennsylvania and start over. Leah gets a teaching position at the nearby school, and Emmy picks up a series of odd jobs. But their fresh start is jeopardized when a local woman, with a startling likeness to Leah, is attacked. Then Emmy vanishes, and Leah really starts to worry. Leah works with the local police, but quickly fears she may be under suspicion as well, as it rapidly becomes clear that Leah didn't know Emmy well at all. In fact, Leah is starting to wonder: did Emmy even exist?

This is Miranda's follow-on to All the Missing Girls, and I actually found myself liking THE PERFECT STRANGER even more. While GIRLS hooked you with its backward narrative shtick, STRANGER pulls you immediately with the strength of its story, and it never lets go. Everything in the novel is complicated and interrelated, it seems, and you're constantly digesting details and facts and trying to put these intricately interwoven pieces together, just as Leah is. Because she has a past as a reporter, she's great at digging through facts, but you also can't trust her as a narrator, and it puts you--the reader--in quite a bind. What is true? Who is real? It was a frustrating (in a good way) dilemma, and I loved it.

The novel gets progressively creepier as it unfolds: to the point that I found myself checking the curtains when I was up late at night (frantically reading the book, of course!). I kept wondering what on earth was going on and how everything could possibly fit together. At one point, there was a great plot twist that I totally didn't see coming. I love when that happens! The book kept me puzzling right up until the end. It's really quite spellbinding.

It reminded me a bit of a Mary Kubica novel; you really do start to doubt if Emmy exists. As mentioned, Leah is a very unreliable narrator in many ways. She brings her reporter instincts to this small town (despite trying to escape that part of her past), and it's truly fascinating watching her try to unravel the story. Her searches become really exciting, even if you don't completely trust her or know if you can believe her.

Everything ties together really well. The only downside for me was that the ending was a bit anticlimactic, but the "aha" moments when everything fits together are amazing. It's a really intricate and well-plotted novel. I stayed up late to finish it because I could not go to bed without knowing what had happened. I was more excited about finishing this book than Duke's defeat in the NCAA tournament - that should say a lot. :)

Overall, a very exciting and interesting (and often spooky!) thriller. Definitely recommend.

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 04/11/2017.

You can read my review of Megan Miranda's ALL THE MISSING GIRLS here.
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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Always falling down without a place to land: THE FINISHING SCHOOL.

The Finishing SchoolThe Finishing School by Joanna Goodman

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


It has been 20 years since Kersti Kuusk set foot on the grounds of the Lycée, the prestigious boarding school she attended as a teen. Kersti was a scholarship student from Canada at the elite school, and she left abruptly in her senior year, after her best friend, Cressida, fell from her balcony one evening. The school declared the event an accident, but now, Kersti finds herself unconvinced. A timely letter from another of her school friends brings up more questions: was Cressida pushed, or did she attempt suicide? Kersti knows that Cressida had become increasingly obsessed with a secret society within the Lycée--banned since the 1970s when two of its members were expelled. As the school plans a celebration of its 100th anniversary, Kersti considers returning. She also starts looking further into Cressida's fall. However, some secrets are meant to stay buried.

THE FINISHING SCHOOL is told in alternating chapters between the present day and Kersti's school years, leading up to Cressida's fall from the balcony. This effective technique certainly creates tension and suspense, leading you to madly flip the pages, trying to figure out what happened - particularly to Kersti's group of friends at the Lycée twenty years ago. The novel pulls you in fairly quickly and hooks you rather rapidly. Goodman is quite adept at capturing the voices of her characters, especially the teens, and the boarding school passages are rather effective. (They are also great at making you want to never send your child to boarding school. Parts of it reminded me of Tana French's THE SECRET PLACE in that way.)

For me, the only thing that held this book back was that some of the plot was a little weird: mostly some of the things relating to Kersti's personal life and her obsession with Cressida. They didn't necessarily seem required for the story to be successful, but they bothered me. It's a shame, because overall I liked Kersti, and I felt a connection with her. Present-day Kersti is suffering from infertility, and, as someone who has been there, I can say that Goodman captures that angst very well. I just wasn't sure about some of her choices.

At times, some of the school drama gets a little tedious, but it picks up as the novel gains momentum, especially near the end. I figured out parts of the plot, but not all of it, and I was quite frantic to finish the last portions of the book to put it all together. It's quite a dark and twisted tale, overall. Certainly worth a read. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 04/11/2017.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

But you got me good and I can't quit: GET IT TOGETHER, DELILAH!.

Get It Together, Delilah!Get It Together, Delilah! by Erin Gough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Delilah is seventeen and in her last year of high school in Australia. She's also stuck working endless hours in her father's cafe, the Flywheel, as he goes on a whirlwind world trip: hopefully to mend his broken heart. You see, Delilah's mother, June, left him for another man and moved away, leaving Delilah and her father (and the cafe) all alone. But suddenly Delilah finds herself seventeen and running the Flywheel solo. She has no time for school, homework, or even her friends. She barely even finds time to sneak glances across the street at the beautiful Rosa, whose family runs a nearby business. Delilah thinks Rosa is amazing, but she doesn't know how to tell her (and besides, the last time she fell for a girl, she was bullied endlessly at school). What can she do to get her life on track?

This novel has all the makings of a lovely little lesbian YA book. And, truly, many aspects of it are simply delightful. My biggest problem is that I could never get past the fact that Delilah's father left his seventeen-year-old daughter alone to oversee his business (supposedly it was left in the charge of Delilah and another employee, who is quickly removed via a car accident and visa issues). So much of the novel focuses on Delilah's plight of having to save the cafe: ordering the supplies and food, oversight of its finances, and even making major legal decisions in her father's stead. I just couldn't buy it. And she missed so much school; I get that the legal age for that choice is different in Australia than America, but it was very odd. Basically every parent in the novel was completely absent: it seemed really far-fetched. So did asking a "friend" to run the place day-after-day, or to look at the accounts, or make extensive determinations regarding the Flywheel's fate. Or perhaps I'm just a literalist who is no fun.

On the plus side, beyond the cafe aspects, Delilah is a sweet character, and it's always refreshing to see a lesbian protagonist in YA fiction. The portions of the novel where she is attempting to work out her sexuality are far more realistic. She is bullied at school (oh how I wish this didn't have to be a staple of teen fiction, because it no longer existed), which does contribute to her unwillingness to attend, and that I can understand. But she's a plucky heroine, and she definitely grows on you. Her cast of supporting characters is actually pretty slight, with a focus on her best friends Charlie and Lauren and her crush, Rosa. None of these are as fully developed as Delilah, but they are fairly interesting.

I would have enjoyed this novel more if its focus had been more on Delilah working through her sexuality and relationships versus so much of the Flywheel drama. Some of the scenes with Delilah and Rosa, or her other friends, are very poignant and spot on, and I quite enjoyed them. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel was a bit unrealistic and melodramatic and kept me from enjoying it fully. Still, it picked up at the end, and I did find myself rooting for these characters (and even the darn Flywheel). I also seem to be in the minority with my review, so don't let my feelings stop you from picking up the book.

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

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Monday, March 13, 2017

The targets ever changing but the war, it rages on: THE DRY.

The Dry (Aaron Falk, #1)The Dry by Jane Harper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Aaron Falk is an investigator for the federal police in Melbourne. There, he follows money trails left by criminals. And while he may live a rather solitary life, at least he's also left behind his childhood home of Kiewarra, where the locals literally ran him and his father out of town. But all that changes when Aaron finds out that his best friend in Kiewarra, Luke Hadler, is dead. So is Luke's wife, Karen, and their young son, Billy. Luke apparently killed Karen and Billy before turning the gun on himself: the only person he spared in his family was his baby daughter, Charlotte. Aaron grew up as a second son to Luke's parents, and they call on him now to look into Luke and Karen's finances. Were things really so bad that Luke would enact such violence? As Aaron and the local police sergeant, Raco, begin investigating, it's quickly apparent that the case isn't as cut and dried as it seems. But the people of Kiewarra have long memories, and they still blame Aaron for something that happened over 20 years ago. Is Aaron safe in his hometown? And can he clear Luke's name--if it even needs clearing?

I have been hearing about THE DRY since before its release and wasn't sure it would live up to the hype, but I was wrong. I really, really enjoyed this novel and read it over the span of about 24 hours. My only regret about the entire experience was that it was over so quickly. This was an incredibly well-written, interesting, and intricately plotted novel that just flowed effortlessly. The story at its core is a dark one, and the town of Kiewarra is a sad and depressing place: the townspeople find it easy to believe Luke killed his family because everyone is down on their luck. The town is plagued by a horrible drought (hence the title), which spells certain doom for a community that makes it living primarily on farming. Luke and Karen had bought their farm from Luke's parents, and many think he killed himself because the farm couldn't remain profitable. Harper does an excellent job at portraying the people of Kiewarra--the small town town becomes almost another character in the novel. She does an excellent job of depicting depressed small town living.

In fact, I loved all the nuanced characters in THE DRY. You know when an author just captures her characters' voices perfectly? That was this book for me. Falk just slides effortlessly off the page, and I was completely taken with Sergeant Raco, as well. But you can also easily visualize all the people in Kiewarra that Aaron encounters. While the story primarily takes place in the present-day, we get key flashbacks to the past, when Luke and Aaron were teens, and they hung out with two other kids, Gretchen and Ellie. The slow buildup to a big event surrounding this foursome also creates incredible suspense, as both stories (what happened with Luke and family and what happened when all four were kids) unravel in parallel. It's remarkably well-done.

I enjoyed how the story kept me guessing the entire time, which isn't easy to do. Even when I had a decent inkling what happened with Luke, there was still so much I hadn't figured out. I was completely captivated by the story and frantically turning the pages to find out what had happened--both in the present and the past. I could see the setting, the people, and the town so clearly. The novel truly hooked me from the very beginning and never let me go.

I'm very excited to see that this might be a series featuring Aaron, as I really loved his character and Harper's writing. I read a lot of thrillers, but this one packaged everything together perfectly, and I highly recommend it. 4.5 stars.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Start burning down the broken doors: JUST FLY AWAY.

Just Fly AwayJust Fly Away by Andrew McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Lucy is fifteen and enjoying what seems to be a happy, normal life with her parents and younger sister when she has a bombshell dropped on her: her father has an eight-year-old son with another woman. And they live only a few blocks away. When Lucy learns of this news, she is incredibly angry at both her parents: her father for cheating on her mother and keeping the secret, and her mother, for passively remaining with her father and not telling her daughters what happened. Lucy wants to return to happier times, but she finds herself unable to move past her father's news.

I didn't love this book and for a while, didn't think this would even get up to a three-star review. It did grow on me by the end: mostly due to Lucy's relationship with her grandfather, who was perhaps my favorite character in the novel. Alas, I never really connected with Lucy, and I didn't completely find her voice authentic. The beginning of the novel was quite slow, and there were a few points where I wasn't really sure I wanted to keep reading. It's really a rather sad and serious book, and it seems to meander a bit, with no real ultimate point. The overall plot, as well as the small details, seem to veer off on weird tangents. Do we focus on Lucy's anger at her father? Or her growing up, exploring boys and teenage life? Or maybe her grandfather and his strained relationship with Lucy's father? Often, there were many times where I found myself wondering why the author felt the need to include certain details, or include a particular plot point.

At times, Lucy felt incredibly self-involved, even for a teenager, and I wasn't sure if her anger--which seemed to be meant to serve as the main plot device--was really that justified. As I said, when the book shifts and Lucy comes into contact with her grandfather, it did pick up, and I found myself enjoying it more. This could be perhaps because Lucy felt less time focusing on her father's betrayal, and we could get to know her a bit better. Still, I would have liked to have seen more character development, less tangents, and just a better developed voice for Lucy. This one barely grazed 3 stars for me, but it is McCarthy's first novel (albeit I'm sure he can always fall back on that acting career!), and I can see some potential here.

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 03/28/2017.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Wish I could get it off my chest: HIDDEN BODIES.

Hidden Bodies (You, #2)Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


In the follow-up to the twisty You, Joe Goldberg is back. Our conflicted and confused protagonist, Joe, has a history of falling quickly in love, stalking, and... murder. In fact, he's left a string of hidden bodies in his wake: four of them. After a brief romance in his native New York ends, Joe decides to head to Los Angeles. There he finds a job in another bookstore, joins Facebook (for real this time), and meets a new girl. But Joe remains haunted by his past in New York. After all, secrets have a way of catching up with you. Joe thinks he may have found real romance this time, but will his past deeds prevent true happiness?

I absolutely loved the first novel in this series, YOU, which introduced us to Joe, who is far more messed up and "stalkerly" than the paragraph above belies (if you sort of gloss over the four bodies part). I read YOU while on vacation and basically tore through it in one day. It also had me looking over my shoulder for days, feeling watched: it was that good. Alas, for me, the follow-up, while good, didn't have that same sinister "can't put down" feel as the first. It's still an intriguing book, and it's interesting to learn more about Joe in his saga, but it just wasn't the same. It didn't quite capture the same desperate yet somehow loveable nature of Joe in the first novel for me. While I didn't want him to be caught (that's how good Kepnes is at writing him), I wasn't rooting for him quite as much. There was something a little off about his loveable nature that came across so well in YOU, even as he was literally burying bodies in that novel.

In fact, in Hollywood and L.A., Joe seems a little more normal, which is laughable, since he's obviously a serial killer. The book is told in that same sort of breathless rush of words (straight from Joe) as the first, but there were parts that dragged one for me. Lots of details about Hollywood, actors, etc. In this novel, Joe has a lot of drama due to his new girlfriend's family, particularly her brother. Also, while we feel his fear as his past crimes seem to be closing in on him, he somehow seems to be able to effortlessly commit new ones: it's sort of strange. Things that seemed more believable in the first book were harder for me to stomach in this one. I'm not exactly sure why.

Still, the entire saga of Joe is fascinating, I won't lie. I'm clearly in the minority--based on other reviews--in not completely loving this book, so if you liked YOU, you should definitely pick up HIDDEN BODIES. And I did enjoy it, I just didn't adore it the same way I liked YOU. I was certainly intrigued by parts of it and quite compelled to find out what happens to Joe. He's a character like no other in fiction, and I'd definitely read a third book to find out what happens to him.

You can read my review of the first novel in this series, YOU, here.


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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Tuesday's Book Bag: New Releases for 3/7.

It's our first Book Bag for March and boy, it's a great one! Four new releases to cover today and three of them are 4+-star reviews - that's exciting! Let's get right to it, shall we?

First we have Cat Clarke's wonderful middle school/YA novel, THE PANTS PROJECT, which draws you in immediately. 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. While Liv knows that he's a boy, 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 him 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; 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. 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. 4+ stars

Next is Amy Engel's spellbinding novel, THE ROANOKE GIRLS, a completely alluring book that took me by completely (good) surprise. 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. 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 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. 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. 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. One of my favorites so far this year - definitely recommend. 4.5 stars

Another dark saga of tormented families comes from Dan Chaon and his novel ILL WILL. In Chaon's tale, 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 has 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. 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. After all I loved the aforementioned THE ROANOKE GIRLS, which was incredibly dark. 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. 2 stars

Finally, in this batch, we have Carol Goodman's latest, THE WIDOW'S HOUSE. In Goodman's novel, Jess and Clare Martin met at Bailey College, in the Hudson River valley, but have been living in New York for years. Jess wrote a successful first novel not long after graduation, but that money has long been spent. He's been working on his second book for ages; it's long overdue, and he needs a new muse. So the two decide to move back to the Hudson River area, where Jess can focus on the book without distractions. They take on duties as caretakers at Riven House, the home of their former college professor, Monty. They can live in a nearby cottage in exchange for helping the elderly Monty with chores. But the setup has its own issues: it's Monty, after all, who wrote a review of Jess' first book that torments him to this day. And as they settle in, Clare begins to hear a baby crying at night and see shadowy figures around the pond of Monty's property. As she investigates local history, she thinks what she sees may be tied to the house's tormented past. The locals say the place is haunted and destroys everyone who stays there. Are Clare and Jess next? You know how sometimes you start a novel and immediately know, from the first page, that you'll enjoy it? THE WIDOW'S HOUSE was that way for me. It sucked me in immediately and kept me interested throughout; I read it in about 24 hours. The book is filled with complicated characters, starting with Clare. You start to realize she's the ultimate unreliable narrator, but are never able to tell exactly how much. The entire story is told from her point of view, and we're stuck with all events being filtered through her lens. It's genius really, and it is a refreshing change from so many novels lately that change narrators and time periods. You find yourself working and guessing with Clare as she unravels local history and the events unfolding at Riven House. The novel is certainly told in the Gothic tradition. Unlike some Gothic novels, you do not have to suspend much disbelief as the creepy events unfold around Clare and Jess. There are parts of this book that are incredibly spooky, and it's quite well-done. I loved that I was frantically flipping the pages, constantly second guessing everything and wondering what was happening. There are some great twists that shock you, even as you're still trying to figure things out in you're head (much like Clare). This novel will leave you guessing. It's crazy and confusing, but fascinating and incredibly hard to put down. It's completely enjoyable and stays with you after you've finished it, going over various plot points. Highly recommend. 4.5 stars

There you have it: some excellent novels out today, and I highly recommend picking some of these up! Just don't expect to get any sleep for a couple of days!

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Monday, March 06, 2017

The disappearing dreams of yesterday: ALMOST MISSED YOU.

Almost Missed YouAlmost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


Violet and Finn are one of those couples that everyone believes is meant to be. Their story is one entwined with fate. They met once by chance and were reunited years later. Now married, with a young son, everything seems great for the couple. While vacationing in Florida, Violet cannot believe her good fortune. So imagine her shock when she returns from a relaxing nap on the beach to find their hotel room empty: Finn has vanished, and he has taken Bear, their son, with him. Violet has no explanation for this, and the FBI is quickly involved. Meanwhile, Finn's closest friend, Caitlin--who has become Violet's dear friend too--becomes entwined in the disappearance when Finn enlists her help. Will Violet ever see her son again? And why exactly did Finn vanish from that beach?

This novel definitely sucks you in right away. It's confusing and intriguing, as you're completely puzzled as to why Finn would run off and leave his beloved wife (and why would he take their son, too). In the beginning, I did not want to stop reading: the novel was completely addictive. Strawser slowly adds in additional details that thicken the plot, making Caitlin and her husband, George, as much as a part of the story as Finn and Violet. It's told in alternating points of view (Violet, Caitlin, Finn) and time periods, including after the kidnapping incident and before, leading up to Violet and Finn's history together. This effectively builds suspense and can drive you a tad insane, as a chapter in the past ends, leaving you dangling and wanting more details.

The problem for me was that, over time, the characters almost seemed their own worst enemies. Rather than a mystery/suspense novel, the book turns more psychological (nothing necessarily wrong with that) with each character bemoaning their various choices that have led up to this point. And seriously, they've made some stupid choices. It's one of those things where you want to scream: if you'd all just have talked to each other! Communication! Some of the ways of handling things seem awfully impractical for such serious issues (case in point: just about anything Caitlin does with her life, including her way of addressing the kidnapping).

Still, the novel continues to churn out some crazy twists, making it very interesting. The unveiling of Finn's past really carries the book about 3/4 through. You're continually wondering what happened, what he owes various characters, and why on earth he'd want to leave Violet (and take Bear).

As much as I enjoyed this novel and how suspenseful it was, I was frustrated by the characters - none of whom I cared for much at all beyond Violet. (I would have just strangled Finn if possible and potentially even Caitlin.) Again, some communication could have really saved some preposterous plot movements. There are a few times where characters seem to act way out of line for their development, etc. As the book nears a close, it drags on with their in-fighting and psychological messes, versus actual excitement, which was a little disappointing. I felt like we'd been through a lot of excitement for nothing and come out at the end with little but an emotional saga. The ending is awfully pat, too, and makes you think, really?

However, I truly did enjoy most of this book and found it incredibly suspenseful. It's easy to read and draws you in immediately. Even if you don't like all the characters, you'll be intrigued by their predicaments and the entire scenario. I'd certainly be interested in what Strawser comes up with next. 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 03/28/2017.

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Thursday, March 02, 2017

Lies take your soul: THE WIDOW'S HOUSE.

The Widow's HouseThe Widow's House by Carol Goodman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Jess and Clare Martin met at Bailey College, in the Hudson River valley, but have been living in New York for years. Jess wrote a successful first novel not long after graduation, but that money has long been spent. He's been working on his second book for ages; it's long overdue, and he needs a new muse. So the two decide to move back to the Hudson River area, where Jess can focus on the book without distractions. They take on duties as caretakers at Riven House, the home of their former college professor, Monty. They can live in a nearby cottage in exchange for helping the elderly Monty with chores. But the setup has its own issues: it's Monty, after all, who wrote a review of Jess' first book that torments him to this day. And as they settle in, Clare begins to hear a baby crying at night and see shadowy figures around the pond of Monty's property. As she investigates local history, she thinks what she sees may be tied to the house's tormented past. The locals say the place is haunted and destroys everyone who stays there. Are Clare and Jess next?

You know how sometimes you start a novel and immediately know, from the first page, that you'll enjoy it? THE WIDOW'S HOUSE was that way for me. It sucked me in immediately and kept me interested throughout; I read it in about 24 hours. The book is filled with complicated characters, starting with Clare. You start to realize she's the ultimate unreliable narrator, but are never able to tell exactly how much. She appears unhappy with her selfish author husband and her marriage. She had a rough childhood--growing up in the Hudson Valley not far from Monty's estate, which has clearly affected the way she sees the world. The entire story is told from her point of view, and we're stuck with all events being filtered through her lens. It's genius really, and it is a refreshing change from so many novels lately that change narrators and time periods. You find yourself working and guessing with Clare as she unravels local history and the events unfolding at Riven House.

The novel is certainly told in the Gothic tradition. I first fell for Goodman via her excellent novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, and this book reminded me of that one in some ways. Unlike some Gothic novels, you do not have to suspend much disbelief as the creepy events unfold around Clare and Jess. There are parts of this book that are incredibly spooky, and it's quite well-done. I loved that I was frantically flipping the pages, constantly second guessing everything and wondering what was happening. There are some great twists that shock you, even as you're still trying to figure things out in you're head (much like Clare). This novel will leave you guessing. It's crazy and confusing, but fascinating and incredibly hard to put down. It's completely enjoyable and stays with you after you've finished it, going over various plot points. Highly recommend.

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 03/07/2017.

You can find my review of Goodman's novel, RIVER ROAD, here.



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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Don't be late for your life: TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT.

Today Will Be DifferentToday Will Be Different by Maria Semple

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Eleanor wakes up with the resolution that today will indeed be different. She will be a better person, a better mother, and a better wife. She will pay more focused attention to her son, Timby. She will have sex with her surgeon husband, Joe. She will go to her poetry and yoga classes. She will wear real clothes. She will pleasantly lunch with a friend she doesn't quite care for. But it doesn't take long for Eleanor's plans to quickly derail, as a series of mishaps rapidly start to add up: Timby is sick, it appears as if Joe is no longer going to work (and lying about it), and Eleanor's lunch date isn't what it seems, either.

I may be the only person left on the planet who hasn't read Where'd You Go, Bernadette (sometimes I'm stubborn about reading "it" books, ok), so I cannot compare this novel to that one. That may be for the best. This is the second novel--in a row--that I contemplated just not finishing, and again, that is so rarely my style. This book felt like a slapdash series of paragraphs thrown together about a crazy woman whose motivations and actions made entirely no sense.

The book veers back and forth in time: while the main action occurs all in one day (the one Eleanor vows will be better), she flashes back to her past, telling the story of her childhood, a long and confusing saga with her sister, Ivy, and Ivy's husband, and how she met her own husband. She also covers her time as working as an animator. It all happens sort of randomly and often in a stream of consciousness. This occurs among the crazy, insane happenings of Eleanor's day, where she sets off a series of bizarre actions that-to me-made no sense and came across as completely irrational. She was not endearing, she was not a little silly: she was just weird and somewhat unhinged, and I'm honestly not sure how she was still allowed to care for poor Timby.

There were a few glimmers about the frustrations of modern motherhood and marriage in this novel, but most were buried by the bizarre ramblings and incoherence of the plot. Some plot pieces were never resolved, some just popped up for no reason, and some dragged on and on endlessly. Maybe I'm just not familiar with Semple's style, but I have to pass on this one.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How am I supposed to feel about the things I've done: THE CUTAWAY.

The CutawayThe Cutaway by Christina Kovac

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Virginia Knightly is a busy TV news producer. She's constantly juggling a million stories, cultivating her on-air talent, and appeasing whatever news director has been currently assigned to "revamp" her station and raise ratings. It's a typical day for Virginia when she sees a flyer come across her desk for a missing woman. But something in the woman's eyes in the fuzzy black and white poster haunt Virginia, and she becomes oddly attached to the case of Evelyn "Evie" Carney, a young, married lawyer who disappeared after dining with her husband (and informing him she wanted a divorce). It seems as if the DC police are more involved in Evie's case than Virginia would expect: perhaps even the Department of Justice. What happened to Evie, and is Virginia safe looking into her disappearance?

This seems to be yet another novel where I'm a bit of the minority here, but I just could not get into this one. The premise seemed intriguing (and of course, it was compared to all the popular thrillers du jour, which really doesn't do books favors these days). At times, I almost gave up on this book, which is not like me. First of all, instead of just focusing on the plot of Evie's disappearance, there is a ton (I mean a ton) of time focused on the in-fighting and arguing at the news station, which majorly detracts from the actual mystery plot. I found it juvenile and irritating. Because of this, quickly, I didn't like or care for any of the characters or their relationships whatsoever. Unfortunately, that never really changed. So much seemed to be going on in the book (including Virginia's own personal relationships: with the lead cop investigating Evie's case, her father, the main talent at the station) but so little of it related to Evelyn and her disappearance. A lot of loose ends never seemed to be tied up. I often found myself cringing at the dialogue.

It's sad, because, at times, the actual plot relating to Evelyn is good. I continually found myself wishing there was more of it. There's also a lot of telling versus showing, but I did find myself getting into the various pieces related to Evie. (It certainly makes you hope nothing bad ever happens to you, between the issues at the police department and various levels of justice.) I enjoyed that the story was set in a familiar location for me (Washington, DC). I did guess many of the main plot points, which was a little disappointing, including something you could see coming from the beginning of the story. The whole thing is so convoluted, with so many personal entanglements thrown in, that it's hard to believe at times. Virginia's obsession over Evie's disappearance is strange, and although a rather unbelievable reason will be given near the end, you spend the entire wondering why she's so fanatical. Apparently, while working in news, Kovac covered the Chandra Levy story, and you can see that in this tale at times. This is definitely a first novel, and there are glimmers of hopes for a second. Unfortunately, this one just 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 03/21/2017.



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