Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Whether you're late for church or you're stuck in jail: THE ALMOST SISTERS.

The Almost SistersThe Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leia Birch Briggs is a self-professed nerd: a graphic novelist with a penchant for comic books, Wonder Woman, and online gaming. So it's not exactly surprising that, with the help of tequila, she'd fall for a handsome man in a Batman costume at a comics convention in Atlanta. What comes next is a bit more of a surprise: Leia is pregnant from that one-night stand, and it's up to her to tell her over-protective family and very Southern grandmother. To top it off, said Batman was African American: not exactly the easiest thing to tell your Baptist family with Southern roots. But before Leia can even tell her family, she gets some disturbing news from Alabama about her paternal grandmother, Birchie. As Leia rushes to Alabama to help Birchie, she also learns that her stepsister, Rachel, is struggling. So Leia and her teenage niece, Lavender, head to Alabama to assist Birchie and break Leia's big news. But it turns out Birchie has some pretty big news of her own. News that will change everything Leia has ever known about her family.

This is one of those ARCs that I don't remember requesting, but I'm really glad I did. It was a pleasant surprise - just a fun, warm novel, even with its serious (and extremely timely) subject matter. I warmed to nerdy Leia immediately (and not just because I have a cat named after said Princess): she's real and flawed and quite relatable. All of the women in Leia's life are well-written and their own people: sweet Lavender, trying to figure out her way in the world as her parents' marriage implodes; Rachel, Lavender's mom, a perfectionist struggling with a lot of imperfection; Wattie, Birchie's best friend, an African American woman living with her in Alabama; and then the amazing Birchie herself, written so impeccably that I could just see her stubborn, regal face pour vibrantly from every page. I fell hard for each of these women and their struggles became mine.

Sure, a lot of this book is a little predictable, but the racial tensions and struggles that Jackson writes about are not: they are real and true. Jackson captures the racial divisions so well - the sweet, kind sweet tea side of the South versus the dark, racist, segregated aspects. I could just picture Birchville and its townsfolk. The novel is excellent in that so much of the story is humorous, yet the serious side is very well-done, too.

Leia is a graphic novelist and portions of the book describe a graphic novel she'd written -- I'm not a huge graphic novel fan, so I wasn't completely into those pieces, but I was able to slide past them. The parallels in Leia's novel to the South didn't elude me, so I appreciated why that was included, even if I didn't always want to read a summary of a supposedly graphic novel. Some of the symbolism and metaphors may be a little too forced/spelled out for us at times, but I still enjoyed the novel very much. Pieces of it made me laugh out loud - Leia's sense of humor and her predicaments, Birchie's tough sensibility. Birchie and Wattie's dynamic was wonderful, and I really cared for those two.

In the end, I really enjoyed this one. There's a great story here as well a plot that doesn't gloss over racial discord. I appreciated both. The cast of characters is great -- real, funny, humorous, and heartbreaking. Certainly recommend.

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

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Friday, July 14, 2017

There is no one in this world who won’t make a few mistakes: THE CHILD.

The ChildThe Child by Fiona Barton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a worker tears apart an old house under construction in London, he makes an unsettling discovery: tiny bones. The police believe they belong to a baby who was buried years earlier. The story catches the eye of journalist Kate Waters, who immediately wants to determine the child's identity. Her research leads her to a missing child from several decades in the past: a stolen baby, who was never found. Kate finds herself drawn into the missing baby's case and the lives of several women: Angela, a mother who had her baby stolen many years ago; Emma, who once lived on the block where the baby's bones were found; and Jude, Emma's mother.

I really enjoyed Barton's previous novel, The Widow, and I have to say that THE CHILD did not disappoint. It's hard exactly to describe her books, but they have some sort of power over you, drawing you into their narrative and making it difficult to come back to reality until you've reached the end. Much like THE WIDOW, we're presented with a cast of disparate characters-not all of whom are particularly likeable. I hadn't realized, for some reason, that THE CHILD would feature Kate again--a journalist we previously met in Barton's earlier book. I found Kate a much more engaging protagonist this time around: she came across as more human and flawed.

Otherwise, the novel focuses on timid, depressed Emma and her difficult relationship with her mother, Jude, who kicked Emma out of the house at the sixteen. Each woman has a turn at the narration, as does Angela, who is still reeling from having her baby stolen from the hospital (and never found). Barton does a skillful job weaving their stories together. Everything unfolds in bits and pieces as the tale progresses in the eyes of each of our narrators. For me, it was extremely riveting: just as one shocking piece came out, another one would fall into place.

Barton also gives us an excellent look into the journalism business, with a focus on how Kate writes her stories, with a strong emphasis on real (face-to-face, non-Internet-based) research. We see firsthand how the current social media craze is affecting the newspaper world. It's refreshing, as we get to basically see a crime/story solved, yet not necessarily through the lens of a typical police drama.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. I figured out parts of it as it went along, but found it to be a very compelling read. Definitely worth picking up.

You can read my review of the THE WIDOW here.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

I can't control my dreams: TWO NIGHTS.

Two NightsTwo Nights by Kathy Reichs

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Sunday (Sunnie) Night has a pretty big chip on her shoulder and a dark past. Ex-military and a former cop, Sunnie is hired by Opaline Drucker, a wealthy older woman, to look into the bombing that killed her daughter and grandson and left her granddaughter, Stella, missing. The case has some strong parallels to Sunnie's past and despite her better judgement, she agrees help Opaline. Sunnie quickly finds herself in a web of danger and deceit--with little chance of escaping unharmed.

I must admit that I'm probably one of the few people who haven't read any of Reichs' Temperance Brennan novels. I actually love the show Bones, but have never picked up the books--one of the few times where I've tended to prefer a show to date. So, you won't get a comparison of the Brennan series to this novel in this review (there are plenty of reviews out there with those observations, if you're interested). I am, however, a huge mystery and thriller fan. Reichs presents us with a pretty stereotypical cynical, truculent cop-turned-PI in the character of Sunnie (though Sunnie doesn't have a formal PI license). She's quirky, of course (see such exhibits as her pet squirrel, Bob) and has a distaste of rules of all forms. The story is told primarily from Sunnie's point of view, and we learn about her past only through her own recollections and memories as her present-day case causes her to occasionally think back on or mention old times. I imagine the author aiming for a Harry Bosch or Kinsey Millhone-type: I don't think Sunnie is to that level, but she's definitely a complicated and engaging heroine.

The story was certainly a compelling one, if not a bit bizarre at times. Sunnie shoots a man at the Ritz in Chicago, but is allowed to continue staying at the hotel: okay then. The Chicago P.D. allows her to continue investigating (the Drucker family bombing is technically still an open case for them) with surprising magnanimity, even with Opaline's family fortune in play. There are also portions of the novel where Sunnie has various characters under surveillance that drag on a bit (there's only so much tracking of someone back and forth that I can take).

Still, for the most part, the plot is pretty tight and exciting. Sunnie may be a bit cliche, but she's a strong character and an interesting one. She has a great wit and sarcasm to her that I loved. She's smart and savvy, even if damaged by her past. The novel also presents a couple of great twists that were excellent surprises--definitely made it worth reading for the mystery alone. Overall, this was a captivating read, and I'd be curious to read more about Sunnie in the future. 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 07/11/2017.

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Saturday, July 08, 2017

I thought of how the world could end with just one word: HELLO, SUNSHINE.

Hello, SunshineHello, Sunshine by Laura Dave

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunshine (Sunny) Mackenzie has a great life--a hit YouTube cooking show, several published cookbooks, and the potential for a show on the Food Network. She's also happily married to her husband, Danny. But all it takes is a few Twitter posts from a hacker to destroy Sunny's life. Because, you see, she's been living a life built on lies and subterfuge. Disgraced, alone, and broke, Sunny returns to her childhood home, to a complicated relationship with her sister and a six-year-old niece she barely knows. Sunny has a plan to get her life back, but it involves a new set of lies. Is it worth it--and worth sacrificing a potential relationship with her sister?

This was an interesting novel. I must admit, I was bothered the entire time I was reading it, because it felt like a weirdly familiar story, but I could never place why. You know how something is often in the back of your mind? I don't know if I've just read too many books, have a terrible memory, or if I've truly read a book with a similar plot (disgraced chef returns home): it could be all of the above. But it did affect me sometimes as I was reading.

Sunny was a tough character. It was hard to tell if I liked her. She was terrible to lie about her entire professional life, yet she was backstabbed pretty badly by her hacker. I was willing to let those two equal out, but then after all said events, she still made a chain of pretty awful decisions. Her slow learning--and lack of sense--was a bit frustrating to me, although she did grow on me as the novel progressed. The book falls back on some plot cliches and predictable story turns, though there is one good twist. It's slightly marred by a lame reason for said twist, but still: it did take me by surprise.

The cast of characters in this one is limited, and it was refreshing to read a novel told from just one perspective (Sunny's). Sammy, her niece, is the best. I wanted more Sammy. The funny parts in this novel are just plain funny--there were pieces that made me laugh out loud. I also enjoyed the novel's message related to our society's current trend of living life based on social media. It does a good job of portraying the complicated relationship between sisters as well.

Overall, this one was a little predictable, but still interesting and often fun. A quick, breezy read.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 07/11/2017.

You can read my review of Dave's novel, EIGHT HUNDRED GRAPES, here.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

When I look at this world I think about you: THE IDENTICALS.

The IdenticalsThe Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harper and Tabitha Frost--identical twins--grew up thick as thieves, the best of friends. But their parents' divorce at seventeen cruelly separated the girls, with each being allocated to a parent and sent off to live with them on a separate island. Harper goes with their more laid-back father, Billy, to Martha's Vineyard, while Tabitha goes with their formidable and exacting mother, renowned fashion designer Eleanor Roxie-Frost. The twins' relationship is then further destroyed by a tragic event in early adulthood. They've barely spoken since, and it's only the death of their father that forces them to reluctantly reunite on the Vineyard for Billy's memorial service. It also allows Harper a chance to see her popular but rebellious teenage niece, Ainsley, who is struggling under Tabitha's freestyle, lax parenting. Harper and Tabitha are set in their ways--and resolute about never forming a friendship. Can Billy's death change the way the twins feel, or is it too late?

I've read a handful of Hilderbrand's novels by now and many of her books have a similar, beachy feel, often with a focus on twins (this makes more sense now, knowing that Hilderbrand is herself a twin) and wayward teens. There's always rampant gossip on Nantucket, which is her usual locale, yet you'll always be left wanting to visit (and in this case, the Vineyard as well). Things are typically a bit predictable and there's always a romance or two thrown in.

Still, this book especially peaked my interest as I have (young) twin daughters. I was pleasantly surprised by the plot and quite captivated by the book. It's a perfect beach read. Obviously you're not going to find a literary masterpiece, but if you're looking for escape, it's perfect. The plot is exciting, the characters complex enough (and up to their elbows in trouble), and the summery location makes you feel as if you're at the beach, experiencing the crazy gossip as it happens. I found myself quite drawn to all the characters--which doesn't always happen in novels like this--and especially liked headstrong teenage Ainsley and poor Harper, who just can't seem to get her life together.

Sure, things happen rather as anticipated at times and some of the characters' changes are pretty foreseeable. But they are a fun group and the supporting cast really adds depth to the story. The epilogue is a cute addition, as well. Overall, this is a pleasant, entertaining beach read and a step above many in the genre.

You can read my review of Hilderbrand's novel THE RUMOR here.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

We'd meet in the middle: COMING UP FOR AIR.

Coming Up for AirComing Up for Air by Miranda Kenneally

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maggie's entire life is swimming. Since she was a kid, her focus has been on the sport and hopefully qualifying for the Olympics one day. Her best friend, Levi, also swims, and the two spend most of their time together. As they enter their senior year, however, Maggie starts to realize how much of typical teen life she's missed out on because of swimming. In particular: relationships and being with a guy. So Maggie turns to Levi for help. After all, her best friend is well-versed in randomly hooking up with girls at swim meets, so she asks him to teach her to hook up. Maggie doesn't think anything will go wrong with this plan--and that the two can maintain their close friendship. But is that really the case? And can Maggie still focus on the most important year of her swimming career?

I've read a few other books in Kenneally's Hundred Oaks series and really enjoyed them: they are just fun, escapist YA novels. For me, this one wasn't quite up to the others I've read, though I enjoyed the second half more than the first. It took me a long time to get into the story and the characters. The "learn to hook up" premise for the plot was a shaky one, and I missed the main focus on sport and relationships than seem to be the hallmark of Kenneally's other novels. While this genre of book is often a bit predictable, the first half of this one was ridiculously so, and it was a little painful to read at times.

Luckily, I found the second half more in the usual Hundred Oaks style, and I did find myself getting into Maggie and Levi's story more. Maggie irritated me a bit from time to time, but she takes more control over her own life decisions in the second half of the story. I liked Levi a lot and the two's friendship. The second half also centers more on her competitive swimming career, which I enjoyed (the focus on different sports in this series is always a fun, added touch). You can't help but enjoy the romance aspect and get sucked in--it's just a strength of Kenneally's and she does it so well. Overall, while not my favorite of the Hundred Oaks novels, this was a cute book and a fun read, though not the usual quick escape that I was expecting.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 07/01/2017.

You can read my reviews of two other books in the series here: BREATHE, ANNIE, BREATHE and DEFENDING TAYLOR.

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Monday, July 03, 2017

There's a place in the sun that she's never been: BURNTOWN.

BurntownBurntown by Jennifer McMahon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a child, Miles watched in horror as his mother was murdered before his very eyes. Despite that awful event, Miles grew up into a well-respected professor, as well as an inventor. He married his wife, Lily, and they had a family, daughter Eva and son Errol. Miles loves to tinker in his workshop while Eva watches and assists. Miles best invention, however? A machine built off plans supposedly from Thomas Edison and handed down to Miles: it allows you to speak with your deceased loved ones. But Miles' hard-fought happy adult life ends when a terrible storm hits his family home: at the same time, the machine turns itself on, warning them of danger. Shortly after, Eva awakes and is told by Lily that Miles and Errol are dead. Their home has been lost in the "Great Flood," and they can never return. Eva reinvents herself as Necco, and she and her mother find a new life among the homeless of Burntown. But then Necco's mother dies and a series of events shows that Necco is in grave danger. What exactly happened the night of the Great Flood? And will Necco ever be safe again?

The premise of this book probably sounds absurd, but please, don't let it deter you. I've read a handful of McMahon's books over time now and liked them all, but I really, really enjoyed this book. Many of her books have a blend of paranormal, fantasy, etc., and this one was no exception, expertly weaving in fantasy and supernatural flavors into a surprisingly riveting mystery.

The novel starts off a bit convoluted--there are a lot of narrators--and you have to suspend your disbelief at times for the plot to work, but it's really worth it. Necco is a wonderful character, and she's surrounded by this intriguing group of people, including Pru, a cafeteria lady/circus fanatic; Theo, a high school student finding her way; and Mr. Marcelle, a delivery man who helps out his private investigator brother. McMahon seamlessly weaves together these characters--and many more--into a mesmerizing tale that is part ghost story, part mystery, part love story. I honestly couldn't put this book down: I stayed up late to finish it.

This novel isn't your usual mystery or your usual supernatural tale, but it's certainly worth reading if you like one or both genres. There's a sweetness to it, as well as a completely compelling plot that will pull you in immediately.

You can read my review of McMahon's novel, THE NIGHT SISTER, here.

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We're repeating the past instead of letting it go : GOODBYE, VITAMIN.

Goodbye, VitaminGoodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a rough breakup with her fiance, Ruth reluctantly accepts her mother's request to return home and help care for her father, Howard, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Once home, Ruth realizes that Howard--an extremely well-respected professor of history--has his good days and bad days, while her mother has stopped cooking (blaming the aluminum in cookware for Howard's illness). Floundering at first, Ruth eventually steps up, cooking for her family, helping her father, and generally trying to regain her footing. But even she cannot ignore that her father's condition is worsening.

This is an interesting novel, told in short bits and pieces, as if Ruth is talking to her father and describing their days. It covers one year after she comes to stay and comes across almost as if a diary, with a very conversational tone (interspersed with her random thoughts). It's oddly compelling and often humorous, despite the serious subject matter. Occasionally, we get a few snippets from a journal Ruth's father kept during her childhood, chronicling funny things she did or said as a child.

As for Ruth, there's a lightness to many of her stories and observations, but also a sadness: she's watching her beloved, intelligent father fall prey to Alzheimer's; there is a darkness as well, as she grapples with finding out imperfections about her parents' marriage and life. The character list is limited, but all we need, including Ruth's younger brother, Linus; Howard's former teaching assistant, Theo; and a few of Ruth's friends. Ruth comes across as a very real person: she doesn't have it all together, but that's okay. A few pieces of the overall story path are predictable, but do not detract from your overall enjoyment of the book.

The few portions we get from Howard's journal regarding young Ruth are amazing: they humanize him and definitely capture parenthood perfectly. They also so well illustrate how Ruth and Howard are slowly switching roles from child to parent, as Ruth almost begins to have similar observations about her own failing father. The way Khong depicts the sadness and poignancy in these moments is just beautiful and brilliant.

In the end, this is a different kind of book: you have to have the patience for it. It doesn't necessarily tell a story in a full arc, but it's sweet and moving. I very much liked Ruth and the novel (even I did wonder how both Ruth and eventually Linus could afford to stay with their parents, while jobless, but oh well.). Lovely and touching - certainly worth picking up.

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 07/11/2017.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Now the shortest distance seems so long: PERSONS UNKNOWN.

Persons Unknown (DS Manon, #2)Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As we return to Steiner's series, we find Manon Bradshaw pregnant, working cold cases, and searching for that elusive work-life balance. She's moved from London to Cambridge in search for a better life for her adopted (nearly) teenage son, Fly. The two live with Manon's sister, Ellie, and her toddler son, Solly. Unfortunately, Fly is not happy: he feels uprooted from his home and all he has known, even if Manon has brought him to Cambridge to start over, to keep him safe. She knows, too, that the new baby won't make things easier between them. Then Ellie's ex and Solly's dad, wealthy Jon-Oliver Ross, is found dead and things quickly go awry for the entire Bradshaw clan. Manon finds herself trying to protect her beloved son and on the outside of an investigation at the force.

This is the sequel to Steiner's first novel featuring DI Manon Bradshaw, and I found it even better than the first. Told from varying POV--Manon; another DS, Davy, who is investigating Ross' death; a shop clerk named Birdie; and Angel, a young woman whom Birdies assists, the book is intriguing from the start, even if it begins a bit slowly. Storylines run almost in parallel, which ratchets up the suspense, and we even occasionally dip back in time. Poor Manon still isn't doing very well (she wasn't exactly in the best of shape in Missing, Presumed), as she struggles with a new home and dealing with her role as Fly's parent. He's facing trouble at school and seems depressed in their new city. The characters are all well-developed and quite fascinating: at first, I wasn't sure if Birdie and Angel would just drag the story down, but they were both quite interesting in their own right.

Parts of the novel are downright heartbreaking: especially some of the tales Angel tells us and bits and pieces of Manon and Fly's relationship. Steiner's novels are certainly tinged with a tad of melancholy (and some of Manon's patented poor decision-making). But the plot on this one is quite engaging, keeping me reading late into the night and guessing the entire time. The novel does an excellent job of a creating a tangled web and casting plenty of doubt on each and every potential suspect.

Further, I loved so many of the characters and found myself highlighting quotes left and right - even if Manon frustrated me, I do very much care for and relate to her, and I liked Davy much more this time, too. Birdie was a charming character, as well. In addition, the novel offers such a timely look at race (even if set in another country from my own). So often I just wanted to give Fly or Manon a hug, or set things right.

In the end, this is a captivating mystery novel. It's slow start ends quickly and is all but forgotten once Manon gets more involved in her own shadow investigation to protect Fly. I think with each novel, I grow to love Manon more and more. I had my suspicions about who did it, but the novel kept me guessing and reading. Definitely enjoyed this one, and I hope Steiner brings Manon back for a third book in the series.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); its is available everywhere in the U.S. as of 07/04/2017.

You can read my review of the first book in the series, MISSING, PRESUMED, here.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

I'm burning in the starlight: THE SCATTERING.

The Scattering (The Outliers, #2)The Scattering by Kimberly McCreight

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note that this review may (will) have spoilers if you haven't read the first book in McCreight's Outliers series.

Now that we pick up with the second book, Wylie and Jasper have escaped the camp in Maine. But they are both deeply affected by what happened there, especially Cassie's death--each feels guilty in their own way. Further, Wylie is still coming to terms with her ability as an Outlier--to read people's thoughts and emotions--and what it means for real life. She's getting better with her skill, but does that mean it's also of value to others in the community or the military? It seems like the answer is yes, especially when Wylie gets picked up by the police and taken to a local hospital. There, on an isolated wing, she finds a group of girls similar to herself. She's convinced she's among other Outliers, but they are under heavy security and Wylie senses something is amiss. She has to get the girls (and herself) to safety--before it's too late.

So, I read the first book in this series, The Outliers, back in March 2016 and enjoyed it, but the Outlier storyline took some getting used to. I found the second novel to be far more enjoyable, as I was now prepared for the start for the story to revolve around Wylie, her Outlier abilities, and the fact that shadowy Government forces seem to be involved in seeking the Outliers and potentially having some control over their abilities. Probably my only complaint with this novel--and it actually has nothing really to do with the book itself, is that it's a little jumpy and confusing. Most of this would probably be resolved if I had a better memory, as a lot of the book relies on what happened in the first novel. I am not sure that you could just jump into this series without reading the first book--as I have actually read said first book and was still confused a few times and had to go back to my previous review to remind myself what happened.

Otherwise, this is a really exciting book, and I found it a great change of pace from some of the usual thrillers and other fare that I've been reading lately. If you're prepared for the plot (maybe suspend a little disbelief), it's a fast-paced read, and I often found myself lamenting when I couldn't read it. The novel is full of twists and turns, and it constantly keeps you guessing. McCreight has created a strong character in Wylie: she's tough and willing to fight for herself and those around her, even as she struggles with her own anxiety and the fact that she's an Outlier. Most of the novel focuses on Wylie, and she can hold her own. We meet some new characters in this one--all of whom add to the intricacy of the story--and some familiar faces from the first book pop up: many of whom will surprise (and confuse) you.

Overall, I think McCreight is coming into her own with this series. As far as I can tell, this is going to be a trilogy, and often, the second book in a trilogy can lag a bit, but not so here. Also, this one ends with a major cliffhanger (so much waiting for resolution!), and I'm fascinated to see how McCreight will resolve everything in just one book! But I'll definitely be reading it the moment it comes out!

You can read my review of book one in the series, THE OUTLIERS, here.

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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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